Check Please!
Robert Drechsel

Ethics, Satire, and Journalism: Interview with Professor Robert Drechsel

INTERVIEWS | OCT. 20, 2015

The recent proliferation of internet "click bait"- articles masquerading as news or satire primarily for the purpose of generating traffic and, hence, ad revenue - have raised new ethical concerns for satirists. The "faux news" subset of satirical writers, who have long used a mock journalism format to comment on social issues, may have provided inspiration to the purveyors of click-bait schemes, who generate articles without any purpose beyond generating revenue.

This trend raises issues about the rationale(s) behind modern satire, particularly as some of today's satirists cross more and more frequently into the domain of journalism. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2008 actually found Jon Stewart listed as one of the most respected journalists in the country. This past year, John Oliver has produced in-depth investigations of such topics as predatory payday lending practices in the U.S. and the scholarship claims of the Miss America pageant system. Nigerian satirist Adeola Fayehun recently made headlines, not for her satirical news show, but for her audacity in asking Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe actual questions about his plans for succession. Do satirists have a place at the table with journalists, or should these spheres remain separate? In either case, what ethical obligations, if any, should the satire community consider, particularly in light of the rise of purely money-driven SEO practices?

Check Please! spoke with Professor Robert E. Drechsel, the James E. Burgess Chair and Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to discuss these and other questions regarding ethics and the intersection of satire and journalism.

"...Journalism and satire have been intertwined for a long time... for centuries probably, if you really want to get down to it."

CP!: Given that consumers of click-bait material might tend to lump it together with satire, do you think this represents a kind of crisis for the satire community?

RD: It's an interesting phenomenon in the sense that it's the same thing that mainstream journalists always fear, and that is people confusing "faux" journalism with the real thing; or with good, sound journalism being undermined, basically, by material that's trying to pass itself off as journalism but really isn't.

So, yes, it can create an identity issue and a sort of boundary-line issue by making things, at best, fuzzy.

CP!: Satirists seem to be doing a lot of actual news reporting these days. Do you think this is a comment on poor journalistic quality? Because there seems to be a lot of criticism embedded in these Daily Show, etc. stories of news reporting.

RD: Oh, I think definitely that's right. I think that it's simultaneously something that satirizes formulaic, standard journalism—and of course also some of the more flagrant, outrageous examples of journalism—at the same time that it's making statements about the actual topics of the stories that are being covered. It's serving both functions, really, simultaneously.

And I think, by the way, that's a healthy thing. I'm hard-pressed to think of any occupation or certainly any profession that is subjected to more public scrutiny and in fact spends more time scrutinizing itself than journalism.

I could also say that I think journalism and satire have been intertwined for a long time . . . for centuries probably, if you really want to get down to it. There's the long history of, say, editorial cartooning, for example. And of course the long history of journalists being satirists and satirists being journalists in a sense. And there's the whole opinion side of journalism…journalism has long made use of satire.

CP!: What's an historical example of a satirist functioning as a journalist?

RD: Thomas Nast, for example, the famous New York editorial cartoonist who took on corrupt politicians in New York City. That in effect was journalism in its best form... You could go back to looking at things like Swift and his Lilliputians as really a social commentary that would count to a great extent as journalism.

CP!: Do you think that satire's skewering of the press drives better reporting, or do you take issue with that, that [reporters] don't need to be driven to better reporting?

RD: One of the things that makes it so hard to generalize about is that journalism is something that encompasses so very, very much: everything from the New York Times to the smallest weekly newspaper, local broadcasters, network television, cable news networks, all of the talking-head political commentary on particularly the cable networks, and so on. So I think it certainly creates a self-awareness, in a sense, in journalism, that now exists to a degree that it has never existed before, and probably all the more so in an environment today where—although I hate to use this word—where individual journalist's "brands" if you will are seemingly increasingly important...

So, I think that the journalism community definitely is paying attention, and chuckling at itself, embarrassed at itself, sometimes, I would guess. Maybe [satire] does lead to journalists occasionally stopping to think before they do some purely formulaic treatment of something—about whether this is the right way to go about covering the story.

"There are a lot of people who really have no sense of the difference between an editorial and a news story."

CP!: The media these days is often criticized for putting editorial material in what are supposed to be news reports... do you think that's happening in the media?

RD: I think it would be foolish to deny that ever happens. But I don't think it's as extreme a problem as a lot of partisans seem to think it is... although I do think that the boundary between interpretation and straight news reporting has become blurred over the past twenty years or so. That's something that mainstream journalism needs to keep in mind.

But, you know, there's also the factor that readers themselves and viewers bring a lot to the table themselves when they interact with the media. And sometimes bias is far more perceived than real. And I think it often becomes hard for people to sort out even straight news coverage that reports on things that are happening with which they happen to disagree, and then transferring their disagreement to blaming the journalists themselves. So I think we have to keep the audience in mind as well, and how they're approaching things. And we're obviously in a very, very polarized political and social culture right now, which is going to exacerbate that problem.

But I do see interpretation and analysis, probably to a degree that I don't remember seeing before. One of the problems is I think that readers don't distinguish the two necessarily, even if you run a piece that is explicitly labeled analysis or interpretation. There are a lot of people who really have no sense of the difference between an editorial and a news story. So I think there are a lot of factors that contribute to this business of whether there's a real blurring of the line or whether straight reporting is becoming more biased, more opinionated.

CP!: We have the technology now that allows the proliferation of really sophisticated satirical content. Do you think these blurred lines between the satirical community and journalism are here to stay?

RD: That's a tough thing to predict, but I guess I can't see any reason to disagree... That's something that of course creates issues in and of itself. I would presume from the standpoint of a satirist, it perhaps puts even more pressure on the satirist to make sure that the audience of a satire perceives it as such. Because satire doesn't work if people think it's the real thing. I'm not talking about some media picking up a story from The Onion and mistakenly thinking it's real. But in a way it is that same phenomenon: the more [false news] there is out there, and the more sensitive people are to blurring the lines, it's increasingly going to be easier for people who are encountering satirical material to not necessarily regard it as such and to sometimes even say, "See, I told you, I told you I knew it all along,” you know, that sort of thing.

CP!: That circles back to the whole issue of click bait, because they want you to think it's the real thing... it's also a subset of satire, to be able to create an article people actually think is real, and then news outlets print it.

RD: I wouldn't even call that satire, I would call that a hoax. And occasionally, the media are really suckered that way. But to me that's not just evidence of media gullibility, that's evidence that maybe it isn't satire anymore, it's something else.

CP!: What do you think of the ethics of that, of writing something with the intention of temporarily fooling people and getting a genuine outlet to print it as news?

RD: I just don't see the point of doing it. To me it's hard to justify. It's like most things—you can't necessarily say it's a bad thing across the board, because there are certainly good uses to be made of deception from time to time. You wouldn't have people as testers going to rental agencies and trying to rent apartments and discover whether or not they're being turned down because they're black or Hispanic, that kind of thing. You can't really have a totally across-the-board rule. But I think if you're talking about the context we're talking about now, who's benefiting from that? My first reaction is, if the benefit is simply the personal self-satisfaction that the satirist gains—unless it's exposing something that's of far more public significance in the way the media handles something—to me it's not satire, it's in the realm of game-playing and hoaxing. And I find it very hard to justify that.

"I think also that one of the things that slips through the cracks, often, is really the bigger story."

CP!: Your specialty is media coverage of the justice system. Do you have any examples that you might want to talk about where you think the media has failed in its coverage of the courts?

RD: I think, as a generalization, the media to this day have never quite gotten past the tendency to sensationalize certain cases, to give them just relentless, relentless coverage to the point of it being gratuitous.

I think also that one of the things that slips through the cracks, often, is really the bigger story. When the media cover the justice system generally, and the judiciary even more specifically, the tendency is to see each crime as some sort of entirely separate event unrelated inherently to all others. And so often, to the degree that coverage bogs down in covering each individual arrest, and each individual prosecution, each individual trial and so on, it's sort of missing the forest for the trees... You don't get the kind of in-depth coverage that you might need. I think that local television news, for example, in particular tends to be just filled with crime and court news without ever examining the larger picture that might emerge from coverage—whether it's what kinds of people tend to be prosecuted and arrested in the first place; what kinds of offenses seem to be indicated; what are the political roles and impact of local prosecutors... To a large degree, the appellate level of the court system is simply ignored.

There are two things happening: One is that newspapers in particular are being decimated by the economic situation and by the move to digital [formats], facing plunging circulations, and so staffs are being shrunk over and over again. We're actually going to see less coverage by fewer reporters of the judiciary in general, and the coverage is going to gravitate toward what's easiest to get your hands on, which is going to be what the public relations people of the police department feed you. We do have the growth of somewhat more specialized online types of publications that are focusing on criminal justice, but most of them tend to be much more specialized in nature in terms of their audiences.

And we don't really have a good sense of why it is that the media seem to seize on certain [crimes]...the result can be that people get a really misleading picture of the nature of crime, the nature of danger.

CP!: Yes, as a consumer of local news I certainly can get frightened after ten minutes!

RD: That's right, you think that all that's happening in the city is one terrible crime after another—and it must be getting worse every day, too!

CP!: It does grab your attention, and that's probably the whole point.

RD: Yes. Especially I think television faces that challenge, because ratings are so important on a day-to-day basis. It would be tough to be the first local television station in a competitive market to say, "We're not going to do this anymore."

CP!: I guess, in a way, satire handles that as well, because this is an area that they would, I'm sure, have pointed out—the absurdities of it all.

RD: Yes, I think a good satirist actually would rise to the level of making more systemic observations and criticisms than would the journalist on a beat, day after day.

E.F. Watley contributed to this story.