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18th March 2015

Why we should restrict offensive speculative journalism

Lauren Wills discusses the media’s role in the aftermath of important world events, and whether they have the right to report things that they simply don’t know

The growth of online journalism means that no longer are newspapers restricted by physical space in which they must squeeze in their best and most important articles, but instead they are able to publish an extensive range of material on a virtual platform every day which can be accessed globally.

On one hand, this is positive. More news can be distributed to anyone who has access to the internet for free. John Stuart Mill’s theoretical perspective of a ‘marketplace of ideas’ which is a rationale for freedom of expression suggests that ‘truth’ emerges from free discussion on social and political topics. I’m also a believer that when individuals have access to many different opinions, they are able to shape what they think about the world. The media serves as an important mechanism for enabling this.

As well as paid journalists, anyone who wants to express their opinion can ‘have a voice’ in the form of online blogging. The growth in online journalism means that you can find an opinion on practically any subject you wish, no matter how controversial or questionable.

So far, it seems like this expansion can only be positive. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. The increased number of articles I’ve read on mainstream newspaper platforms with both deceiving headlines and content has led me to the conclusion there is too much speculative journalism out there.

The media just cannot help themselves. This is not an argument about limiting freedom of speech by suppressing people’s opinions–it’s about the consequences of publishing articles with no factual basis for those opinions which has the effect of leaving the public confused and misinformed.

Questionable content and conspiracy is fine, as long as it’s labelled correctly as an idea and not as fact. For example, last week the BBC published a story entitled “Flight MH370: Could it have been suicide?” The title renders the reader inclined to agree with the statement even though it uses the conditional “could.” On reading the article, the experts actually explain that the theory has only grown because of a lack of other evidence to confirm what actually happened.

In other words, it is pure speculation. What a tragic event the disappearance of Flight MH370 must have been for the loved ones of staff and passengers on board, but to make it worse, the BBC publishing such an article on one of the most viewed news platforms really does twist the knife. Captain Zaharie Shah, an expert in aviation, is accused of deliberately intending to commit suicide and kill the passengers on board purely because of the absence of another more pressing or convincing theory.

Zaharie’s widow stayed away from media platforms after the event – pretty much all that has been published is that she confirmed it was her husband’s voice in the last words from the cockpit. I cannot begin to imagine the grief and pain she went through – no-one expects their husband or wife to go to work one day and never come back, so it’s understandable that she didn’t want to involve herself in discussion on speculating what happened to the aircraft.

I can furthermore hardly imagine what she must have felt when news corporations started writing articles about the potential suicide of her husband. If there were evidence from the cockpit at the time to suggest this–any kind of factual basis–then I’d support such an article being published. However, the absence of concrete evidence on what happened doesn’t give the media free reign to publish all kinds of offensive theories. This could indeed be a possibility (as could any kind of technical fault) and I’m not denying that the article poses a question rather than making a statement saying “This is definitely what happened.” However, until there’s actual evidence to suggest this was a suicide, I think it’s extremely offensive and insensitive to publish something so bold and suggest to readers that this has legitimate backing. To me, it just looks like a cheap and fast conclusion with no real substance or forethought of the consequences of its publication.

The law has mechanisms in place to avoid people making legal claims purely on misleading article titles, as it’s a given that sensible readers should read whole articles to determine what is actually being said. Papers such as the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Daily Mirror publish eye-catching titles all the time which sometimes can even be perceived to contradict the content of such pieces. The objective is not to inform the reader, but clearly to make money, and freedom of speech shouldn’t be used as an excuse to mislead, offend and/or defame people.

At the end of the day, the media play an important role in democracy and they allow for individual and collective discussion. But it’s clear: media companies are all about selling newspapers. It’s no longer about quality, but quantity; how many articles they can extend to a wide, global audience in order to gain influence and ultimately, money?

I’m therefore an advocate for some form of media regulation, not to suppress freedom of speech but to suppress the abuse of that freedom when commercial goals are clearly the corporations’ main objective.

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