Spin is at the heart of what politicians, and to an extent journalists, do.
While MPs sugar coat and try to put a good slant on an issue, journalists seek to make their stories that little bit more entertaining. But has spin gone too far?
An Ipsos MORI poll carried out in 2009 would suggest as much. The survey revealed journalists are one of the most distrusted groups in society. Ranking just above government ministers, only 22% of people think we can be trusted to tell the truth.
Political Editor of the Evening Standard for twenty years, and chairman of the Lobby from 1995-1996, Reiss has become one of the UK’s most experienced journalists. In his lecture on spin, Reiss urged students to be honest in their reporting, explaining how “truth breeds trust”.
While probing questions are a must for any journalist, we must try to give an accurate portrayal of politicians and the people we encounter.
“Too often the politician comes off looking like a liar,” said Reiss. “Journalists represent the world and politicians in a certain way – laser journalism, in a sense. Of course journalism should not become tame, but we need an intelligent response, not just a knee jerk response.”
Indeed, a Standards Committee survey taken in 2008 revealed only 26% trust MPs in general, but 46% trust their local MP. This, says Reiss, suggests people’s perceptions of MPs in general are corrupted by the media.
This struck a chord with me, and I wonder: are we as journalists so eager to get a story that our judgement becomes clouded? Does the quest for an ‘angle’ diminish the extent to which we can tell the truth? Indeed, can we ever be wholly objective, given what we write will always be biased by what our readers and employers want? Reiss acknowledged bringing about this change in attitude could be considered “naive at best and impossible at worst,” but assured students it is obtainable if we are as balanced as possible.
The lack of trusts in journalists raises uncomfortable questions about our profession. Newspapers fare particularly badly – while 70% of people trust TV news, making it the most trusted media platform, only 6% trust what they read in newspapers. One possible explanation for this is that television news stations are obliged by law to be ‘impartial’, while newspapers are not bound by any such regulation. Each newspaper has its own political orientation, which shapes the stories which appear in them.
As one student argued during the lecture, can there ever be one ‘truth’? Just as five reporters writing about a car crash will come up five quite different reports, surely there are a number of different ‘truths’?
Overall, this was a stimulating and revealing lecture.
Reiss made it clear governments will always want to rig the news agenda, but it is our job as journalists to use our judgement to assess whether a story is going too far. We should never be so eager to break a story that we overlook transparency, and we must regularly assess whether we have become too ‘cosy’ with a source. We must only push stories as far as they will legitimately go. Reiss hopes events will force a change in the media, but in the mean time, writing truthfully is the best way to breed trust in what we do.