Journalism in a Post-truth World

Feb 28, 2024 | Events, IAS News

Image Courtesy of Thomas Charters on Unsplash

Social media, AI and ‘fake news’ are among the many challenges facing journalism today. Ahead of an IAS and South College expert panel event on 5th March (2.30pm) to discuss the future for journalism with Bridget Kendall, Jo Adetunji, Monica Grady and Ian O’Flynn, our own expert, Prof Tim Luckhurst shares his thoughts.

When George Orwell wrote that ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’, he wrote in a Britain in which journalism offered a valuable alternative: reporting rooted in facts and in which a clear distinction existed between news and opinion.

In Orwell’s Britain, tens of millions of people bought a daily newspaper and listened to BBC Radio. A national news agenda existed. Citizens discussed and debated a common range of topics and concerns. They felt sufficiently well informed to make reasoned choices, not least at the ballot box.

Britain in the third decade of the twenty-first century faces novel challenges from fake news, artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT, deliberate disinformation and conspiracy theories. These threats to our democratic system are potent because they thrive in the chaos created by an internet owned by multi billionaire moguls motivated primarily by profit.

Today, millions of Britons including tens of thousands of university students, rely on social media for what they imagine to be news. Under 25s who read newspapers are very rare. Live audiences for radio and television news programmes have declined steeply.

‘A smorgasbord of online possibilities’

A post-truth world is emerging to replace the certainties offered by science and reason. Some highly intelligent young people have come to believe that partisan blogs, celebrity influencers and the personal prejudices of celebrities famous for acting or playing sport contribute something worthwhile to the news agenda.

Many more, including students at top universities, follow online links to individual articles which they read bereft of the context in which the pieces were published. They read only what they are interested in, or that which AI recommends.

There is a colossal difference between consuming selections from a smorgasbord of online possibilities and reading a selection of news articles written by professional journalists. When the latter is edited and collated by editors at organisations such as BBC News, The Times, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun, ITN or Sky News, a reader can be certain that it is designed to help them understand significant events and issues.

It may aspire to entertain as well, but the professional journalism will contain accurate information and informed opinion. It will be designed to enable reflection and thoughtful decision making.

Oppression and authoritarianism

If you question this description of institutionally based news production, ask yourself why President Putin has arrested and imprisoned Evan Gershkovitch of the Wall Street Journal. Consider the Russian President’s rigid control of Russian Television News and his suppression of independent newspapers.

Authoritarian leaders including Putin, China’s President Xi and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un are under no illusion that newspapers owned by private proprietors in western democracies peddle lies. They fear them and prevent their oppressed citizens reading them precisely because such newspapers convey truth.

We Britons are immensely fortunate to have available for pennies a day titles that exposed the VIP fast lane for PPE contracts during the pandemic (Guardian, 2023) found pornography on the Deputy Prime Minister’s computers (Sunday Times, 2017), exposed the Parliamentary expenses scandal (Daily Telegraph, 2010) or revealed that United States Air Force A10 Thunderbolts had accidentally attacked two armoured vehicles crewed by the Blues and Royals of Britain’s Household Cavalry (The Sun, 2008).

There are many other examples. Each of them demonstrates the value of professional journalism in expertly edited national newspapers.

Opinionated bloggers may entertain and amuse. Random links, shared by AI or people you follow on Twitter/X might take you to something you find interesting. Neither will feed the newsgathering, that sees reporters despatched every day to bring us an accurate account of what happens in parliament, the United Nations, law courts and tribunals. Neither will put expert correspondents on the frontlines in Ukraine or Gaza.

Condemned to ignorance

In Britain, those who live in the post-truth world must choose to condemn themselves to ignorance. The tools required to challenge falsehood, fakery and propaganda are available to every one of us.

And we do not have to adopt luddite hostility to technology to become properly informed. Online editions of our best newspapers are accessible via subscription. For the cost of a TV licence, we can stream professional television reporting on our telephones.

Wise consumers might even ask ChatGPT to find professional titles for them. Radio news is free to all.

Experts to debate and discuss

The perils of the post-truth existence are insidious and pervasive. The expert panel assembled by the Institute of Advanced Study and South College will discuss and dissect them at our event on Tuesday 5th March.

Join Jo Adetunji, Editor of The Conversation UK, Professor Monica Grady, Professor Helen Fenwick, Bridget Kendall, former BBC Diplomatic Correspondent and Professor Ian O’Flynn for a fascinating afternoon of debate and discussion.

Find out more



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