As the Federal government attempts to reform Australia’s media ownership laws, evidence is emerging that journalists are moving away from the traditional watchdog role of the press towards satisfying the demands of audiences.
Decades of debate about whether journalists ought to give audiences what they like rather than what journalists think they need is being resolved in favour of what US journalism thinker Jeff Jarvis dismisses as the “cats and Kardashians” model of digital journalism.
But is giving audiences what they want the same as dumbing down?
Results from a recently published study of Australian journalists indicate that journalists are shifting their thinking away from the “citizen orientation” typically associated with the watchdog role of the press to a more consumer focus.
Senior editors say that understanding what audiences want — as recorded by clicks and other forms of web-based feedback — is an essential part of contemporary journalism.
Growing advertising revenues on the basis of audience reach and volume remains the dominant journalism business model.
As Kate de Brito, the editor-in-chief of the country’s most visited news website, news.com.au, puts it, if no one clicks, “you may as well have just emailed it to your mum”.
But Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York, argues news organisations need to understand that getting more clicks isn’t the same as listening to your audience.
The price of advertising is going down, desperation up. Journalism gets cheapened in the process.
Efforts to reshape how journalism survives and makes money — and serves its multiple roles in society — has emerged as a key sticking point in Federal government moves to change Australia’s media ownership laws.
Reform of the media ownership laws that restrict any one person controlling radio, TV and a newspaper in the same market hinges on the government’s willingness to back measures promoted by Senator Nick Xenophon to support public interest journalism.
Xenophon, a key member of a current senate journalism inquiry, has supported tax breaks to small media companies and other ways to develop new business models for journalism.
The government has been reluctant to support tax relief but reportedly has a more positive attitude to other measures to boost journalism jobs and explore new business models.
Without support from Labor or the Greens, Team Xenophon’s votes will be crucial to the passage of any deal that would also end restrictions on any one person controlling TV licenses that reach more than 75% of the population.
Indications from Canberra are that a compromise deal could be close.
Alternatives to one-size-fits-all mass audience model are under trial or development across the journalism sector, from experiments in surfacing quality journalism using artificial intelligence to moves to personalise news and information feeds.
The New York Times, for instance, has stated it wants to deliver individualised news based on what individuals read, where they live and how often they come to the site.
Given the NYT has 2.3 million digital-only subscribers, this is perhaps the most ambitious attempt yet at active audience listening.
Jarvis calls on media companies of all sizes to recreate journalism as a service based on “relevance and value”; cast aside the idea of mass, rethink audiences as communities and individuals.
But, as he concedes, media companies are understandably finding it hard to build a new house (based on his notion of service) when the old one (based on volume) is burning down.
Audience reach and volume — and the constant flow of metrics that reveal them — drive the news agenda for most media companies. Ratings always have in commercial radio and TV.
But now few media outlets can afford to ignore what audiences are doing (or not) with their content. Advertisers won’t let them.
In the recently published study of Australian journalists, Folker Hanusch, from the University of Vienna, and Edson Tandoc, from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, explored the impact of audience feedback via readers’ comments, Twitter and web analytics on journalists’ thinking.
In a survey of 358 journalists, they found a marked shift towards providing “the kind of news that attracts the largest audience” as opposed to the more traditional role of holding the politicians and business to account.
This especially held true for journalists working in competitive markets; those freed from market pressures were “able to prioritize their normative functions of being watchdogs and shaping public opinion”.
Even so, most Australian media companies, including the national broadcaster, are enamoured by the sugar hit of audience reach.
In the most recent Nielsen digital ratings, the closest competitor to news.com.au, with its 5,905,000 unique visitors a month, is the ABC. Its combined news sites reach 4,651,000 Australians a month.
Little wonder then that Fairfax chief Greg Hywood gets so upset about the ABC using taxpayers’ money to buy Google ads: smh.com.au is about half a million behind the ABC and no other Fairfax site is in the current top 10.
Hanusch and Tandoc’s work indicates that a radical reshaping of how journalists see their roles is underway.
“Seeing the number of unique visitors to the site, the number of page views a page gets, and the amount of time readers spend on a story, among others, easily and regularly, could be socializing journalists into prioritizing these metrics.”
But what do clicks actually mean?
Results of a recently published Dutch study of news consumers indicate that the act of clicking — or not — is more complex than like or not and driven by a host of considerations. The study also makes the obvious but useful observation: clicks do not account for the preference of consumers who browse without clicking.
The study by Tim Groot Kormelink and Irene Costera Meijer, both from Vrije University in Amsterdam, described 30 considerations for clicking or not clicking among a group of 56 news consumers.
Reasons for not clicking included supersaturation (“not another story about Syria”, said one participant) to “bullshit”: the users instantly dismissed the “pettiness of the headline”.
The study’s participants often engaged in “online browsing patterns that did express interest in news, yet did not necessitate a click”. The authors conclude that “even if one seeks a rough estimate of people’s news interests, clicks are a flawed instrument”.
Therein lies a pressing conundrum for the online news industry: if not clicks, what? If audiences — and advertisers — are going to be fully served, there needs to be better way.
Journalists are increasingly threatened and assassinated in conflict zones worldwide. But could the need for their protection be causing harm to free speech, and increasing the production of one-sided journalism?
Concern about journalists’ safety entered the official discourse with the United States’ 1983 invasion of Grenada. Inspired by similar British operations during the occupation of the Falkland Islands in 1982, the US successfully imposed a media blackout. Journalists – waiting on nearby Barbados – were prohibited from reporting on Grenada for 48 hours. After that time, they were progressively given permission to enter.
The US State Department suggested that a key reason for excluding journalists was that their safety couldn’t be guaranteed. At any rate, the media’s absence meant the main excuses for the invasion – such as the much-hyped rescue of students – went unexamined.
Backlash at the media blackout led to a reversal of policy, but the motivating principle remained the same. In 1984, the Sidle Commission planned greater journalistic engagement through pooling reporters in combat situations. This, it was said, would protect both operational security and journalist safety in future conflicts such as the Gulf War.
The option of embedding journalists with armed forces coincided with increasingly dangerous and protracted conflicts in which journalists were becoming targets. The embedding of journalists began in 1995 with the British in Bosnia. This practice continued in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Embedding with the military is a more immediate and practical solution. But critics say journalists inevitably become partial to their military hosts, and the diversity of journalism suffers.
The proliferation of one-sided journalism had been flagged as a concern in war zones even before the rise of embedded journalism. In pursuit of a much-vaunted “objectivity”, “parachute” journalists reporting on armed conflict can rely too much on accessible official sources._
Can international law help?
Countries have broad powers under international law to organise and restrict journalistic access to information if there are concerns about safety. This is regardless of the impact on free speech.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the criteria are simply that the exercise of power be “not arbitrary”, and that it is “necessary and proportionate to the goal in question”.
However, even in the European Court of Human Rights, where the need for a plurality of information has received much attention, the judges do not favour one sort of journalism over the other as a human right. In one hate speech case, the European Court said:
… it is not for this court, nor for the national courts for that matter, to substitute their own views for those of the press as to what technique of reporting should be adopted by journalists.
International human rights law mainly talks of free speech values in terms of rights. Duties are also relevant, but generally underdeveloped. The “duties and responsibilities” clause in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is an exception to the rule.
The original “duties and responsibilities” clause was inspired by the mass media’s abuses of power. One example relates to excessive concentration of media ownership. The drafters of the European Convention were concerned about:
… the powerful influence of the modern media on expression upon the minds of men and upon national and international affairs.
The clause has now been applied to a range of situations where journalists have “overstepped the bounds”. These include defamation, incitement to violence and hate speech, whistleblowing, and safeguarding source protection.
Could the “duties and responsibilities” clause be indirectly applied to promote an ethical approach to diversity in the media in wartime?
In relation to a case concerning the disclosure of a leaked document, the European Court of Human Rights suggested, in connection with journalistic duties, that:
… steps taken by journalists to verify the accuracy of the information may be one of the factors taken into consideration by the courts.
How the duty for “accurate and reliable” journalism translates in modern war zones is a matter for future decision-makers, though the decision is a trend away from one-sided journalism towards a broader debate about ethics. In the meantime, a code of conduct for journalism in war zones might be useful to clarify free speech priorities in a safety-conscious environment.
Whether government should fund public interest journalism in Australia is a question a Senate select committee is currently being asked to consider. It’s a question that’s both simple and hard, as it raises all sorts of issues about the relationship between government, the media and consumers.
There’s an important reason for asking. There is now clear evidence that the market is failing us. There are gaps in coverage and no sign that they are going to be filled anytime soon.
Courts, local councils, state institutions, and even state parliaments are now missing out on proper coverage. The arts are under-covered. The regions are not properly represented, either to themselves or to the rest of Australia. Entire communities are missing out on local news services.
A cynic might say that some of these were never covered all that well by the news media. However, it’s certainly true that things have become much worse. This is mostly a result of digital disruption and the breaking of the model in which advertising paid for editorial content.
The ads have moved online, to Google and Facebook – which do not have an imperative to serve local communities, at least not with news and certainly not with public interest journalism.
There are several ideas about how to tackle this. These include creating a form of charitable status for news organisations, as well as tax incentives to encourage greater philanthropy. Together these could help sustain existing media players or encourage start-ups. They might help create a culture in which people donate to fund journalistic investigations.
Another way might be to provide publicly funded grants for journalism.
The Public Interest Journalism Foundation, of which I’m a board member, has made a submission to the Senate inquiry calling for an Independent Production Fund for public interest journalism. Its principal function would be to help make important journalism happen.
Along the way, it might encourage experimentation and new forms of storytelling, while fostering coverage of neglected topics or regions.
Imagine if a freelance reporter – or even one working for a larger media company – could apply to the fund for financial support to develop an important story. Imagine if the fund was focused on supporting the type of journalism that was in the public’s interest.
Immediately this might conjure an image of undue government control, or of Big Brother intervening in the editorial process. Or you might ask: what government would hand out funds to a journalist working on a story about, say, government corruption?
The answer is it’s happening already. The government already funds journalism at SBS and the ABC. It does this through triennial funding and in a way that ensures the national broadcasters retain editorial control. A raft of conventions and a healthy editorial culture ensure both organisations are free to report critically on the federal government and any other institution.
And the government already does it through bodies like Screen Australia, which funds films and documentaries. It doesn’t set editorial parameters on those funds by insisting that certain things get taken out or left in.
But all of these examples are for screen-based journalism, not text – or what used to be called print – reporting.
Print media companies have not generally received grants to support journalism, although there are exceptions such as The Australian newspaper, which once accepted subsidies to fund its Australian Literary Review. Other literary/journalism publications, such as Meanjin, have also been supported over the years through government grants.
So, the concept has already been tried. Now might be the time to expand it to cover several forms of journalism, across all mediums and specifically for public interest reporting.
Perhaps this could be funded by revenue derived from taxing media conglomerates like Google and Facebook? After all, they’re the companies that have contributed to the problem by taking away advertising revenue without any concomitant requirement to provide news for consumers. Nor are they currently compelled to pay much taxation in the jurisdictions in which they operate.
I’d like to see a production fund with a clear vision and a sense of adventure about what it can achieve. It doesn’t need to be weighed down by corporate structures or old costly modes of production.
This could fund projects from across public, commercial and community media, and it could play an important role in nurturing young investigative reporters, audio storytellers and videographers – many of whom are now missing out on the opportunities and mentoring that were traditionally provided by established media companies.
Imagine if an Independent Production Fund encouraged reportage on important issues that are not well-served by the established media, and if the national broadcasters and commercial media companies opened their doors to publishing the content created.
As a journalism educator, I know how much a keen graduate can do with a cheap video camera, some off-the-shelf editing gear, and a small grant to kick-start a great idea. As a member of the New Beats project tracking the progress of Australia’s many redundant journalists, I know how much older reporters still have to contribute and how financial support can make great things happen.
So yes, there is a role for governments to play, and providing small grants to encourage public interest journalism has definitely got merit.
Specialist science journalists are vital in our society in a few key ways. These include as public disseminators of sound science that can lead to policy, as identifiers of flawed journalism and “dodgy” (even life-threatening) science, and as gatekeepers between public relations departments in research institutions and the general media.
And yet the number of specialist science reporters in Australia is in serious decline.
Not only was the story given robust and prominent coverage across Australian news media platforms, the Daily Telegraph and news site MamaMia also ran campaigns encouraging readers to pledge to immunise their children.
In 2013 the Daily Telegraph followed up with a “No jab, no play” concept, promoting the idea that childcare centres should ban children who had not been immunised. State and federal governments have subsequently introduced legislation to effect this proposal. The program is still being monitored.
Linked to this coverage, a successful case was mounted in the NSW Office of Fair Trading against anti-immunisation activist group the Australian Vaccination Network. The network’s name was found to be misleading and the group has now re-badged itself as the “Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network”.
Journalism as a gatekeeper for “bad” science
Sound peer review and editorial procedures are in place in many research journals, but sometimes what can best be described as “dodgy” science is published, and this can lead to disastrous results.
The classic example is the (now falsified) study in 1998 that reported on autism-like symptoms and gastrointestinal abnormalities in children associated with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. The study was small (only 12 children), observational, and submitted for publication without key disclosures from lead author Andrew Wakefield.
Had the journalists at that initial press conference been equipped to appraise the findings critically, the poor science may have been revealed from the start. The paper was later found to be fraudulent by investigative journalist Brian Deer, who published stories in print and made a documentary revealing the hoax.
Science journalism vs science PR
Science journalism and science public relations (PR) can be difficult to distinguish. The job of the PR specialist is to maximise eyeballs on each story. The job of the journalist is to find the story and report the evidence behind it, no matter whose story it is.
Stories that are written with a university press release – rather than a peer-reviewed science paper – as the main source of evidence can easily cross the line into infotainment rather than independent reporting.
It’s also the case that some stories that look like science journalism are heavily sponsored by universities and research institutions. This so-called “native content” – in that it looks appropriate for its context – is becoming more prevalent.
It’s a trend exacerbated by the movement of journalists from media organisations into communication roles in academic and research institutions. While the writing style is journalistic, the focus is to promote the science from the institutions that employ them. This bypasses robust and independent examination of the evidence.
There may be more of this to come as science journalists become an endangered species.
An endangered species
Embedded in Australian news rooms, the investigative science journalist is a rare beast; the most recent in a long line of casualties are Marcus Strom from The Sydney Morning Herald, and Bridie Smith of Melbourne’s The Age, who left Fairfax last week after 16 years.
It seems the ABC is the only mainstream media outlet with a science unit. Here, specialists Anna Salleh and Jake Sturmer along with experienced science journalists, communicators and broadcasters (Robyn Williams, Natasha Mitchell, Joel Werner, Bernie Hobbs, Ruben Meerman and Dr Karl amongst others) present regular science content on various platforms.
Journalists in specialities such as environment, health and technology do still hold positions at major media platforms, and Cosmos Magazine provides another platform for science content in Australia. Freelance science journalists including Bianca Nogrady, Leigh Dayton and Graham Readfearn work on specific projects across a variety of platforms.
Specialist correspondents develop a deep and complex understanding of their round over time, and carry a knowledge of what’s gone before that surpasses a quick internet search. They might, for instance, recognise that a particular “breakthrough” is simply an old study repackaged, that a study is very small, or that its promises have been made before without amounting to much. Or that the “faster than light” neutrinos were a statistical anomaly (and an error) rather than a tested matter of fact.
The disappearance of the specialist science correspondent means a loss of personnel with the time and the expertise to probe deeply and to ask uncomfortable questions. The consequences are declines in the breadth, depth and quality of science coverage. Pair this with an increased workload, the need for journalists to apply multimedia skills and the constant pressure to publish (driven by the 24-hour news cycle), and the opportunities for genuine investigation are slim.
New ways to cover science
As the number of science correspondents has fallen, the science sector has rushed in to fill the online void with blogs and social media sites (some terrifically successful).
Facilities such as the Australian Science Media Centre now work to support and facilitate evidence-based science journalism. The Centre boasts 1,600 subscribers and informs hundreds of reporters who attend regular briefings.
When the Australian Science Media Centre started in 2005, there were around 35 specialist science reporters in mainstream newsrooms around the country. Now you need less than one hand to count them.
This loss of specialist reporters means that there is no one to fight for good science in editorial meetings or look for science angles in everyday news stories.
We’re all going to have to do everything we can to help general reporters cover science and make sure they don’t miss the important stuff.
The future of science journalism
It may be that science journalism has never enjoyed a consistent position in media outlets – some report that “peak science journalism” happened in 1987. In an important review of the history of popular science, writer Martin Bauer points out that science journalism is prone to a “boom and bust cycle”.
The call for more and improved science journalism is based on an assumption that lives are worse off without it. This is an easy leap for academics to make; after all, our very existence is based on the idea that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.
But how can we convince the general public this is the case? Studying the “decline of science journalism” – fewer numbers of journalists, diffuse science reporting, the rise of branded and native content – will not be enough to show that we need more science journalists. We must be able to clearly identify a public good, and convince media-saturated consumers that science deserves a place in their lives.
We must also develop a clear business case that supports science journalism. Relatively new media platforms such as Nautilus and narrative.ly provide some evidence that blending science with creative nonfiction, philanthropic funding, subscription services, paywalls, and hybrid models of journalism and public relations are worth further exploration.
However there has yet to be a convincing case of overwhelming public support for robust science journalism. In our view, this is a shame. We think academic and media groups, and those private sectors that rely on science and technology, should start articulating the public value of science journalism.
This article was co-authored with Kylie Walker, Chief Executive Officer of Science and Technology Australia, and Visiting Fellow at the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University.
Independent journalism’s importance to healthy democracies is undisputed. In a time of rising autocratic tendencies around the world, this independent check on power is more needed than ever. This is well illustrated by US President Donald Trump’s disrespect for the balance-of-power doctrine in general and for the US judiciary in particular.
But what is “public interest journalism”? From a journalistic point of view, this covers topics that are vital for citizens to make informed decisions and choices. There is a clear distinction between what the public is interested in, which includes gossip, celebrities and lifestyle topics, compared to what is important to the health of our democracy.
The public interest is about what matters to everyone in society. It is about the common good, the general welfare and the security and wellbeing of everyone in the community.
As I have argued before, without this kind of journalism a lot of corruption, maladministration and abuse of power would not be known to the public. We would then risk sliding further down the slippery slope towards autocracy.
So, what can and should governments do? Many submissions to the Senate inquiry will argue that it’s time for governments to step up support for public interest journalism.
Fortunately, there is no need to re-invent the wheel. There are plenty of models around the globe where governments are supporting public interest journalism at arm’s length.
It’s important to point out that a significant amount of research clearly shows that in mature liberal democracies government funding for such journalism does not equal government influence over reporting.
The first and most obvious thing to do is finance Australia’s public broadcasters, the ABC and the SBS, to a level that enables them to consistently produce public interest journalism. The minimum is to restore, and index up, the funding to the 2013 level before the current severe cuts instigated by the Abbott government.
Public broadcasting is a tried and tested source of public interest journalism. It will be a repository for such content until market-financed journalism has transitioned to new business models. Australia has a national and global responsibility to fund the ABC and SBS, as there are only about ten properly funded public broadcasters globally.
The rest of the sustainable funding models will, most likely, be a combination of government, market and private altruistic funding. There are a number of international models:
The most obvious indirect funding model is to exempt public interest journalism companies from GST and payroll taxes.
A second option is to make donations to such journalistic organisations tax-deductible to encourage private altruism.
Another option is to introduce a version of the “low-profit limited liability corporations” (L3Cs) that exist in some states in the US and the UK (community interest company). L3Cs are businesses that produce a social good. Investments in such companies receive various tax breaks.
A fourth option is to introduce a government-funded base operational fund open to public interest journalism ventures. This could include a special grant for start-up companies.
All of the above already exist in a number of countries with a long tradition of funding public interest journalism. Here it’s important to point out that Australia, for more than 100 years, supported such journalism via printing and distribution subsidies.
Another option drawing on international experience is an Australia Council-like fund that could contribute to journalism residencies at universities. This would create a win-win situation in which experienced journalists would work with students to create public interest journalism.
Finally, and most importantly, a sustainable funding model must involve Google and Facebook in some way. As Ben Eltham has eloquently argued in The Conversation, Google and Facebook have hoovered up the advertising money that used to fund public interest journalism. They have effectively created a global media oligopoly partly based on journalism they are not paying for.
A levy on Google and Facebook advertising revenue would be a very important funding source for public interest journalism. The bonus is that this would encourage the social media giants to acknowledge that they are publishers rather than just platforms.
Engaging with the two global media companies illustrates the core challenge for domestic policymakers: media policy that used to be predominantly national is increasingly global. Domestic policy may prove to be a blunt policy tool in meeting the challenge of supporting public interest journalism.
The conclusion from this international survey is that, historically, market forces on their own never have been able to carry public interest journalism. Now more than ever governments need to help carry it across the morass that is the current transformation of the industry.
The Senate inquiry reports in early December 2017. It would be a tragedy for democratic accountability in Australia if government inaction is the outcome.
Non-profit investigative journalism centres have invigorated watchdog reporting in the United States over the past decade, a period commonly associated with despair over the state of serious journalism. My research attributes a sharp increase in the number of such centres in the United States directly to philanthropic funding, made more attractive by tax deductibility, and this same model could work in Australia.
This rescue mission of quality journalism has seen philanthropically funded news centres winning the most prestigious awards in journalism including several Pulitzer Prizes. Millions of Americans access stories written by non-profit investigative journalists, either on non-profit websites or published in mainstream media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS and other outlets.
Three key ways exist to fund the labour intensive and time consuming work of investigative journalism. The traditional media model, which today is characterised by market failure. Funding by government such as the ABC’s Four Corners program – a model that has worked well in Australia but that elsewhere raises questions of independence and funding security.
And there’s funding by foundations, wealthy benefactors and individuals. That’s different from crowd sourcing which may finance a specific story project but does not fund the necessary infrastructure (office, computers, rent, salaries etc.) or build the journalistic capacity required for a sustainable model.
In the United States, there are about 150 independent non-profit centres doing investigative and public interest journalism. The budgets of the biggest centres such as ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting are about US$10 million a year; smaller centres less than US$100,000.
Non-profit status enables these organisations to avoid federal and some state taxes and donations to them can be tax deductible. The IRS does not have a distinct category for media organisations. Instead, investigative and public interest news organisations attract non-profit status under a broad education category.
There has been a profound cultural transformation in the way mainstream media organisations regard non-profit centre stories. Collaborations between legacy and non-profit media are commonplace in the United States because non-profit journalists have the same ethics, news values and editorial practices as journalists in the commercial and public media.
Foundation-funded journalism does not come close to replacing what has been lost due to staff and other cuts by mainstream media since the financial crisis. But it has been embraced by key media outlets as a means of boosting the quality of their stories. Non-profit centres do not compete with mainstream media; they complement it.
How this could work in Australia
A recent study found only a handful of Australian not-for-profit news organisations have been granted deductible gift recipient status by the Australian Tax Office and that news organisations face seemingly challenging obstacles in gaining such status. This may well discourage the creation of news organisations.
Given the diminished resources of Australian media to hold power to account, other measures to bolster democratic processes should be considered. Investigative journalism cannot readily be monetised.
It is expensive to do, takes a long time, sparks legal action and upsets powerful interests. It takes a big commitment by media organisations.
But the societal benefits can be huge: lives saved, corruption exposed, environments improved, governments and corporate interests held accountable. A recent book by a media economist found that for each US$1 spent on a specified investigative story, US$287 in policy benefits resulted.
Tax deductibility for independent journalism centres would provide incentives for individuals and philanthropic organisations to donate to producers of quality journalism.
The availability of tax deductions has the potential to increase the sum of quality journalism in Australia, enhance our democratic processes and better serve the community. I believe legacy and digital media in future would enter collaborative partnerships with non-profit investigative and public interest centres, ensuring a wider distribution and impact of their stories.
The Public Interest Journalism Foundation has some recommendations for the Australian Tax Office to consider when it comes to determining who should be granted deductible gift recipient status.
First is the history and background of the journalist who is applying, particularly their adherence to professional and ethical standards and whether the organisation they work for has conventional editorial practices. The organisation should create stories that are in the public interest and educate audiences rather than covering news of popular interest.
Another is introducing a commitment that the media nonprofit lists funding sources, including publication of the identities of donations of more than A$1,000, on its website. It also says anonymous grants, or funding from political and other entities where the source of the funding is not transparent, should be banned.
The foundation emphasises that individuals and organisations that advocate particular causes, should not be granted non-profit status under any media category.
No-one knows how sustainable the non-profit model will prove over time. However since 2007, I estimate that more than US$350 million has been donated to US non-profit investigative news centres; others have said closer to US$500 million.
We are in the midst of financial and technological disruption of traditional media models. No-one has yet worked out how to bolster accountability journalism that is essential to healthy democracies. The United States’ experience to date offers a potential solution that we should not ignore.
This is an edited extract of the 2016 A. N. Smith Lecture in Journalism, delivered by Emily Bell, the founding director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, at the University of Melbourne on March 15, 2017.
The 2016 US presidential election tells us a great deal about the current state of the news media and, more importantly, about the information environment we are operating within. Some of it is shocking, some is deeply worrying, and some of it is hopeful.
There are four key things Donald Trump’s election tells us about the state of journalism today.
The new fusion of media, power and technology
It is the early morning of Sunday, March 5. All over the east coast of America, journalists’ phones vibrate with alerts. So it begins: the president is awake, and he is angry.
It is as well, with the terrible decline in the popularity of The Apprentice, that we have another mesmerising show to keep us on our toes.
Imagine being an American political journalist. Every Saturday and Sunday at 6AM or 7AM, your phone buzzes with a message from the president.
Barack Obama “had my wires tapped in Trump Tower”. Quite a serious allegation. Presidents have been impeached for less. Press Secretary Sean Spicer was at pains to point out the next week that this is not literally what Trump had meant – it was a broader referral to the activities of agencies and surveillance during the campaign.
Welcome to 2017 in the United States of America, where we can experience government in real time, sometimes even before the people in power find out about it themselves.
As journalists who cover Trump have told me, the president, like his audience, reads newspapers and watches cable news. This is why he tweets early in the morning, often about stories that broke on social media the previous day. He opens the “failing” New York Times and, provoked by their “fake news”, he is off.
Trump might not spend much time on social media but he has an acute understanding of how virality in media works, and what the dynamics are that are needed to activate an online following to amplify your message.
How to cover the president is an abiding press topic, because he is unlike any president most have ever seen. Invitations to press conferences where journalists were ignored or insulted. Press huddles that suddenly elevated outlets like OANN or Breitbart above the “failing” New York Times and the “fake news” Washington Post.
In elevating Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist, Trump has consolidated the idea of putting media presence at the heart of his administration.
There were many media commentaries suggesting that journalists should boycott the press room at the White House. Another extended hand-wringing session took place around whether or not to cover Trump’s tweets at all – again, were the media being played? Was access journalism getting in the way of real stories? And there were questions on how to deal with Trump’s apparent lack of interest in whether something was true or not.
What has happened is that Trump’s Twitter feed and the White House press room have become the live rails of this administration. If you start to think about Trump and Bannon as a media organisation run from the Oval Office, it makes sense that the PR channels of the press room and a Twitter feed with 25 million followers are actually now live policy theatre.
The tweeting, the press conferences and the rallies are confusing for us because they feel like smokescreens. Even more unsettling is the notion that they are not smokescreens at all, but they are the actual presidency.
Political messaging on social media has come of age in a powerful way. In the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, we saw similar patterns of deployment as we did in the Trump campaign: tight circles of hyperactive fans and bots on social media that co-ordinate to tweet hashtags signalling the campaign’s most important messages in a repetitious cycle: #TrumpWon, #CrookedHillary, #HillarysHealth.
These are commonly used tactics, and they are bipartisan. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was just as active in similar ways.
But, for Trump, the use of real-time communication was not simply an election tactic: it is his modus operandi. Effectively, the substance of the US government is being shaped by a social media app.
Online media reinforce homogeneity of view
According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, more than 70% of the population now has a smartphone. Of that universe, more than 60% get news through social media. Around 45% of US adults say they get news from Facebook. This is an enormous amount of power concentrated in one newsfeed algorithm.
For more than a decade, 1,000 flowers bloomed on the open web, and 1,000 tabs opened on each desktop.
This diversity is threatened with the commercialised, mobile social web. Smartphones and social media, which work in lock-step to focus our attention on the smaller screen, have been a great rebundling of news services – and a great rebundling of all services.
Facebook, I once observed, was swallowing journalism. But it is also swallowing everything else too.
As the user base has grown from millions to hundreds of millions to billions, the sorting algorithms target us not to show us everything – that would be unmanageable and absurd – but to show us each our own heavily personalised version of the world.
The ubiquity of social media and the way its business model works, targeting us with more of what we like, is an open invitation to stay in our lane – in our interests, our geographies, our views, our media and our lives.
The really efficient thing about social media is we don’t have to even try to do that ourselves anymore. The mysterious algorithmic underpinnings of Google and Facebook do it for us, and we don’t even notice. Until we miss something that happened in someone else’s lane. For liberal America, Trump happened in someone else’s lane.
Breitbart, more than any other news site, represents the noisy voice of the far right. Two weeks ago, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released a paper that looked at how a large, fast-growing, right-wing news ecosystem had grown rapidly within Facebook in a relatively short time. Breitbart is the epicentre of that particular echo chamber.
The researchers mapped how that particular ecosystem works. They noted that most of the new hyper-partisan right-wing websites saw few links with the mainstream media, that the readership on the right was more isolated, and that the sites were very efficient in recycling the same themes – Trump’s anti-immigration stance, and Clinton’s emails.
As the campaign wore on the Harvard study notes the attacks were routinely targeted at both Clinton and the “mainstream media”. These messages were also repeated often by Trump. The campaign for him was arguably never about policy development: it was about a ratings-driven approach to winning.
The study’s authors say:
Use of disinformation by partisan media sources is neither new nor limited to the right wing, but the insulation of the partisan right-wing media from traditional journalistic media sources, and the vehemence of its attacks on journalism in common cause with a similarly outspoken president, is new and distinctive.
One of the remarkable things about the 2016 election was how the two worlds of polarised opinion could co-exist without any central arbitration by more moderate “connectors”.
The independent press should have a role here to moderate and foster argument from the point of view of trying to reach a broad consensus. But there is only a small incentive left to do that.
Watching a Trump press conference on Facebook Live video streamed from the Washington Post’s page showed only glowering angry emoji faces. The same stream, viewed from Fox News’ page, had only smiles.
I have wondered more than once during this election cycle whether the American media landscape is particularly badly affected by the encroachment and rise of newer, less-well-known and more-partisan forces because it lacks an equivalent of the ABC or BBC.
Obsession with ‘fake news’ obscures the real problems
There is something mesmerising about watching what happens when people are able to continually lie without facing the consequences.
After his initial Obama wiretapping accusations, Trump officials adjusted their body language about the reasons to believe, or not believe, that this “wiretap” had happened.
The story seems to have originated on right-wing talk radio and was picked up by other right-wing media, and then repeated by Trump on Twitter. If this is not true, though, what are the consequences?
Does a lack of truth matter? The tweet is not about the truth: it is about enriching a distracting narrative.
As a profession and a field we have to acknowledge the role we have played over many years in creating a commercial media environment that places higher priority on readership, ratings and reach than on the absolute integrity of information.
The open web was meant to make this better. It was initially a great big engine for correcting and contesting what is published. Instead, on balance, the form of the web we have at the moment enables bad journalism as much as, or maybe even more than, it helps good journalism.
The key to this is in the workings of the advertising market. It is increasingly automated, and decreasingly regulated.
In a digital microtargeted environment, ads are sold not against the integrity of the publication hosting them, but on the value of the person seeing them. Why pay the Wall Street Journal’s ad rates when you can buy one of their desirable readers a couple of sites or pages away?
And how to engage those readers? Well, good jokes and sensational content works better than nuance and complexity.
A combination of human nature, commercial marketplaces and sophisticated large-scale technology has combined to produce almost-perfect conditions for the proliferation of lowest-common-denominator material. The “fake news” epidemic is not new either, but the electrifying possibility it might have contributed to upending democracy has pushed it to the forefront of the debate.
I am not a fan of the phrase “fake news”. The term in Trump’s hands can mean “news you don’t need to pay attention to” or “news I don’t like”. We ought to be calling propaganda what it is, and calling misinformation and lies what they are too.
Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman has been into this issue for years. In 2015 he wrote a white paper for the Tow Centre entitled Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content. It looked at the growth of precisely this epidemic in rumours that circulate through social media at lightning speed and are proliferated and amplified by mainstream news outlets at a much higher rate than they are ever corrected.
It was in the course of doing this work that Silverman started to notice the same patterns confirmed by the Harvard research – notably that the hyper-partisan websites, particularly of the right, were the powerhouses for a particular type of disinformation.
The incentives for feeding made-up stories or maybe even sentiments and stories into this cycle are twofold. First, they are political. Second, they are financial.
In the election these fabricated stories soared in popularity, outperforming the real news stories on Facebook in the closing stages of the campaign.
These were both propagandistic and opportunistic.
“Fake news” was undoubtedly put out by both sides during the election to benefit their preferred candidate. But another type of fakery was manufactured, quite legally, by people who can exploit the attention market for great profit. Someone who actually makes fake news (or, rather, used to) told me he could make US$10,000 from a single post.
In the future, we will see both the automation and more authentic fabrication of material. It is not clear that the platform companies are winning the war with faked propagandistic messages. But it is clear that they have been too relaxed about the type of material that circulates, whether for political or economic advantage.
If the advertising model rewards popularity and shareability – regardless of originality, value and quality – then it is little wonder that it provides a living for a Macedonian teenager but not enough to support core reporting functions in local newsrooms.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said he does not want to be the “arbiter of truth” – which is lucky, because at the moment that is a distant aspiration. Perhaps a more achievable aspiration is not to be the enemy of truth either.
There is a cultural confusion within technology companies about how they execute both their ideological and market positions to encourage the maximum participation – but not to edit their platforms.
The major platforms, and Facebook in particular, were unsettled by the result of the 2016 election and the role they might or might not have played in Trump’s surprising rise. Why else would Zuckerberg write a 6,000-word manifesto about the issues facing global citizens and what Facebook could do to fix them?
The social web is visual; it rewards jokes and comments and easily digestible commentary. It rewards feelings and emotions. It rewards intensity of usage and engagement. It does not really care about veracity or verifiability.
Some of this is not new at all. Tabloid newspapers have always had more readership than broadsheets; cartoonists are more famous than op-ed writers. But the uneven distribution of attention on the web, and the algorithmic response to that – broadly promoting more of the same – shows again that the breaking of the distribution monopoly of old media has been replaced by another kind of monopoly, a monopoly of time, or attention.
Fake news has become a meaningless and rather dangerous phrase. But the problem of feeling unsure of what to believe and what not to believe, the obliteration of credible brands and the squeezing of all types of content into the same undelineated window, is very real.
In Western democracies we have become used to the luxury of being sceptical and dismissive of the importance of a free press. Now in the White House Press Room, on Twitter and Facebook, in the feed of the president of the United States of America, that dismissiveness has turned to an open hostility.
I know why phrases like “post-truth societies” or “alternative facts” or “fake news” have taken hold as a result of the election. It is important, though, to be able to separate media theory from reality. We are not in fact living in a world where facts and truth don’t exist anymore.
People who care about democracy recognise this, and the US has seen what is known as the “Trump bump” for news organisations with subscription or membership models. The “failing” New York Times has seen almost 300,000 new subscribers join in the last quarter of 2016 – more additional subscribers than the organisation managed in the previous year.
The head of digital at another national subscription-based news organisation noted that:
Every time Trump tweets about how terrible we are, another 10,000 people give us money. It’s incredible.
Non-profit investigative unit ProPublica has seen enough voluntary contributions coming in to enable it to open another office. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a great organisation that does the hardest work in defending and protecting journalists around the world, was invoked by Meryl Streep, that “over-rated actress”, on stage at the Golden Globes.
I was recently at a marketing conference full of marketing executives talking on stage to two Washington Post executives who were given a spontaneous ovation – by advertisers.
Despite the rocky professional outlook, there is no decline in the number of people applying to Columbia Journalism School – quite the opposite.
And, underneath this, we have seen some really remarkable reporting and analysis from the campaign trail and now from inside the administration. Leakers are posting material through Secure Drop to newsrooms at unprecendented rates.
The advent of a president who calls the press “the enemy of the people” has galvanised news organisations and handed them a mandate.
And the light the election campaign has shone on what an information environment can become, without regulation and without a hierarchy that reflects civic values, I think has rejuvenated the case for a strong and independent press.
Even Zuckerberg recognises the importance of journalism. On President’s Day weekend, he posed outside the offices of the Selma Times-Journal with his wife, Priscilla Chan, and thanked journalists for their work. Via a Facebook post, of course.
In his 6,000 word manifesto he wrote about what Facebook might do to support journalism more:
There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable – from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organisations rely on.
He did not mention a significant transfer of wealth – but maybe that is coming.
What we have seen in the 2016 election cycle though is very clarifying for journalism. We have seen that the information ecosystem has grown in ways that work against the interests of civic society and good journalism.
The functions of journalism – from the packaging and distribution, to the audiences and branding, to the data collection, and crucially the monetisation – have all been subsumed by much larger systems of power and wealth.
Until very recently, technology platforms were ambivalent or even hostile to the idea that they might bear some responsibility for creating a better public sphere. The election cycle of 2016 has shone a light on that too. There is no such thing as algorithmic neutrality. Platforms and technologies have values, and if they carry consequences, intended and accidental.
Recently, a smart, local start-up in upstate New York, the Watershed Post, announced it could not do what it was doing anymore. A very technically literate two-person team had set up the Watershed Post as a new model for local journalism. Founder Lissa Harris wrote about why they could no longer carry on:
The titans of the web have huge and increasing reach, even in our rural communities. They have sophisticated tools for targeting likely customers by geography and demographics. They have products that a business owner can buy for $5 with a few clicks of a mouse, products that require no human time investment on the other end for design or sales or customer support.
What they don’t have is reporters.
Journalism matters, but the institutions that support and contain reporting are only healthy if they have subscribers, or vast scale, or another source of revenue. In the US, this increasingly means philanthropy, or a return to the wealthy individual sinking hundreds of millions into an uncertain future.
And the promise of the open web – that it would support all type of new journalistic institutions – is unfulfilled.
Reporting, unlike memes and jokes and native advertising, does not scale well on the privatised social mobile web. This is not the fault of one set of people; I don’t believe that the founders of platforms and search companies wanted to destabilise functions that are civically important but financially insecure. And I don’t believe the generation of creative, technically gifted journalists who are struggling with this necessarily did anything wrong either.
The problem is more that the speed of the emerging landscape for media has been so quick, and largely illegible, so free of regulation in nearly all aspects, that rather like financial deregulation before it, we haven’t been able to really grasp the problem until it is almost too late.
I say “almost” because, as an eternal optimist, I think we have an opportunity to make the right interventions to press for systems that favour sustainable journalism. But we have to be organised, and we have to do it now.
We need better collective action in understanding the complexity of the problems, and we need institutions that will not be buffeted by the markets to help work these problems out in the long term.
We also need the attention, wealth and influence of technology companies.
I have been dismayed as a bystander to see how institutions like the BBC in the UK and the ABC to some extent in Australia are not apparently part of the central conversation for this resettlement for journalism. Their own issues are too often framed in terms of the market and not often enough in terms of civic need and what we might require independent media institutions to do to protect democracy.
Too often we have given into the Silicon Valley narrative that old institutions are inevitably going to perish.
The “free market of information” on the web erases the necessity for old-fashioned public interventions, doesn’t it? The market will fix everything, won’t it? I could not disagree more.
Leadership in public-service journalism institutions is at a critical moment where it can redefine its role in relationship to this new landscape; where it can make a strong case for the support of reporting and innovation that can endure separately from the alternate systems of tech power.
Public media is not the only solution, but it is an important element in figuring out how we manage our way through a complicated and rapidly changing commercial converged marketplace.
I was recently at a rather curious gathering in the UK countryside – between NGOs, government, technology companies and journalists – to talk about the crisis in news and information. I can’t do better than repeat the words of one of the attendees:
We should be thanking Donald Trump, because without him we would not be having the long overdue conversation we need about what kind of news environment we want.
Public interest journalism could be considered the antithesis of media’s darker side, which includes fake news, propaganda, censorship and voyeurism.
The outcomes of public interest reporting can expose corruption, launch royal commissions, remove improper politicians from office, and jail wrongdoers.
Think of recent stories like ABC Four Corners’ exposure of the treatment of young people at Don Dale Detention Centre; The Sydney Morning Herald’s revelatory stories on now-convicted MP Eddie Obeid; or The Newcastle Herald’s exposure of child sex abuse by priests. All of these led to public hearings. Then there was last week’s collaboration between Fairfax Media and the ABC, revealing the extent of Chinese money and influence in Australian politics.
Yet, public interest journalism is not universally defined. One common understanding among media practitioners and academics is that it refers to a journalist pursuing information that the public has a right to know.
Often implied in this definition is that, if it were not for the reporter, undisclosed information affecting the public that governments, companies and other powerful interests hold would remain hidden.
In this way, public interest reporting is often equated with watchdog or investigative reporting. But it can include other factual stories that serve the public interest, whether by providing a platform for debate or informing the electorate.
This is not stories that are simply “interesting to the public” (read here: stories about the Kardashians) – that is, entertaining, but with no civic value. These profit-oriented stories have filled certain tabloids and glossy magazines for years. Today they serve as clickbait to attract eyeballs and advertisers in the digital space, and are often found under traditional media banners.
The former editor of Britain’s Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, uses the analogy of a public figure such as a cricketer to make the point that not all revelations or “truths” are worth pursuing, and particularly not in the name of the “public interest”. Rusbridger suggests the “quality” of the target and its relationship to the public interest differentiate a story from mere smear or exposure journalism. He says:
What’s the public interest in a cricketer having a love romp in a hotel room … But if elected representatives are arguing a case in Parliament but not revealing that they are being paid to do so, then that strikes at the heart of democracy. That’s public interest; this is an easy distinction.
From this example, it is clear that context matters. As author of Understanding Journalism, Lynette Sheridan Burns reminds us that other social concerns might need to be weighed up alongside public interest storytelling. These might include an individual’s right to privacy, legal considerations, and the potential for other harms such as national security risks.
Through the liberal democratic lens of understanding the role of news media, diverse and plural voices are generally seen as enriching public discourse. This provides a range of perspectives to contest ideas and inform citizens. Ultimately, it informs their electoral choices.
Herein lies a key motivation for calling the 2017 inquiry hearings. With thousands of editorial jobs cut in the past five years at Australia’s major news media outlets – Fairfax Media, ABC, News Corp, Channel Ten – and the closure of many regional bureaus and mastheads, there is real concern about the state of public interest journalism.
Put simply, are there enough trained journalists to provide independent journalism that matters? Are Australia’s regions as well served with diverse and independent reporting as the major cities? These questions speak to the first and fourth of the inquiry’s six terms of reference.
The other questions for the committee broadly relate to the viral spread of misinformation, and to safeguards against market power in the media landscape in the name of public interest journalism.
Interestingly, rather than directly tackle what the government’s proposed removal of media competition safeguards might mean for Australian audiences’ interests, the committee is directed to examine the market impacts of new players. That is, what impact social media and search engines have on the “Australian media landscape”.
The complete absence of “audience” and an emphasis on “markets” in the terms of reference could be seen as a win for the persistent lobbying of Australia’s most powerful commercial media companies.
In a rare display of unified power, 25 heads of Australia’s major commercial media outlets met the prime minister in Canberra last month to urge the parliament to pass media reforms. To improve their commercial viability, media companies are seeking to scrap the 75% reach provision (preventing 100% market share) and two-out-of-three ownership rule.
Notwithstanding new international entrants into Australian markets such as Buzzfeed, The Guardian and Daily Mail, such law changes, I have previously argued, would likely result in concentrating proprietorial power of the biggest media operators in Australia’s most dominant news media markets: radio, television and print.
The committee’s inquiries into “fake news, propaganda, and public disinformation” are important issues to consider, but we should remember that these concerns have existed alongside public interest journalism for more than a century.
From the sensationalist, fear-mongering “yellow journalism” of the penny press in the late 1800s, to the media propaganda arising out of the world wars of the 20th century, there is nothing new about fake news and disinformation. What is unprecedented, however, is its speed and global spread in the digital sphere.
Inaccurate reporting, whether deliberately fake or just sloppy, has consequences for news media’s capacity to serve a well-informed citizenry that underpins a healthy democracy. For example, a recent US Pew Research study found 88% of Americans believe fake news confuses the public about basic facts.
These are problems for all to tackle – search engines, internet service providers, commercial media outlets, public broadcasters and social media. As is occurring overseas, this might involve media outlets and others working together to provide news literacy tools to help the public recognise fact from fiction. Any successful approach must address sources, messengers and audiences of fake news, not just target Facebook and Google.
When the committee reports in December, let’s hope it offers ways to strengthen public interest journalism by placing Australian audiences’ interests ahead of all others.