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Fake and soft news. Some like it lukewarm

What’s happening in newspapers. Why “media truth” contrasts without rules to the “substantive or procedural” reality. Why hearsay replaces the news

The Spanish writer Javier Marias, a sharp and unrelenting observer of the recent, profound, and not always progressive transformations in the world of information, pointed out that a large percentage of the world’s population, “is unable to distinguish truths from the lies. To be more precise, these citizens can not distinguish reality from fiction”, from the false representations provided by television and newspapers. On the unstoppable swarm of reactions, comments and controversies triggered by Penelope Cruz’s denial of a self-criticized interview by El Pais, the writer talked about the maliciousness of publishing news without guarantee of truthfulness and without the proper and necessary verifications of trustworthiness, and bitterly observed that this is happening in a historic era and in a society where the media have the capacity and means to control the news before disseminating them and establishing the truthfulness of the facts, but the intention to make use of this ability is growing weaker every day, it’s getting blurred, almost lost, overwhelmed by a magma and, I add, by a convenience of confusing the two things without paying for the significant consequences.

Marias’s remark struck me, and even more, a few weeks later, I was struck by the fact that our Supreme Court used almost the same words. It did so to motivate the confirmation of a conviction against Bruno Vespa for an episode of the TV show Porta a Porta on the mysterious murder of the countess Alberica Filo della Torre near Rome. According to the judges, the figure of the victim had been reconstructed on TV without due respect and without distinguishing what derived from court records and subjective assessments, and this according to a format that wants to make the news more interesting to viewers and therefore “tends to offer an imaginary or virtual reality capable of overlapping with the substantive one, or placing itself in an area where the boundaries between imaginary and real become increasingly blurred and not easily distinguishable”; in which “a media truth” without rules is opposed to the “substantive or procedural” reality.

Porta-Porta’s story makes us understand how open to debate the question of the boundary between journalism and fiction has become in our day. Until a few years ago, these categories indicated two distinct worlds, that of reality and that of fantasy. Two different worlds which did not communicate with each other. It was so until a few years ago, until television, imitated by newspapers, began to put reality and fiction, facts and opinions, documents and hearsay, all in the same cauldron.

Since then, the truth has counted less and less, the truthfulness of facts has lost its unquestionable quality, and for many, it has become less and less relevant to know whether a news or a statement is based on verified and objective elements or is just an opinion. As a result, it has become more and more difficult in real life, just as in talk shows and in the information world, to oppose the documented truth of a fact to those who propose a subjective representation in an apodictic way; who, by mistake, by calculation or by pure interest, wants to make have one thing be believed for another. We have seen it in politics and political information: in the periodic campaigns on public security, or in the exploitation of serious crimes, or in the social and health hazards of the presence of non-EU immigrants in Italy, ultimately in the need to compress on Facebook and elsewhere freedom of expression and criticism with the premise that criticizing the government means propagating hatred and providing motivations to those who incite the premier’s assassination. This way of thinking wholesale, were the times different, would not have the same grip. I think today there is ever more credit to be found from the substitution of the facts with their virtual surrogate.

In Italy, the most worrying journalistic phenomena of the last decade are tied to the flooding of the field of information by the outbursts of the river of fiction, seen by the prevalence of opinions over facts, and the obscuration of topics and news of great social relevance: unions, social campaigns in favor of the excluded, the mafia and its dirty business that develops in gray areas, on the boundaries between the lawful and the illicit. Themes obscured by “upstream” choices or undue pressures and, in the most serious cases, the use of violence against journalists is a phenomenon that is witnessed by the many cases of threats or of undercover chroniclers, duly represented by the Ossigeno Observatory, the FNSI and the Order of Journalists.

What these days represent, therefore, is a decade of renewal without quality, characterized by undeniable innovations in media technology, the interconnection between the various media platforms, but also by the impoverishment of the journalistic factor in the world of communication, and from the collapse of fake certifications on the sale of newspapers (the data were more than halved) and by dazzling errors that burned substantial financial resources that could have (and should have) been used to strengthen the most important resource of the editorial companies represented by the professional heritage and the experience of journalists in flesh and bone bound to the news outlets by long-lasting and stable contracts.

Among the dazzling errors, I want to remember three: the decision to bet heavily on the Internet, in the belief that the miracle of free news would have been possible; the belief that the advertising market would have had an unlimited expansion and that the creation of content to accommodate it was all there was to be done; the choice to create full-color newspapers and glossed supplements with many colours and few news, for purely publicity purposes. These and other low-profile and easy-profit choices have certainly stemmed from several factors, including the financial evolution of publishing ownerships that prompted some companies to venture onto the stock market and to measure results only on the basis of dividends (with the inevitable consequence of postponing deferred investment returns such as those on human resources), and the rise of the “impure” publisher, namely the entry into the ownership of newspapers by entrepreneurs with a prevalent and accentuated commitment in other areas, with obvious conflicts of interest and implicit limitations in the range of autonomy. All of these choices bring us to the previous evaluation over the last decade: of a renewal without quality. These have been ten years marked by blatant discontinuities, and a speed of change that has become so fast that it is today hard to remember what happened in Italian journalism just ten or twenty years ago.

Ten years ago, journalistic information was less quick, less colorful, less appealing, but on average deeper, more original, richer in shades and themes. Crime reporters went to the crime scene and tried to get there before the police. Newspapers often sought and often talked about the most important statements by political leaders on television. Among the press agencies, the competition concerned the quality of the news more than the speed with which a title was “fired” in the net. Then everything changed. The necessities changed: speed, full-color, lighter contents. And resources and credibility have been burnt down the road of the impossible contest between newspapers and TV, in the illusion that the news could be found without paying someone to find them and that anyhow it would not be worth investing in journalism and professionalism.

Newspapers in 2009-2010 were perhaps more meditated, more cared for. But they were not perfect. They were the point of arrival of after fifteen years of identity and role crisis, gadget-sparred competition, “whipped cream” and fancy layouts where the titles were decided before sending news-seekers in search of news. In the first decade of the third millennium, this tendency became more pronounced unto paroxysm. The information has become standardized, renouncing to make a selection of themes and news on the basis of their relevance and social relevance; it has lost nuances and plurality of voices; it has become increasingly exasperated in its discretion and hypothesizing. It happened in tandem with the polarization of the political and social clash and the growing absolute bipolar divide between left and right and the transformation of television into a surrogate of reality, which is watched in its stead.

Another involution, and it may seem a paradox, has arrived in recent years, surfing on the wave of the Internet. It’s true: many blogs and newspapers saw the light and prospered online, capable of expressing a greater variety of voices, but with rare exceptions, presenting the same flaws of traditional newspapers, sometimes indeed in accentuated forms. These new media, as was reported on 30 May during the Conference of Communications Ministers meeting in Reykjavik following the initiative of the Council of Europe, cannot answer to the “fundamental role for democracy” so far carried out by the printed press and now in a state of deep crisis.

The current disappointing state of information, according to the Council of Europe, has serious repercussions on the democratic life of the various countries, for various reasons: the fragmentation of voices, the very limited number of citizens which the new media is capable of addressing, and, above all, as Karol Jakubowicz, Council of Europe consultant, explained: “because the internet is currently using as a source exactly the traditional media that are already in a state of crisis. If these traditional media continue to weaken – this is the warning – more and more ‘soft news’ will be offered on the Internet, that is, stories of lifestyle and entertainment, thus feeding the tendency in this regard that has long been seen in newspapers and newscasts of traditional broadcasters who cannot guarantee the same quality of information that once characterized them, because their properties have largely gone to financial investors whose only aim is to profit and thus point to soft news just because they cost less than the hard news. With an inevitable consequence: citizens will be increasingly deprived of complete and reliable sources of information, and thus will not be able to follow the public debate, and thus will not be able to make fully informed political choices.

The digital revolution in newspapers

In newspaper newsrooms, the IT revolution is a consolidated phenomenon, but a rather recent one. It arrived in the eighties where veterans still wrote ostentatiously with the fountain pen. It pursued with the arrival of the personal computers that replaced the typewriters, with the offset and the video set that forced lead characters and linotypes into retirement. The most important novelty of that period was the provision of news through electronic video terminals. The first, still in service less than ten years ago, had a green phosphor screen, they were without a keyboard, and they were controlled by a complicated remote control. Those terminals are already objects fit for a museum. But with it newsrooms began receiving news from press agencies at high speeds, journalists had for the first time the tremendous advantage of being able to consult the entire news feed quickly and comfortably thanks to the then unthinkable possibility to perform searches based on keywords or arguments. It was an unprecedented novelty, a historic leap forward over the way of working of previous generations, who had read press agency feeds merely on rolls of paper. The long paper ribbons came out of the teletypewriter – one for each agency network – which was kind of a typewriter without a keyboard. Connected to a telegraph line, it received agency news at the rate of 40 baud, or 40 characters per minute, which then became 80.

It was exasperatingly slow, a funnel that forced to produce little news, short and essential texts. The takes were 24 rows long. The teletypes printed on rolls of continuous paper. There was a polygraph who was responsible for cutting them and pasting them back in succession. For a journalist, it was tiring and dispersive to gather information amongst those infinite pieces of paper that tended to roll up. Finally, and it was a revolutionary change, ANSA and other agencies began to transmit snippets at the incredible speed of 200 characters per minute! And a few years later they achieved the astronomical speed of 1200 characters per minute (today they gush in at 9,800 characters per minute). The production of news increased ten-fold: for the first time it was possible to produce news bulletins with titles and words, a telematic newspaper with an almost unlimited number of pages, and which could yet be easily consulted.

(This article was published in the weekly magazine “Left” of December 23, 2009, n. 51-52).


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