Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Membrane of opinions
My colleague Jon Peder Vestad writes about the membrane of opinions in journalism (in a very elegant new Norwegian, so that link is scandinavian-language readers only). In one of the most level-headed criticism I have seen of journalism for quite a while, he isolates "the blood-fog" and "the membrane of opinions", two functions that skew journalistic judgement. The blood-fog is the frenzy journalists get into when they consider a single case to be more important than anything else, and take shortcuts disregarding rules, ethics and morals in their battle to break the news.

The membrane of opinions is a filter that is less dramatic, but perhaps more problematic. It's a shared filter which journalists are socialised into: he is a good source, she is a bad source, we like that politician and hate that politician, we write about these cases and ignore those cases. Surveys mapping the readers of Dagbladet, one of the larger newspapers in Norway, shows that the paper doesn't deliver what their readers want or expect.

That's a dilemma, because normally numbers of sold papers is the measuring stick for whether a paper writes what the public wants. However, due to the membrane of opinions, what the number of sold papers measure isn't really if the papers give people what they want, but whether any of the material which is filtered through this membrane might also be of some interest to the public. It's like looking for a restaurant in Norway: you can't really pick and choose, so you take what comes close to something you want.

While the blood-fog leads to noticeable rashness for which the journalists and their papers can be reprimanded or punished, the membrane of opinions is much more subtle abuse of the power of publishing. It is probably one of the reasons why the public have less confidence in journalists than in most other professions. The reality of the news is too different from the experienced reality, and people do reality-checks once in a while. Such a subtle mis-representation also leads to frustration and a feeling of estrangement to the important political matters on the public agenda. As long as the news don't correspond with the public reality, the public experience is that any attempt to get through to politicians or anybody else is futile.

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