There were many reasons why I wanted to be a journalist – to write and edit all day; to share news and information; and to form part of the national discourse. But as my experience grew, I found that my main reason was to help combat ignorance and to overcome media bias, which in recent years has approached propaganda in the Western world. Journalists are in many ways a privileged bunch. The power of competition means politicians share thoughts, ideas and agendas with us to thwart the opposition. The same is true for the CEOs of corporate giants.
As a financial journalist writing on pensions, I learnt about asset management, institutional investments, deficits and surpluses. I interviewed economists and found them fascinating. Who knew the welfare of the world hinged so delicately on movements in interest rates and inflation? To become a credible journalist, I decided to return to university to formalize my understanding of economics. I wanted to be able to challenge the experts and to understand the data.
Over my two-year journey to attaining a Masters, there were two huge shake-ups to the Western world: the UK electorate’s vote to leave the EU and the US electorate’s vote for Donald Trump as POTUS. Brexit disappointed me most. Perhaps this was because I had only just returned to Ireland after seven years of working in London – one of the most metropolitan, progressive places in the world. How could a founder of globalisation so suddenly turn its back on the system? How could it lay blame for all of its failures at the heels of the EU when it had one of the biggest voices in European policymaking?
The EU helped ring-fence funding for important national industries, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for farmers. However, farmers voted overwhelmingly for Brexit despite the CAP providing over 80% of their incomes. Although the UK was a net contributor, redistribution through the EU may have been more equitable than it will be under a Tory government. And given the UK government’s commitment to cut income support for farmers after Brexit, there are clear signs it has no regard for soft socialism. The ‘leave campaign’ claimed it would use the money saved from EU membership to shore up the health system but reneged on this promise within days after securing a victory.
According to ‘remainers’, Brexit only came about because of misinformation. If the electorate had been presented with a balanced debate on the merits of EU membership then the outcome may have been different. And this brings me back to why journalism – not journalists – has failed. Yes, it was the duty of journalists not to allow big businesses like JD Wetherspoons to sway public opinion on Brexit by spouting outright lies (the IMF is not an EU institution despite the pub chain’s claim). It was the job of journalists to highlight the many ways that EU funding was directed at ailing industries. It was the responsibility of journalists to use facts to challenge politicians’ empty rhetoric. But what was the point if people only read what reinforced their views?
Some believe the rise in social networks and soft news has eroded critical thinking. Algorithms are now so effectively tailored that the only content to enter our news feeds is the type of content that confirms our existing beliefs so that we are never exposed to opposing arguments. Even across our Facebook friends, the vast majority will have similar opinions or interests to ourselves – that’s often why we connected in the first place.
On top of this is the plethora of content that is desensitizing us to valuable information. We are so bogged down by stories, charts and infographics that we switch off at the sight of another article marketing a dull product or opinion. There is also the fact that the web has opened the door to so much scandal and conflicting reports that we don’t know who to believe or trust (fake news anybody?), and so we would rather rely on arguments that suit our own worldview.
But the bottom line is probably apathy, which I am dangerously close to acquiring myself. My voice has no sway on world affairs. If Trump wants to wage nuclear war on North Korea then there is absolutely nothing I can do. And there is nothing my community or country can do. Change used to occur on a domestic, grassroots level. But as the world has become better connected, people seem somehow less interested in change and progress. Nothing shocks us anymore so we do nothing about what should shock us.
This begs the question of whether democracy remains the most appropriate way to run a country. It is predicated on – or at least should be – the idea that people engage and are informed before casting their vote. But if we do not want to consider an issue in all of its facets, then perhaps we should not have the right to a say. Journalism was always held up as the bearer of balanced, unbiased information but in a digital era where people prefer to click on links to funny cat pictures than election manifestos, journalism serves no greater purpose than marketing.
The foundation of economic theory is supply and demand. And if we aren’t demanding high quality, professional reporting, then it won’t be supplied. Ignorance will flourish and the vulnerable will remain isolated. But perhaps that is the lure of the digital age – not having to engage beyond our own interests.