Welcome to Show Me The Facts UK
The state of our modern day news media represents a puzzling and counterintuitive paradox. Access to free news and press (in most countries) is greater than ever before in our history. From the comfort of our smartphones we can read and share our views on thousands upon thousands of articles and editorial pieces which get published online every single day. We have unparalleled choice in where we can get our news. Whatever you’re interested in, there is a journalist or an author out there for you. And news gets reported fast; with numerous news apps and social media, we can find out what is going on in the world almost in real-time.
We have never had greater access to a wider range of news sources.
And yet. Trust in news outlets has hit rock-bottom.
Edelmen’s Trust Barometer shows that trust in media has been steadily falling in western countries, with the UK faring worse than most; just 35% of Brits surveyed in 2022 stated that they trust the media. Two-thirds of people globally said that they believed journalists and reporters were purposely trying to mislead people, by saying things they know to be false or grossly exaggerated. Ofcom found that during the pandemic, around 30% of Brits were deliberately trying to avoid news altogether. A worrying, if not outright dangerous, state of affairs, particularly at a time when the government was so reliant on news and media to share vital public health messages with the population.
Be under no illusion — this matters, and it matters a LOT. During the pandemic the need for people to trust in what they see, read, and hear in the news media was critical in saving lives and protecting themselves. But beyond times of immediate crisis, the same trust in news is equally paramount. Fragility in our news media opens up cracks for nefarious actors to take advantage of the lack of trust to propagate mistruths and question society’s ability to establish a basic set of facts and truths. This can shift the outcome of democratic elections (as has been demonstrably shown to be the case in the Trump vs. Clinton election and the UK EU referendum, both in 2016). It can create artificial divides in society and stir up undue civil tensions (see the so-called “culture wars” as a case in point). It can push politicians and policymakers into taking populist actions which aren’t necessarily in our own best interests.
So where is it all going wrong then?
Three key problems have developed in our news media in the UK.
1. News has become a soap opera; accessible only to the most avid of viewers.
Back when I was a young lad growing up in Liverpool, sitting down together as a family to watch Coronation Street was a regular, unmissable fixture in our evenings. We were devoted fans, and never missed an episode.
However, since leaving home (and much to my mother’s disappointment) this regular fixture fell out of my daily routine. I no longer tuned in to watch the trials and tribulations of the nation’s favourite Mancunians. The only time I now catch an episode is on Christmas Day, where we all sit down as a family in a semi-comatose, turkey-induced stupor to watch the latest festive scandal and inevitable murder on the street. But to my mother, I am a nightmare viewing companion. “Since when did Steve split up with Tracy? Where is Hayley Cropper? Who on earth is that running the Rovers these days?”.
If you want to understand what’s happening on the street, you really need to watch every day. Yes, you can drop in for the odd episode, but you don’t get as much out of it unless you routinely tune in.
My concern is that something similar has happened to our news. Today’s news, particularly on politics and current affairs, moves at a million miles per hour. We have 24/7 rolling news channels on TV. We have countless news apps, which give us instant notifications multiple times per day. News sites frequently set up “Live” areas where we can follow events by the minute. And of course, we have social media - where avid news-watchers can watch events unfold by the second simply by refreshing their feeds.
The problem is - few of us have the time, or indeed the inclination, to follow news at such a pace. Declining trust and engagement in mainstream news is sometimes labelled as apathy. This is a lazy and overly simplistic slur. I believe the vast majority of us are absolutely concerned with what is happening in current affairs, but few of us are willing or able to give such a massive share of our attention in order to keep up.
The problem further compounds itself - even the most broad-audience news outlets assume a certain level of prior knowledge and awareness. The daily 10 O’Clock TV News bulletins on the analogue channels, the most-watched news programmes, often fail to put moving stories in full context, instead simply focusing on the latest developments.
In truth, you can’t really blame the channels for doing this. They have limited time in their bulletins and lots to cover. But in the same way - you can’t blame viewers for feeling overwhelmed. There isn’t a place for people to go where they can ask the basic questions about news, politics, and current affairs which the mainstream news broadcasters take as assumed knowledge, without feeling patronised.
2. The line between news and opinion has become blurred, impossible to distinguish.
I quoted a statistic above from Edelmen’s Trust Barometer - two-thirds of people globally said that they believed journalists and reporters were purposely trying to mislead people, by saying things they know to be false or grossly exaggerated.
The role of news media should be to inform us on WHAT is happening and WHY it matters, not HOW we should think about it. Many media outlets have, whether knowingly or unintentionally, overstepped the mark. Editorial and opinion pieces are positioned alongside informational news articles. An entire profession of news commentators, so-called “talking heads”, has been spawned, there to supplement the news with their take on stories.
British media has always been more robust, relatively speaking, in its ability to maintain a clear separation between news and what is frankly entertainment. We have public service broadcasters, including a license-fee funded BBC which nominally has the journalistic freedom to report on stories without risk of interference from owners, advertisers, or other commercial interests. Globally, the BBC consistently ranks highest amongst broadcasters on audience perceptions of independence and trusted reporting.
But we ought not to be complacent. We are not immune to global trends which risk further blurring the line between news, opinion, and entertainment. New broadcasters like GB-News and TalkTV are frequently accused of attempting to export the relative success of US Cable News broadcasters like FoxNews to the UK market. The current government is pressing ahead with plans to install a private owner of Channel 4, and the license fee model of BBC funding is also under very real threat.
As people are increasingly being told what to think, we risk turning more people off from consuming regular news altogether.
3. News editorial is non-participatory; editors decide what stories should matter, and we don’t have enough of a say.
The role of the news Editor is more important than ever. Editors have always held great power in society, but in these times they play a much bigger role than is often acknowledged or appreciated.
Some argue that with the growth of social media and digital news outlets, the role of traditional news editors has been diminished. But in fact, perhaps counterintuitively, the opposite is actually true. With the plethora of news sources and opinion platforms now available to us, editors play a key role in the curation of news stories, the shaping of public narratives, and in determining which matters we care about as a society. Twitter for example, is not a “curation engine”, it is primarily a “reaction engine”. We may have access to thousands of opinions at our fingertips on Twitter, but those posting their opinions need something to react to, and the ability of news editors to decide which stories warrant greatest public attention is ever-present.
And here’s the rub. The incentives of editors in a commercial news media landscape inevitably influence these curation decisions. With revenues of traditional media threatened, editors are under more pressure than ever to focus on stories which can stir up opinion, generate clicks, and ultimately have volume.
It is perhaps unfair then to simply chastise news editors, write them off as malevolent sensationalists. But it is inevitably the case that the outcome of the incentives placed on news outlets means that editorial decisions are not always perfectly aligned with public interest. Disrupting these incentives means finding a way to make editorial more participatory - or more simply, we the public should have more of a say in deciding which stories matter to us most.
Introducing “Show Me The Facts UK”
Show Me The Facts UK (SMTF UK) is a newly-formed news site focused on UK current affairs, politics, economics, and other important national events. We are realistic - SMTF will not be a wholesale antidote to the problems in our current news media outlined above; perhaps instead see us a “local anaesthetic”. We promise to be different - decidedly unpartisan, facts-based (not opinion-based), and most importantly curated by our readers themselves.
We’ll aim to post 2–3 stories per week. All of our stories will be written in terms of answering a specific question - questions which mainstream news media often takes as assumed knowledge. Think of our stories as part-explainer, part-educator, part-informer. We won’t patronise you. We won’t try to persuade you of a particular point of view. We’ll simply give you the facts. The full context you need to be able to form your own opinions on the big news stories of the day.
Examples of the kind of stories we plan to start with include:
- How will higher inflation affect you? Is higher inflation always a bad thing? Why / why not?
- Would a windfall tax on energy companies solve the current cost of energy crisis?
- Is the government right to claim that the UK has the fastest growing economy in the G7 post-pandemic?
- What evidence is there that the UK government’s plans to process asylum claims in Rwanda will meet its objectives?
- What is the Northern Ireland Protocol (included in the UK’s Brexit Deal), and why is it creating political instability in Northern Ireland?
In each of these articles, we’ll focus on the facts. We’ll lay out the context, give you a summary of the key arguments, and present you with relevant data and statistics. Then it’ll be up to you to form your own views and opinions, which of course we’d love to hear about.
And here is where we will be very different to other news sources - our editorial decisions will be driven by you, the readers.
Our Transparent Stories WhiteBoard will be a live tool where you can see which stories we’re considering, which stories we’re currently researching, and which stories we’re writing and soon to publish. You’ll be able to see exactly what we’re planning to report on, but crucially you, our readers, will use the WhiteBoard to add your own ideas of stories you’d like to see, as well as vote on stories in our pipeline that you’d like us to prioritise. In effect, you the readers will be our Editors.
Within this WhiteBoard (accessible here via this link), you can:
- Enter your own ideas for stories you’d like us to consider
- Upvote stories that you want us to prioritise and pursue researching / writing in real time
- See which stories we’re actively researching / writing at present, and add your own questions that you’d like us to cover in each of these stories
- Get a timeline on which stories we’re due to publish soon, on what date; request email notifications when particular stories are published
Giving our readers such proactive influence on our editorial decisions makes us unique in the UK. This is new and experimental approach to journalism, and we’ll need to test and learn as we go. But as ever, our readers will guide us on this journey, and we’ll be looking for your open and regular feedback as we do.
We are neither naïve or grandiose; the landscape of news, politics, and current affairs journalism won’t change overnight, and we will always be a small cog in a vast industry. But we hope to become a trusted and dependable news source for a huge number of people who are currently not being served well enough by our current news media. Come with us on the journey, and help us shape Show Me The Facts UK.