A better media is possible
For the past few years I’ve been going to the Media Democracy Festival held in London. The annual gathering of activists, journalists, students and academics, is usually rich in lament and criticism of the state of the mainstream media.
But this year I sensed something different.
Maybe it was because the precipice is closer, the abyss deeper, the media landscape even more plagued by fake news and rampaging bots, and littered with the wreckage of broken business models and shattered trust. There’s nothing like a vision of hell to concentrate the mind.
But it wasn’t just that. There was something else this time: the buzz of possibility.
Sure, people talked about what’s wrong. But there were also plenty of ideas about how to put things right – some of which appear in this magazine.
And there were timely reminders of the deeper purposes of journalism – not only to seek truth, inform, and occasionally entertain, but also to hold power to account. This makes it key to a healthy democracy – and worth fighting for.
A broken model
No point in pretending, though. The news media is in deep trouble. Most media publishers, with a few contrarian exceptions, made a big mistake. They put their faith in the internet. Swept along by digital utopianism we drank the snake oil of ‘make content free online’.
Sure, publishers would lose revenue when print sales fell as readers got used to getting all their news for free online. But that would be more than compensated for by the vast increase in readership online – ‘traffic’ and ‘eyeballs’ in the parlance – which could be used to sell advertising.
It could have worked. Content, be it from publishers, musicians, filmmakers, did reach many more people.
And the advertising pennies have rolled in – but landed plop into the coffers of Google (Alphabet) and Facebook. Today those two companies attract almost half of all online advertising spend. Some estimates put it even higher.
Traditional news media are the big losers. Between 2006 and 2017, newspapers in the US lost 75 per cent of advertising revenue, previously their main source of income (Franklin Foer, World Without Mind, 2017).
Josh Constine of TechCrunch puts it bluntly: ‘Big news outlets stupidly sold their soul to Facebook. Desperate for the referral traffic Facebook dangled, they spent the past few years jumping through its hoops only to be cut out of the equation...’
One example of this was Facebook’s encouragement of new content types like live video, only to change course and withdraw funding. In some countries, Facebook suddenly, without warning, withdrew publisher posted content from newsfeeds.
Under attack for hosting fake news and violent videos, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform would go back to its original mission of linking people, favouring community and ‘local news’.
Constine warns smaller players: ‘Big, well-funded publishers staffed with true tech talent haven’t been able to gracefully navigate the constantly changing playing field set by Facebook. So what hope for smaller outfits without the technological or strategic prowess?’
Mark Zuckerberg (former motto ‘move fast and break things’) and his fellow tech oligarchs have broken something else: the ideal of the worldwide web as ‘royalty-free connectivity with no strings attached’ envisioned by its inventor Tim Berners-Lee.
It is now clear that both Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) have morphed into massive advertising companies cum data pirates. They have used their ‘free’ services to extract information from their users on an unprecedented scale; plundering privacy is the fundamental ingredient of this surveillance capitalism. Data is the new oil, they say. But oil is finite. Data is infinite and supplied willingly, copiously, by billions of user-serfs.
Tech innovator and now critic Andrew Keen makes an important distinction. The technology itself is not the problem – it’s the web’s advertising-based winner-take-all economy that’s causing such destruction: socially, culturally, economically (Andrew Keen, How to Fix the Future, Atlantic Books, 2018).
The scandal over Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data ‘scraped’ from an estimated 87 million Facebook users for the purpose of covert, micro-targeted political advertising attempting to swing elections has simply shone a spotlight on a system that has been operating for years: collecting and hoarding personal data, to sell on to third parties.
Readers and viewers, enjoying a wealth of content on their phone or tablet or laptop, may be quite happy with this state of affairs. Why should they care?
Anger makes us share
One answer: it’s bad for journalism and for democracy.
In spite of the explosion of online news, paid jobs in journalism are ever harder to find. Newsrooms have been eviscerated. Half of all newspaper jobs in the US have been lost in the past 15 years. Canadian newsrooms have shrunk by 30 per cent in the past four years. In Britain more than 200 local papers have closed and the number of regional journalists has halved. An estimated 58 per cent of the country has no daily or regional title. Even the new digital media is suffering: Buzzfeed recently cut a third of its UK staff with further job losses in the US.
The current plight of independent media has only accelerated the consolidation of media ownership, with serious political consequences. In Turkey the leading, but struggling, liberal Dogan Media (titles Hurriyet and Posta) was recently bought by the already massive pro-Erdoğan conglomerate Demiroren Holding. In the US, pro-Trump Sinclair, which already owns 193 radio stations and reaches into two out of every five homes, is bidding to take over a further 42 stations.
As jobs in journalism vanish, so the pressure on existing reporters increases. If staff are expected to produce 17 pieces of copy a day, ‘cut-and-paste’ and reliance on press releases, become the norm, says journalism professor Natalie Fenton of London’s Goldsmiths College.
The speed of rolling news culture and the need to ‘keep up with Twitter’ means that journalists, even at the public service BBC, often have just minutes to prepare items for broadcast.
Social media has affected the nature and tenor of content, too. Virality – or the production of attention-grabbing clickbait – is all. Research shows that Facebook and Google ‘thrive on division and abuse rather than research and debate,’ says British academic Angela Phillips. ‘Success’ depends on an emotional reaction and ‘what makes people share more than anything is anger’. Accuracy goes to the wall; outrageous fake news gets so many more clicks.
With a news industry starved of cash, corporate advertisers can call the shots in ways that harm journalistic integrity. In 2015 prominent British journalist Peter Oborne resigned from the conservative Daily Telegraph over its failure to cover wrongdoing by banking giant HSBC, with which the paper had a lucrative advertising package. This, said Oborne, was a ‘fraud on its readers’.
Blurring the boundaries between editorial and advertising has many new names – ‘content’ or ‘native’ advertising, ‘branded’ or ‘sponsored’ content – but it amounts to the same thing.
None of which makes for trust. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, globally confidence in the media has fallen to all time low. In 22 of the 28 markets surveyed it is now the most distrusted institution.
But that result is driven primarily by a big drop in trust in digital platforms, notably search engines and social media. Sixty-three per cent of respondents say they do not know how to tell good journalism from rumour or falsehoods or if a piece of news was produced by a respected media organization.
While trust in social media platforms fell last year, trust in journalists, however, rose – rebounding by five points in the US and up 61 per cent in the UK (though from a low starting point).
There is more confidence in the professional integrity of journalists (and the transparency of their processes) in the US, Germany and Denmark than in the UK, France and Australia.
Public trust in the British press is still reeling from the effects of the 2011 phone-hacking scandal, compounded by the failure of the mainstream press to sign up to a legally recognized independent regulator (such as Impress) as recommended by the Leveson Inquiry. The mainstream’s preferred tame self-regulator, IPSO, has shown its true colours by upholding just one out of 8,148 complaints of hate speech (banned by the Editors’ Code of Conduct).
But there is a bigger issue with worldwide implications: the elite group-think that enables government and media to tell citizens the really big lies. For example, that the 2008 financial crisis was the result of government overspend rather than the failures of a neoliberal financial system and a criminally irresponsible, self-serving banking sector.
So, what’s to be positive about?
With growing awareness of fakery comes the reaction to it and action against it. Credibility is set to become the ‘new currency of journalism’ is how media commentator James Breiner sees it. Providing people don’t resort to knee-jerk scepticism or switch off entirely, we could be entering an era of enhanced media education and critical thinking.
There are already signs that the dumbing-down trend is being bucked. Long-form investigative journalism is in fashion. People say they want public-service journalism that reveals corruption and holds authorities to account. Independent investigative outfits are collaborating internationally to remarkable effect – for example, Ojo Publica (Public Eye) in Peru collaborated with several others to expose the Panama papers.
Young people won’t pay for news, we are told – and then they do. The famous ‘Trump bump’ which saw subscriptions to quality US papers rise after the shock result of the presidential elections, was fuelled largely by younger readers. And the trend has continued. Musician-activist and academic David Lowery who took on Spotify says his younger students ‘get’ the need to pay for content. They understand that ‘nothing is free’.
The dominance of advertising is itself open to question. Berners-Lee refutes the notion that ‘advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate’. We need to be ‘more creative’, he says. ‘I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions.’
Furthermore, online advertising may be about to implode. Major global corporations have lost hundreds of millions of dollars to advertising fraud – whereby robots rather than humans generate page views and video play. Growing numbers of people are using digital ad-blockers. Instead, readers, viewers, listeners are increasingly funding journalism directly, themselves, through crowdfunding, donations, subscriptions, memberships. The Guardian newspaper in Britain, now gets more from its reader ‘membership’ scheme than from corporate advertising.
Thanks to the persistence of investigative journalists like Carol Cadwalladr, and whistleblowers like Chris Wylie, the complex evils of surveillance capitalism are firmly in the public eye. More revelations are likely – Google hoards even more of our private data than Facebook does. The idea that the US tech titans are too powerful and need to be regulated for the social good is gaining momentum. Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s competition commissioner, has become Silicon Valley’s de facto regulator. She is the ‘dragon slayer’ who fought Google and won – landing the giant a record $2.4 billion fine for breach of EU anti-trust law. She’s fierce on privacy too and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has just come into effect, is being held up as a model.
Maybe, at last, the tide is turning against big media bosses able to exercise so much power over governments. For over a year now, Rupert Murdoch’s ambition to gain overall control of Sky News (presumably to turn it into a Fox News for Brexit Britain) has been frustrated thanks to resistance co-ordinated by the Media Reform Coalition.
And, finally, let’s not forget the media minnows. Fuelled by idealism and journalistic ethics rather than the profit motive, they are developing new ways of working and organizing, of funding and governance. Some are new hyperlocals, others have been around longer and have a broader remit, like New Internationalist which last year launched the largest media community share offer to date and is now co-operatively co-owned by more than 3,000 of its readers and supporters.
The media crisis is producing novel thinking, ideas and priorities. The stakes are high. The future depends as much on the readers, viewers and listeners of news media, as the practitioners.
In the end it may be down to all of us who believe that a better media is not only possible, but essential.
Journalists and whistleblowers at risk
In 2017, 65 journalists were killed, 326 were detained and 54 held hostage. The number of women journalists killed doubled. They were also the largest group targeted by hate speech via social media. Syria was the most dangerous country to be a reporter, but Mexico, not officially at war, was almost as lethal. Watchdog journalists, doing investigative reports and uncovering corruption, are especially vulnerable. Turkey and China imprison the most journalists.
But sources and whistleblowers are also at considerable risk, writes Naomi Colvin of the Courage Foundation. ‘They are the Cinderellas of the press freedom world, with few legal protections… They risk liberty and livelihood to put information in the public domain and rely on the ability of journalists to keep their identities secret. In a world of pervasive surveillance this is a big ask. G20 countries have made formal commitments to protect whistleblowers, with mixed progress. National laws often exclude groups like contractors, ‘hacktivists’ or those working in the intelligence sector.
‘Whistleblowers continue to pay the price for the wrongdoing of states. The only individual to be prosecuted in relation to the US’s torture programme is CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, while Thomas Drake has faced prosecution for the NSA’s surveillance abuses. Today, the only person in custody in relation to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election is 26-yea r-old Reality Winner, an alleged whistleblower. Charged under the Espionage Act for sending a classified document to the media, she faces 10 years in prison. Winner is the first victim of the Trump administration’s ‘war on leakers’.
‘The environment for national security whistleblowers has become more precarious post-Snowden, with new criminal penalties introduced or under consideration in Australia, Britain and New Zealand. In Europe, the situation is slightly better – the European Commission is planning an EU-wide Whistleblower Directive. Britain, meanwhile, is proposing to water down its safeguards under the guise of corporate protection, cyber-scaremongering and police demands to compromise encrypted data.’
Naomi Colvin is director of the Courage Foundation which campaigns for the rights of sources and whistleblowers – couragefound.org
Other action: Reporters Without Borders – rsf.org/en Committee to Protect Journalists – cpj.org
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