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Migrants & Billionaires: How news media has a narcissism problem

It started with two boats. One spills 750 migrants into the Mediterranean, the other chauffeuring 5 adventure-seekers to a doomed wreck mission. Both tragedies, both on boats, both in the same week. But the debate that raged argued about lopsided news coverage and a moral decline in media and journalism. I’m not going to rake over that argument, but I do want to look at why the media became so fractured and demonized. This is just the latest excuse for a pile-on.

One of my favorite offerings from one such vilified player, the BBC, is the radio show ‘The Moral Maze.’ This week they invited media execs (including from the BBC) and intellectuals to debate this incendiary issue. And I was struck by how little empathy and respect there was for their audience, and how quick they were to stand behind the ‘unfortunate’ constraints of commerce and the human condition. 

Perhaps it’s to be expected that the very people on trial for a breach of ethics will display more ethical blindness during the debate, but as I listened to people I looked up to (including the reassuring voice of my childhood BBC news dad, Michael Buerk), I cringed. I heard hackneyed tropes of market vs morality, of the base human desire for shock and novelty, that 600 dead migrants were less ‘interesting’ than 5 people that may still have a chance of survival because there’s still ‘hope’ in that story (not mentioning that over 100 migrants did survive in Greece). 

While there were opposing views, the dominant theme was that the market is the reason for editorial decisions today. Media execs don’t get to choose, so the moral debate is quickly blunted. I used to be proud of the BBC‘s public commitment to “educate, entertain and civilize,” In spite of the rather pompous, paternalistic overtones (the ‘civilize’ was removed in the late 20th century by the way), it still had a degree of responsibility to it that we could learn from today, instead of issuing lazy and flippant excuses for the erosion of these principles. 

One former BBC executive argued that turning complex stories into binary ones is the only way to really engage and inform these impatient audiences. Humans need drama and novelty, he added – all packed into two contrasting narratives. Black vs white sells. And if you want to know why this is – well it’s just the way things are because y’know - media fragmentation, consumer choice, and competition. It’s not our fault. Perhaps YOU, the audience, need to think about holding yourself and your government accountable. What we serve up is just a reflection of what you asked for. Talk to your local representative if you don’t like it! 

This ‘it’s not me, it’s you’ scenario could have been ripped straight from the ‘Narcissist’s Handbook.’ Narcissists court attention and charm us when the going is good. But quickly blame us, or the poor conditions, when things are less rosy. This is what the media (including my beloved BBC) is doing. In the two decades since digital began challenging broadcast’s dominance the landscape has been one where entertainment trumps education, nuance is trounced by stark, binary soundbites, and accountability is shifted to the ‘unfortunate’ market conditions that make success near impossible. Not only does this narrative evade accountability it also undermines the intelligence of the audience.

Firstly, media – especially news media - is not a tin of baked beans or a brand of diapers. Audiences aren’t merely passive consumers who need to be shocked, prodded, and yanked into consciousness in order to buy the latest product. Media should still have some small amount of responsibility. They should hold other powers to account and provide clarity, perspective, and insight into the world. And even if it were a packet of diapers, the means to attract our attention need not be quite so grubby. Even Pampers courts our emotions before controversy. They even harness nuance and narrative before soundbites and binary mud-throwing. And they only have 30 seconds to do it. If the ad industry can still muster nuance, emotion, and story, then shouldn't the media too?

Secondly, people aren’t idiots. Media’s narcissism stretches to an inability to empathize with a complex, measured, sometimes charmingly insightful human. When did these great institutions that once kept governments and clerics honest, lose their own moral compass? When did their lack of imagination stifle their powers of empathy and creativity?

When I was a junior strategist in advertising, I’d regularly hear focus group respondents confess that sometimes the commercials were better than the shows. I never really believed this, but still strived to deliver it wherever I could. We wanted to ‘be the culture’ not just creep around in the cracks between it. Today I’m saddened to say that journalism, in particular, might finally be worse than advertising.