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.

Communications research has a lot to offer during the coronavirus crisis. But are we offering it?

Coronavirus is (also) a communications crisis

The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis, as the outbreak is accompanied by a deluge of information, including considerable amounts of misinformation and rumours.

Handling what the WHO has called an “infodemic” is a necessary part of an effective response.

If people do not have access to reliable information from trusted sources about what they should do to protect themselves, their families, and their communities, and if they do not understand how authorities are responding, public health measures will be less effective and public health will suffer.

The response to the communications crisis should in my view ideally, just as the response to the medical crisis, be informed by expertise and up-to-date evidence.

How we respond to the coronavirus is a profoundly political question, and a question for each of us and the communities we are part of. Research cannot, should not, and will not dictate how we handle the coronavirus communications crisis, let alone the wider medical emergency and societal impact of the pandemic across our communities, the economy, and more.

But research can inform our responses, provided research is made available for us, as citizens in the public at large, as well as for decision-makers in governments, health authorities, and the like.


Communications research has a lot to offer – but are we offering it?

I believe communications research has a lot to offer in informing both public and policy decision-making in this crisis. But I think the relevance and importance of our collective work is rarely recognized. I think we are relatively absent from many of these debates. And I’m not sure we are always doing what we can to change that.

If that is so, the result will be that substantially important public (and policy) discussions of issues deeply intertwined with the core of our field are dumber than they could have been, in part due to our relative absence, an absence that I think is in turn in part due to the ways in which we as a field do our work.

I have written elsewhere (and draw on that here) about how even in high-profile cases that clearly involve issues that are in large part about communications (e.g. the role of different forms of political communication including misinformation and more in influencing various political outcomes in for example the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and UK EU Referendum), we as a field are often largely marginal to these public discussions. Instead, academics from more or less adjacent fields (economics, political science, sociology, in some countries even law) are invited to hold forth with their more or less informed views on our core object of analysis, communications.

The communications crisis around the coronavirus pandemic I think is another powerful illustration of this.

We might think we have what Thomas Gieryn calls “epistemic authority” over communications, but often, no one seems to care what we know. If we actually know more about what we study than others do – which I think we do (otherwise we might as well all go home?) – there is a consequence from our absence, an opportunity cost, a price that the public will ultimately pay in a crisis like this, as well as a consequence for our field by reinforcing the perception that we are irrelevant.

If that is so, I think we should do what we can to change it?


External and internal factors influencing our absence

So if we are relatively absent, why is that? I think there are external and internal factors (more about it here).

External factors we have no control over. They include what I think is in most countries our relatively low status as expert sources among journalists, who tend to go to others for information about our area (we aren’t exactly “primary definers”), and the way in which “knowledge regimes” in many countries are institutionalized in ways that privilege other sources of knowledge for input in policy processes than ours (they’ll probably go to the economists, lawyers, and think tanks first, no matter what we – as scholars of communication – think).

One World Health Organization webinar I attended early on, organized specifically to help others deal with the communications crisis and starting with the observation that “infodemic management must be built around evidence” featured more than a dozen expert speakers, of whom only one (Leticia Bode) to my knowledge has ever worked or published in the field of communications. (The term “infodemic” itself I think is interesting. It is not an established concept our work or social science research more broadly. It comes from a newspaper comment piece written in 2003, and while evocative, a Google Scholar search suggests almost no use of it in academic research prior to 2020.) A UK government call for social science experts to help advise them on the crisis was circulated, but did not even list media and communications research among the fields and disciplines they were interested in.

Internal factors we, at least collectively, and especially those of us who occupy positions of privilege and power within communications research, have some control over. They are rooted in some of the informal norms and formal reward systems that characterize our field. Both informally and formally, I think we often privilege a certain way of producing peer-reviewed work for a narrow academic audience to a degree that risks relegating everything else—interdisciplinary collaboration, teaching, service, let alone various forms of public engagement—to the margins. Despite some variation from country to country and university to university, at a field-level what we recognize (informal norms) and reward (formal institutions) is primarily peer-reviewed publications produced for a field-internal academic audience.

Let me underline that I strongly believe that peer-reviewed publications are an indispensable core of what we do. Public and policy engagement is not a substitute for scientific work, but engagement can enhance it and supplement scientific work, creating what Helga Nowotny calls “robust knowledge”.

It is precisely because I believe that we as scientists together can produce distinct, valuable, and reliable knowledge with a bearing on some of the big issues of our time that I am concerned with our relative irrelevance to public debates. I believe we have much to contribute to debates like the debate around how to confront the communications crisis that is part of the coronavirus pandemic.


So how visibly engaged are we as a field?

Not everyone is in a privileged enough position to prioritize engagement if informal norms and formal rewards are tightly focused on very specific things. But some of us are. Few more clearly than those we honor as ICA Fellows, all of whom are distinguished scholars, and most of whom have senior, secure positions with considerable autonomy over how they spend their time, including whether and how much they prioritize various kinds of engagement.

The ICA Fellows are formally and informally celebrated role models for our field – they do scholarship, and through the recognition we bestow on them for their distinguished work, they also model scholarship for the wider community.

So how visible are the ICA Fellows as ambassadors for their own and our collective research in the coronavirus crisis? There are many forms of meaningful public and policy engagement. Not everyone is in a position to do any, let alone all of them (our primary responsibility to those closest to us arguably takes precedent over professional responsibilities). But perhaps appearances in news coverage can give an small indication of how visible or invisible we are as a field.

There are currently 181 ICA Fellows listed on the association website. Of these, 124 are (a) alive and (b) working in an English-speaking country. Leaving aside those who are sadly no longer with us, and the many eminent colleagues who work at least in part in other languages than English, I have worked with Felix M. Simon to collect data about how frequently these 124 ICA Fellows have appeared in the news in connection with coronavirus.

Our data collection was simple, and not meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive (we don’t look at broadcast or social media, for example). It is not any way a rigorous analysis, but simply indicative of how visible we as a field are in public debate as mediated by news through these distinguished scholars who represents much of what is best in our community.

For each fellow, we have searched for them by ““FIRSTNAME LASTNAME” coronavirus” on Google News for the period from January 1 2020 till May 20 2020. To guard against human error and the often inexplicable variation in opaque systems like Google News, we both collected data for a random subset of 10 individuals. For 8 of these 10, the result was the same, for the remaining, minor variations.

In the 141 days from January 1 to May 20 (both included), these 124 distinguished communications scholars and ICA Fellows collectively appear 405 times in news coverage captured via Google News. It is worth noting here that Google News is very, let’s say, ecumenical in the definition of “news”. The University of Pennsylvania Office of University Communications is included alongside the BBC and the New York Times, as is Penn Today, run by same office, and the independent student newspaper the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Here is a bit more detail on what we find—

  • Five ICA Fellows, four women, and one man, account for half the media mentions (197 mentions, 49%). They have a wide range of areas of research interests including children and media, health communication, journalism studies, and political communication


  • For those who might suspect public engagement comes at the expense of scholarly impact, it is worth noting that these five ICA Fellows have Google Scholar citations ranging from over six thousand to almost fifty thousand.


  • The median number of news mentions among the 124 ICA Fellows is 0. Sixty-six of them do not return any results. It’s not even really a long tail, more like a stump.


  • Women make up 47 (38%) of the 124 ICA Fellows included, but account for 251 (62%) news mentions in the sample. This is heavily driven by those with the most mentions. Looking only at the 119 ICA fellows in the long tail who account for half the news mentions combined, women account for 36% of the fellows and 37% of the mentions.

ICA fellows

(This is not a competition, and not zero-sum, but for comparison, the British political scientist John Curtice appeared 185 times in the same period when searching for him the same way on Google News. The American sociologist Ruth Milkman a 106 times. Trisha Greenhalgh, Professor of primary health care and a practising general practitioner, 158 times. All of three of them appear more often in coronavirus news stories on Google News than any of the 124 ICA Fellows included here.)

I don’t think thousands of media mentions are intrinsically valuable, but if they are ICA Fellows appearing in the news, I would have confidence that they are in most cases an important part of how our field and our collective work is presented to the wider public. In the ocean of coronavirus crisis coverage, where Chartbeat reported 2.3 million articles on COVID-19 in the first three months of the year alone, with 405 mentions of more than a hundred of our most illustrious colleagues over four months, can I say I think we are bordering on being invisible?


What do we do next?

The 2020 ICA conference theme is “Open Communication”, which our President Claes de Vreese describes as part of the wider move towards open science, among other things “oriented toward advancing scholarship through transparency, wide-ranging collaboration, and a focus on the creation of public goods [and] sharing knowledge about our research process”. And more widely across the field, I think there are moves afoot towards more engagement in different forms.

Everyone will have their own favourite examples, here are a few of mine.

In 2019, the Journalism Studies Division introduced a public engagement award for out-wards oriented work (supplementing the 12 different awards the division gives for more field-internal oriented forms of work, including multiple best paper awards for both faculty and students, best extended abstract, best poster, best article, best dissertation, best book, and best reviewer) championed by our chair Keren Tenenboim-Weinblatt. The new award recognize different kinds of engagement, including informing the public about research and making it more accessible, influencing policy or professional audiences and their work, and/or involving the public directly in research projects, partnerships, events, and engaged learning approaches. The 2019 recipients were Sue Robinson and Talia Stroud, the 2020 recipient Irene Costera Meijer, all of whom command tremendous respect for their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.

In 2020, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a titan of our field, of political communication scholarship, and an ICA Fellow among many other honours, received the National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal for her “non-partisan crusade to ensure the integrity of facts in public discourse and development of the science of scientific communication to promote public understanding of complex issues”. She is again a scholar who has demonstrated through an extraordinary career her commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement.

And of course there are many important examples beyond those who work mostly in English, or indeed those who appear in the news – Julia van Weert and her colleagues at the Amsterdam Center for Health Communication engage both with the public and policymakers in the Netherlands and beyond, Hye-Jin Paek is bringing her academic expertise to bear while currently working for the South Korean government. Leticia Bode as said has featured in multiple WHO settings, discussing the important work she has done with Emily Vraga.

It’s interesting to note that both in the news mentions of ICA Fellows, and the more impressionistic examples I list above, women feature far more prominently than they do in raw numbers of ICA Fellows or in the most privileged, senior positions in many parts of our field. It is worth noting here, I think, that some researchers analyzing academic work and career patterns argue that many dominant informal norms and formal rewards in the academy privilege a dominant form of masculinity associated with older and frankly stereotypical images of the natural sciences, with the lonely researcher perched atop a scientific hierarchy, far above everyday issues, and sometimes effectively punish others, often women, who chose to practice science in ways tightly bound with other societal practices concerning the production, transmission, translation and exchange of knowledge.

Men, who in all countries I know of still occupy the vast majority of senior positions and full professorships in our field, and account for 77 of the 110 ICA Fellows included in our data above, are not entirely absent of course. Not only has Claes de Vreese championed open science in communications. Another example is ICA Fellow and former Journal of Communication editor Silvio Waisbord, who explicitly argues in his book The Communication Manifesto that we need to tackle academic institutional politics if we want to strengthen public scholarship as central to the mission of communication studies. He too I think is an example of a scholar who combines research excellence with public engagement.

All these and more every day demonstrate their commitment to combining research excellence with public engagement, and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this is not a zero-sum trade of, but that we can be excellent scientists, and excellent at engaging with those outside of our field, at the same time. Who knows, maybe both the public and we will benefit in the process?


What could we do?

What might more public and policy engagement look like? Some of this simply requires hard work and prioritizing engagement, not as a second shift or a hobby, but as part and parcel of a scholarly vocation. If there is something akin to the marketplace of ideas John Stuart Mill described as a “rough process of struggle,” we need to get stuck in – as Hamilton sings in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “when you got skin in the game, you stay in the game”. I would encourage in particular colleagues in privileged positions to think about whether public and policy engagement could play a larger role in their professional work.

I also think we can look for inspiration in adjacent fields for innovations. If the Washington Post can host the Monkey Cage blog drawing on political science, why not a blog on media and communications research? Many colleagues already write for the Conversation, an pieces there are sometimes re-published elsewhere. Political scientists like Brendan Nyhan and Pratap Mehta write regularly for newspapers, as do Zeynep Tufekci who may be the most prominent public voice for our kind of work right now. Beyond a narrow focus on news, there is social media, podcasts, webinars, and free online courses, and much else. Sonia Livingstone has given Ted Talks. The climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has built up a very public profile across events, news, social media, and more. Institutes like Data & Society set up by danah boyd serve as what Peter Galison calls “trading zones”,  spaces for thinkers, academic or otherwise, to listen, argue, and even collaborate and develop “interactional expertise”, the ability to talk from a position in a field to those overlapping with it, adjacent to it, and outside it.

We have a lot to offer. But we have to offer it, and I think we have to informally celebrate and formally reward those who offer it if we want to institutionalize engagement as part of communications as a field. I think we should.

And in this context I think it is particularly important that those who enjoy the rare privilege of secure employment and considerable autonomy, and who we hold up as role models for future generations of communications scholars, think about whether and how they represent our field and bring our collective expertise and knowledge into public and policy discussions of the big issues of our time.

The coronavirus pandemic is a communications crisis in addition to a medical crisis and much more. It is a moment where we can really help make a difference. I am not sure we are doing the best we can, but I hope we will try. We might even learn something ourselves about communications by offering it, and build an even stronger field. I think we will.

I wrote this post with super helpful research assistance from Felix after a panel at ICA 20 chaired by Claes H. de Vreese, where Hye-Jin Paek from the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at Hanyang University (working in South Korean government currently); Julia van Weert, Professor of Health Communication at the University of Amsterdam; Dietram A Scheufele, Taylor-Bascom Chair in Science Communication and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Leticia Bode, Associate Professor at Georgetown University, and I had a chance to discuss how our work as communications researchers might matter in the coronavirus crisis. Watch it here and more about our RISJ COVID-19 research here.

Empires by innovation? A few thoughts on the internet, AI, and Europe/the US

Was asked to give a few remarks at the 2020 Dahrendorf Colloquium organized by Timothy Garton Ash at St Antony’s College in Oxford today. Really interesting discussion with six of us kicking off discussions of six big questions relevant for the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, with Rana Mitter talking on China, David Priestland on Russia, Kate Sullivan de Estrada on India in terms of geopolitics, and then Paul Collier on the future of capitalism, Dieter Helm on Climate change and energy policy, and myself on the internet and AI.

I had 5 minutes, so necessarily short. Also, meant to tee up a discussion that goes far beyond my own core expertise. A cleaned-up transcript below with a few links added.

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Empires by innovation? A few thoughts on the internet, AI, and Europe/the US

I’ve been asked to speak about the internet and AI with a focus on differences or convergences between US and European approaches

I’ll talk about the Internet first, AI second, then US and Europe

First the internet.

The internet increasingly is turning into only partially overlapping and interoperable “splinternets” as states assert control and regulate more and more.

Wendy Hall and Kieran O’Hara suggest we can think of as at least four different internets, Silicon Valley’s “libertarian internet” (they call it “open internet”), Brussels’ “bourgeois internet”, Beijing’s “authoritarian internet”, and Washington DC’s “commercial internet”.

But even as many states are asserting more control, leading to greater regulatory divergence, outside of those countries where they are in practice prevented from operating, we see greater practical convergence, as a growing part of the practical infrastructure of free expression, at least at the application and operating system-level, is operated by a limited number of US-based, for-profit private platform companies that people increasingly rely on for a large part of their news and information needs (and much more).

Consider just two datapoints from the UK

First, our media environments are already digital-first. According to eMarketer, in 2019, adults in the UK spend on average 23 percent of their time with media watching television, 15 percent listening to radio, and 55 percent online across smartphones, tablets, and personal computers.

Second, whereas domestic media dominate offline media (in early 2019, we found that the BBC accounted for 63% of all radio listening in the UK, and 31% of all linear scheduled television viewing), US-based platforms loom large online. In early 2019, the BBC accounted for just 1.5% of all time spent with digital media. By comparison, Google’s various products and services made up 22% of all time spent with digital media, and Facebook’s 14%.

This shift is in part the result of choice, people have access to printed newspapers, broadcast, and countless websites, and in practice choose to spend much of their time online, and primarily with a limited number of platforms, who over time build up dominant positions for their core services, even as they face competition more widely for attention and advertising.

So in terms of individual behaviour, we have practical convergence, as people seek out and use the same set of platforms in the US and Europe, even as we see institutional differences and regulatory divergences, as the implications of this move are, and are seen as, somewhat different.

All the major platforms are based in the US, most responsive to US stakeholders, whether private companies or political actors, suffused with (some) US values, and often design first for US market and regulatory context, then roll out elsewhere afterwards. Overseas, I think they are seen by many as fundamentally US entities.

In Europe, they are in practice embraced by hundreds of millions of people – an embrace sometimes accompanied by considerable reservations about their data collections practices etc., but an embrace nonetheless – even as many European activists and NGOs, many European private companies, and many European policymakers worry about the consequences of the rise of what we might call rival, competing, commercial “empires by innovation”, with a nod to Geir Lundestad’s notion that the expansion of US power in Western Europe during the early years of the Cold War was the expansion of “Empire by Invitation”. (The empire analogy is imperfect – the platforms do not rely on physical violence and are not exactly monarchical in their governance, so far from the authoritarian bloodbath of the British Empire – but perhaps generative in drawing attention to how they extend power relations across spaces where they have no prior or given sovereignty, legal or otherwise, and where, in one or more of the domains, they gain some measure of extensive hegemony over those spaces that help them extract or accrue value.)


Second, AI

What does this mean for AI?

I’m not a technical expert but I’m happy to point to a few institutional dynamics.

I think changes in how we use the internet has led to a situation where large US-based companies play an increasingly important role in structuring European public debate, news, and information, completely integrated into their technical and data-extraction structures, and where Europe in turn is these companies’ second-most important market currently, accounting for a large part of their revenues, in many cases something like a quarter.

This means, first, that when these large technology companies increasingly rely on machine learning and other forms of AI as part of their various ranking algorithms, these (for-profit) AI technologies increasingly shape public debate, news, and information in Europe – in 2019, for example, we found, looking across 38 markets, including more than 20 in Europe, that just 29% of internet news users say going direct to news sites or apps is their main way of accessing news online, compared with 53% who say that various forms of algorithmic selection, including search engines, social media, and news aggregators, as their main way of accessing news online.

It means, second, that, given their popularity and pervasiveness, the biggest US-based platforms not only have more money to invest in developing AI, and a greater ability to recruit and retain tech talent, they also often have greater ability to extract in volume, at velocity, and with variety, much of the data that powers the practical application of most AI technologies in Europe, than many of their European competitors. (Thought there are other kinds of data than the consumer data platforms extract online, including industrial and inter-organizational data, and that the quality of the data platforms extract on the two final Vs of the “5 Vs” of big data, veracity and value—yet to be seen.)

The big US-based platforms are thus the most visible incarnations of what Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism”, oriented not just to the accumulation of profit, but also of data, but they are far from alone, and both European companies and European politicians would actually rather like to grow European surveillance capitalists champions (always, everyone will hasten to add, as the US incumbents do too, in a “privacy-compliant fashion”). This is an interesting situation where we have a technology industry often associated with libertarianism behaving in a way some would say is fundamentally illiberal, especially when pursued by private enterprise and executive power working in concert, as we have seen for examples in collaborations between AT&T and the NSA.

It means third, because the big US-based platforms make so much money in Europe, that they would like to continue to operate here and are thus likely to acquiesce to many forms of regulation and other forms of political intervention.

Third, then, the US and Europe

What the, given the practical convergence, and the central role of a few US companies with global reach, are the differences between between the US and Europe (with China lurking in the background)?

One of them is regulation.

Crudely put, I think the difference can be summarized thus:

  1. US companies build many of the new technologies that countless people and a multitude of private companies and public authorities choose to use, both in the US and Europe (and China provides more and more of the infrastructure and hardware).
  2. The US politically has chosen to mostly regulate these technologies by not really regulating them very much, as suggested by Hall and O’Hara’s notions of the libertarian and commercial internets (with a bit of national security lurking in the background, some interesting ideas circulating in left-leaning legal circles, and much sound and fury from Donald Trump, but no new action yet)
  3. Europe, in contrast, increasingly try to actively regulate these technologies both at the EU level and the member state level, across data protection and privacy, eCommerce, competition, taxation, AI, and responses to misinformation.
  4. And, at least looking at misinformation, our survey research suggest greater public acceptance of government intervention in Europe than in the US.
  5. So the US is building technologies, but regulating through non-regulation, and Europe is not really building very much, but regulating. (China, meanwhile, is both building AND actively regulating, and keeping out technology companies from elsewhere unless they fully comply with often draconian rules and regulations.)

In one sense, this makes Europe very powerful – through what Anu Bradford calls the “Brussels effect”, where the EU exercise a unique power to influence global corporations and set the rules of the game by acting in the regulatory space (while the US does little or nothing), with many countries across the world then choosing, effectively between doing nothing (like the US), following Europe, or imitating China.

But in another sense, this power is not easy to exercise in a convoluted European-level political system, with democratic member states’ own domestic political dynamics, and complex national and regional economies, where “Europe” is not one thing, does not necessarily agree on what it values and interests “it” wants to promote, and where even individual actors, whether us as citizens and end users, private companies, or public authorities, often have multiple and not always easily aligned priorities.

As individuals, many of us may have reservations for example about how technology companies collect and use data, even as we use their products and services every day, often quite like to use them, and find them very useful.

As private companies, many European corporations may have reservations about how they are becoming more and more reliant on large US-based technology companies both in terms of reaching their customers and often in terms of their technical back-end, even as they also use their products and services every day, often quite like to use them, and find them very useful.

And among public authorities, European politicians might have reservations about the impact of, say social media and microtargeted advertising, even as they use them to campaign and communicate with the public, often quite like to use them, and find them very useful, and some European public authorities might have reservations about the use of, say, AI-powered facial recognition technologies, even as we know from independent reporting that law enforcement in many European countries have already been using these technologies, would quite like to use them, and would probably find them very useful.


So, in summary—

Even as increased assertiveness at both the state- and EU-level is driving regulatory divergence, there is considerable practical convergence as end users, private companies, and public authorities in Europe often embrace the same US-based tech companies as their American counterparts do –leading to the formation of competing commercial ‘empires by innovation’. (As with the US Cold War “empire by invitation”, this is complicated and in some ways problematic, but also not necessarily the worst actually existing option. Was my native Denmark worse of for joining the American international order? I don’t think so personally, even as I am keenly aware of the many downsides to this order.)

This in turn means that these US-based tech companies are increasingly important in Europe, and able to both apply their various technologies, more or less reliant on AI, and collect great amounts of data, but also that they make so much money that they are likely to acquiesce to forms of regulation that might lead them to withdraw from smaller, less lucrative markets.

This gives Europe power to act – especially in a situation where the US politically has chosen not to act – but how to act, and in the pursuit of what balance of what values and interests, that is the question.

Vanguards and rearguards in the fight for the future of journalism

“The truth is hard”

I’ve come across this quote repeatedly in the past year, most frequently in the form of ads for the New York Times at various media events. It always makes me think of the divide between the vanguard and the rearguard over the future of journalism.

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New York Times ad at the World News Media Congress in Glasgow, June 2019

One truth that is not hard is this: in my first year as Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, I have been truly and thoroughly inspired by the ambition, desire, and fight for change in journalism among many journalists, editors, and media leaders.

Let’s call them the vanguard.

While the vanguard is often young, it is not only young – Maria Ressa at Rappler and Marty Baron of the Washington Post are not spring chickens, and they are forging towards the future of journalism, as are Kath Viner at the Guardian, Siddharth Varadarajan from The Wire, and many others who have been through a thing or two. But perhaps it is also about age—the absolutely certainty among many that journalism as we knew it will not thrive in the 21st century, combined with suspicion among some older journalists that it may yet last their time out.

That latter part is a harder truth to face, the persistence of a mindset that risks doing lasting damage to the profession of journalism and the news media organizations that enable it, and make a number of already tough challenges even tougher. It is the mindset of those who say they believe that people will cool on their smartphones and pick up print, that people will ditch video-on-demand and return to linear scheduled broadcasting, that journalists can safely condescend upon and harmlessly ridicule as conspicuously woke or ridiculously politically correct the values and priorities of new generations.

This is the rearguard.

This mindset is invisible at most “future of journalism” gatherings, but I meet at least some of them at every industry event I attend, many in most media organization I visit, and they have plenty of kindred spirits among (older) policymakers.

The rearguard thinks the problem is that the world has changed too much. The vanguard thinks the problem is that journalism hasn’t changed enough.

Nothing is ever black or white, but crudely put, I see one group of journalists and media leaders who want to develop and change the profession and the funding models that sustain it so they are fit for a changing world and a digital media environment. But I also, constantly, everywhere, come across another group of journalists and media leaders who do not see it this way, who would rather pour their energy into vain attempts at trying to restore a romanticized past, airbrushed of its shortcomings, idealized for its (very real) virtues, and valued for the stability it offered many, both in terms of professional security and career advancement as well as in terms of the media business.

From my experience, the younger generation is overwhelmingly in the first group. The older generation? More mixed. The vanguard is full of women and more diverse. The rearguard full of white men like me.

Both the vanguard and the rearguard care about journalism, but the divide between them is a problem for the profession and the industry, for while the first group is fighting for various visions of an uncertain future, the second group is defending a defunct past that—while it had much to offer—will in many ways no longer serve. The older parts of the rearguard won’t even necessarily experience the full consequences of their own conservatism. Business as usual, perhaps with a bit of hand-waving about AI and blockchain for garnish, may in fact last their time out (if they are close enough to retirement). But in the process, this mindset will continue to undermine journalism’s ability to adapt, remake, and renew itself, and the profession as a whole, especially younger journalists, will have to live with the consequences of this conservatism. This is an often unacknowledged, but ever-present and very real, generational divide in journalism.


“The truth isn’t so obvious”

That’s another part of that same New York Times advertisement. And don’t we know it. When we redefined the Reuters Institute’s mission this year as “exploring the future of journalism worldwide through debate, engagement, and research”, it was premised on three things: (1) we don’t want to fight yesterday’s battles, but will look toward the future, (2) we don’t know what that future looks like, or should look like, so we want to explore it by all means available, and (3) we don’t believe anyone can succeed on this journey on their own, so we will focus on collaboration and conversation.

But there are some things we do know, and while these things may count among the truths that the New York Times counts as hard to hear, they are also truths that cannot be glossed over.

  • Journalism is important for democracy. (Yes – often for good, but sometimes for ill.)
  • Journalism is important for holding communities and societies together. (Yes – but also sometimes dividing them.)
  • Journalism is an important part of the media and technology business. (Yes – but small and shrinking.)

In my experience, many in the rearguard would like to stop with just the celebratory first part of each statement. They seem to prefer an after-dinner speech celebrating the value of journalism at its best to an accurate description of journalism and its actual state.

But, as each of the parentheses suggest, we cannot truthfully stop there.

And while an after-dinner speech may feel good, planning your future as if it is an analysis will lead to catastrophic, avoidable outcomes.

Furthermore, while the public may be willing to at least consider the after-dinner speech version of what journalism is and what it means (we still have a reservoir of goodwill), they don’t buy it as a description.

Much of the public does not trust journalism, consider it to be of limited value (or even a drain on them), and pay little attention to it. This disregard goes well beyond the imperfections that most journalists are already willing to contemplate.

Consider just three findings from Reuters Institute research in the past year as an illustration of each point—

I cannot stress enough how important it is that we face these issues. Lucy Küng has a passage from an interview that she often returns to in discussions of the business of news.

Interviewer: “What was your biggest mistake?”

Media industry CEO: “I always say that if I could go back ten years, … , I would not be saying, ‘The Internet’s going to be big’ … what I would really be saying is, ‘Your business is going to be more screwed than you can even conceive of now. Your worst case scenario is just a scratch’.”

“Just a scratch.” What if this applies to journalism’s connection to the public as well as to the business of news?

Journalism exists in the context of its audience. Its public value, its political power, its social significance, its viability as a business, its legitimacy as a beneficiary of public and philanthropic funding—all of it is premised on its connection with its audience. That connection is in many cases hanging by a thread, and it is on us to retain, renew, and reinforce it.

The vanguard understands this. The rearguard refuses to accept it.


“The truth is powerful”

The push-back that we often get when we present findings like these suggests that some in the profession and the industry prefer tame cheerleaders to independent researchers, and dismiss challenging findings as depressing doom-mongering. Some, it seems, would prefer only research that suggests journalism is great, and was even greater in the past.

Most of the vanguard, in contrast, embrace our research, as much of it again and again underlines the absolute necessity of change, change that will have to go well beyond this or that question of tactics, optimization, or refinement, and concerns basic question of purpose (what are we for?), value (what problems are we trying to solve for whom?), and strategy (how do we get to where we need to be to do that?).

The rearguard? The prevailing assumption there seems to be that hard truths are for other people.

The attitude seems to be that we should romanticize the journalism that, for all its values, also arguably failed us on climate change, in the run-up to the financial crisis, and in uncritical coverage of digital media throughout the 2000s, a journalism that has often seemed as out of touch with the energies behind #BlackLivesMatter, #Fightfor15, #MeToo as with the groundswells of support for Brexit, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump, a journalism that is still all too often based on a mass media business model that won’t make sense much longer.

But hard truths aren’t only for other people. They are also for us.

At the Reuters Institute, we will continue to pursue independent, evidence-based, internationally-oriented research on as many of the major issues facing journalism worldwide as we can, whether the findings are comforting or not, whether they concern the many external challenges over which we have little control (political pressure, increasingly challenging business, the growth of platform companies), or the internal ones that we, together, can in fact address (how we engage with people, create value and gain trust, and change our own organizations).

The Reuters Institute is not on anybody’s side, vanguard or rearguard, but our findings are overwhelmingly aligned with the vanguard’s view of the world, and rarely the rearguard’s. (If the facts change, our views will too.) We will explore the future of journalism with anyone who wants to engage (and with the help of a new Steering Committee and a new Advisory Board that better reflect the diversity of our journalism fellowship program and the wider profession).

We hope we—through debate, engagement, and research—can help more journalists, editors, and media leaders develop their own understanding of (a) how our media environment is changing, (b) what it means for their organization, and (c) what they can do to succeed professionally and organizationally in that changing environment.

Everyone should make up their own mind, but with every program we run, every event we attend, every report we publish, I see a few more people – some young, some old – come to the conclusion that more of the same isn’t the answer, that going back to the past is neither right nor possible, and that we have to forge ahead towards an uncertain future instead. In short I see them joining the vanguard, a vanguard where there’s always room for more, and a vanguard that needs experience as much as it needs energy, insight as much as it needs innovation.

That matters, because rearguard action won’t lead us to the future, and no one else is riding to the rescue – not platforms, not foundations, and not governments. If journalism and the business of news that sustains (and constrains) it is to be saved, it has to save itself, if it is to be remade, it has to remake itself.

And I promise you this: we will continue to call it as we see it, despite the stream of angry emails I get every time our research falls short of the rearguard’s self-understanding, or challenge some of the truisms of how journalism and the news industry like to present itself to the public and to policymakers.

We do this just as journalism seek truth and report it, not because it knows exactly what the future will hold, or precisely how to solve the issues of our day, but because journalism, at its best, is premised on the belief that the truth is powerful. That people with access to relevant reliable information and a chance to discuss it with their peers will make better choices.

That same role is the one that we to the best of our ability try to play vis-à-vis the profession, the news media industry, and its various interlocutors – provide independent evidence and analysis, foster and host debate, insistent on the importance of facing the big issues, however inconvenient and uncomfortable it might be for various incumbents and elites. This, a focus on exploring the future of journalism through debate, engagement, and research, is our answer to the question I asked last year when I took the role as Director: what we can do to help journalists (and all of us who rely on journalism) reinvent the profession and the industry?

We don’t know what the answers are, and we don’t know what exactly the future holds for journalism, but we want to be part of that journey, and we will continue the search for answers through our journalism fellowship programs, our leadership programs, and our research programs.

Not as tame cheerleaders (or depressed doom-mongers). But as explorers of the future of journalism.

We hope you’ll join us.