Fake news anyone?

Fake news is very much in the news recently – the keynote presentation on the topic by Professor Jeff Jarvis at the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at UTS last week got me thinking about the current erosion of ‘trust’, the shift from ‘siloed’ to ‘networked’ communications and media and how a viable business model for news media is actually essential to democracy, which in turn is essential to an innovative and adaptable economy and society.

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Last week I went along to the launch of the new Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).   The Centre has the very useful goal of helping us to understand key areas of current media evolution and how new technologies and digital transition can be harnessed – to develop local media and to enhance the role of journalism in democratic, civil society.

As well as reconnection with various colleagues from the ACMA and other networks, I also very much enjoyed the keynote presentation by Professor Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. He chose as his topic ‘Fake news’, which he then with a very sensible sense of irony denounced as a bogus topic.  The real topic he suggested was the current erosion, and urgent need for restoration of, ‘trust’: trust in ‘facts’ as a basis for policy action; our ability to conduct civil community discourse; political and other institutions; and news media.

20170725_175309-02One observation I would offer on the issue of so-called ‘fake news’ is that there has been a long established practice on public relations of ‘slanted’ if not ‘fake’ media stories – although it would seem that the velocity of less-than-reliable news has sped up with the rest of the news cycle.  Jarvis raised dramatic but not alarmist concerns about the ‘weaponisation’ of information manipulation and the ability of various actors to leverage the media tools now available to foster polarization and attack the ‘truth’ through scale and speed of communications.

When pondering the trustworthiness of news, I remembered the notion that traditionally journalism has not been rated as high as many other professions in terms of trustworthiness.  I hunted out the latest Roy Morgan survey on the image of various professions, conducted in May 2017.  This finds only 20% of Australians rate Newspaper Journalists ‘very high’ or ‘high’ for ethics and honesty with 17% so rating TV Reporters.  However, looking at the time series helpfully provided by Roy Morgan, it is worth noting this is actually an all-time high for newspaper journalists on a rising trend, and up from 12% in 1976. TV reporters are shown to be reasonably stable around the mid-teens since 1988 when first measured.

This suggests to me perhaps some support for the avowed optimism Jarvis offered, with strategies and counsel about using traditional and new journalistic practice to counter the attacks on trust, to build news literacy, resurrect civility and encourage responsible sharing. What particularly struck a chord with me was his stress on the need for journalism to develop as an audience-centric service.

In my own thinking about media and communications futures I have found the application of network thinking and analysis to be very useful.  The world of communications has moved over the last couple of decades from one of massive ‘silos’ such as TV stations and printing plants to one in which the functions of those silos have been spread out across wide and varied networks, from the electronic hardware of the Internet and to the software based landscape of social media. This has been, to use an often misunderstood and sometime overused term, a ‘paradigm shift’, which has shaken business models and re-arranged social structures.

Under the ‘silo’ paradigm, agents such as journalists and regulators could see themselves as standing ‘outside’ the silos, but they are now effectively participants, enmeshed in the networks of the new paradigm. And this is where, as I understand it, Jarvis is going with his thinking and teaching: forget about so-called ‘objective’ reporting and engage meaningfully with real communities and deliver them a service they find valuable. Makes sense to me.

One important and obvious dimension of the paradigm shift has been the commercial challenges to the business models of the incumbent media industry ‘silo-owners’.  That in turn has been an ever increasing threat to the business-as-usual activities and very livelihoods of people working in them – such as musicians, photographers and journalists. This was an ever-present motif in presentation and the Q&A that followed: how can the activities of journalists be made commercially viable?

I was reminded of the classic and prescient 2009 article by US digital analyst Clay Shirky, ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’.  His persuasive analysis was that print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting and the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.  However, the marriage of this heavy-lifting journalism to the stream of advertising revenue was essentially coincidental.

Shirky notes “This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting … that the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”   And if this relationship was under stress in 2009, things are reaching breaking point a decade or so on and Shirky’s wry observation “that ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model” is becoming very real indeed.

The persistence but ‘hollowing out’ of established masthead media, was chronicled by media and technology editor Nic Christensen in his final day at Mumbrella, writing about the “ … massive changes in the media, with more to come. We are living through a media revolution driven largely by the rise of digital, but with it comes the consequence for the journalism profession of multiple ongoing rounds of redundancies, as the media business model looks to reinvent itself within what is a seismic transition.”

The same sentiments were reported for Canada by Nieman Lab: “To be clear, though, almost all daily publishers have found them themselves forced to cut, given the cascading losses of their broken print business.  … We’re not mourning the death of printed newspapers, but of all the reporting — pixels or paper — that’s been disappearing for a decade.”

Clearly a business model beyond click-bait is needed.  What that might be is a matter of urgent inquiry by many and anxious anticipation by others – despite what may be an emerging market failure, such a thing will be next to impossible to regulate into existence   News itself may be a commodity, but without a fountain-head of reliable reporting about things the great and the good might prefer we remain ignorant of, democracy has a profound challenge.

And without the great capacity of genuine democracy to renew and sustain an innovative and adaptable economy and society we all risk being significantly poorer, materially and in spirit.  Hopefully journalists find ways to be engaged, adaptive, entrepreneurial and commercially viable – all of which it must be said is much more easily advised than done – and the new UTS Centre for Media Transition can assist.

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