Are journalists shitbags? (Or, how to avoid sensationalism)

Renee Wilson was surprised to hear someone describe journalists as "shitbags" at a recent conference, and grew concerned when that statement was backed up with plenty of examples of subpar shock journalism being passed off as news. Here in J-Source, she explores a solution for sensationalism: "genuine conversation."


Renee Wilson was surprised to hear someone describe journalists as "shitbags" at a recent conference, and grew concerned when that statement was backed up with plenty of examples of subpar shock journalism being passed off as news. Here in J-Source, she explores a solution for sensationalism: "genuine conversation."


Last summer I fell into an academic think-tank. I liked being there, but mostly I was doing it for work. A bunch of “Media Professionals” — film-makers, writers, designers, TV producers, web publishers — sat around a U-shaped table in a university classroom in the UK to discuss “The Media” when a participant in her 30s made a declaration: Journalists are shitbags.

At first she made it seem like a joke, seeing as she’s married to a senior editor at one of Britain’s most popular dailies. But later, when the sun went down and coffee in a classroom was replaced with beer in a bar, the examples of crap content that were tabled that night were all shock journalism. This conversation was my impetus to scratch around for an antidote to sensationalism.

Enter Hans-Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher who cultivated the theory that “to be” is to use language to communicate. In other words, if you can’t put words to it, it doesn’t exist. Consider that journalists are vessels through which other people’s stories are told. Words are our business. When the ‘vessel’/journalist is blocked with self-interest, preconceived notions, hidden agendas or insecurity, there is no room left for the story.

The remedy to this block, which could be at the heart of combatting sensationalism, is in Gadamer’s theory of “the genuine conversation.” That happens when each person enters with his/her own prejudices and prejudgments, but leaves with those preconceptions reformed. Journalism is never going to be completely objective, but a “genuine conversation” suggests something less combative and more empathetic.

According to Gadamer, there are three levels of conversation:

Level 1 — the other is experienced as a means to an end. In journalism, this would be like sports sideline reporting–quick-answer, surface reporting.

Level 2 — the other is experienced as competition, with an undercurrent of self-interest. In journalism, this is shock journalism.

Level 3 — neither party presumes to know the truth, and this fosters an environment of openness. This is the genuine conversation.

There are many reasons why a journalist would enter an interview ‘blocked’ — ratings pressure, the need to capture short audience attention spans, the requirement to meet a publication’s tone or brand, the journalist’s own prior knowledge and experience — but the end result is a disconnect between the journalist and the story.

The true story, according to Gadamer, can’t be told by a self-conscious, or self-interested, reporter. It is essential to the industry that we find new ways to teach journalism trainees how to report in a way that is relatable and authentic, and that is not generated from a place of ego, bullying, and, again to reference Gadamer, Level 2 conversation.

There has always been pushback from academia and journalists against shock journalism and disingenuous reporting. Kathryn Schulz, author of the book Being Wrong, wrote that the more convinced we are that we know the story we’re about to report on, the less we’re going to try figuring out what the story is really about:

I think that journalists are well-served by having a real genuine interest in and empathy for divergent view points and people who don’t echo their own belief systems,” Schulz said. “I think it’s totally crucial to good journalism.”

Deeper meaning is at the core of Gadamer’s work. He asked interpreters to be vigilant listeners, which is noteworthy because listening as an aspect of journalism practice is rarely investigated. Listening in a genuine conversation requires us to quiet our egos in order to be present in the dialogue.

Whitney Heppner and Michael Kernis wrote an article that makes me wonder if the entire journalism industry needs to take an inventory of its ego functioning. People with ‘loud’ egos tend to be on the defensive, “using aggressive behaviour as a way to restore damaged self-images" — and that self interest is a barrier to genunine conversation in journalism.

But another barrier to genuine reporting is generalized reporting. Donald Matheson examined Gadamer’s theories in relation to journalism. Matheson says, “Casting of a ‘news net’ upon the world in order to comprehend it, and typifying as news only that which falls into the net, risks being a vicious circle. There is clearly room for a range of approaches, Gadamer helps us ask what is missed when the journalistic understanding of the world is framed in these narrow terms.”

Gadamer offers journalists another way to approach truth. He described the “rightness” of understanding as “a momentary fusing of horizons, during which the object is allowed to speak to the observer, just as when the voice of the original author is allowed to speak in a good translation." From the same standpoint, Richard Harwood believes that authenticity is tied to accuracy:

Authenticity … begins in the news meeting when a choice is made about which stories to cover, why, and how. It develops with the sources chosen for stories and the questions asked in interviews. It depends on how deeply a reporter listens to what people are saying and how those insights lend themselves to framing and writing stories. Authenticity must be a primary objective from the beginning of the journalistic endeavor; otherwise it doesn’t show up at the end."

David Tracy says that, unless journalists “allow that genuine otherness of the person you’re interviewing to impinge upon you, the interaction is a non-interaction.”

It’s astounding, then, how much of today’s journalism is based on non-interaction.

To interpret Gadamer: the interview becomes tainted when the journalist is self-interested. Self-interest can be squelched through vigilant listening. When egos are quieted, journalists can tell the story that is rather than the one that is based on prejudgments.

And when journalists are not pressured to serve organizational interests — to push-back against the adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” — the true story will emerge.


Renee Wilson has been a freelance writer for almost 10 years. Her work has appeared in Canadian Family magazine, Today's Parent magazine and more. Her full portfolio is at She recently completed her M.A. in Creative and Media Education at Bournemouth University in the UK.