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Reporter’s Notebook: When Media Obsessions Fuel Reactionary Agendas

Editor’s note

From time to time, Shadowproof will invite our contributors to share their perspectives on working in media. This first installment comes from Siobhan O’Leary.

A lot of time is spent making sure I can corroborate allegations of misconduct on a small scale, but something I don’t always get the opportunity to do as a journalist is provide a bigger picture analysis.

While I’ve been writing for the better part of six years, I’m relatively new to investigative journalism. I don’t have a lengthy career where I can compare the way people used to respond to my work. I have no frame of reference for whether things have gotten better or worse. All I know is that there are broadly speaking two groups of people I haven’t been able to reach in the past two years: the busy and the hatedrunk.

The latter group has been busy hermetically sealing themselves for the better part of 50 years, consuming media that ironically tells them the media can never be trusted. I think it is an effective indoctrination tactic because there is a kernel of truth to it, in the sense that editorial discretion has a staggering degree of influence over people. The decisions that go into which stories are newsworthy and which aren’t shape people’s perception of current events.

The media can manufacture a moral panic just by choosing to cover one thing over and over. They can be completely factual in their coverage, but simply by repeating a message they can distort its relevance to society more broadly. They don’t have to lie to cause damage. They just have to decide which truths are newsworthy.

I’m reminded of an assault that occurred where I live in Canada. The perpetrator was a Syrian refugee. As I’m sure you can guess, our reactionary rags ran the story repeatedly for weeks.

For the most part, the stories didn’t have any actual inaccuracies in them, but an estimated 50 sexual assaults occurred in the two weeks these rags were running the same story over and over. And just like that, the tremendous power of editorial discretion was demonstrated: Edmontonian Conservatives were convinced there was an epidemic of sexual violence in our city, not because 50 assaults were perpetrated (an overwhelming majority by white citizens against white citizens) but because one assault was televised 50 times (due in no small part to its convenience in justifying xenophobia and racism).

It’s not a matter of possessing wrong facts, but using an incomplete set to describe a broader situation. And just like that, you’ve radicalized someone into a position that ought to be morally unconscionable. The same political faction that has vehemently campaigned against affirmative consent laws suddenly finds itself citing the “safety of women” as a reason to justify ethnic cleansing. How do you “fact check” something like that? How do you fact check a moral prescription on how important one particular story should or shouldn’t be?

For those of us who aren’t intentionally serving a reactionary agenda, that’s the question we have to figure out. Because based on their recent gains our current strategy isn’t working.

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Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O'Leary

Siobhan O'Leary is an investigative journalist out of Alberta, Canada, focusing on justice and abuse of authority.