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We need trusted news sources more than ever

20 May 2022

The current exhibition at the British Library demonstrates the importance of journalistic ethics, Peter Crumpler finds

HAD the Archbishop of Canterbury kept to preaching about the resurrection on Easter Day, instead of also condemning government plans to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda (News, 22 April), he would have avoided the resulting media storm.

“Archbishop welcomes Christ’s resurrection” is hardly news. “Archbishop leaps head-first into a heated debate about immigration” is custom-made for headline-writers.

I am sure that Archbishop Welby and his advisers knew this, and wanted to make a strong ethical point. A visit to a new exhibition at the British Library could help many more people understand the dark art of what makes news, and the challenges facing the news industry.

The exhibition, “Breaking the News”, which runs until 21 August, comes as trust in journalists remains low. The Ipsos MORI 2021 Veracity Index suggested that only 28 per cent of UK adults trusted journalists to tell them the truth, although, curiously, TV news readers scored higher, at 52 per cent.

Only government ministers, politicians, and advertising executives were less trusted than journalists. (The clergy scored 58 per cent, well behind nurses, librarians, doctors, and teachers.)

THE British Library exhibition sets out to “interrogate what makes an event news, what a free press means, the ethics involved in making the news, what objective news is, and how the way we encounter news has evolved”.

These are big objectives, and the exhibition — supported by Newsworks, the marketing body for the UK’s national news publishers — seeks to present answers in an engaging, upbeat way, underlining the enduring importance of trusted news.

Exhibits range from the earliest surviving printed news report in Britain, on the Battle of Flodden, dating from 1513, to an original BBC radio script concerning the 1944 D-Day landings, and the smashed hard drives used by The Guardian, in 2013, to store the whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s files leaked from the US National Security Agency.

While the multimedia exhibition highlights the important part that journalists play in society, the overwhelming message is that the way in which we receive — and perceive — news is changing rapidly.

Many people now get their news on mobile devices: the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021 indicated that 73 per cent of respondents across all countries accessed news through a smartphone. Although 44 per cent said that they trusted that news most of the time, increasing amounts may be selected by algorithms to suit the interests or viewpoints of the reader.

How much comes from social-media feeds rather than established news sources is unclear. A news story from the December 2019 General Election campaign featured in the exhibition underlines the challenge.

The Yorkshire Evening Post reported that a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia had been placed on the floor at Leeds General Infirmary with an oxygen mask and a pile of coats. His mother took a photo and sent it to the newspaper.

After this was given national coverage, a Facebook post appeared from a woman, “Sheree”, who said that she was a nurse, and had been told that the boy’s mother had placed him on the floor solely for the photograph. The post was copied and circulated widely, and the Evening Post was criticised strongly for publishing the story.

James Mitchinson, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, whose sister paper had run the story, wrote a response to a reader who — having read the Facebook post — challenged the original story. Mr Mitchinson set out the careful steps that the Evening Post had taken to verify it, and encouraged the reader not to “believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night”.

THOSE “strangers” are playing an increasing part in how people receive their news. Social media are playing a significant part in the propaganda war between Ukraine and Russia, as highlighted by the BBC’s Marianna Spring in her War on Truth podcast series.

The long view presented by the exhibition shows that “fake news” is not a new phenomenon: news sheets from the 17th century produced sensationalised accounts of crimes.

It also spotlights the ethical challenges facing journalists. The last front page of the News of the World, from July 2011, when the paper was closed after the phone-hacking scandal, shows how reporters can “cross the line” in search of a story and break the law.

The Journalists’ Altar at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, bears testimony to the bravery of the women and men who risk death, injury, and imprisonment to report the news. The Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the West Bank only last week while covering an Israeli military raid.

The British Library exhibition rightly pays tribute to the “news breakers” — not always journalists — who have worked to get a story told. They include the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who uncovered the Cambridge Analytica scandal that Facebook data were being sold for political advertising; Baroness Lawrence, for her work on police reform and racial equality; and The Bristol Cable, developing community-based investigative news at a time when many traditional local media outlets are struggling to survive.

When the future of trusted news seems bleak and uncertain, these people and organisations give some reason to be optimistic.

The Revd Peter Crumpler is a self-supporting minister in St Albans diocese, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.


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