by Niamh Kirk
2016 was a bad year for journalism, but then so was 2015, 2014 etc. etc. If journalism, as we know, is to stay meaningful it must move to rectify years of compounding problems.
Continued net losses resulting is fewer resources, the loss of control over distribution channels to social media, being overtaken by fake news at crucial times, media owners suing governments and the leading media being found grossly out of touch by misjudging the outcome of crucial global elections and referendums; the evidence for journalism’s problems has rarely been so explicit.
If it is to continue as we know it, or as we expect it to be – as the fourth estate that holds authority to account, a public sphere where a nation can discuss political and social issues, national and global agenda setters, pros at assessing evolving news values and bringing it to public attention accordingly; if it is to retain any meaning for us going forward, we need to hear it’s battle cry.
It is naive to think that journalism is valued simply because it is journalism and provides information (or ‘produces content’ as it is increasingly being described). There are so many problems that affect the quality of our news. With so many other sources of information available online and anyone with an agenda willing to provide it for free, the best resources for being informed and having a public debate is no longer just the national press. The environment is tough and going to get tougher.
It will not be enough to expose fake news, although this must be a part of it. They must bring the fight to the fakers and declare war on disinformation. But this is only one battlefront to secure its reliance as the most important and useful source of information for a broad base the national readership.
There has been too much reliance on social media content to reflect the national mood. Journalists are selecting the best soundbites, what they need is to get out of the office and back on the beat, talking to people in real life and not lazily relying on Twitter for reactions and responses to news events. The failure to see the outcome of Brexit and Trump illustrate the results of depending on sentiment analysis and failing to talk to real people.
Journalists’ are under pressure to see their work travel far and wide through likes and shares. Chasing clicks and not public interest stories lead to stories that distract from robust coverage. The New York Times highlighted this when they confessed to focusing too much on sensational aspects of Trump rallies and not the infra-ordinary concerns of voters.
More investigative journalism is always needed, this is the backbone of any news organisation. Every title should be producing regular groundbreaking investigations if it is worth its salt. In reporting, implementing mechanisms whereby facts are routinely checked, contextualised and challenged is vital. You know journalism is failing in this when independent fact-checkers are hailed as the news fourth estate.
Media ideological bias has always been a problem in journalism. But the development of digital and social echo chambers mean that content is not reaching the mass audience, only the audience that might agree with the perspective anyway. Effectively, news ends up preaching to the choir. It is up to the news producers to force their way around this. Or find new ways of doing news that and bridge the boundaries that the distribution algorithms have set up.
Engendering trust and engaging with audiences concerns by making journalism part of the staple media diet has worked for many titles. There needs to be more transparency in the reporting process, taking a consumer affairs perspective, establishing media desks, hiring public editors, and in general raising the quality if information as a public issue.
The news media raise issues of public importance in salience and it now becomes necessary to raise themselves. Journalism must stop presuming their value and overtly and continuously remind audiences why they do, what they do and yes, explicitly defend it as in the public interest. They must make an issue of how we are informed.
These are just some of the ways that journalism can fight to reclaim its relevance in peoples’ lives and engender trust in what it does. There are efforts in industry and academia to develop even more and many want professionals and readers alike to take part.
This year fakers and the sensationalists brought the battle to the world’s leading news titles, social media facilitated them and ultimately, they won. The discussion and blame-game can only last so long. And the role of journalism is too important to let sleep walk into irrelevance through weakness and letting those who would distort usurp their role. It is time for journalists and editors alike to Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war”.