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Trojan Horse Journalism

September 22nd, 2005

Dr Petra

Most journalists are upfront and honest about their stories and angles. Sometimes it goes wrong when a story changes and you’re quoted in a piece that wasn’t what you signed up for, and trainee journalists can often mislead you about a story due to inexperience.

But there’s also the Trojan Horse method where a journalist tries makes you think you’re involved in something that you’re okay with, but later springs a trap on you where you look bad and it’s too late to do anything about it.

Today was a classic example of this technique, where a journalist called to ask if I could help with a story about how people handle relationship break-ups. I said I’d help if I could.

There was a bit of going around the houses whilst they told me about the horrors of relationship break-ups and how difficult they are and how people suffer, then they said in their story that they’d outline some examples of relationship breakdowns and I, the psychologist, would explain why things had gone wrong and how to fix it.

Fine so far, but I had an inkling there was something else going on. Rarely these days is a story just about relationships, there’s usually another angle.

And there was. The journalist continued explain how they’d be covering celebrity examples of break-ups within the piece.

As a psychologist (or other expert), particularly if you’re not very experienced with the media, you’ll take this at face value. You’ll expect that the feature will be about relationships, a photo of a celebrity will be used as illustration, and your quotes will clearly be about relationships generally, rather than the celebrity in question.

And that’s when Trojan horse journalism catches you. Because what will actually happen is the feature will be an excuse to talk all about celebrities and dissect their lives (usually very judgementally). There’ll be a picture, then a description of the celeb relationship crisis (or whatever celeb issue a story can cover). You’ll be quoted but because of either the angle of questioning or the way in which it’s reported, you’ll look like you’re talking about the celeb, not about relationships in general.

Journalists of course know this. The British Psychological Society and other organisations have made it clear whilst experts can talk about issues exemplified by celebrities we shouldn’t comment on celebs themselves. Because journalists don’t want us to talk about issues but want us to analyse celebs, they catch us out by pretending they’re going to cover the issue with a celeb example, but edit it so it seems otherwise.

As illustrated today by the journalist I spoke with who, when pressed, explained their case example:

“What we’re gonna do is get a picture of Jude and Sienna and say they broke up and she handled it wrong because she was upset and didn’t go to the theatre on her first night and then you’d say how it had been handled wrong and how you’d put it right”.

Had I not been aware of Trojan horse journalism (or been caught out by it in the past), I might have helpfully given a general quote about relationships, but found myself looking unethical later.

What we need is for journalists to understand that we can happily provide them information for their stories so long as it is illustrated by celebrities rather than being about them. Until that’s understood fewer reputable psychologists will be able to give quotes, and more inexperienced experts will continue to be caught out by the sort of stealth journalism that gives the media a bad name.

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