Propastop conducted an interview with lecturer and linguist at the University of Tartu, media expert Tiit Hennoste (pictured),
What do you think the term „the post-truth era“ means?
A good marketing term that benefits critics of the press as well as the press itself. Thus, both can declare that they are coming back towards the truth. However, if you dissect this concept, it would mean, that „the post-truth era“ was a situation where the press had been telling the truth, but not any longer. This is far from the truth! The press has always spoken of the truth from one source of media while at the other source it has been confusing, manipulative and lied. Setting the criteria for truth has been classical international „white“ publications such as the BBC, the New York Times, the Guardian and our own ERR as well as other national publications. However, the yellow press of course lies, not all the time and about everything but still a lot. There has always been publications that fudge the truth.
Is there no content in the concept?
However, one change has taken place: uncontrolled information is more repeated today than ever before. Previously, normal press meant that the journalist had to have at least two independent sources, which confirmed the story. No worthwhile publication would publish the story without these two sources. Today’s social media-based clicker reports no longer have any sources. Because speed counts, competition forces to publish without a time-consuming control of facts. Publications are issued in kilos as well as borrowing from each other. The problem is that publications have been relegated to social media, which has become an uncontrolled media distributor. Everyone recalls people who have fallen prey to internet quick loans.
The much-visited marketplace makes journalists think about quality. No, it does not. Maybe, if you did not have to sell the stories. Quality is not a selling feature anywhere, anymore. Low quality material represents the majority of goods being sold worldwide. High quality is always a rarity – a slower moving press is needed. There has been a change in the fact that the press has started to write about the future instead of the past – about what may happen. You cannot talk about the truth in the future, events may happen or not. The „maybe“ disappears easily from the interpretations of readers. The quotations inferring doubts disappear as do the question marks at the end of a sentence through which the readers are often manipulated by the newspapers. Speculation is confused with the truth. These two tendencies have come together and have resulted in a situation where non-truth information is being circulating more and more.
What are the dangers brought about with such media?
Publications that should be selecting information are not doing this anymore. Truth and lies, importance and insignificants are all being mixed together. Stories based on uncontrolled information are regularly being made especially colourful. This raises news value: the more unexpected and surprising the better! Such information circulates much faster than verified information. Incidentally, there is a lot of talk about the fact that lies circulate faster than truths. In my opinion, this is not the case. Stories that are made interesting spread faster. Lies, fantasies etc. are more easily made interesting. Writing the truth is held back by facts. The result however is a confused reader who can no longer understand what is true and important. They are imbalanced and unstable. This state allows easier manipulation. This kind of manipulative reader is directly the fault of this new kind of journalism. Delfi, Postimees as well as Facebook are by no means empty pipes or platforms who only provide news. Naturally, these media channels are trying to manipulate, but for this purpose, there must be corresponding people working at the channel who repel this manipulation.
Delfi along with the debating association has carried out fact controls. Postimees has a fake detector. Headings have appeared that try to reveal falsehoods.
The question is not about dealing with individual facts. When I read these fact examiners, I find occasional individual fragments. I never understand why this particular item fragment has been selected for inspection, If factual control is part of the press, then facts that are being verified should be of value. It makes no sense to dwell into small things. The factual checks must be systematic and internal. If the press wants to maintain its authority, then it cannot have its fact checking done by an outside agency. Inspections must be an internal matter for the press, similar to ethics. That is the point of the matter – we ourselves are controlling ourselves. You must start with your own fact control. Indeed, fact control, as such, is not an original invention that has been discovered somehow, in the post-truth era. Fact controlling departments have existed for decades in major newspapers worldwide. Everything was checked over. When a reporter wrote that someone stood in front of a seven- story building, it was followed up and checked to see that indeed the building had seven stories.
When you talk about the press, you think of portals like Postimees, Delfi, ERR. However, are internet websites like Sputnik and Baltnews news publications?
This question has no simple answer. The exact meaning of the press is a mixed up thing. Even the definition of the classical, old school newspaper is unclear. For example, magazines, scientific and cultural publications are also considered journalistic publications, but if I publish ten poems, is that journalism? Newspapers have horoscopes, comics, death notices, and crossword puzzles. That has been the case for decades. There is a „Trulli lulla“ in every edition of Eesti Express. Is all of this, the press? The border between press and non-press is very fluid. We can say that here is something we can call as part of the press: news, opinion polls, reports, interviews, editorials. Written by part of the editorial staff. Next to it are things that are quite a bit aside from the press. In websites like Sputnik, all types of material is mixed up with journalistic reports. Again, to throw the reader off balance.
How do you perceive that the State should regulate the area more, for example should we create a media monitoring organization?
I do not know if these rules can be applied to the press. In some countries there are press associated laws and acts, there are none in Estonia. This has been discussed, but honestly, I do not feel that particular need. However, it is possible to combine a number of standards using laws and acts from different places. Law regulates certain things connected to lying. Newspapers have been sued knowing that they lied and newspapers have sometimes received fines. What should definitely be done is –that the press code should be reviewed, it needs many revisions. The code was created a couple of decades ago, prior to Social media and internet media. The boundaries between the news and non-news stories are quite strictly outlined, news stories are subject to all types of restrictions but non-news stories have none. Obviously, it is time to set these limits more precisely.
Even if Sputnik were not a news site according to some criterion, would it not change anything?
It would change. The press was once the only authority to tell the news. After the start of the Social media era, this sort of separation is no longer valid and now absolutely everyone can speak. This type of propaganda portal can always say that it is a blog, simply a website, or they do not have to name themselves at all, simply publish texts on the internet. Someone lied on the internet? Sorry, there are a million lies and mistakes on the internet! It is also possible to mark the portal stating: lookout for lies and propaganda. Then the makers and readers of the portal will immediately say that the labelers have double standards. All right then, we had some sorts of false stories here. However, if we look at either the Postimees or the Delfi portals, we will find things wrong there as well. Why are you not labelling or marking them? Therefore, we arrive to the ideological dispute.
What would help with this situation?
In my opinion, only silence helps. What do I mean by that? The usual way of dealing with this would be to start talking: There is this and that type of portal, where some unusual stories appeared that are all lies and some examples of their stories are shown. The reader has never heard of this website. Now it is known and a link to the site is added as well! These websites do not entirely consist of lies; on the contrary, mostly there are lies within a sea of truths. Consequently, the reader who has been guided to this new site says: „Wow, this is a very interesting place! Some stories may be false but there are falsehoods everywhere.“ In conclusion, the website has been brought to the reader. As for the people that truly believe this rebuttable fact, then the baring of the truth will not affect them. They will simply say that the revealer of the facts is the real crook who is lying here.
Propastop however does not remain silent but writes about propaganda and lies.
This is necessary, absolutely necessary, the monitoring and analyzing of such media channels. Silence does not mean ignoring, simply not allowing leveraging. Analysis moves on another level. If such a false or propagandistic attack should for example spread to other channels, it is imperative to reject and overturn these lies. As for large international high-quality media publications, there will be a direct impact if it is brought out that they are sharing lies or allowing biased news.
Media education and developing critical thinking would also help.
These are the few opportunities that we have. One is silence. The second is the press as a self-regulating system that maintains its own ethical limits and does not retreat from it. A third way is to educate the reader. It is necessary to teach how to see through cons and manipulation as well as re-teach people to read slowly again. Critical awareness can only be effected when reading slowly. A critical slow reader will understand and separate a media source that produces garbage. They will no longer read it. This kind of avoidance is a far worse signal to the media than trying to directly deal with them. It is important for teachers to show how slow journalism in the press happens. To show how the truth is accomplished and what the journalist does to insure it. Not only on days open to the public but all the time. Just like slow cooking is prepared in an open kitchen.
Our educational debates always emphasize, that it is not important to force the facts. I often see at universities where people no longer know the facts. On what basis do you discuss things then? Do you say: „ Wait a minute, I cannot say the next sentence, I am still reading the internet.“? In my opinion, it is these same people whose memory is empty of facts, which are most easily manipulated. The schools should be the biggest teachers of source critical thinking, so that people understand what is truth. Can there really be a truth, can we talk about facts, where do these conclusions come from. I do not care if some of the facts have been overturned; I am interested in the process to truth. Make it true.
Tiit Hennoste at the Cultural Media Conference in 2015. Photo: Jaanus Lensment / Postimees / Scanpix
Tiit Hennoste’s library 2018. Photo: Margus Ansu / Eesti Media / Scanpix