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Opinion How can journalists build an informed society?

Trump's rhetoric against the press and the rise of social media are just some of the factors that contribute to the crisis that the industry finds itself in — but professional journalism can and must survive, argues OWEN SPENCER-THOMAS

JOURNALISTS play a crucial role as watchdogs in modern society. We uncover truth and hold the powerful to account. Our job is to report news and information, the lifeblood of democracy.

Yet, mainstream journalism faces a growing crisis. Misinformation and hate speech are destabilising democracies — and funding for mainstream journalism is collapsing. It is an extremely difficult time to be a journalist.

This was particularly evident when armed supporters of President Trump stormed the Capitol building on January 6. Some reporters at the scene have said they were afraid to admit they were journalists. Among the graffiti daubed on the wall were the words “kill journalists” — yet another reminder of the desperate need to protect reliable, truthful journalism.

Relentless cutbacks in resources and consequent job losses have cast a black cloud over the future of journalism. Within the past two decades, the internet has changed news production faster than almost any other large-scale industry.

Funding for mainstream journalism is plummeting. Newspaper circulations and broadcast audiences have been steadily shrinking. Trust in the news media is at a historic low and some pundits argue journalism’s very existence is under threat.

The internet has forced unprecedented pressures on journalists and the news industry. Many jobs have already been lost from mainstream journalism and the financial disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to even more losses. Yet, all is not doom and despair.

Essential resources for effective journalism

Professional journalism depends on three essentials. Foremost are the “watchdogs of society” themselves, the people who won’t give up. Dedicated news journalists are passionate about their jobs. In pursuit of the truth, they must have the tenacity of a terrier at a trouser leg. They never let go. Secondly, they must have a sustainable means of funding. And thirdly, the public must be able to trust their work.

According to British government sources, there is no shortage of journalists. In 2018, 73,000 journalists were working in Britain, an increase from 65,000 in 2012. Moreover, colleges and universities continue to turn out more newly qualified news journalists, eager to enter the news industry.

However, many are now drifting from news into other fields such as public relations, book publishing and communications.

The shortage of public trust and adequate funding is even more problematic. Trust must be regained and robust funding models put in place to protect quality news journalism.

Social media has changed the news landscape

The abundance of electronic gadgets has opened new opportunities for everyone. Thanks to social media, anyone with a mobile phone can bring a newsworthy event to the attention of the public in an instant. They can shed light on outstanding events that larger media outlets might struggle to cover, or not cover at all.

Today, professional journalists are no longer the sole publishers of news. Social media channels have fundamentally changed the way news is gathered, presented and distributed. Fewer people are turning to newspapers, radio and television for their news, instead opting to receive their news online.

According to the website Our World in Data, social media has become the main source of online news.

Since its arrival, social media has been radically altering the content, quality and style of news. For instance, there has been a decrease in how much of an article people read. Most scroll through their newsfeed, stumble upon the most appealing content and simply ingest a couple of sentences or short video clip.

According to the US business magazine Forbes, the average visitor only reads an article for 15 seconds and the typical video watch time is a mere 10 seconds. Many news stories are only available in headline form.

Even more radically, social media has successfully enabled an alternative form of news gathering and reporting, which sidesteps the traditional newspaper and broadcast structures altogether. Today, news arrives in the fast lane. With eager bystanders already at the scene with their mobile phones, they can film the event as it happens. Through the internet they can place breaking news in the hands of almost every person in the world.

The world’s largest social networking website, Facebook, has 2.4 billion users. Other social media platforms including Youtube and Twitter also have more than one billion users each. Amateurs have pipped professional journalists to the post. They can contribute news which the mainstream media may have missed. This is citizen journalism.

In the past, limited broadcasting time and space restricted the extent of news and information that could be published. Newsrooms impose a process of “gatekeeping,” that determines which stories are filtered to the public. Thus, a journalist pitching a potential news item needs to convince an editor it is newsworthy.

By contrast, social media provides a platform for anyone to publish a story. People are free to bypass the “gatekeeping” process and post their report. Anyone can develop their own criteria of news values and decide for themselves what is newsworthy.

Once a news article has been “liked” and shared multiple times, many people will see it in their feed. And so, our social media friends and their friends, have collectively become the new “managing editors” deciding what you and I see on the internet. No longer do the watchdogs from mainstream journalism have exclusive control of the news agenda. Anyone can simply catch and depict what they see and hear, free from commercial pressures of the mainstream media.

Citizen journalism has “given a voice to the voiceless.” It has led to empowerment and brought a wider range of news stories into the public domain.

Now, social networks and journalism have opened a new social and informational paradigm. We are talking about the democratisation of information. Now, everyone can create an account on any network and report any event. However, everyone is also capable of casting a lie on the internet and manipulating images.

The arrival of fake news

The utopian mood of the early 2000s failed to anticipate all that technology would enable. The radical openness of the internet has allowed a proliferation of trolling and sickening abuse.

Social media channels have become awash with unreliable and dishonest claims. Fake news websites with sensational headlines and ridiculous stories compete for attention.

It has become open season for anyone to say anything, making it harder to know what is real. Disinformation is spreading around the internet to such an extent that the United Nations describes the problem as “infodemic.”

Sensationalist fake news is more likely to go viral than a reliable newsworthy report. Speculation, passing on unverified information and sharing outright disinformation erodes trust between newsrooms and their communities.

People, bombarded by increasing amounts of information, have found it impossible to fact-check every item they read. They must be able to trust professional experienced journalists to do the job for them.

Honest journalism and public enlightenment are essential to an informed democracy. Society cannot be run on misinformation and fake news.

Today, anyone can spread gossip and false information without consequence and online entertainment media companies disguise themselves as “news organisations.” The challenge is to regulate without supressing free speech.

The role of Big Tech

The Big Tech companies must take responsibility for the growing volume of misinformation on their platforms.

Despite a healthy public scepticism about improbable news stories, social media have added an authenticity to fake news. Facebook is about friends talking and sharing events.

If a friend shares a story with you, you will be more likely to accept it because you believe them. And so, you fail to take the trouble to check out a dubious story.

Facebook and Twitter claim they are controlling the problem. Facebook is reducing low-quality ads, such as ones that include clickbait. Twitter now places alerts on Tweets that contain disinformation. They have much further to go.

More work needs to be done in collaboration with journalists and academics to minimise the sharing of malicious and dishonest claims.

The way forward

As watchdogs of society, journalists exercise freedom of the press and hold the government and its leaders accountable to the people who have elected them.

Even so, social media has opened new opportunities for anyone to take part in the news media. Thus, professional journalists themselves come under the spotlight. They become as accountable and responsive as the governments and corporate worlds they monitor.

However, the repeated attacks on “the lying media” by President Trump and his supporters, describe the press as “the enemy of the people.” His tirades on social media discredit professional journalism.

Careful regulation of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is long overdue, but it must be achieved without impeding freedom of speech. The digital giants, who enjoy huge profits from social media must be held responsible for the content that appears on their sites.

The invasion of Trump supporters on the Capitol building has hastened this process. When the Senate resumed their meeting, the Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, said the President bore “a great deal of the blame” for the actions of the mob, adding the events “did not happen spontaneously.” His “conspiracy theories had motivated these thugs.”

In turn, both Facebook and Twitter reacted swiftly by suspending the President’s accounts for a limited period. Their action has set a precedent for a thorough reform of stricter rules and regulations within the industry.

However, with public trust at a low ebb, regaining credibility is an uphill struggle. Journalists will need a dogged determination to stick to the rules of honest journalism and apply them rigorously.

Citizen journalists have already proved they can outperform traditional journalism in reporting breaking news both in speed and content. By bringing to the fore important issues which mainstream media may have missed, they have extended the available news and information in the public domain.

Even so, these posts can spread without the fact-checking, editorial lens, or journalistic ethics used in professional news reporting. This is an area where the professional watchdogs can excel and work collaboratively with citizen journalists. Each can develop their own distinctive role in the news production process.

The professional journalist can focus on fact-checking and producing in-depth news stories. Meanwhile, their citizen counterparts are best placed to be the immediate eyes and ears of the community. Our survival will depend on embracing change and adapting to newly emerging technology.”

Most importantly, journalism must retain a confident independence, so that committed journalists can remain effective watchdogs and never become lapdogs of the rich and powerful.

Owen Spencer-Thomas MBE is a veteran journalist, broadcaster and Anglican clergyman — owenspencer-thomas.com.

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