Why Paying for Journalism is Non-Negotiable

I have tried to explain to myself why the world has gone so bonkers lately. Because I have not been able to do that, I’ve resorted to reading what other people have to say about it. It seems like all of the old cliches are true: politicians know what they should do, but do not know how to get elected afterwards. It is easier to please than to be right. Correct that: it’s more important to please than to be right.

If you were going to huff “Oh well that’s just how politicians are!” think again. This is how we are living our lives: begging for likes and followers and yearning to please so much that we have started to alter and filter our appearances online. How should politicians be any different from others? Why should facts mean any more than opinions, if the latter get more reactions on social media (and possibly votes)? Most people trust the opinions of their friends and acquaintances on their social media feeds more than newspapers anyway. 

Two things happened in parallel recently. I was reading the biography of war correspondent Marie Colvin when some Instagram influencers broke a story how their sponsored luxury trip to Bali had been everything but (they were made to stage the pictures, heavily manipulate the surroundings, even by using cardboard backdrops, and photoshop any locals off). While I apologise for a shaky analogy, it is an interesting thought all the same: a correspondent is sent abroad to report facts. She does this. We read the reporting, think it’s probably not true and/or biased propaganda and switch on to Instagram. We see a photoshopped-to-death picture of bikini-clad models larking around on Balinese beach, sponsored by a travel agency, and immediately think “​If I book flights to Bali now, my life will be like this! This is so real!” 

Exaggeration? Not really. Think about the thousands of people who were punk’d by the Fyre Festival -organisers. They forked out thousands of dollars each, basing their decision to attend solely on retouched adverts on social media, only to be completely ripped off in a tent-village in the Bahamas.

Colvin dedicated her life to reporting us what war does to people. Recipient of many prizes and decorations, she was a fêted war correspondent, who suffered both mental and physical damage during her extraordinary career. She reported from the trenches in Palestine, Chechnya, East Timor, Afganistan, Iraq and Syria, where she was killed in 2012. In Extremis is a biography about her, written by a fellow journalist Lindsey Hilsum, and I cannot but recommend the book.

There are the international superstar hero-journalists like Colvin and Christiane Amanpour, and then there are those who do not get their primetime-show on CNN, but end up writing literature with impact. I grabbed Wendell Steavenson’s Paris Metro in the bookstore because I read everything that says “Paris” in the title. Turns out, the book was less about sexy people idling away on the Rivé Gauche and more about a tangled mess of an Anglo-American journalist woman marrying an Iraqi- diplomat while covering the Middle East, and then returning to Paris with an adopted son, bumping into ex-husband’s Iraqi-relatives during a gig on Kos about the European migration crisis, and then suddenly being held in detention by the French police in the aftermath of the Bataclan-attack in Paris in 2015. 

Understanding anything Middle East, especially the political crisis, its origins and most of its consequences, is beyond my comprehension. This is probably a mix of my own ignorance and the sheer complexity of the issue. However, what is absolutely brilliantly explained in Paris Metro is the work of a journalist: You are not reporting your opinions. You are depicting life as it happens: always asking second opinions, verifying sources, calling just one more person to be sure. Often reporting about things you don’t like, things that scare you and disgust you, but you have not been sent away to write rants about your feelings, anyway.

Most journalists are not foreign correspondents, but still work according to the same principles: making shit up is not your job. I’m struggling to understand why we don’t believe the stuff they put in the news, and also why so many of us think they should work for free (such has been the reaction to paywalls). 

I am one of the last people to glorify journalists and journalism, and the first to acknowledge that yes, some of them do not always buy my spin and some of them are otherwise crooked little shits with their biases, and there are surely some downright corrupt ones (fun fact: journalists are humans). Still, all their pieces are run past more scrutinising eyes before publication than any Facebook status update of an opinionated friend. 

There are no excuses not to pay for journalism. This world will go to shits without free (and professional) press – and we are actually well on the way already. Pay for quality press like you pay for quality food, clothes and cosmetics. Should you have any interest in the insights of hardcore correspondent work, I recommend the two books above. Even if you don’t, Paris Metro is a masterfully thought-provoking, contemporary novel about European multiculturalism.

To finish, a quote by Wendell Steavenson, a former foreign correspondent herself: 

“I’m a bit less: Must go to Mosul. I’m more scared. I don’t know if it got scarier. I think it did. You just see the toll it takes and you lose too many people. There are too many people close to you kidnapped. I got scareder, no doubt about it.”

*This post is not sponsored by my journalist friends. But to anyone of them who’s reading, I am totally accepting drinks anytime.*

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