Category Archives: About Journalism

Journalism or Thou shalt not make use of prefabricated conclusions

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News. Magazines and journals each have their own approach or angle. There is the popular economic angle, or an angle that concentrates on society. The Sun, however, has a very interesting one, but before we delve into that, let’s tell the story of Priscilla.

Priscilla is a Nigerian woman. She was 43 and pregnant with quadruplets. She decided to go to a hospital in Chicago in the United States, as per instructions of her gynaecologist. He warned her against having quads in Nigeria. She had family in Chicago, so the choice was quickly made. However, at the airport in the US, she was send back because she could not proof that she had adequate financial means. On her way back to Nigeria, she had to transfer at Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom. While waiting for her transfer flight, she began to have contractions. An ambulance brought her to Chelsea Hospital where she had four babies. Two of those four babies died soon after birth, and doctors had to treat the other two at the neonatal intensive care.

Depending on the market or readership, there are multiple interesting angles: “Pregnant woman send back to Nigeria due to lack of proof to pay the bills” or “woman pregnant with quadruplets loses two.” Context can also be quite nice, such as “seeking quality medical treatment outside borders” or “right to quality medical care.” You could also simply state that with all that is happening in the world today, it simply is not newsworthy.

The Sun

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The Sun choose a very surprising Angle: “£500K HEALTH TOURIST Quads mom jets in for NHS healthcare”

this title practically deserves a book. But lets start with the obvious: It is simply wrong. Priscilla did not ‘jet in’ for NHS healthcare (recently being compared to a humanitarian crisis). She jetted in for USA healthcare. Also, she is not a 500-pound health tourist, but a USA Health Tourist. Her choice of Chicago was because she had family there who could support her. All this as per advice of her Nigerian gynaecologist. Without wanting it to happen, she went into labour while on her way back to Nigeria.

The Sun doesn’t prioritise the fact that the mother lost two of her children, the terrible stress of giving birth in an unknown city, or the question what is medical tourism. No, what is important for the sun is that she has a 500’000 pound bill that she cannot pay. This huge bill now rests on the shoulders of British taxpayers. The Sun continues to contextualise the article saying ‘2,167 mums not entitled to care had babies on NHS wards in 2015/16’.The article itself mentions later that British healthcare suppliers must provide emergency medical care. So they are entitled, against the wishes of The Sun apparently.

The immorality of The Sun is shocking. Prioritising the fact that this Nigerian woman would costs the taxpayer 500’000 pounds assumes that this is not just a problem according to the Sun, but also the key problem. Something that they – I assume –would wish to see solved: Those who are not entitled to make use of the NHS, should take care for themselves. The Sun also assumes that the people reading share this immoral point of view.

predetermined conclusion

However, the moral qualms I have with this article are not the reason I brought it up. Its predetermined conclusion is the main issue. Any somewhat heavily politicized journalism opens itself to criticism, but this politicized text comes with a preassembled conclusion: Immigrants abuse British healthcare. No matter what the context might be, or the facts on the ground, or the simple question of humanity, the conclusion would stay the same.

That is not to say that there shouldn’t be room to debate the issue. Should passengers take a health insurance before flying towards a certain country? Perhaps a small fee on top of their ticket to cover such costs? Nevertheless, there are a million and one ways to open that debate in a moral and humane way that doesn’t come with foregone conclusions, and straight-out lies. What happened was that a Nigerian woman had quadruplets against her wishes in the United Kingdom. The conclusion could be about the unforeseen costs of transfer passengers needing medical care.

Perhaps we ought to send the Sun a list of how many British abuse the Belgian healthcare system. A system that is heavily subsidised by the Belgian government, and Belgian taxpayer’s money, because their own NHS doesn’t seem to quite meet first world standards. Perhaps the Nigerian woman ought to complain on how she had no choice but to give birth to children in the United Kingdom?

Anyway, to journalists: first get your facts then your conclusions and… always keep your story moral and humane, because we really do need it in these times.

Ps; I understand that analysing The Sun for good journalism is counter intuitive. Still, the most extreme examples are often pretty entertaining.

 

Journalism or Thou shalt not use a definition in vain

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Thesis writing. Usually heralded as the bane for all master students. It is hard to get it exactly right. Either the scope is too broad, too small, too meaningless, too hard or another ‘too’. If you got that right, don’t forget your methodology, theory, definitions and so on. If you managed to get this far, start prepping to remove all the vague and ambiguous parts.

It was one of the most enlightening experience in my academic career. I saw the the beauty of clear, sober and definite information and reasoning. Moreover, it brought structure and meaning to every word I wrote, contrary to the random vague mass of letters that my essays used to be.

It’s also an important class for those who will make writing their professional career. Journalists-to-be are taught to write faultless. I feel that it is also important to teach them how to use definitions and theories.

My master thesis serves as a good example. Journalists condemned Vietnam with badly chosen adjectives and definitions after its intervention in Cambodia in 1979. Consequently, I got inspired to do a PhD on the media’s (mis)representation of facts during the cold war.

The ‘us against them’ attitude was pretty prevalent during the Cold War. Readers generally accepted the misrepresentation of facts in favour of being able to hate on communists/capitalists (encircle what is applicable). I hope we can say that we ask more of our media today. Being blatantly biased and one-sided will have people doubt the informative and objective value of those reports. This does not mean it doesn’t happen in more subtle ways. One such method is the apparent innocent choice of words.

Populism

Let’s take the follow quote from a Time Magazine article by Joanna Kakissis on the 11th of June 2012. She is writing about the far-left Greek political party Syriza, and its political leader Alexis Tsipras.

“The leader of a party that includes a range of leftists (such as Trotskyites and Socialists), he became the left-of-center standard bearer for antibailout and antiausterity populism”

The article starts to explain and situate the terms ‘antibailout’ and ‘antiausterity’, but does not give the same treatment to the term “populism”.

Readers might not think twice about the word ‘populism’. They nod, assume whatever follows is explaining why Tsipras measures are populist and accept it as a given. The article never explains why these measures are populist, but still, our reader has registered Tsipras to be a populist.

Populism is a manner of communicating themselves as protecting the interests of the population against the malpractices of the elite in power. It is not exactly a compliment. Therefore, when Joanna Kakisses took the liberty to describe Syriza’s left wing anti-bailout and anti-austerity measures as populism, she should situate and explain it.

However, contrary to explaining her choice of words, she quotes their leader.

“If we continue taking this austerity medicine and especially at a higher dose, that’s when Greece is going to be forced out of the euro. And when Greece leaves, the whole euro zone will start wobbling”

This response is not exactly enlightening. It doesn’t explain why Syriza is populist. It repeats that this party is against the policy of austerity and that according to Tsipras, this policy might have dire consequences for both Greece and the Euro-zone. Is Syriza a populist party? Perhaps, but it is a definition that has nothing to do with the information given in the article.

This journalist is not the only one using this term to describe political movements. Often I see terms and definitions popping up with no base to support them. I like to call this #LazyJournalism.

Terrorism

Another example and more controversial is the term “terrorist” or “terrorism”. According to dictionary.com, one can define it as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.” This means that we can label any organisation or actor using violence or a threat to commit violence a terrorist.

But we don’t, In fact, journalists don’t seem to agree when an organisation ought to be labelled as terrorist. There is nothing controversial about calling Al-Qaeda or ISIS this. It becomes delicate when having to describe the YPG, Hezbollah, The Black Panthers, and so on. You can call the PKK a left wing organisation fighting for independence, or calling it a terrorist organisation seeking the division of Turkey. Depending on the background of the magazine, journalists define and colour the article.

However, the core business of the journalist should be ‘to inform’. When calling an organisation either freedom fighters or terrorists, it deserves an explanation why the journalists has chosen the words he or she did. Perhaps they are freedom fighters with a just cause but applying terrorism as a tactic. It is then up to the journalist to describe this injustice, and the terroristic measures they apply to achieve their goal. It is then up to us – the readers – to make up our minds.

The moral of the story is that each word in an article counts. Calling a political movement populist, opportunistic, realistic or organisations terrorists, militants, or freedom fighters has an impact. Our opinion as readers is guided by the words chosen by the author. And those words need to be justified. Why is the PKK a terroristic organisation? What do they do, what do they fight for, what is their ideology? Who supports them? Did they kill innocent civilians? Is terror their modus operandi?

Just like I had to justify in my thesis each term that I applied, so do journalists have to explain why they apply the definitions they use.