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Should we really give conspiracy theories more space?

Unthinkable: Looking at ‘both sides’ of a story can seem outdated at a time of threats to democracy and the challenge of climate change

Giving out about the media is as old as journalism itself. If this reporter got €1 for every time someone said “I’m never reading The Irish Times again” I’d have retired on my takings years ago.

Social media has amplified criticism of news organisations, some of which is entirely justified.

The dynamics of Twitter and Facebook, combined with serious threats to democracies and the challenge of climate change, have also created a degree of soul-searching within journalism. The traditional value of objectivity – looking at stories from “both sides” – seems outdated and, in certain circumstances, even irresponsible.

In recent weeks there has been the novel sight of anti-immigration protesters picketing the offices of Irish media organisations over perceived bias and purported lack of balance. Can anyone seriously argue that The Irish Times and other news outlets should give more airtime to the conspiracy theories voiced at these demonstrations?


Political journalism faces a particular dilemma, as the common custom of reporting rival government and opposition claims, unquestioningly and without first interrogating the truth of them, leaves us with Punch and Judy public discourse.

What, then, should be the guiding principle of journalism?

To discuss this issue, Unthinkable turned to Dr Eileen Culloty, deputy director of FuJo, Dublin City University’s Institute of Future Media, Democracy and Society, and an assistant professor in the university’s school of communications.

“Objectivity is a somewhat controversial concept in journalism and much of that is due to the fact that people understand the term in different ways,” she says. Suggesting journalists should focus primarily on “serving the public interest”, Culloty emphasises bread-and-butter activities like fact-checking, contextualising and local news gathering.

In this, she echoes concerns raised by Bernie Sanders in his new book It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism. The United States senator warns about the growth of “news deserts” in the US – cities and regions where local media outlets have disappeared – and argues that this void is being filled with disinformation. Is Ireland now on a similar path?

Objectivity in journalism has had a mixed history. For much of the 20th century, there was a consensus that journalists should aim towards the ideal. What has changed since?

Culloty: “As originally proposed by [American writer] Walter Lippmann, objectivity was a method for journalism in much the same way that the scientific method allows scientists of different backgrounds and ideologies to describe the world in a consistent way.

“Lippmann believed journalists could be more like scientists if they clearly reported the facts of a story. At a basic level, this is not a controversial point and most people can recognise the value of it.

“The problem, of course, is that reporting the news is not science. There is no objective position from which to view the facts. Instead, each journalist and outlet makes choices about which facts to include and exclude and those decisions can influence how the public perceives a story or issue.

“For example, consider the implications of the phrase ‘known to gardaí’ in a news report. Or consider how cases of intimate-partner homicide are reported: some journalists will include references to wider domestic violence statistics while others will not. Those decisions have a bearing on whether the case is viewed as an isolated tragedy or as part of a wider pattern of violence.

“Some might argue that providing context about crime statistics goes beyond the facts of the story, but others could counter that the public cannot understand the news unless the journalist provides the factual context. Either way, objectivity isn’t really the issue here.

“Another criticism of objectivity is tied to the way it has been practised in the US where mainstream journalists were considered objective if they faithfully reported what the two big political parties were saying… In these cases, journalists are a very long way from Lippmann’s idea of investigating a topic objectively. Instead they are abdicating the responsibility to investigate in favour of reporting what a small group of politicians think.

“Jay Rosen calls it ‘the view from nowhere’ because journalists report opposing views – Democrats say it’s raining, Republicans say it’s not – as though there is no way to make a judgment between them. Coverage of scientific issues, especially climate change, suffer from this kind of objectivity... Similar criticisms can be made about reporting of international conflict.”

Some suggest objectivity is more of a commercial decision than a moral one, the idea being that the audience is more likely to pay for trusted reporting. Whether or not that’s really the motive of media outlets, should it be discouraged?

“I wouldn’t say objectivity needs to be discouraged because objectivity is a good value for journalism. The problem lies in the kind of objectivity that is held up as a professional standard. Journalists falling back on false balance and ‘he said, she said’ style impartiality should be discouraged. Journalists thinking about what objectivity means in different contexts should be encouraged.

“I would also like to see journalists and editors do a better job of communicating the distinction between news reports, opinion pieces, and commentary. The word journalism is used to describe many different kinds of media work, but the opinion writer and the news reporter are operating under different expectations of objectivity.”

Criticism of objectivity has intensified in the digital age. For media organisations, there seems to be a dilemma: Try to be objective and stand accused of giving oxygen to harmful forces through “even-handedness”, or else pursue truthfulness rather than objectivity and stand accused of bias. It is a matter of either/or?

“I wouldn’t view it as a dilemma of truthfulness versus objectivity. Ultimately, editors and journalists need to make decisions about how to report the news and about how to do that in ways that serve the public interest. The public interest obligation is key because it calls for a commitment to act responsibly.

“Giving a platform to controversial views for the sake of generating traffic or adding colour to a story is not in the public interest. In contrast, subjecting controversial views to scrutiny and exposing false claims clearly does fall within the public interest. That’s why I disagree with those who argue that certain people and views should never be given a platform in the media. Blanket positions like that preclude the valuable role that (responsible) journalism can play in public debate and understanding.”

Social media has had an effect on the public perception of journalists by providing a platform for their opinions. Should journalists – at least those who aspire to be objective – be slow to express an opinion?

“This is similar to my earlier point about communicating the distinction between news reports, opinion pieces and commentary. The difference between news and opinion is frequently confused and there is a general lack of media literacy among the public.

“Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say journalists need to hold back their opinions if they want to be taken seriously as objective journalists. Rather, they need to find ways to communicate the difference between the two. I think many young journalists are already adept at this.

“It’s especially interesting to see a cohort of younger journalists in Ireland who express their opinions while also doing a great job as reporters. And it’s no surprise that they have strong opinions about the rent and housing crises they are living through.

“Think about the shocking scale of the homelessness crisis including the thousands of children growing up homeless: I don’t think journalism is served in any way by journalists pretending they have no opinion on that. Ultimately their reporting should be judged on its merits. If it’s weakly supported by evidence it will be exposed.”

A topic you’ve been working on is digital media literacy. How should the public measure the value of journalism – by how truthful it is, by how objective it is, or some other measure?

“For me, serving the public interest is the key measure of good journalism and there are many different ways to serve the public interest. There is day-to-day reporting of courts and parliamentary affairs, which has a key function in democracy. In fact, there’s a legitimate concern about the decline of court reporting if regional and local news outlets close.

“Then there are the big investigations that expose wrongdoing and corruption. I think the public can easily understand the value of such journalism while claims about objectivity can seem very abstract and remote.

“There’s an interesting trend in news towards transparency – explaining the background of a story and ‘showing the work’. Not everyone will have the time and interest to engage with that, but it’s a good development I think in demonstrating the effort that goes into investigating news – as opposed to generating opinions, which are 10 a penny across social media.”