The brainlessness of the media

There is no alternative but for the media consumer to be ever vigilant.

Illustrative: The media (photo credit: REUTERS)
Illustrative: The media
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Journalists and the media in general may be able to disregard criticism they earn from media critics, such as ourselves, but they have not been getting favorable reviews recently in scientific publications, polls (one we noted in our immediate previous column), by serious pundits and even fellow media people.
And that should be cause for alarm.
A study conducted by Oxford-educated Tara Swart, a neuroscientist who lectures at MIT, in association with the London Press Club, analyzed in depth 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast and online platforms over seven months. Ninety originally signed up but over half couldn’t persist, itself an ominous indication.
They had to take a blood test, wear a heart-rate variability monitor for three days and keep a food and drink diary.
The object was to review their lifestyle, health and behavior patterns and to draw conclusions. And those conclusions, published mid-May as “Study into the Mental Resilience of Journalists,” were that those journalists’ brains revealed a lower-than-average level of executive functioning. They had a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking. To top it all off, those journalists drank too much.
But there’s a caveat in the study: the tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine and high-sugar foods.
In other words, it is inconclusive as to whether there is a correlation between the type of person who gravitates to the media profession and the lower than average level of functioning, or whether this is a result of the unhealthy lifestyle of the journalists once they are on the job.
On the other hand, the journalists sampled did display high mental resilience, which Swart viewed as a distinct advantage in dealing with the work pressure of tight deadlines. They also were better at abstraction, which she defined as the ability to deal with ideas rather than events, to problem-solve and to think outside the box. In other words, they should be aware of their wrongdoings.
Oddly enough, the test results showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. Their levels of cortisol – known as the stress hormone – were mostly normal.
Researchers Michael McDevitt, Perry Parks, Jordan Stalker, Kevin Lerner, Jesse Benn and Taisik Hwang reported this past month in the Journalism Journal a study which demonstrated that journalistic anti-intellectualism is condoned by emerging adults in the United States. This is perhaps no surprise; young people, perhaps having no other choice, knowingly accept non-professional performances by media people.
Their article asserted that “anti-rationalism and anti-elitism as cultural expressions of anti-intellectualism correlate as expected with approval of corresponding news practices.”
Instead of the news affecting their views, it is their views affecting the news. The brainless leading the brainless may be an exaggeration, but nevertheless, something is not working correctly and the media is deeply involved.
With this background, one may well ask: why do so many journalists reject or shrug off complaints that too often they are woefully unprofessional, extremely biased and bereft of values that would bring honor to their responsibility to provide media consumers with fair, balanced and correct news content? Why do they get angry when their errors are pointed out? Interestingly, support for a very critical attitude toward the media came last week from one of Britain’s veteran and admired former BBC interviewers, Jeremy Paxman.
He is well known for his combative interview technique, grilling public figures on television, as he did with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on May 29. At the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts a fortnight ago, he termed journalists “a ridiculous, vainglorious bunch of clowns” and added, “I don’t like these media class sneerings about Trump.”
Too much of the media, despite its self-portrayal as society’s knight-on-horseback, is acting in an insular fashion, assuming elitist tendencies, demanding it be above criticism, while refusing to acknowledge its own political and cultural agendas. At the same time, they continue to steadily lose the public’s trust and, perhaps, are staffed too often by inadequate personnel interested in themselves, their societal standing and their salaries only.
Perhaps a prime example of this attitude was the astonishing decision taken this week by The New York Times to eliminate the position of public editor, their ombudsman.
While admitting that “we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers,” the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, argued that the public editor is now superfluous because “our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be.” A “Reader Center” is to be created to “engage readers about our journalism.”
Sulzberger thus gives us the prime example of the idiocy of the press.
Does he really believe that the public does not see through his words? After all, it was his own ombudsman who forced his paper in mid-April to properly describe Marwan Barghouti as a murderer, not a “parliamentarian.”
Could a reader force the paper to retract false and misleading details? His move is nothing but an attempt to deflect criticism, sending it to the Internet junkyard.
Our over two decades of experience in Israel has been that without an independent oversight structure, without a known scale of punishment and without reports and decisions published for public consumption, a media outlet like the New York Times is simply uncontrollable and unreliable.
Ron Ross, writing in The American Spectator last week, could have been referring to the behavior of Israel’s media when he wrote, “The media have decided that reporting the news is no longer sufficient for them. They’ve decided they want to participate rather than just observe and report... they have taken upon themselves the negating of the results of the 2016 presidential election... [and] arrogantly concluded they’re entitled to greater responsibilities and influence.”
And he added, “[T]raditionally, the role of the press is to bring transparency to the government, to shine the light of day on politics and politicians. Ironically, the press is not even being transparent about its own objectives and motivations. There’s a fundamental dishonesty about what the media are up to,” an observation we have made numerous times in our columns.
There is no alternative but for the media consumer to be ever vigilant about the “product” he is presented, and he or she should never think a complaint is worthless.
We must assure that feedback tools exist for otherwise, journalists will turn us brainless.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (