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Factual Content in a Post-Factuality Environment

The morning session on this final day of ECREA 2016 starts with a panel that emerges from the "Journalism beyond the Crisis" ARC Discovery research project that Brian McNair, Folker Hanusch and I lead. As Aljosha Schapals explains in his introduction to the panel, this explores the changing content forms, journalistic practices, and user reception of factual content, as well as the implications of these developments for overall democratic processes.

But the first full paper this morning is by my QUT colleague Brian McNair, who begins with a longer historical perspective on the development of fact-based content. In the 1990s, we saw the emergence of reality TV; in the 2000s there was a wave of documentaries being screened in mainstream cinema; in the 2010s we are now seeing both the ubiquity and popularity of fact-based content – Brian calls this the emerging cult of reality.

Reality TV is the first manifestation of this, then. It constitutes a hybridisation of information and entertainment, and of public and private; this is not primarily driven by the growing adoption of the Internet at this point, but by a rise in new camera technologies and and broadcasting channels. This can be seen as a democratising format, overall, though there are counter-examples for this as well. Second, various popular documentaries – such as the films by Michael Moore, most obviously – emerged in the 2000s. Many of these took behind-the-scenes, confessionary approaches.

Now, in a fully developed Internet age, there has been a massive increase in the range and volume of available information – Brian describes this as an inflationary public sphere, which is also globalised, digitised, and networked, of course. This represents a further hybridisation of journalism which dissolves boundaries between truth and falsehoods, objectivity and subjectivity, production and consumption, and (again) information and entertainment. There is also an overall trend towards post-factuality.

This is manifested in a wide range of (largely online) platforms; some of these provide fairly traditional reportage, while others are more propagandistic and interventionist sites. Many are highly popular amongst smaller or larger interest publics, and many also impact considerably on public debate. Many are designed to be highly shareable, and many now also take an explicitly ideological approach. Sites to be considered here include Breitbart, The Interpreter, Bellingcat, Buzzfeed, WikiLeaks, Counterpunch, Vice News, and many more.

This may mean that we are now in an era after objectivity. There is a crisis in journalism of truth, trust, and objectivity, and there are currently strong debates about the role especially of social media in this. We are perhaps at the end of the post-war social democratic consensus: with objectivity we cannot effectively report the rise of the proto-fascist forces that are now emerging in many countries around the world.