The last ten years has seen a paradox of power for journalists. Overall, the ability of the mainstream news media to set agendas and control information has been drastically diminished. However, individual journalists or acts of journalism can have more impact than ever before. This matters. To the journalists, but also to the public, because knowledge is power and who controls the production and distribution of topical information is more important than ever before.
[This article by Professor Charlie Beckett is a version of an essay for the Westminster Abbey Institute book ‘Power Of Journalism’.]
Over the last decade since I left the newsroom and went to run a think-tank at the LSE I have been excited by the increased productive power that new technologies give journalists. Back then I was especially impressed by the extraordinary potential of digital devices and online networks to make journalism more efficient, engaging and creative. My smartphone in 2008 had more computing and communicative power than some of the broadcast newsrooms I had worked in before.
I also realised that the emergence of new producers such as bloggers and new structures, especially social media, would transform the news media. The very idea of journalism and news would change profoundly. It would create more sources and outlets for mainstream journalists. It would also increase competition and reduce the power of the news media to act as ‘gatekeepers’ to information. This came at the same time as a financial crisis for journalism as newspaper sales plummeted and advertising revenue switched to the new online platforms such as Facebook and Google. Journalism was simultaneously feeling threatened and empowered. Much of the news brands still looked outwardly familiar, but vast swathes have changed in style or format and, most importantly, the relationship between journalist, the public and the news itself has been radically rearranged.
I was optimistic. My first book was called ‘SuperMedia’ because I could see how the new technology working with the reader or viewer was creating wonderful novel formats and fresh ways of reaching consumers on different platforms and around the world. I argued that increased public power, such as reader comments or ‘accidental’ reporting via camera phones, would reduce the dominance of professional journalists. But those journalists who connected to these new networks with enthusiasm and ingenuity would be able to reinvent their product for an age of sharing, interactivity and innovation.
Over this ten years we have seen a whole range of new powerful storytelling techniques evolve such as online video, data journalism, multimedia narratives, and virtual reality. Journalists have turned to Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest as well as using search tools and social networks like Facebook to find new audiences and to connect their product to people who want to know. In a complex world full of change and uncertainty, the public appetite for news has grown.
At the same time, the news media has lost much of its control over the distribution of its work. In the past we made packages of newsprint or broadcast programmes. These were delivered or consumed in a one-way process, usually passively. Now the journalism is increasingly shared according to what the public ‘like’ online. So emotion has become an important driver of the informational economy in all sorts of ways. By ‘emotion’ I mean literally ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘like’, ‘don’t like’. But more generally this is about how on networks we respond to information in a personal way. For example, because of our identity or values. We say “I am the sort of person who cares about those teenagers protesting about gun laws in America so I’m going to share news about it”. A lot of the content that you choose to forward or consume doesn’t have a utilitarian value. It rarely affects your material life directly. Weather news, for example, might help you decide whether to take an umbrella when you leave the house, but for most news it is about that emotional response: it makes you feel sad or excited, angry or intrigued, informed, stimulated or simply happy that you have joined in the news ritual. With social media especially, you tend to share it with like minded communities or as part of networks where other people might respond in similar or conflicting ways. So if journalists want to be powerful, they need to get emotional.
I underestimated the downside of the digital developments. The explosion of ‘fake news’ or misinformation online represents another challenge for journalism, partly related to this more ‘emotionally’ driven communication. There are different kinds of misinformation ranging from commercially-driven clickbait right through to deliberate lies that seek to discredit certain causes. It includes relatively harmless false news such as satire as well as deliberate disruptive propaganda that aims to spread confusion and cynicism. It exploits the same viral and social power of the networks that allows good journalism or democratic campaigns to flourish online. Sometimes it is shadowy organisations, governments or political parties trying to target voters or stir up division and anger, especially around key moments such as elections or hot topics and events.
Again, the power is being shifted from the traditional arbiters of what is true and what is important such as mainstream news. Yet the ‘fake news’ or disinformation crisis is good news for credible journalists. The more reliable and accountable news brands have seen a sharp rise in people consuming their content and even paying for subscriptions. When there is such an abundance of questionable material out there, people often turn to more trustworthy sources.
Build Better Connections
The big challenge for mainstream news is not to get back its power, it is to be more valued. More fact-checking will help. Getting the platforms such as Facebook or Youtube to clean up their networks by removing false material or by promoting credible content would be useful. But the long-term solution is not just to police social media. Mainstream media has to stop complaining about its loss of power and start to build better connections with the public. To do that it has to understand why people have turned to those alternative partisan and propaganda sources. It has to become much more diverse and relevant. That means hiring people who reflect the variety of the communities it covers. It means broadening its news agenda to the concerns of the whole range of the public, not just media and political elites. It means joining in the conversations where they are happening, not only expecting the public to come to their paywalled or subscription sites. A lot of the reconnecting can happen via digital networks but it also means getting away from the screen and into the real worlds.
Journalists have a moral opportunity here. It is also a business opportunity. One option is for journalists to produce clickbait, to pander to the worst impulses of those people attracted by ‘fake news’ or misinformation. But there is also an opportunity for journalists to be better curators, filters, or guides in that dark forest of over abundance. Journalists can be much better at verifying what is believable, identifying what is credible and helping people get the evidence that citizens need in our confused mediated lives. Journalists must still do quite traditional things: be critical, bust myths, give context, be accurate. Their job is also to say challenging things and take on those in power or authority.
However, they should also have a sense that they are contributing to the ‘Good Life’ and to a ‘good’ society. This is not some wooly ideal. It is a practical service that says that journalism can help people as individuals and communities to live healthier, happier, more enabled lives. Good information is good for us and journalism can help provide this. This is about journalism empowering people, not themselves.
More Facts, More Reporting
Yes, this means more facts. More reporting from the field and more digging through data. But it also means that journalists have to respond at a more ‘emotional’ level. They have to listen more and adopt the language of their users. They must discover a new sense of ‘human interest’. They must be more transparent about their own work. Journalists should always want to be authoritative and expert. They should find evidence. But the problem of trust at the moment is not an absence of facts. In the end politics, for example, isn’t just about facts, it’s about moral choices, values and feelings. So journalism is going to have to learn empathy. To get people’s attention, we first have to understand them better and be more honest about our own biases. There is nothing wrong with partisan or subjective journalism as long as it is self-critical and clear about where it is coming from.
The good news is that many of the new technologies allow us to do this. We have more data about how people use and relate to news. We have algorithms that can be programmed to promote personalisation, to give you what interests you, but also to offer a richer diet that includes surprises and difference. A combination of artificial intelligence and human judgement and creativity can help people through the maze of information. Instead of the journalist controlling the process, it can become a shared experience of curation and interaction. Not delivering a product but offering a service. And always with the human at the centre of the process.
Back To Beginnings
So in a way we are back at the beginning of my decade of ‘the future of news’. Yes, we have lost a lot of journalism jobs and even some media organisations, especially at the local news level. However, we have a whole new breed of digital journalists with job titles that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. We have new digital native news organisations from BuzzFeed to Bristol Cable. Mainstream media has been remarkably resilient, retooling newsrooms, discovering new distribution channels and creating new business models including free newspapers as well as membership and subscription.
About ten years ago I predicted that we would lose about 70% of journalism jobs. That was mainly based on assessing how much journalism simply duplicates content created by other people or that could be automated. But although that meant a lot of old jobs would go, new ones could be created. Some of these are based outside news organisations in, for example, universities or public relations departments. Others are with ‘third-party’ agencies that provide specialist journalism services such as aggregation, data visualisation, or engagement. Some of the best journalists have become more niche. Almost all the news organisations tell me they’re covering fewer topics but they are trying to go deeper and add distinct value.
There is still the danger of an information gap. People like me who care a lot about politics and current affairs and who can afford it, are now super served with high quality accessible journalism. But is the wider population getting enough news that it can use? And is our news media creating the kind of robust but civil debate that makes for healthy communities and national deliberation? The fear of filter bubbles or echo chambers is overblown. We have always had our own world-views and we tend to group together. Old media was much more segregated than digital. There is some evidence that social media fosters more diverse news consumption. But even so, we should always want media that connects us and allows argument across identity lines. There is some evidence that a minority of people are avoiding news entirely because they find it too negative, overwhelming and confusing. Journalism should always want their attention, too.
Journalistic and Political Upheaval
So I am back to where I started this decade of journalistic and political upheaval. New technologies and especially the power of the platforms threaten journalism. Artificial Intelligence and even Blockchain could reshape the information infrastructure in even more profound ways. But these continuing structural shifts can empower journalism if only it can adapt with public value at its core. At the moment the debate is centred around the role of the platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter and how they have much more power over the flows of news, even though they barely create any journalism themselves.
It is an argument that is at the heart of the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission that I am leading at the moment. Clearly, as a society we need to make sure that the information infrastructure that has evolved delivers the kind of news that we want, rather than simply adds profits to the Silicon Valley behemoths. Good journalism needs to be sustained, not drained by the social networks.
Yet perhaps the greatest threat to free journalism is not technology or even market forces. It is the old enemy of authoritarian leaders or governments who see independent journalism as a threat to their power. Around the world we are seeing a significant increase in the repression of free news media. The tactics are diverse. Some are old-fashioned, such as police or military violence. Journalists are being beaten and thrown into jail. Awkward newsrooms are closed down with impunity. But most worrying is that authoritarian politicians and governments are using the same new technologies that can empower journalists to monitor and suppress the news media. Governments are crying ‘fake news’ at critical reporting. They are using bots to spread disinformation and online trolls to attack dissent and fair comment.
The platforms such as Facebook that provide spaces for free expression and protest are struggling to defend open journalism when their networks come under these assaults. This makes it even more important for the news media to rediscover its public role and its social value. It has to reconnect with the wider public and convince them of their vital role. Good journalism has always been under threat. At times it has appeared powerful, even over-mighty. Now it must turn the paradox of power into a recipe for survival. By humbly accepting it must work with and for the people, perhaps journalism can save itself.
This article by Professor Charlie Beckett
‘The Power of Journalism: Back to the Future of News’ appears in The Power of Journalists (Haus Publishing / Westminster Abbey Institute, 2018) and can be purchased here (https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-power-of-journalists/nick-robinson/gary-gibbon/9781912208258