Book Reviews

News And How You Can Use It by Alan Rusbridger — whose ‘truth’ can you trust?

In the race to the White House in 2016, there was seldom a day when we didn’t hear the words “Fake News” uttered by one of the Presidential candidates. It became a convenient way for Donald Trump and his followers to dismiss and discredit every news report that ran counter to his views.

Trump didn’t coin the expression but he gave it legitimacy around the globe, used by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and now, by Russia’s warmongering president.

In his guide to the world of news journalism, former Guardian editor Alan Rushbridger ponders what this means for the media industry and those who work within it, particularly when levels of trust in journalists are at an all time low. They now rank even lower than politicians according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer.

In 2020 questions of trust in the media became, not just a matter of choosing a new leader, but one of survival. When the Covid 19 pandemic struck, who was best placed to respond to the public’s thirst for information, asks Rushbridger. Scientists? Politicians? Your peers? Or Journalists?

Some media outlets reacted brilliantly, he believes, delivering clear, simple explanations about the virus and the control measures imposed by respective governments. Others challenged the actions and inactions of political leaders. But there were also the abject failures: editorial content that was stupid, ignorant and lazy. The big question for Rushbridger is how to help the public distinguish between the good from the bad and to recognise that not all journalism is the same.

News And How You Can Use It sets out to provide an answer. It’s an A-Z guide to the business of journalism to help those who read its output, decide whether it deserves their trust. Rushbridger explains how mistakes happen and the steps most credible newspapers take to avoid them and how the breakneck speed of online news has lead to “churnalism” — where journalists spend much of their time regurgitating press releases and announcements instead of investigating potential stories.  

The book has a broad scope: one moment he’s explaining the inverted pyramid (a principle of structuring news reports so the most important information comes first); the next he’d discussing investigative journalism. He also touches on clickbait, trolls and how the title of “journalist” has taken on new meaning in a world of bloggers, Instagrammers and TikTokers. The most interesting entries are those on editors and their responsibilities, the challenges of covering stories relating to national security and the questions readers should ask when reading any reports on climate change.

News And How You Can Use It is an odd book. I’m not entirely sure what kind of reader would find this interesting. Some of the content is too basic to engage people already working in the media. They know it already so isn’t he preaching to the converted? But then other content is perhaps too inwardly focused (like the pros and cons of including hyperlinks in a story) to interest a more general audience.

My bigger frustration was the bit-size nature of its content. Given Rushbridger’s credentials I was expecting a more thorough and considered assessment of the problem of declining trust in the media rather than a glossary. But instead of taking a deep dive into this, he seemed to nibble around the edges. Fake news itself merited only 15 lines yet an explanation of the work of sub editors took up two pages and Rupert Murdoch warranted five pages.

Too often it felt I was being presented with a tasting menu instead of a banquet. Even the tasting menu was somewhat limited in its ambition. There was hardly any commentary on regional newspapers let alone those that cover the devolved nations within the UK. It would also have been illuminating to compare the British experience with that of say France and Germany. But on this, Rusbridger was silent.

Too often it felt I was being presented with a tasting menu instead of a banquet. Even the tasting menu was somewhat limited in its ambition. There was hardly any commentary on regional newspapers let alone those that cover the devolved nations within the UK. It would also have been illuminating to compare the British experience with that of say France and Germany. But on this, Rusbridger was silent.

I hope this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Rushbridger on the topic of trust in the media but in a more substantive fashion. I want a gargantuan feast next time.

News And How You Can Use It : What To Believe in a Fake News World: Footnotes

Alan Rushbridger spent much of his early career with The Guardian newspaper as a reporter and columnist. After short stints at The Observer and then in Washington as the US editor of the (short-lived) London Daily News, he returned to the UK and to The Guardian. He became editor in chief of The Guardian in 1995, a role he held for 20 years. During his time at the helm he defended the newspaper against several high-profile defamation actions and refused demands by the UK government to hand over data leaked by the former computer intelligence consultant Edward Snowden. The US Guardian went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Snowden’s revelations. In 2020, Rusbridger became one of the first members of the Oversight Board created by Facebook. 

News And How You Can Use It was published by Canongate in hardback in 2020 and in paperback in 2021.

My copy was provided free by Canongate in return for an honest review.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

14 thoughts on “News And How You Can Use It by Alan Rusbridger — whose ‘truth’ can you trust?

  • I might have devoted the whole book to Murdoch and his partisan lying dressed up as ‘news’. What can be done about his malign influence over a substantial proportion of the populations of the US, Australia and Britain I don’t know.

    Reply
    • I think that was partly what I was trying to indicate Bill – I would have preferred fewer topics but more in depth. Murdoch would indeed have been a fascinating subject as seen through an editor’s eyes

      Reply
    • I think Trump called him a genius recently didn’t he?

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      • Yes. He praised his ‘savvy’ military strategy when he declared eastern Ukrainian provinces independent before invading to ‘protect’ them. He’s backtracked a bit since then, but still.

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        • Yet another example of a man who can’t resist saying whatever comes into his head, regardless of whether it makes any sense.

  • Well, this is timely.
    The first casualty of any war is the truth…

    Reply
    • Horribly timely in fact. I had written the post and was about to press publish when I heard a news report in the background and my ears pricked up at those words “fake news” – this time coming from Russia

      Reply
  • Perhaps it’s aimed at journalism / media students?

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    • I would have thought that too Kim but it doesn’t indicate that in his preface – in fact he seems to suggest it is for anyone who consumes news

      Reply
    • So true. As a former journalist married to a former newspaper editor I have a vested interest as such. In a world where people listen more to anti vax campaigners without any knowledge then to medics and scientists, we need to understand how people are seeing to manipulate the news agenda.

      Reply
  • Back in 2008, I read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News which offered an excellent analysis of the effects of the internet on newspapers. Obviously, it’s somewhat out of date now but it was much more sharply focused than Rusbridger’s book sounds.

    Reply
  • How disappointing. This looks rather a missed opportunity. I expected better from Rusbridger.

    Reply

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