Pinching the media bubble

Political parties having their own newsrooms might sound strange to foreigners, but the polarisation of this country means this is a reality

After spending most of my adult life lecturing on journalism and media at the University of Malta, any criticising of bad journalism would probably entail criticising myself. I can’t exactly say “you had a bad teacher”, because the teacher was me. The local landscape has changed a lot over the years. The scale of the industry in Malta will always mean that a journalist is thrown into the field from early on, without the refined skill-set which only years of experience can bring. In the UK, by contrast, once you complete training you can expect a role in a newsroom, editing the weather and obituaries section, or doing a report on the local flower fair. You then move on from there.

The features of the Maltese media are quite distinctive from other countries. Political parties having their own newsrooms might sound strange to foreigners, but the polarisation of this country means this is a reality. This bond is presented to the viewer directly, then the viewer makes the necessary additions and deductions from what they are absorbing.

For the rest, it is very much a European-style open field with various media houses jostling for readership. In some cases, they partially exist simply as another power base. However, what has become evident over the past ten years is how little credibility they enjoy with the public. I notice people place importance on who wrote it, and contextualise it in the way, discarding the reputation of the medium. This is a very worrying trend in terms of democracy. Having a strong media might be seen as intrusive for some, but it is important. However, what we have seen is the growing exasperation of the public with a media landscape that shows the dissonance between what they write and what the public feels. The gap is huge, and growing.

Just a few days ago, Gallup published a report on law and order across the world for 2017. If you simply followed Maltese media, you’d think we’d be in the bottom, somewhere between Afghanistan and Venezuela. Every single day there’s talk about law and order, as if it is vanishing bit by bit into oblivion and our society is about to collapse. But the public casually dismissed months and months of thrust by the media. We placed in the top places, alongside Japan, Germany and Spain. We were one place above Sweden, France and the US. I strongly suspect that we didn’t reach the top place in the index because people were unhappy at the law and order side of driving, where more enforcement would mean we’d see less of these dangerous road shenanigans and a bit more courtesy, together with a number of construction issues, such as noise pollution and air quality.

At the end of the day it’s all relative, but it just shows the disparity between what is written and what is actually felt on the ground. In Malta, the economy is producing results and things on the ground are good. From small businesses to pensioners, things are improving. In other countries with economic and social trouble, this dissonance is creating havoc. Take the United States. Every single day, the American President is put down by most of the US  ‘mainstream’ media, such as ABC, CNN and NBC. The attention is on him, but he is also a representation of his voters. And his voters are people from middle America who have been chewed out of the prevailing economic model of the past thirty years. People in Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and Ohio had great jobs a few decades ago, but now things lie in ruins, their jobs long since shipped to Asia or Central America and in no position to re-skill to bring back their value anytime soon. This led to communities being destroyed, with some even having to contend with an opioid crisis and widespread social problems. Their future just vanished, and time and time again they were promised change, but nothing happened. They are the forgotten ones. This is the core reason why Donald Trump came to power and has every chance of being re-elected, but the media is nowhere near these stories and narrative. They are stuck in a bubble along the East and West coasts, with a standard of living much better than those in these states and like Marie Antoinette asking, in baffling terms, what’s wrong with these people. The dissonance between the ground and the media is huge. Sounds familiar?

It will be interesting to see whether or not the two sides will ever intersect again, even in Malta. The last EU report on media use, showed that almost half of the Maltese, never read anything in the written press. The trust in the written press is a poor 31%, second last in Europe – for the curious, the last place is held by the UK.

It is difficult to understand where we go from here. A strong and credible media is an important pillar in a modern, democratic country. Fact-checking and fairness, and being the voice of public interest and not of a power base, are important attributes that need to be re-established and strengthened in the local scene. I believe that when done right, journalism matters. It took long months for Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow to investigate the Harvey Weinstein story for the New York Times and the New Yorker. They wanted to make sure they got the facts right, because it matters. The mantra of publish first, ask later and if in doubt, publish anyway, was not their standard. In Malta, it often is.