Don Rogers: A crisis in journalism
The Guardian last week reported — rather proudly, I thought — about letting their journalism slip into advocacy.
Henceforth, they would be ditching “climate change” in favor of the “more accurate” “climate crisis,” they announced.
I’m not sure they were even aware of being co-opted, so “therefore and of course” was their tone explaining their reasoning.
Standard quoting of politicians and activists and scientists about their assessments has been rendered a style point. That is, accepted “fact” no longer bound to attribution. Treated as plain to see, like a riot, a bomb blast, the wake of a tornado or wildfire. Obvious to all, no question. Duh.
My problem is not with an environmental threat that indeed is plain to see with the evidence at hand. Our world is warming, and the link between temperatures and increases in hothouse gases looks quite clear. Early projections matching actual measurements add weight to consideration of a future that should frighten all of us.
No, my peeve is more esoteric, I guess. It’s with the word “crisis.” The oil crisis, the food crisis (remember that?), the housing crisis, the drug crisis, border crisis, gun crisis, constitutional crisis, economic crisis. Crisis in health, schools, courts, faith, morals, politics, at the border, in the Middle East, every war zone, a world growing ever fatter.
Everything’s a crisis, even in golfing as the sport ebbs, and especially overpopulation, don’t forget overpopulation, humanity’s root crisis.
But the meaning of the word depends on underlying evidence, the facts leading one to declare something a “crisis.” The word is an intensifier, useful in advocacy and politics. In journalism? Not so much.
Making “crisis” a style point is candy for propagandists, purveyors of fake news and the more pernicious real news seen through a particular lens, hardly a clear window on truth.
The Guardian actually has signaled it has taken sides, abandoned journalism in favor of punditry, given in to telling its audience what satisfies more than informs. This is not a good thing, not with The New York Times having overtly declared war on the president and Fox edging ever further into becoming state-run media. Not with half the newspaper journalists of a dozen years ago gone today.
What we have here is a crisis in credible coverage if anything.
I still believe the journalist’s core role for society is to intelligently question convention, find any rotten wood in the good ship, bring truth to light. Not hop aboard and help pull the oars toward what we’ve already decided must be true.
This is an ever-present danger with the pure souls burning to make a difference through journalism. Somewhere in there, too many of us go from bearing witness to fitting a narrative.
This instinct courses through artists, including the more literary authors, our bellwethers, as it always has and where it should. While journalists are called to hew to what is, the artists put us in touch with what should be. Maybe journalists are mistaking themselves for artists.
Such zeal also fits well with the political professions, the partisans, ewthe pundits and the holy rollers who have become such a large part of politics in this country.
Not for journalists, though. We’re supposed to be on the other side of a line dividing the passionate from something cooler, more practical, with the ability to sift for empirical evidence out of all the chaff, and to recognize opinions for what they are, along with their proper place in our stories.
I mean more like courtroom judges, for instance. Referees, analysts, engineers, economists, doctors, scientists at work in their discipline, going where the evidence leads.
Idiocies like “settled science,” the “consensus of scientists” and the like move laypeople’s understanding of “science” from, well, science to a sort of gospel, an ideology rather than the method itself, a faith to proselytize instead of clear-eyed inquiry into evidence, facts and what people think about how it all adds up. Not science but Scientism.
Plate tectonics, mocked as preposterous for decades, did not depend on what most scientists believed at a given time to be true. The fact of carbon buildup in the air corresponding to the rise in the world’s annual average temperature doesn’t depend on rallies, alarmist literature, stupid congressmen or the interests of fossil fuel businesses. It’s just a fact.
Projections of where this goes from here are just that, projections, each a hypothesis to be proven true or not. Portentous, ominously so, to be watched and covered seriously, credibly.
The Guardian should put more energy into explaining what science really is, for example, and a good deal less picking up the activist’s oar and rowing furiously along. They’d do us all a lot more good getting off the boat and back to their real job. The world does not lack for advocacy, but solid journalism.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.