A refractured paradigm: journalism, hoaxes and the challenge of trust
Between an epic world-wide scoop and a humiliating failure there is sometimes, on ﬁrst sight, scarcely any diﬀerence. The day after CBS’s 60 Minutes and the New Yorker published their ﬁrst stories and now iconic pictures on the Abu Ghraib scandal, the Daily Mirror shouted on its front page ‘Vile … but this time it’s a BRITISH soldier degrading an Iraqi’. A full-page picture showed a soldier urinating on a tied up, halfnaked and hooded prisoner. The next pages contained more ‘shocking photographs’, a detailed story about the abuse and an outraged leading article (Daily Mirror (DM), 1-5-2004). However, while in the next days, weeks and months the Abu Ghraib story developed into a national and international scandal, the Mirror’s ‘world exclusive’ turned out to be untrue. After two weeks, in which the paper faced signiﬁcant pressure, it had to admit it was betrayed. It published a shameful front page apologizing in big bold capitals ‘Sorry … we were hoaxed’ (DM, 15-5-2004). The Mirror was not the only European newspaper that blundered. In the aftermath
of the Abu Ghraib disclosures, torture hoaxes tended to be pandemic. Five days before the general elections of 2006, the Dutch quality paper de Volkskrant published a front-page story that stated as a fact that Dutch soldiers had been torturing prisoners in Iraq (de Volkskrant (Vk), 17-11-2006). Moreover, the paper contended that these incidents were covered up by the commander-in-chief of the army. Although less obviously fraudulent than the Mirror, de Volkskrant had to admit that it too had jumped to conclusions. While tough interrogations had indeed happened, there was no actual proof of torture. De Volkskrant did not kowtow to pressure as the Mirror felt it necessary to do, but it still felt obliged to tell its readers that it regretted the use of the term torture. It also assured them that it had not intended to manipulate the national elections which were to occur in the week following publication (Vk, 19-7-2007). I will analyze these two cases to rethink the dynamics of journalism practice, and
the relationship between journalism and audiences in the digital age. Hoaxes are excellent occurrences to do this because they challenge journalism’s normative and
epistemological foundations and its relation to the public. In the turmoil that starts after a hoax is revealed, the profession is forced to expose itself. The stir in the journalistic ﬁeld makes it possible to look behind the, normally concealed, journalistic paradigm – a shared system of values that sets out how to gather, interpret and validate information, and as such structures and legitimizes the work of journalists. When that paradigm is broken and stakeholders attempt to repair it, they have to be open about their past and future performance. The public has to be persuaded that the norms and routines that guide journalism practice and allow journalism to meaningfully make sense of social reality are still valuable and eﬀective. In the era of the mass media’s information monopoly, a shared interest in upholding this paradigm meant that journalism was quite successful in persuading the public of its value and legitimacy. However, the key question is if journalism will continue to succeed in concealing its inherent limitations to its (potential) audience. When we want to rethink journalism, we should not just analyse its situation in
terms of new technologies and outmoded business models. In the current age the journalistic paradigm is continuously refractured. At the same time, repairing it has become more complicated, if not impossible. First, digitization and the economic downfall have stimulated competition between mass media. In addition, new niche media have been founded that tend to subvert the ‘rules of the game’ journalism has developed in its long-term project of professionalization. To obtain a position in the ﬁeld they openly question and challenge the established norms, for example by crossing ethical boundaries or publishing information that has not been veriﬁed. This confronts the public with the vulnerability of journalism’s paradigm. Second, news consumers are more media literate and have more possibilities to challenge professional news production. They openly comment on coverage, check news ‘facts’ themselves and publish alternative representations. A linear ﬂow of information from mass media to the public has been replaced by a database structure in which instantly available and manipulatable information is continuously looped on the internet. The loss of its information monopoly has severe complications for the credibility of
journalism as a producer of speciﬁc knowledge. Especially now, the profession is in a vulnerable position due to new digital possibilities, changes in news consumption and the economic consequence of that. Journalism as we knew it in the past century is currently suﬀering from a state of osteoporosis. When its paradigm is refractured again and again it eventually enters a state of progressive degeneration in which the damage will not be curable anymore. The societal function that journalism traditionally aims for is still valuable for people and essential for democracy, but in order to survive journalism needs to redeﬁne itself. It has to develop a new paradigm to guide its performance in order to adapt to new demands of audiences and to cope with the fundamental transformations in the accessibility of information.