Fact-based hope for journalism

We sometimes compare the multitude of intersecting challenges journalism faces to the global climate crisis. In the process of thinking about the climate crisis, I have come across the notion of fact-based hope, something I think applies to journalism too.

It’s about how we can be – and have evidence to be – resolutely hopeful even in the face of severe challenges.

This post is about fact-based hope for journalism, and inspired by the amazing Reuters Institute journalist fellows we host, including the most recent cohort (pictured after a day full of evidence-based optimism!).

The Michaelmas 2021 cohort of Reuters Institute journalist fellows discussing fact-based hope

As with the climate crisis, anyone who hasn’t recognized the so-called “burning platform” in journalism is in denial.

Ignoring or actively distracting from the conflagration – created by the combination of analogue business models disrupted by audiences’ move to digital media and the rise of platforms, much more intense competition for attention and advertising in an high-choice online media environment, and the often fraying “public connection” between much of journalism and much of the public, in many countries compounded by powerful people who wage little less than a war on independent news media and those who seek truth and report it – is doing the profession, the industry, and the public a disservice. On closer inspection, there never really was a ‘golden age’, but in any case, there is no going back. Business as usual is suicidal.

* * *

But as with the climate crisis, we cannot and should not let the scale, scope, and complexity of the challenges ahead lead to paralysis, let alone resignation.

Fact-based hope is about how we might move beyond the crises we face.

So let’s be clear: there are both systemic, policy-level and more individual, organizational-level things we can do to create the different kinds of journalisms we want in the future.

The systemic things are largely political choices, up to citizens and the elected officials who represent them. We have many options based on evidence or at least with proof of concept, and while not cheap, uncontroversial, or without downsides, it is important to clearly state we can choose, as societies, to create a more enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future that journalism needs. (I’ve written about that extensively here, here, here and elsewhere.)

But the more individual, organizational-level things are worth highlighting in parallel. Just as the climate crisis calls for both systemic and more granular responses, so too with the many challenges facing journalism. The need for systemic change does not mean we shouldn’t think about more individual and organizational-level change too.

That is especially important because large-scale systemic change for the better seems unlikely when it comes to journalism. There is no question policy can make a difference for the better (just as it very visible makes a difference for the worse in many countries when used for e.g. media capture). But will it? These are at best long-term responses, and in most countries face uncertain political prospects. As I’ve said before, I think we need to keep in mind that, realistically, most politicians around the world regard independent journalism at best with benign indifference, more often with rank hypocrisy, and very often with open hostility. Media policy, like all other forms of policy, is made by the politicians we have and will be used by those we get, it is not the exclusive province of the particular politicians each of us may personally prefer. We may hope that politicians will rally en masse to make a meaningful commitment to support journalism (despite the fact that there currently does not seem to be much public support for it). But I don’t think we have fact-based hope that they will.

So I am all for looking at evidence-based options for systemic change.

But, in parallel, I think we need to identify individual, organizational-level examples that can inspire fact-based hope.

* * *

And all around me, I see not just crises, but also evidence for fact-based hope.

The practice of journalism first – in addition to countless reminders of the continued importance of classic investigative journalism and the trust whistleblowers have in news media helping the public understand major issues we face, outstanding individual examples of science journalism during the pandemic, and illustrations of the importance of basic factual reporting, we see more and more examples of collaboration in a historically a competitive ethos so strong it risked being “institutionally perverse” (whether around big international investigations or issues like climate change), data journalism, fact-checking, open-source intelligence, transparency in reporting, and a recognition of the value of citizens bearing witness. It’s also clear that new tools have brought greater efficiency to reporting, and that small teams sometimes deliver more public interest journalism than far larger newsrooms – by being more focused, and sometimes braver.

The business of journalism second – it’s brutal out there, and few winners, many losers, but increasingly it seems the winners are not only some upmarket legacy titles but also some membership and subscription based digital born news media. After years of pretty unrelenting bad news, we are seeing some new investments in local news too, and some ad-supported popular titles at least in Europe have built huge online reach serving a far more diverse audience than often upper-crust-oriented subscription and membership-based titles. In addition to editorial collaborations, we are also seeing some publishers collaborate on the business side. And while limited and uneven, there is also a growing number of non-profit media and new ideas of how to support them. Finally, it’s also important to see that digitally-oriented titles often invest a far greater share of their revenues in journalism than legacy titles ever did – we can get more journalistic bang even if there may well be fewer bucks.

The public connection between journalism and the people it serves third – the coronavirus crisis has provided a reminder of the importance of trustworthy news. We have seen trust in news overall increase in many countries, we have seen some evidence more trusted brands seem to have grown their online reach more than others, research documents that news has helped people understand the crisis (just as it helps them understand politics). The way some journalists think about this connection is also evolving – with more emphasis on community engagement, a willingness to consider impact a measure of success, and a greater openness to using data to understand the audience. We are also seeing a greater recognition that unrelenting focus only on things that go wrong in the world (“negativity bias”) can turn people off the news, and an openness to think of constructive and solutions-oriented elements to journalism.

The profession of journalism itself fourth and finally – I’ve written before about tensions in journalism between vanguards who think the problem is that journalism hasn’t changed enough and rearguards who think the problem is that the world has changed too much. I think these conflicts are playing out across many issues – climate, diversity, political coverage, technology, and more. These arguments are in themselves a cause for fact-based hope – the alternative to conflict is the continuation of the status quo, and that doesn’t strike me as sustainable. Disagreements within the profession are never comfortable or easy, but they are important, and I think we are seeing some important progress, from big, public reckonings with journalism’s record on race to more internal, incremental work to do better on various forms of diversity.

* * *

More than anything, across all four areas, I draw hope from how I see many journalists find one another in these discussions, whether in informal networks, professional associations, or unions, and face them with courage (insisting on the importance of change), curiosity (even if we don’t always know, in advance, exactly what we want), and community (we need to work together to get to where we need to be).

If we look at all these cases for fact-based hope and ask “will they work for all news media everywhere?”, the answer is clearly no. There is no single capital-S solution and no single capital-P problem.

But if we look at them and ask “will they work for some?” the answer is clearly, demonstrably, evidently “yes!” That provides the basis for hoping they can work for some others in some other places.

If we look at these examples and ask “will all journalists and all news media everywhere want to learn from these examples?” the answer is also clearly no.

Sometimes its because they may be a poor fit. That’s as it should be. Not everyone will want to walk the same paths.

Sometimes it is because, let’s be clear, some parts of journalism and some parts of the news media industry aren’t all that interested in changing. That’s in a way understandable, as long as we are clear-eyed that this is a choice, and that it too has consequences. In journalism as with the climate crisis, action and change can be difficult, but inaction has its own cost.

Sometimes some journalists and some in parts of the news industry want change, but some of their colleagues, perhaps their bosses, don’t want change, or disagree about the direction of change – as I’ve written before, we need to face up to the fact that this is sometimes about power and self-interest as much as about different ideals or hopes for the future.

But we clearly can change, even in the face of the many, serious challenges journalism faces – there are inspiring real-world examples all around us, and I’m so inspired by how the fellows we host in Oxford engage with them, from Adele’s work on collaboration and climate coverage, to Peter’s work on business models to protect editorial independence, to Zoe’s work on diversity, to Ramisha’s work on how journalists can learn from one another and many more.

I think fact-based hope points to many different paths ahead, and I think it provides an antidote to resignation, a position between the equally misleading extremes of facile pessimism and facile optimism. Fact-based hope is not about denying the multiple crises journalism faces. It is about responding to them.

Let me end with a quote from Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement organizing to fight the climate crisis in the United States.

“The biggest mistake we all make”, she says, “is in trying to jam hope down each other’s throats without giving the space and time for us to feel the full embodied response of what is happening.”

“Hope honestly comes from the action that I both see myself and those around me taking on a daily basis.”

“Hope”, she says, “lies in action.”

Prakash is not oblivious to the (climate) challenges we face. But she knows that hope is a necessary part of facing them.

I think that goes for journalism too. And I think we have evidence to support fact-based hope.

So I am hopeful.

2021 Digital News Report out

The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report is out now. I’m so proud to be part of this teamwork. We cover 46 markets that account for more than half of world’s population, including six new countries in the Global South.

The report is always a flagship for us, and the further international expansion is a big step for us, and I think it is important.

As I write in my foreword,

“We are particularly proud to be able to include more countries in the Global South, primarily because we hope the data and analysis we present are useful for journalists, editors, and media executives there, but also because we strongly believe their colleagues elsewhere can learn a lot from the situation in countries where news media have long faced political attacks, financial precarity, and internet users heavily oriented towards mobile and social media – some of the realities journalists in historically more privileged parts of the world increasingly have to deal with.”

The report is available as HTML, in PDF, and there are more resources including a massive 192 slide deck. All of it meant to be used.

The moment we press “publish” is not the end for us, it’s just the start of the next stage, the conversation with journalists, editors, media executives, policymakers, and academics across the world who engage with our work.

Follow some of that conversation on Twitter where we are using the hashtag #DNR21, at the various discussions of the report at launch events across the world, or read some of the country reports our amazing country partners have published.

In this post just five highlights from me.

FIRST, trust in the news has grown.

Across 46 markets, 44% say they trust most news most of the time, up, on average, by six percentage points in wake of Coronavirus pandemic (back to 2018-levels).

No similar growth for trust in news seen on e.g. social media means that the “trust gap” with platforms has grown.

SECOND, trusted brands have often done better in terms of increased online audience reach.

Most news media saw a surge in audience during pandemic and lockdowns, but news fatigue is also setting in and the surge is in many cases levelling off – who can they retain increased reach as the situation evolve?

We looked at how many brands have a significantly higher reach in early 2021 than early 2020, and find more trusted brands have often done better.

THIRD, distributed discovery is growing ever more important.

The pandemic has accelerated the move to more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.

And despite trust gap and concerns over misinformation, various platforms continue to grow in importance for news discovery.

Just 25% of our respondents say going direct to a news site or app is their main way to access online news.

FOURTH, platform ecology growing more complex, especially among younger users

As Facebook, while still important, is less used for news, a slew of other platforms are growing in importance, especially among younger people.

This is a promising but also tricky space for news publishers in many ways – for example, on growing networks such as TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, influencers and alternative sources seem to command more attention than mainstream media and journalists.

FIFTH, the business of news remains winner-takes-most

There is some increase in payment for online news in a few rich countries, but the overall percentage of people paying remains low.

And in most countries a large proportion of digital subscriptions go to just a few big national brands, reinforcing winner-takes-most dynamics. Only in Norway do we see a large number saying they subscribe to local news online, and only in the US is the median number of digital news subscriptions now 2 (often a big national plus either a niche supplement (sports, opinion, etc.) or a local one, very rarely both).

Thus, while platform companies and some, often big, publishers are doing well, many commercial news media are struggling.

Those are just five highlights from me.

It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Anne Schulz, Simge Andi, and Craig Robertson on the analysis and writing, with invaluable input from our amazing country partners, support from the whole Reuters Institute team, and backing from 16 different funders.

It takes a village and I’m so happy to be part of this particular one.

Finally, if you like the Digital News Report – and the institute’s work more broadly – please consider giving a donation to our Journalists Under Pressure Fund. It helps journalists operating in difficult conditions join our fellowship program. Click here to donate.

Less talk, more action? My foreword to “A New Deal for Journalism”

Do we need a “New Deal” for journalism, a concerted set of policies and commitment of resources to secure an enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future independent professional news reporting need to do its important job today and tomorrow?

The Forum on Information and Democracy and its chair Christophe Deloire from Reporters without Borders say that we do, and new report from the Forum looks at policy options – I was honored to chair working group providing input to the report.

I recommend reading the whole report, written for the Forum by Sameer Padania and a team of rapporteurs, based on desk research, tons of interviews, various submissions, and input from the working group.

My foreword is pasted below in case of interest, and I have summarized key points in this Twitter thread.

TL;DR – (1) Independent journalism is facing serious challenges around sustainability (as well as media freedom), especially at the local level and in terms of historically underserved and marginalized communities. Journalists and the news industry are leading on finding ways ahead on sustainability but (2) policymakers can help create a more enabling environment, if they are willing to move beyond talk and commit real resources, (3) whether we do this is a political choice, not a policy conundrum – blue sky thinking and new ideas are always welcome, but let’s not forget we have a number of existing policy options with proof of concept. Ignoring them is a bit like trying to combat climate change solely by risky bets on, say, geoengineering while ignoring the panoply of tools we already know can make a difference if we choose to use them. We should judge policymakers on their actions more than fine declarations, nice speeches, or lavish conferences, and always remember that inaction is a choice too.

My foreword below.

Less talk, more action?

“Quality, clear, and truthful information is essential for a democratic society based on the values of honesty and respect, fairness and justice, freedom and dignity.”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on World Press Freedom day this year, thanking journalists everywhere who “give us the facts to make better sense of the world, contribute to our communities, and lead freer, richer lives.”[1]

This is more than just words. While journalism is imperfect, and sometimes problematic, years of research has documented how independent, professional journalism helps people stay informed, take part in political processes, and engage with their local communities, just as it can help hold power to account and reduce corruption and malfeasance in both the public and the private sector.

But journalism’s ability to do this is threatened on several fronts today, by powerful people all over the world waging war on journalism as media freedom erodes, and by the inexorable decline of the traditional business of news as people abandon print and broadcast in favour digital media and platforms, a challenge sometimes compounded by journalism’s unwillingness to reckon with its own shortcomings or adapt to a changing world.

If governments want to do more than talk about the value of journalism, and actually help the journalists and news media who are leading on forging new ways forward for the profession and the industry, they will need to step up and take real action.

Whether this is a priority is for the public and its elected officials to decide, but one thing is clear. Speeches alone will do little to help journalists. They need action, and the reality is that, at best, most governments have done little or nothing.

What can governments do? One place to start is with existing policies that have proof of concept, command broad-based support in the countries where they are in place, and are oriented towards the future of journalism. Blue-sky thinking is always welcome, but it should not distract us from proven tools already at hand. This report identifies a range of the most important steps governments could take – right now – to help ensure the freedom, funding, and future that journalists need to do their job. None of them are perfect, but all of them are practical, and all can be structured so they avoid simply privileging incumbents or lining the pockets of proprietors and shareholders.

They include, perhaps most importantly—

Supporting private sector news media through indirect forms of support such as tax exemptions, direct support specifically tied to investment in professional journalism and structured to prioritize local media and media serving minorities, and supporting innovation, without tying these forms of support to increasingly marginal forms of distribution like print, is one option, as demonstrated in Denmark.

Supporting public service media with a clear remit and ability to serve the public across all media, not just broadcasting, strong insulation from political pressure to ensure their editorial independence from government, sufficient funding to deliver on their mission, and a clear focus on serving those communities least well served by private sector media is a second option, as demonstrated in the United Kingdom.

Supporting the creation of non-profit news media by easing the creation of journalistic non-profit organizations, whether from scratch or by converting legacy titles, and creating incentives for both individuals and foundations to support non-profit news media, is a third option, and non-profit media are already making important contribution in some countries.

Supporting independent news media globally by committing at least some Official Development Assistance to journalism in other countries is a fourth option, whether done bilaterally or through joint vehicles. We can all benefit from stronger journalism, not just at home, but also abroad – if anyone need a reminder that our futures are tied together in an age defined by the climate emergency and intertwined economies, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided it.

None of these policies are silver bullets, but they can all make a difference for the better, as long as they are deployed within a framework of fundamental rights and respect for free expression and media freedom (otherwise they can quickly turn into instruments for state capture).

They all also come with proof of concept, and avoid the uncertainty of betting on opaque arrangements that can entrench dominant players and risk primarily benefiting a few large publishers who are often already doing relatively well.

All these policies, and more reviewed in the report, can offer inspiration for governments who are serious about supporting independent journalists and news media as they carve out a new sustainable future for themselves. They offer a chance to break with years of inaction, and an opportunity to reform inherited arrangements tied to waning media like print or broadcast.

A few countries already have some of these policies in place, many countries at least a few of them, but no country has done all it can to help ensure journalists can continue to do their indispensable work, so central to the functioning of democracy. The United States, for example, has long been an outlier among democracies in terms of how little it does to actually support independent news media, and of course also illustrate the vitriol with which some politicians attack news media who seek truth and report it. President Biden has at least changed the tone. But will he and other political leaders around the globe who recognize the real public value of journalism take more tangible steps news reporting at home and abroad?

If governments are seriously committed to creating an enabling environment for independent professional journalism, they will commit real resources. Journalists – and the public they serve – don’t need comforting speeches. They need concrete steps. This report identifies some of what can be done. Now it is up to elected officials and the public to decide if they want less talk, and more action.

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and chair of the working group on the Forum on Information and Democracy Working Group on Sustainability of Journalism.


[1] https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/statements/2021/05/03/statement-prime-minister-world-press-freedom-day

Building resilience to disinformation (both foreign and domestic)

I was invited to speak today about disinformation at the European Parliament’s AIDA and INGE Special Committees hearing on the future of democracy in the digital age. My notes below.

I have been asked to speak abut foreign interference and disinformation, what research tells us about the challenges they represent and the context they happen in, and how we might respond.

Foreign interference here includes information operations specifically, but it’s important to remember these are a subset of a wider range of soft power, public diplomacy, publicity, and communications operations.

Disinformation, in line with the EU Commission action plan, I take to mean “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm” and that is almost always legal speech.

So where are we with foreign interference and disinformation? We need to understand the challenges we face and the context they exist in if we are to address them in credible and effective ways.

Let’s take the challenge first – foreign interference often aims to increase divisions in our societies, undermine trust in institutions, and on that basis influence individual and collective decision making.

Disinformation is only one way in which foreign governments try to achieve these aims – as said, soft power, public diplomacy, publicity, and communications operations are often deployed for the same purposes, and some of these in part work via domestic actors, wittingly or unwittingly.

And, crucially, many other factors are far, far more important in shaping divisions in our societies, trust in institutions, and individual and collective decision making than disinformation (let alone disinformation from foreign interference narrowly).

We face real and serious problems with disinformation, but as with any societal problem, we need to understand the scale and scope and the way the public thinks about it if we want to respond in effective and credible ways.

We don’t always have evidence and research on these issues that is up to date or that capture differences from country to country, but research from the United States (which has had severe problems with disinformation in recent years) can give a sense of the scale and scope, and our own research from the Reuters Institute how the public sees these problems—

First, on scale and scope, in the United States, one team of researchers found that across offline and online media use, “news consumption [comprises] 14.2% of Americans’ daily media diets” whereas “fake news comprises only 0.15% of Americans’ daily media diet.” – with time spent with news outweighing fake news, highly biased, and hyper-partisan sites by a factor of almost 100.

Looking specifically at Twitter, which may give at least an indication of dynamics on far larger platforms such as Facebook and YouTube where it is harder for researchers to access data, another team found that “fake news accounted for nearly 6% of all news consumption, but it was heavily concentrated—only 1% of users were exposed to 80% of fake news, and 0.1% of users were responsible for sharing 80% of fake news.”

There are wider issues than “f*ke news” as narrowly defined in these studies, including dangerous narratives that aren’t necessarily tightly tied to discrete checkable claims or specific sites, networked propaganda from specific constellations of political actors and partisan media, and problematic information including various kinds of hyper-partisan material, harassment, and trolling – often targeted at women, ethnic minorities, and marginalized communities.

But this research suggests that, while very real and serious, the scale and scope of identified mis- and disinformation narrowly conceived and measured is more limited and more concentrated in highly partisan subcommunities than is sometimes imagined.

Second, on how the public sees these problems, in the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report, we ask nationally representative samples of internet news users in 40 markets across the world a range of questions, including last year what source they are most concerned about false or misleading information from online. Looking at the 20 EU member states we cover in the report, 11% respond “foreign governments”. By comparison, 12% respond “journalists or news organizations”. And – I’m sorry if it is awkward to mention this in this setting – 38% say “The government, politicians or political parties in my country”.

This finding is important for two reasons.

First because, as with any social problem, public perception will influence the effectiveness and especially the credibility of any responses, and when it comes to disinformation, a large plurality of the public is more concerned about false or misleading information from domestic politicians or domestic news media than from foreign governments.

Second, and again – apologies if this is inconvenient and even rude – I’d say social science research largely suggest the public is often right to be more concerned about domestic sources of false or misleading information.

I think these research findings leave us in a place where we must recognize two things –

First, if the goal of foreign interference is, among other things, to undermine trust in institutions, there is a risk that our very own public conversation about disinformation help outside actors achieve this goal if we exaggerate the (very real) challenges we face. (This, of course, is also why the Russian opposition has for years encouraged Western liberals not to exaggerate the effect of the Kremlin’s information operations.)

Second, if the goal of foreign interference is, among other things, to undermine trust in institutions, but much of the public see problems of disinformation as being about domestic politicians and media spreading false and misleading information about them, I think there is a risk that attempts to counter disinformation that are narrowly aimed at foreign interference specifically and does nothing to address what much of the public see as the main problems may come across to some of the public as self-serving attempts by governments and established elites to protect themselves by censoring outside sources of information and stifling criticism.

So, what can we do, other than taking problems seriously without exaggerating them in ways that spread the fear foreign actors seek to spread, and other than not pursuing responses that may seem so selectively partial as to be self-serving in ways that in themselves may contribute to undermining trust in institutions?

I will not talk about technology and technology companies, because Anna Bulakh and Alex Stamos will focus on this, other than to say that (a) there are clearly a range of tactical technical interventions that can help (labeling, context, introduction of friction, provision of authoritative information, in some cases reduction or removal of content, provision of data and tools to independent third parties) and (b) that our research documents that the public clearly – and in my view rightly – sees technology companies, especially Facebook and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, but also to a lesser extend search, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube, as part of these problems, and will expect them to be part of the solutions.

All of these tactical and technical interventions can help make a difference, but at a more fundamental level, if what we want to prevent is that disinformation from foreign interference increases divisions and undermines trust in institutions, if we remember that much disinformation is legal speech protected by the fundamental right to receive and impart information, and that narrow direct interventions targeted exclusively at foreign actors may exacerbate these problems because they might look self-serving to a public that sees domestic actors as central to disinformation problems (a view that is well supported by research), then indirect interventions focused on building resilience might be the best response available.

Open societies with robust institutions will not be free of disinformation and pernicious forms of speech. But they will be better able to withstand the problems they create.

Building resilience would involve investing in strengthening the independent institutions that help people be informed, connect with others, and work together, including –

  • Independent news media, both private sector, public service, and non-profit (some policy options here)
  • Independent fact-checkers
  • Independent research, ideally with better access to data from both platforms and public authorities
  • Independent media literacy programs (for all ages)

And indeed, the 2018 report of the European Commission High Level Group on Online Disinformation recommended, among other things, exactly such investments, calling for the European Union, with its annual budget of well over €160 billion, to commit at least €100 million in funding for independent initiatives (in a context where several foreign governments are estimated to be spending €1 billion or more a year on their own state media and influence operations).

That has not happened in the three years since.

But the recommendations still stand.

It is tempting to imagine that there are simple, cheap, and uncontroversial solutions to the very real and serious disinformation problems that we face. But there aren’t. There are only complicated, often expensive, and sometimes controversial options.

Research can help provide an understanding of the challenges we face and inform the decisions we make. But fundamentally, this is about choices and priorities.

You, and your counterparts at the member state level, are the ones who have a democratic mandate to make them.

7 media policy options for enabling independent professional journalism

Today I gave a short presentation to the Irish Future of Media Commission. I had 6 minutes to speak about policy options for public interest content, and given what I do, I naturally focused on news – independent professional journalism.

There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around, and given the constraints the below is obviously not comprehensive or exhaustive, the ideas aren’t always appropriate in every context (in countries where the government does not respect free expression and/or try to capture the media public policy often does more harm than good to independent professional journalism), and they don’t speak to some of the wider issues, including competition, that I have written about elsewhere – but perhaps still interesting and useful in summarizing some specific, concrete options.

I think there sometimes is a risk that actually existing policies with proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect get lost in the scrum or the tendency to always chase novelties. Just as we don’t always need to chase the latest shiny thing in digital journalism (Blockchain! Chatbots! VR!) or futuristic speculation about hyperloops, passenger drones or self-driving cars if sorting out existing public transport and bike lanes could get the job done, we don’t always need moon-shots for terrestrial shortcomings in media policy.

There are things that we know we can do and that we know can make a difference. It makes no sense to throw up our collective arms and cry ‘what-oh-what-can-we-do’ when there are clear options, and while interesting and sometimes promising, it is not always necessary to start from scratch and develop entirely new policies that in any case will face uncertain politics ahead and sometimes risk negative or unintended consequences.

I’m all for blue sky thinking, but that should not distract us from the actually existing options we have. They have limitations, of course, they may not have the public and political support they need to work, and they are not free, few things are. But let’s be clear. In Denmark, 0.03% of expected 2021 government expenditure will go to direct financial support for independent news media (DKK 358m). In New Zealand, the new Journalism Fund will receive about 0.01% of government expenditure in 2020/2021 (NZ$10m). Other governments could make a similar commitment. If the US committed 0.01% of total government expenditure to direct financial support for independent news media, that would amount to billions of dollars. It’s a choice, not an conundrum.

It is up to the public and to elected politicians who represent them to decide whether such arrangements or other options are appropriate and desirable, and strike the balance between doing something and doing something that can command broad enough backing to provide legitimate and reliable support for independent professional journalism. But the main issue right now in my view is not lack of options. It is the lack of action.

Anyways – my manuscript below, with links added for underlying evidence.

Remarks at the Irish Future of Media Commission dialogue Friday 19 March on media funding and regulation. 

My name is Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, I am Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

I have been asked to address the question of what an Irish regulatory framework could seek to achieve in terms of plurality, competition, innovation, quality, and public service in the media market.

I will speak to news, as that is my area of expertise, an important part of what the Commission in your work have defined as public interest content.

When it comes to news, I think one key question is the sustainability of independent, professional journalism, especially at the local level and for disadvantaged and underserved communities.

The problem is not distribution. News is easily accessible online for everyone with internet access.

The problem is not journalism for privileged affluent, highly-educated news lovers in urban centres. They are often better served than ever before.

The core problem, I think, is the sustainable, ongoing provision of a relatively diverse range of news offers for everyone, and everywhere.

***

In every country we have data on, throughout most of the last century or more, the vast majority of independent professional journalism has been provided by private, for-profit businesses. I expect that to be the case in the future too.

Policymakers can take a number of steps to make such businesses more likely to invest in independent professional journalism.

They can also take a number of steps to supplement what private businesses do.

I will point to seven options.

***

In terms of increasing private businesses’ investment in news, the four main options that have proof of concept and/or are likely to have limited negative or unintended consequences I think are

First, direct subsidies for private news media, as deployed in for example Denmark with a system designed to prioritize supporting local publishers and smaller publishers to enhance diversity and ensure geographic spread, without creating any openings for politicians or bureaucrats to meddle with editorial. The sums involved are big enough to make a difference, but small enough to avoid over-reliance on public funds. (The scheme has also been praised by the European Commission as fully compliant with State Aid rules.)

Second, indirect subsidies for private news media, deployed in many countries, such as VAT reductions and where most generous, exemptions. Where rationally designed, these are equally applicable to offline and online news. They are increasingly important as subscriptions are more and more central to the business of digital news, and again, represent a form of support without any openings for political meddling in editorial.

Third, systemic support, as suggested in the UK Cairncross Review, to underwrite the costs of things that are relevant across the profession of journalism and for the news industry as a whole, without being tied to individual private publishers, such as funds made available for training of editorial staff who need new skills, or industry-relevant applied research.

Fourth, competitive grants for editorial projects, building off existing arts council and research council models, such as New Zealand’s recently announced Journalism Fund to support public interest journalism.

These four options are all primarily focused on independent professional journalism done by private publishers.

***

Looking beyond these, there are additional ways for policymakers to supplement independent professional journalism from private publishes. These are the next options on my list of seven.

Fifth, by far the most important is the creation and public funding of independent public service media, ideally with a remit to operate across platforms, and with secure public funding and little or no reliance on commercial revenues (to minimize the conflict that will necessarily exist between private sector and public service providers). Increasingly, in for example Finland, these are no longer funded by an often socially regressive licence fee tied to increasingly outmoded devices and waning forms of consumption, but by an earmarked media tax tied to income, structured and collected to maintain full independence. As long as the remit is clear, in the countries where I have seen independent research, there is little or no convincing evidence of the crowding out effect that private sector publishers often say they fear come with public service provision.

Sixth, easing the creation of non-profit news organizations – or the conversion of existing ones into non-profits – and the creation of relevant deductions and other incentives for supporting non-profit news media. So far much less important in terms of overall volume of investment, but significant and in many cases enabling very impressive forms of journalism, non-profit news plays an important role in the United States both through long-standing legacy media like NPR, PBS, and their local affiliates and new entrants like the Texas Tribune, with its local focus, or The 19th with its focus on gender, politics and policy.

***

Finally, policy makers can enable all sorts of independent professional journalism, whether for-profit, public service, or non-profit, by

Seventh, lowering the costs of doing investigative reporting, through ease of freedom of information access, more public data, the use of machine readable formats in place of cumbersome PDFs when public data is released and similar initiatives.

***

What these options have in common is that they are focused on enabling independent professional journalists to produce public interest content, not on propping up specific companies.

They all avoid reliance on hypothecated taxes with their many known drawbacks and problems.

They also avoid increasing news publishers’ reliance on large technology companies that they may have reservations about being too reliant on.

They often require funding, and I suspect citizens would be glad to see a greater tax contribution from large technology companies who in many cases generate vast amounts of revenue while paying little tax in individual jurisdictions.

However the funds are generated, it is important to recognize that, as a share of public expenditure, they are tiny even where these arrangements are most generous – we often spend far less public funds on supporting independent professional journalism than we do on supporting, say, agriculture or fossil fuels.

It is up to elected officials and the public to decide whether these options are appropriate and desirable, but it is important to recognize that, while not without limitations, these are actually existing policies that have proof of concept and in many cases a demonstrated positive effect.

It is a choice to implement them, just as it is a choice to not implement them.

Despite the scale and scope of change in media use and the media business the last few decades, for a long time the political norm has been to choose inaction, which is why in many countries we still have 20th century media policies for a 21st century media environment.

Call for contributions to working group on sustainability of journalism, Forum on Information & Democracy

The Forum on Information & Democracy is a non-profit entity led by civil society organisations and initiated by Reporters without Borders. It works to provide recommendations for how we can help ensure media and communication can contribute to our democracies in the years to come.

The Forum has just launched a working group on the sustainability of journalism with really impressive members from all over the world. I have agreed to chair the group. We follow a previous group focused on “infodemics”, co-chaired by Maria Ressa and Marietje Schaake.

Our aim in the sustainability group is to work for the next few months to collect data and evidence to formulate recommendations both in terms of good practice for for-profit and non-profit media, regulatory options, and non-market policies (like public service media or subsidies), all in the interest of ensuring an enabling environment for independent journalism and free media in different contexts across the world.

We have just issued our call for contributions with a deadline February 28, and look forward to receiving submissions over the next two months (I will work with the group, the rapporteurs, and the Forum’s secretariat to solicit input especially from those groups and voices rarely represented in industry and policy discussions).

At the first meeting of the working group this week, I outlined the principles I hope will inform our work as we work towards a report we aim to publish in May 2021.

  • First – our work should be oriented towards the future and not romanticize the past, or ignore the ambiguities and imperfections of existing journalism and news media.
  • Second – our work should be based on data and evidence that gives us confidence that any recommendations we make actually are good, and do not just feel good or look good.
  • Third – if we want to avoid contributing to a further politicization of journalism and independent news media by different political actors, and ensure a more stable environment, it is important to consider whether recommendations will command broad public and political support.
  • Fourth – we need to remember that we live in a time of democratic recession and increasing concentration of corporate power, and that any recommendations that increase journalism and independent news media’s reliance on ad-hoc political favors or opaque special deals with individual large companies may be a threat to editorial independence long-term, however favorable to the bottom line short-term.

If we want the recommendations to (a) work and (b) convince others that they work, it is not enough that someone somewhere believes in them, however passionately. This is important for journalists and independent news media – even where intentions are good, there is an opportunity cost to getting problems and remedies wrong. If people act on recommendations that are unsubstantiated and therefore won’t work, they risk ending up worse off. Evidence is also important if we want to influence policymakers and other relevant stakeholders that necessarily have many different considerations and are unlikely to be influenced by opinions alone, and for whom independent journalism is only one among many priorities (if a priority at all).

As a I said when we launched the group, quality news costs money and financial sustainability helps protect editorial independence. That’s why the sustainability of journalism is important for the whole public, not just those who work in the news media.

I look forward to working with the Forum on Information & Democracy and the members of the new working group on the sustainability of journalism to identify recommendations that can help us find ways to ensure continued provision of quality news from genuinely independent media in the future. To submit evidence in response to our call for contributions, please follow the instructions here.

Social science and the 2020 US election

The US Presidential Election is decided, even though Trump and his dwindling number of allies as predicted will continue to contest it, even if for example Fox News has long called it for Biden.

Fox News homepage November 7

Both the popular vote and some state-level results are different from what many expected, including some social scientists and journalists who rely on various forms of social science-style work (polling etc.).

As a professional social scientist, I wanted to write a short note with some preliminary thoughts on what the outcome might mean for social science.

I wrote a similar note after the 2016 US election, and – perhaps a sign of my advanced age and calcified ways of thinking – was tempted to just post it again. The observation that “we don’t know how most people feel about politics and how it ties in with other aspects of their lives and identities” and that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world” I’d be happy to just reiterate.

But I’ll add a few more observations, both around social science, and its interface with journalism, and will look forward to others’ thoughts. (Read responses to this thread with lots of smart people engaging – much there that I won’t try to cover here, on forms of citizenship, popular forms of political communication and political expression, varieties of journalism, the more hands-on role of platforms this time, and much more.)

All politics is to some extent identity politics

First, on social science, I don’t think we can understand the 2020 election outcome without putting identity in center place, especially if we are to understand why many white Americans have responded favorably to Trump’s explicit racial appeals. Identity was central in 2016, and this year again I think.

Much pioneering work on voting, especially coming out of sociology (the “Columbia School”) did this already a half-century ago, with e.g. Bernard Berelson et al’s observation that voting has its origins “in ethnic, sectional, class, and family traditions” and is a matter of sentiment and disposition rather than “reasoned preferences”, an approach further develop in the “Michigan model” that put party identification at the center.

For decades, more rationalist models of “median voters”, assumptions about “informed citizens” and the like were in vogue in some quarters, models that have greater affinity with many journalists’ tendency to assume (or pretend) that voting is some form of political arithmetic where people collect information (or are exposed to misinformation), analyze it, arrive at a conclusion, and then act on it. (American political scientists, and perhaps American journalists, may have been more enthralled by this view – at least in my experience, it never seemed as prominent in other countries.)

But in recent years, identity has been back front and center of much impressive social science on American politics, though less frequently centered in the particular subset of social science-style work journalism and pundits often rely most on – polling done by polling companies and various kinds of independent analysts.

Take for example Identity Crisis, where John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck came to the conclusion that Trump’s victory in 2016 was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people’s racial and ethnic identities, and by the Trump campaign actively exacerbating these divisions by hammering away on race, immigration, and religion. Similarly, Liliana Mason in Uncivil Agreement argues that political partisanship is increasingly mapped onto race and other social divisions and Ashley Jardina in White Identity Politics draws attention to, well, what the title suggests.

None of these analyses would leave one surprised that 2020 was not a Democratic landslide or that attempts to combat demonstrably factually wrong misinformation may not have done much to influence the result, as important as they are in other respects. All of these analyses suggest that tens of millions of predominantly white Americans voted for Trump because they support him and what he stands for, not because they were misinformed, uninformed, or intellectually incapable of processing the latest long investigative piece, scorching op-ed, or pithy tweet denouncing the President for his failings.

Other work underlines that we should not accept the (for some) comfortable illusion that white identity politics is narrowly tied to Trump and thus perhaps could be written off as an outlier. Carol Anderson in White Rage documents a century and a half of how social progress for African Americans has been countered time and again by deliberate and organized white opposition, just as Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos in Deeply Divided draws a line from contemporary America back to the Civil Rights struggle and the white backlash against it.

As my friend Daniel Kreiss, who has introduced me to much research on these issues, has pointed out, we have decades of important work by social scientists and historians documenting how a central theme in American politics both now and historically is whites’ power to determine who a citizen is and should be. That, not Trump, is at the root of rage-tweets like “STOP THE COUNT!” He is arguably a symptom of white identity politics, and, however aggressively and effectively he has pursued it, not its cause.

Social science and political journalism

Some journalists I think share this line of thinking. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in 2015, “All politics is, on some level, identity politics.” But more broadly, I think there is a big gap between how a significant number of social scientists analyze and understand politics as based in large part on identity, and how many journalists analyze, understand, and present politics.

Sometimes that gap is fine, even necessary. While they have some shared commitments and overlap, journalists are not social scientists, and social scientists not journalists.

But if journalists turn to social scientists and people like pollsters who do social science-style work as sources they rely on to provide evidence and insight into how politics works, and in turn present this to their readers as the best obtainable version of the truth, or at least as strong, credible predictions… then they might be better off turning to social scientists who do it well, just as presumably journalists would prefer using competent doctors and public health experts as sources for stories rather than people who demonstrably and repeatedly get things wrong, or who offer self-confident opinions dressed up as evidence?

One problem, of course, is that social scientists can’t always offer analysis and insight with the precision, timeliness, and certainty that we might like, and that journalists may seek.

I get it, that’s inconvenient and irritating. We all abhor information vacuums, often feel uneasy with uncertainty, especially faced with important events, and tend to, when no credible sources are available, improvise, rely on heuristics, and work with other sources.

But sometimes we don’t know exactly what will happen, where, when, and to the last decimal. That’s true for social science too – uncertainty is a defining feature of research science, as is organized skepticism (we are essentially a tribe united in challenging one another by constantly asking “how do you know?”). We know things. But we don’t know everything instantaneously.

What does that have to do with the relation between social science and journalism? I think it speaks to how journalists do and do not rely on social scientists, among other sources, as they work to make sense of the world in real-time and meet people’s demand for information.

Take this two-part observation from Margaret Sullivan, one of the most insightful observers on US journalism and media: “Polling seems to be irrevocably broken, or at least our understanding of how seriously to take it is.” ‘Polling is irrevocably broken’ and ‘our [journalists’] understanding of it is broken’ are two very different claims! Both could be true. And there is no question that we, again, need to examine much more closely the performance of different polls and how they were used. (Is polling broken? It absolutely has taken some big knocks, again, but still – predicting how more than 140 million people will vote within a few percentage points still beats tea leaves? And that some polling is broken does not mean that all polling is broken.) Sullivan’s second observation, that part of the problem here is the gap between social scientists and journalists (“our understanding”) is also important. As my colleague Ben Toff has shown, the way in which US journalists and news media use polls is at least in part driven by a growing interest in and reliance on polling aggregator websites fueled by many journalists’ demand for precise predictions which, when combined with sometimes limited expertise within newsrooms to adjudicate between surveys and a more competitive space with more and more polls published, can lead to news media offering readers what is fundamentally at best spurious precision and at worst outright misleading.

We see this side of the issue, many journalists’ demand for something akin to certainty most clearly with polls, but it is not limited to polls. Various news media have published electoral predictions based on everything from betting markets, Wall Street trading, to sentiment analysis of social media posts (as well as of course just self-confident men paid to have opinions). Social scientists, on the other hand, deal in uncertainty. As Andrew Gelman wrote after 2016, “There’s a theory that academics [are] petrified of making a mistake, hence we are overcautious in our predictions; in contrast, the media … reward boldness and are forgiving of failure.” Forgiveness I suppose is a virtue, only perhaps not without complications if the price for failure is paid by the public. Is it sometimes worth trying some new sources, even if they sometimes come across as less dazzlingly self-confident, acknowledge more uncertainty, and offer less precise predictions?

What does journalism treat as social science, and who do journalists recognize as social scientists?

That leads to questions around how journalism and social science intersect.

Number one, can more journalists and editors accept that social science and social science-style work cannot always provide certainty and precision? I know this is inconvenient for reporters with stories to file, and for data visualization teams with maps to draw and needles to move, but sometimes the best obtainable version of the truth is that we don’t know, or that we only now this, or roughly that, but not these other things. At its best, journalism accepts this when it comes to e.g. medical research and natural science. Not so much social science. At a personal level, it is an almost daily experience for me as a source to have to disappoint journalists by responding “I don’t know” to questions. Many of them then later turn to someone else with the same question, often of course people who actually know – but also just sources who simply seem willing to give a straight, certain, seemingly precise answer (especially consultants, lobbyists, think tanks, campaigners and the like, sometimes drawing in part on social science-like work). As Chris Anderson (another friend) suggest in his Apostles of Certainty, sometimes journalism perhaps need to convey more provisionality and uncertainty rather than risk spurious precision?

Number two, what gets to count as social science, and who gets to count as social scientists? Social science is quantitative, but it is also qualitative, and social science can be focused on the present, but also historical. I am originally a qualitative researcher myself, though with colleagues in recent years increasingly doing quantitative work focused on the present, but I continue to be concerned that the fuller, more nuanced, more robust – fundamentally more credible, convincing, more complete, can I even say, more true? – understanding of politics require qualitative and historical perspectives. I don’t have data at hand to back this up, but my impression is these types of social science are far less featured in political journalism. If it was recognized, perhaps it would be more clearly recognized in daily coverage how central identity and racial divisions are to US politics? Perhaps. (A further complication here is that analysis focused on identity politics, racial appeals, and racisms necessarily relies on a vocabulary that is both analytical and moral – calling Trump a racist on the basis of his campaign and his statements is an analytical conclusion, but also a moral judgement, and the latter may strike some journalists as partisan, no matter how well founded the former.) Similarly, in terms of who gets to count as social scientists, it is hard not to notice how many of the pollsters cited and sources used are white men (like me). There are many other outstanding social scientists, and initiatives like Women Also Know Stuff and People of Color Also Know Stuff are aimed at addressing precisely this problem by providing journalists with easy access to a wider range of expert sources.

We do social science, not because it is easy, but because it is hard

Finally, this stuff is not easy, neither the journalism nor the social science.

I am deeply conscious of how little we know, and that we often disagree on how to interpret, or even approach things. As I wrote after the 2016 election: “Science is hard. We are in the dark, poking at the world with different sticks.”

But I am also tremendously proud of social science at its best, including the work of the many colleagues I’ve cited above. In my view, we collectively produce far more robust and reliable knowledge about social life than most other professions do, and thought we do it slowly, often in obscure and in nearly unintelligible ways, and with many, many gaps, we do so from a more disinterested vantage point. That’s why I think we have something very distinct and valuable to bring to the rough process of public discussion, something I think it is important journalists recognize, and that scholars, especially those in privileged positions, should prioritize making available to the public.

Finally, did social science do a terrible job this year? Some of it, sure. We may not sound like it, but we are human too. Overall, I’m not sure. The unweighted average predicted Electoral College vote for Trump across seven forecasts published in advance of the election in PS: Political Science and Politics was 237. The final result, if Trump as projected wins North Carolina? 232.

The journalists’ trilemma

Here are three values I think most journalists would like to base their work on.

1) Seek truth and report it

2) Work with moral clarity

3) Serve the whole public

I wonder whether journalism faces inescapable trilemma that may require tradeoffs between these different aspirations?

Is there a “journalists’ trilemma”, akin to the political trilemma for the world economy Dani Rodrik identified many years ago where we might want different things at the same time, but where they are sometimes mutually incompatible so we can never have all of them simultaneously and in full?

If so the journalists’ trilemma might look something like the below – and necessitate hard decisions about which of different values to prioritize, knowing that there are likely to be tradeoffs involved.

Recognizing there are irreducibly plural values does not entail relativism, simply recognizing sometimes we have to make choices between different things that are valuable in different and sometimes incommensurable ways and that we can’t always have everything. (Recognize this from your own life? I do.)

This is not an easy idea to accept.

It is attractive – even seductive – to imagine that different good things we might want can all be accomplished at the same time.

But can they?

Looking at the US right now, I find it hard to imagine how journalists can cover Trump with moral clarity while also reaching whole public (just as I think the ambition to cover the news while serving the whole public, often implicitly in practice assumed to be made up of white men, has in the past sometimes come at the expense of moral clarity).

Let me give just three examples.

First, below is how the New York Times editorial board described the Republican Party Oct 24.

“a hollowed-out shell devoid of ideas, values or integrity, committed solely to preserving its own power even at the expense of democratic norms, institutions and ideals.”

If that is so (and the Democratic Party is fundamentally different), surely prioritizing seeking truth and reporting and working with moral clarity would require the newsroom to recognize this, even at the risk of alienating one major party and half the American electorate? Otherwise he-said-she-said journalism risks lapsing into false equivalence?

Second, a post-election Tom Nichols piece in the Atlantic describing Trump as a “sociopath” and the roughly seventy million Americans who voted for him in 2020 as follows:

“[they] are showing that they are just like him: angry, spoiled, racially resentful, aggrieved, and willing to die rather than ever admit that they were wrong.”

If that is so (and those who voted for Biden are not like this), surely truth seeking and moral clarity would require putting the role of racism and racial resentment front and center of all reporting trying to account for the election result – even if that might further alienate right-wing Americans from the news media? (I don’t think people appreciate being called angry, spoiled racists – even if some of them are angry, spoiled racists.)

Third, Wesley Lowery powerfully called for moral clarity in journalism this summer, and effectively suggested that notions of objectivity stood in the way of the truth, arguing that

“Moral clarity would insist that politicians who traffic in racist stereotypes and tropes — however cleverly — be labeled such with clear language and unburied evidence.”

I think he has a strong case, and greater moral clarity on racism, sexism, and other forms of structural inequality could arguably help journalism serve many historically underserved audiences better – but at the same time I think also turn off many whites who voted for racist politicians, and may find labelling these politicians as such in news coverage partisan and off-putting.

To be clear, I personally agree the Republican Party has much to answer for, that racism (and  sexism) is central to US society, and that many politicians actively traffic in racist stereotypes. And I find the case for focusing on commitment to truth and moral clarity very compelling. The hurt feelings of white Americans at being called racist is not more important than seeing the world for what it is.

But in irreducible diverse, disputatious societies where we are very different and often vigorously disagree about important issues I don’t think we agree on what moral clarity look like, and many forms of moral clarity I might personally find compelling, and that may potentially help engage more people of color and more women with the news, at the same time risk further alienating many conservative Americans from the news media. (It is already the case that just 13% of those in the US who identify as being politically on the right say they trust most news most of the time in our Digital News Report survey. Imagine their reaction if they and the politicians they vote for are routinely described as racists in day to day news coverage. Maybe that is a price worth paying. It would be a price nonetheless, and if paid, should be paid knowingly and willingly.)

If navigating this requires hard tradeoffs, then there is an inescapable trilemma, where we can have maybe two of the three values outlined above, but not all three of them, at least not simultaneously and in full.

And if so, then it is for each journalist and news organization to reflect on what they think right tradeoffs are. No one makes these choices for “journalism”. They are made by the individuals and organizations that make up journalism.

In line with Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young, I personally think these individuals and organizations have historically prioritized a vision of the whole public that in practice privileged white men, often affluent and well educated white men like myself, and offered little moral clarity on racism, sexism, class, and other forms of structural inequality, and that a reckoning with that is long overdue. (As I wrote about here.)

But that does not make the trilemma go away. Sometimes we cannot have it all and each of us will have to choose.

Looking at the three values I outlined at the top, I think all choices that deserve to carry the name journalism remain committed to the first one, seeking truth and reporting it. (The defining value of journalism in my view is to provide people with relatively accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs, something no other profession or institution tries to provide.)

But what else can one do at the same time? What combinations may the trilemma allow for? There are three, I think.

Clear and explicit editorial line: Some news organizations try to combine truth seeking that with different kinds of moral clarity (the Guardian offers one kind, the Daily Mail a very different kind). So seek truth, and offer moral clarity, but often divisive, definitely not for the whole public. 1 and 2, less 3.

Attempt to be duly impartial: Other news media try to report the news while serving everybody (BBC, Reuters) even if that may sometimes preclude the kind of moral clarity that many may want to see in how the news is covered, also – especially? – on the issues that divide us, like racism. So seek truth, and try to serve whole public, but can come across as deliberately obtuse on the divisive moral issues of our time. 1 and 3, less 2.

Jingoistic “journalism”: As said, I think news media who give up on the first value, seeking truth and reporting it, lose all claims on what the term journalism means to me, but we do see it in in the more jingoistic end of war coverage of “our troops” (“my country, right or wrong”, etc.). So, moral clarity for the whole public, but sometimes at the expense of seeking truth and reporting it. 2 and 3, but not much of 1.

Then perhaps we can map these three types on to my ugly sketch.

There is more to journalism than these three values, and news media, in addition to ideals, have interests (e.g. commercial sustainability) that complicate matters further.

But even without all that journalism aspires to be beyond these three values, and even without all those further complications, this trilemma seems irreducible to me, not so much as puzzle to solve as a set of choices to make?

I have tremendous respect for how hard these choices are to make, recognize how they can offer different kinds of valuable journalism, and find it entirely understandable that journalists often disagree on how to make them. But they may have to.

What can we use the news for? (Book in Danish)

I’ve written a short book called “Hvad skal vi med nyhederne?” (roughly “What can we use the news for?”) in Danish, aimed at general interest readers curious about the news we have, the news we are likely to get in the future, and what it might mean. 100 pages, meant to be the kind of thing you can read in one sitting with a cup of coffee, something accessible that is informative and good to think with.

In the book, I offer a personal perspective, summarizing some relevant research, drawing on the experience of some of the journalists and editors I work with at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and interpret the news from the point of view of citizens, in part on the basis of conversations with and memories of how we use news and have used news across generations in my own family.

I pull together different strands to argue that news offers us three main things: (1) access to relatively accurate, accessible, diverse, relevant, and timely independently produced information about public affairs, (2) dramatic stories that portray contending forces in the world and help us identify with some of them and relate to them, and that news help us (3) connect with and be part of different communities.

The news, I argue, is challenged in many ways today – writing with a focus on a high-income democracy like Denmark – I underline growing inequality, more precarious funding, and lack of diversity (around e.g. gender, ethinicty, and class) as three major challenges. Some of these are tied in with the growing power of platform companies and the ways they operate, but there is also much here that has to do with how journalism is practiced and how people experience the news.

As I write in the book, the news is not always as outstanding as some journalists and editors like to claim in self-congratulatory after dinner speeches, but research suggests that it, with its imperfections, has much to offer all of us.

That offer – the things we as citizens can use the news for – is challenged by growing inequality, more precarious funding, and lack of diversity.

But, as I write in the book, both independent research and especially the experience of working with unsentimentally forward-looking journalists and editors from all over the world means I am personally a cautious optimist that the best news we will get in the future will be better than ever, and help us — hopefully all of us — understand the world around us, navigate it, and form our own views of how we want to live in it.

Reckoning with multiple, diverse journalisms

“He made so many of them”

Journalists try to seek truth and report it, and many would like to do it on behalf of the public, ideally the whole public.

Something like that sentiment, I think, is behind the inscription on the old Daily News building in New York, a beautiful bas relief with the paper’s title on top and at the bottom the inscription “he made so many of them”, invoking a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people; he made so many of them.”

Journalists who have never lived in New York often associate the city with the New York Times and may not know that the Times, for all its qualities, was long primarily an upmarket Manhattan newspaper and well behind the more popular Daily News in terms of audience reach and circulation. When I moved to New York in 2005, the News, while much diminished, was still the most widely read print newspaper in the city, a title that, far more than august elite organs like the Times and the Wall Street Journal, tried to reach the whole, diverse, and often poor local public, and made doing that the basis of both its journalism and its business.

Of course, even the popular Daily News never reached everyone, just as journalism as a profession has always fallen short of the aspiration to serve the whole public.

Political pressures, economic realities, practical constraints and more have always limited journalism’s ability to really, fully, deliver on that ambition. As have professional routines, like the privileging of elite sources, and perhaps sometimes also cultural values that leave some journalists far moved from many people’s lived experience and worldview.

Many of these obstacles remain as relevant as ever. The “war on journalism” waged by authoritarian governments and powerful people across the globe, the severe disruption of the business of news driven in large part by the move to digital media and the rise of platform companies, necessarily limited resources in even the biggest newsrooms, compounded by structural inequalities internationally, between rich and poor countries, and nationally, between rich and poor communities. The obstacles to serving the whole public are many.

But the aspiration remains, and it is important in itself.

And yet, despite the aspiration, even in cases where these constraints are least present, in countries where media are largely free and the business of news still relatively robust, where there are still significant numbers of professional journalists and most of the public have unprecedentedly easy and cheap access to news, journalism falls short, often far short, of the aspiration to serve the whole public.

This is clear when we look at almost every kind of structural inequality, whether around class, gender, ethnicity, (some) religions, sexuality, and more, and of course especially where they intersect. Such structural inequalities influence both news coverage and news use. This is not a new observation, but it is an important observation.

These often long-standing forms of inequality are central to what Candis Callison and Mary Lynn Young in an important recent book call “the reckoning”, a reckoning that, as they write, “starts with the audience – journalism’s multiple, diverse publics”. It is not about who journalism serves, and often serves quite well, but about who actually-existing journalism isn’t serving. Callison and Young highlight how many people are actively resisting what they call “prior journalisms” by “using social media and other forms of digital media to reflect, resist, talk back, counter, and refuse to participate in legacy media or journalism conversations.” It’s important to note that it is not that people can’t engage with the news on offer. It is that they often don’t, and sometimes actively turn their back on news that they find disappointing, irrelevant, or even harmful to them and people they care about.

I want to use some of our Reuters Institute audience research to illustrate a few aspects of how central the challenge Callison and Young highlight is, even in very privileged countries, because I think it imperils the “public connection” between journalism and various audiences that both the public purpose of journalism as a profession and the practical sustainability of news as an institution is based on.

I also want to offer a few thoughts about how we, at the Reuters Institute, are reckoning with structural inequalities and trying to make sure we serve a diverse and varied community of journalists across the world.

Structural inequalities threatens journalism’s public connection 

The public connection first, and how structural inequalities threaten it. I’ll focus on the UK here because it is a diverse and unequal society and thus while very privileged in a global perspective less of an extreme fairy tale outlier than, say, my native Denmark. The UK also has a diverse and comparatively well-resourced set of very different news media across local and national media, popular papers and upmarket papers, public service media, and various digital-born new entrants, so a varied and substantial supply of news.

Who aren’t been served, then?

First, overall, among UK adults with internet access, 80% say they access news once a day or more (which we in our survey describe to respondents as “national, international, regional/local news and other topical events accessed via any platform (radio, TV, newspaper or online)”).

But the figure is significantly lower among young people, among women, among those with limited formal education and lower social grade, and among those who are alienated from the conventional politics of left and right.

In fact, these social inequalities in news use are more pronounced, often far more pronounced, than differences between the political left and those on the political right. Pundits frequently worry about political polarization in news use, but rarely about social inequalities in news use that are often bigger than political differences.

Second, in a diverse country, with a competitive media market, and different publishers aiming to serve different audiences, no publisher can be expected to reach everybody, or everybody equally. But consider a few observations about individual brands.

Take the BBC, tasked with acting in the public interest and “serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”, and provided with £3.6bn in licence fee funding to deliver on this mission in 2018-19. The BBC is by far the most widely used source of online news in the UK, and remains both highly and widely trusted. But online, its weekly reach for news according to our survey data is 45%. This is far short of “all audiences”, and furthermore, the BBC’s online reach is significantly lower among women , young people, those with low levels of formal education and lower social grade, and those who answer “don’t know” when asked to indicate their political leaning.

Or take the Guardian, which unlike some other prominent UK newspapers remains free online, and is the second most widely used source of online news in the UK, with 18% weekly reach. Unlike the BBC, the Guardian is under no obligation to serve all audiences, and it doesn’t get billions in public funding every year to do so. But it is freely accessible, privileged with the Scott Trust as its owner, and has for years aggressively invested in digital to grow its audience far beyond its limited print circulation. Yet, like the BBC, it has lower online reach among women, among those with low levels of formal education, of lower social grade, and among those who say “don’t know” about their political leaning – lower among the latter than among those on the political right. (In contrast to the BBC, though, the Guardian has significantly higher online reach among young people than in the population at large.)

All our survey respondents are internet users. They all have access to the BBC and the Guardian, news media that many journalists admire, for free. But most of them don’t access them, and use is significantly lower among many less privileged groups.

And it is not just the BBC and the Guardian (and I don’t want to pick on them, I focus on them here because they are important and because I, like many others, admire both of them in different ways). Across the more than thirty news brands we have survey data on in the UK, only one (1), the Sun, has significantly higher online reach among people with lower social grade than among more privileged parts of the population.

Nor is it only news media. Aggregators and search engines too are more widely used to access online news by those of higher social grade. Social media in fact represents the only type of platform with a different profile, equally widely used as a way of accessing news online across social grades. And unlike for example BBC News online, social media are more frequently used to access news by women and young people than the public at large. (This way, especially incidental exposure to news may at least partially counter some inequalities common across how people access news more directly online, though as Kjerstin Thorson argues, the question of who attracts the news on platforms, and what kind of news they attract, remains complex.)

And these inequalities have been pronounced during the coronavirus crisis too. Not only has the news coverage sometimes seemed more interested in how the pandemic was playing out on college campuses and cruise ships than meatpacking plants and prisons, despite the distribution of cases. (Though I of course only know this because of reporting on it.) We also see pronounced information inequalities by age, gender, household income, as well as education, as news media have been more successful in reaching older, more affluent men with higher education than any other groups throughout the crisis.

I want to be clear: a mass audience is not necessarily in itself always the same as delivering massive public value, or a necessary precondition for delivering public value – the audience reach of BuzzFeed News and the Economist, HuffPost and the Financial Times in the UK is limited, but they often do important journalism.

But it matters greatly whether journalism and news overall reach a wide public. And I think it matters greatly if there are systematic, structural inequalities in who are served by the news, with almost all brands skewed towards more privileged audiences. And if many people, and perhaps an increasing number of people, in particular people who face various forms of structural inequality, see the news as at best disappointing and irrelevant, and at worst harmful or hostile, they are arguably right to turn to other alternatives—like the forms of digital media witnessing that Allissa V. Richardson identifies among Black US Americans, embraced in part, as Meredith Clark has pointed out, because many are tired of seeing mainstream journalists get it wrong. In such cases, journalism is diminished and weakened as an institution in part because it has fallen short of its own purpose and aspirations.

Facing such often long-standing structural inequalities and the reckoning that Callison and Young call for while also dealing with political attacks, disrupted business models, and the power of platforms is a big additional challenge for journalists and news media who have a lot on. But I think it is urgent for the public purpose of journalism as a profession and for the news media as an institution. And while not made easier by other challenges, I don’t think these challenges are the same. Would existing news media really serve underprivileged communities better if newspapers made more money and didn’t have to worry about Facebook? Writing in 1979, a time that those with selective memories, little real interest in history, and a tendency to romanticize the past may look back at as part of some mythical “golden age” of American journalism, Herbert J. Gans noted that “news reflects the white male social order” and is often suffused with paraideological assumptions that valorize moderatism, order, and responsible capitalism. I think it still largely does. This challenge, of examining such assumptions and of overcoming structural inequalities in who journalism serves and ensuring it is more diverse and inclusive in terms of who it represents and what it covers, is distinct from other challenges, and I think it has to be faced on its own terms.

The reckoning in journalism – and at the Reuters Institute 

How do we face this challenge? I don’t know. And even if I was arrogant enough to think I did, I’d have no right to tell journalists, editors, media executives (or anybody else really) how to do their jobs. Instead, what I try to do is to work with my colleagues to offer journalists and news leaders opportunities for discussing their challenges with peers, connect them with other interesting people, and provide independent, evidence-based relevant research, so that they can develop the responses they think are right for each of them, on the basis of their aspirations, their context, and their values.

There won’t be one way ahead. As with many of the other challenges and opportunities that journalism and journalists face, I think we need to recognize the fundamental reality of conflict inside journalism itself as we discuss how to face this challenge. Journalists will disagree over this too, they will have different priorities, different interests, different values, and we will never simply agree on one consensual one-size-fits-all solution. There will be fights. There will be winners and losers. Addressing diversity and inclusion in some areas won’t always go hand-in-hand with addressing them in others (popular papers have often been great at reaching less privileged white men, some of them have also been rather racist and sexist). People are getting hurt by the status quo, and other people will feel they get hurt if we change the status quo.

But I want to say a few things about how I think about structural inequalities in my own work as I enter my third year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and about our way ahead.

I am a privileged, affluent, highly educated white man leading a privileged institution at a privileged university in a privileged part of the world. We carry the Reuters name, which we are extremely proud of, even as we are also conscious of its history of imperial entanglements. We are part of the University of Oxford, which has its own multitude of issues to face. We have the privilege of working with loads and loads of other privileged people, organizations, and institutions across news media, governments, and the technology sector. We need to reckon with who we at the institute do and do not serve, just as the profession and industry we engage with needs to face its own reckoning. If “the public”, in James Carey’s parlance, is journalism’s god-term, I suppose “journalism” is our god-term. And just as any mention of how journalism serves the public should prompt the question “what public?”, our invocation of journalism prompts the question “which journalists?”

I want to be very clear, I am very proud of the work we do, and of the legacy we build on. But I also know there is always room for improvement, and that improvement requires self-examination and new priorities. So here are some notes on how I think about how our work can serve multiple, diverse journalisms.

We do three things at the institute, we run programs for mid-career journalists, we offer leadership programs for editors and news media executives, and we run research programs. Beyond this we work hard to communicate our work and deliver on the debate and engagement parts of our mission.

To better understand how we are doing in terms of serving multiple, diverse journalisms, we are introducing a set of internal diversity trackers at the institute across these starting this term, inspired in our own small way by the important 50:50 project founded by Ros Atkins at the BBC and now adopted by many different news media. We have adapted their three core principles – collect data to effect change, measure what you control, and never compromise on quality – to create our own simple and flexible self-monitoring system across our activities. The tracking is partial and limited because it has to be practical, and what we track vary by area, but broadly, we are tracking gender (like the 50:50 project) as well as geography (because our mission is global), and for speakers we feature in our seminars, a basic white/non-white coding. We are missing out on many important things (class, religion, sexuality, etc.) but I hope this will be useful nonetheless.

Because we are conscious that our existing programmes are limited in various ways, and will remain so even as we monitor how we run them and aim to ensure they are diverse and inclusive, we are also pursuing a range of new priorities.

In terms of our journalist programs (led by Meera Selva), we aim to develop additional short courses that can be more accessible for journalists who for personal or professional reasons are not able to join a three- or six-month fully funded fellowship. While we remain very committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site, private programs (journalists face hard challenges and need to be able to discuss them in confidence among their peers), we are also looking at ways in which we can replicate the particular qualities of private, off-the-record conversations in small groups in a safe space can be delivered online. We hope these initiatives will, over time, help us serve more, and more diverse, range of journalists from across the world.

In terms of our leadership programs (led by Federica Cherubini), we also remain strongly committed to the distinct value of in-person, on-site private programs, but again, recognize that cost and geography limit who we can serve with that model. We are therefore looking at developing off-site offers specifically targeted on poor parts of the world where travelling to Oxford impose an additional barrier, and also examining the potential for developing private online programs for individual independent news media in the Global South so that we can work with them, learn from them, and perhaps be of use to them.

In terms of our research programs (led by Richard Fletcher), we are focused on expanding the number of countries we cover in our research (most recently adding Kenya and the Philippines to the 2020 Digital News Report with support from the Open Society Foundations), and plan to significantly expand further in 2021. We are also doing more research focused specifically on issues including social inequalities in news use and information inequality during the coronavirus crisis, gender and leadership in the news media, race and leadership in the news media, and how news media organizations are (or sometimes aren’t) facing up to their shortcomings around diversity and inclusion.

In terms of our communications (led by Eduardo Suarez), to ensure our work is accessible to multiple, diverse journalists, we are focused on developing out networks with journalist covering the media across the world, doing some of our communications in Spanish (and on occasion a few other languages), increasingly translating at least parts of our research into Spanish, and investing in expanded capacity to write about journalism in the Global South – the latter in part because it is intrinsically important and doesn’t get the same attention at least in English as journalism in more privileged parts of the world, in part because we believe journalists everywhere can all learn from the experience of peers who have long operated in the face of political attacks, precarious business models, deep inequality, and profound polarization. (This may be new to some, but it is arguably the global norm.)

All of these priorities are at least in part at the expense of other things we could have done, and often done more easily. Our resources are limited, as are the hours in the day. We are proud to be part of the conversation that journalists and news media have about themselves in privileged high income democracies, a conversation often dominated by voices from the UK and the US, and we want to continue to be part of it because it is important and we learn a lot from it. We could double down on that. It’s often easier to fund than global work. But we won’t. We take the “worldwide” part of our mission – exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research – very, very seriously, and prioritizing it while also systematically monitoring how diverse our work is across other dimensions I think it’s key that we at the Reuters Institute make sure that we serve multiple, diverse journalisms.

The journalisms we had and the journalisms we want 

We try to do this while remaining both respectful of the history and track record of actually existing journalism, what Candis and Young call “prior journalisms”, without being beholden to it or blind to its many limitations. As I wrote when I took over as Director of the Reuters Institute in 2018, we are not here to help people go back to the journalisms of yesterday, but to work with journalists from around the world as they build towards better journalisms for tomorrow, whether that is Adesola Akindele-Afolabi thinking about how financial journalism in Nigeria can serve poor people better, Camilla Marie Nielsen from Ekstra Bladet, a popular title akin to the Daily News of old, develop ways of reporting on sexual abuse to fatigued audiences, Tejas Harad analysing the barriers Bahujan journalists face in Indian newsrooms, or any of the many other journalists, editors, and news media leaders we work with.

We may be in Oxford, but we are not bound by the dead hand of tradition and we won’t let a romanticized picture of the past hold us captive. Much of journalism has, frankly, been classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, and xenophobic for far too long. Some of it still is, and journalism is demonstrably failing to reach many people who face various structural inequalities. Failing business models and new technologies may not make facing and addressing this any easier. But I think we have to. And I personally think we should.

As we do, I will think of the Daily News building and the “he made so many of them” inscription. It is important to seek truth and report all the news that’s fit to publish. It is also important to try to serve the whole public. And people, like journalists, are all different, and often want and need different things. We’ll try to keep that in mind at the Reuters Institute, and I hope journalists and news media will keep it in mind too. That is the only way we can confront the structural inequalities and issues arounds diversity and inclusion that are a distinct, and severe, threat to the purpose of journalism and the sustainability of news media.