Our core argument is that the power of platforms is deeply relational and based on ability to attract end users and partners like publishers.
It’s always hard to summarize extensive empirical work briefly, but here a few key points from my short Twitter thread on the book, with a few pics of some central passages in the book.
Platforms do not control the means of production, but the means of connection, and they are powerless without partners. To understand their power we need to understand both reservations partners have and why they often embrace platforms nonetheless, continue to work with them.
Platform power is an enabling, transformative, and productive form of power—and power nonetheless, tied to institutional and strategic interests of platform companies, often exercised in highly asymmetric ways.
It goes beyond hard and soft power. We identify five main aspects.
In the short run, actors make choices, in the long run, these choices become structures. Both platforms and partners have agency here, but there is a huge asymmetry between the biggest platforms (facing a few big platform rivals) and a multitude of much smaller publishers.
We approach platform power through an institutionalist lens, and focus on how it is exercised in relational ways through socio-technical systems that develop path-dependency and momentum over time and retain an imprint of their founding logics that shape ongoing interactions.
Our analysis is based on interviews across several countries, observation, background conversations, as well as on-the-record sources and more. In the methods appendix we reflect on individual and institutional positionality, including differences between the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where I work and much of the research was done, and Simon Fraser University where Sarah now works.
The evolving relationships between platforms and publishers speaks to fundamental feature of the contemporary world – that not only individual citizens, but also social and political institutions, are becoming empowered by and dependent on a few private, for-profit companies
Very proud of the advance praise from colleagues with experiencing working in publishing companies, for platforms, as well as some leading academics researching digital media, including from Vivian Schiller, Nick Couldry, and José van Dijck. It means a lot to me personally to read what they kindly had to say about the book in advance of publication!
The research for this book was made possible by the prize money from the 2014 Tietgen Award, which funded Sarah’s position as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the associated research costs.
We would like to thank first of all our interviewees and everybody else who has talked to us, joined off-the-record discussions we hosted, invited us to events, and let us sit in on meetings. The book would not have been possible without them sharing their perspectives, and whether they agree with our analysis or not, we hope they recognize the processes they are part of in what we write about here.
In addition, many different colleagues and friends have provided generous (and often challenging!) feedback as we worked on this, including David Levy, the former Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and our many good colleagues there. Special thanks go to Chris Anderson, Gina Neff, Joy Jenkins, and Lucas Graves, who went through an entire draft manuscript with us and provided invaluable input. Daniel Kreiss and the anonymous reviewer helped further sharpen our thinking, and the series editor Andrew Chadwick went above and beyond in helping us develop our ideas. Fay Clarke, Felix Simon, and Gemma Walsh all did an outstanding job as research assistants at various stages of the project. Angela Chnapko at Oxford University Press masterfully guided us through the publication process.
News media used to operate in a low-choice environment where they had high market power over both audiences and advertisers.
Before the move to a digital, mobile, and platform dominated media environment, news media used to control both the channels of distribution and bundled the content people accessed, and captured a significant share of both audience attention and advertising spending because of the positions they occupied.
As a consequence, in markets that were geographically differentiated due to how print and broadcast distribution works, a significant number of news media made quite a lot of money by dominating local markets and specific audience niches.
News media now operate in what is, for citizens, a high-choice environment when it comes to content, and have very limited market power over both audiences and advertisers.
In a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment, platforms increasingly control the channels of distribution, news is unbundled and competes for attention with all sorts of other content, and news media capture a much smaller share of audience attention and, as a consequence, of advertising spending.
This is a much, much more competitive market, and one characterized by very strong winner-takes-most dynamics where a few winners are doing well but many titles, especially legacy but also new entrants, have a much harder time making money.
A few key datapoints illustrate this –
A rough estimate is that people spend something like twenty percent of the time they spend reading print reading news, and something like ten percent of the time they spent watching television watching news.
By contrast, in the countries where we have data, all news media combined account for something like three to four percent of the time that people spend with digital media.
Since advertisers were never interested in the news per se, but in reaching audiences, it is not surprising that they have gone where the audience is.
Online, that is, to a large extend, on platforms – and the popular success and evident market power of a few big platforms, most prominently Google and Facebook, has undoubtedly exacerbated the commercial challenges news media face as they account for a large share of total advertising sales.
The biggest platforms are the face of the challenge, but they are not all of it – it is important to recognize that, according to eMarketer, globally, most of the biggest sellers of digital advertising are platforms who can offer very low prices, very detailed targeting, and often both depth and breadth in terms of audience reach.
Advertisers still spend some money with news media, especially those news media who can offer premium brands and an advertising environment that stands out from just “stuff on the internet”. But over time I’d expect the share of advertising spending that goes to news media won’t be much higher than the share of audience attention that goes to news media – and, as said, right now, that’s a few percent.
If we look at those few percent of attention, and the news media industry specifically, we can see that the shift from a pre-digital to a digital environment has further intensified existing winner-takes-most dynamics.
In the past, economies of scale and high barriers to entry drove consolidation and the formation of local monopolies and oligopolies. Media markets have always been highly concentrated.
In a digital environment where geography no longer presents a meaningful barrier to entry, the same dynamics are playing out at a national level and to a smaller extend at a global level.
Look at attention, and by extension advertising, first.
That’s the big head – at the long-tail end of the distribution, in the US, all local news titles combined have been estimated to account for less than one-sixth of all time spend with news online, in the UK, about one-tenth.
It stands to reason that a tiny amount of attention combined with no market power over audiences or advertisers is less lucrative than being the dominant player in local content and local advertising.
They are the big head – at the long-tail end of the distribution, with some important exceptions, local titles have seen limited growth in digital subscriptions.
Where does this leave us?
It leaves us in a place where I think we should expect top-line revenues in the news industry as a whole to continue to decline for some time, driven primarily by audience and advertiser choices, and compounded by the success of platforms, as relatively lucrative legacy print and broadcast operations continue their long-term structural decline (print, traditional TV) or at best stagnate (which I consider best case scenario for linear scheduled TV) and digital is a much more challenging and competitive market.
And it points to a future where existing winner-takes-most dynamics in the business of news, for both attention, advertising, and reader revenues, are reinforced.
It will probably be a smaller industry than news was in the 1990s – but with a few percent of total advertising expenditures, a growing number of digital subscribers served at near-zero marginal costs, and auxiliary revenues from ecommerce and the like it will still be a multi-billion dollar industry, and one that will probably invest a greater share of revenues in editorial than it ever did, because the very high distribution and production costs associated with offline are falling away.
Compared to the recent past, it will be characterized by few winners – dominant national titles, and those new entrants who make good use of the gift of digital distribution at low cost, keep their content distinct and their costs low, and manage platform risk well.
And there will be many losers – especially among also-ran national titles, local titles stuck with a pre-digital cost structure, as well as titles trying to build a sustainable business around serving less privileged and often historically underserved parts of the public (as well as all titles with owners who prefer short-term asset stripping over the uncertain returns on long-term investment in digital transformation).
It’s going to be amazing for people like me, the most lucrative affluent, highly educated, news loving part of the public. It’s looking a lot more mixed for the majority of the public. The latter point is potentially problematic if one believes, as I personally do, that independent professional journalism, with its imperfections, play an important role in our societies, but that is more a political question.
As part of the opening, I was given four minutes to say a few things about the following questions: “How has news media changed in the digital age? Changes in the revenue model and changes in consumer behaviour? Any difference between large and small/local outlets?”
This post contains my presentation notes – a lot of ground to cover in four minutes! They draw on this handbook chapter from 2020, which I still hope is useful in capturing the main dynamics as I see them. I’ve added a few links to underlying evidence and two charts taken from the handbook chapter.
Two addendums to the notes above. First, as I made clear in the panel discussion, OECD member countries are very different, and so is the business of news (and political context) from case to case, this is just an attempt to capture what I see as the high level trends. Second, in the panel I somehow came to be cast as the pessimist – that’s not how I personally think of my analysis. While sobering, I think it also gives ground for evidence-based optimism. Whether you find it optimistic, pessimistic, or realistic, I give it in the spirit of James Baldwin’s piercing line: “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced”, hence the title of this post.
(Oh, and finally, I wonder how many other presenters at OECD events are caught red-handed on video with a half-dozen Foucault books on the shelf behind them!)
We sometimes compare the multitude of intersecting challenges journalism faces to the global climate crisis. In the process of thinking about the climate crisis, I have come across the notion of fact-based hope, something I think applies to journalism too.
It’s about how we can be – and have evidence to be – resolutely hopeful even in the face of severe challenges.
This post is about fact-based hope for journalism, and inspired by the amazing Reuters Institute journalist fellows we host, including the most recent cohort (pictured after a day full of evidence-based optimism!).
As with the climate crisis, anyone who hasn’t recognized the so-called “burning platform” in journalism is in denial.
Ignoring or actively distracting from the conflagration – created by the combination of analogue business models disrupted by audiences’ move to digital media and the rise of platforms, much more intense competition for attention and advertising in an high-choice online media environment, and the often fraying “public connection” between much of journalism and much of the public, in many countries compounded by powerful people who wage little less than a war on independent news media and those who seek truth and report it – is doing the profession, the industry, and the public a disservice. On closer inspection, there never really was a ‘golden age’, but in any case, there is no going back. Business as usual is suicidal.
* * *
But as with the climate crisis, we cannot and should not let the scale, scope, and complexity of the challenges ahead lead to paralysis, let alone resignation.
Fact-based hope is about how we might move beyond the crises we face.
So let’s be clear: there are both systemic, policy-level and more individual, organizational-level things we can do to create the different kinds of journalisms we want in the future.
The systemic things are largely political choices, up to citizens and the elected officials who represent them. We have many options based on evidence or at least with proof of concept, and while not cheap, uncontroversial, or without downsides, it is important to clearly state we can choose, as societies, to create a more enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future that journalism needs. (I’ve written about that extensively here, here, here and elsewhere.)
But the more individual, organizational-level things are worth highlighting in parallel. Just as the climate crisis calls for both systemic and more granular responses, so too with the many challenges facing journalism. The need for systemic change does not mean we shouldn’t think about more individual and organizational-level change too.
That is especially important because large-scale systemic change for the better seems unlikely when it comes to journalism. There is no question policy can make a difference for the better (just as it very visible makes a difference for the worse in many countries when used for e.g. media capture). But will it? These are at best long-term responses, and in most countries face uncertain political prospects. As I’ve said before, I think we need to keep in mind that, realistically, most politicians around the world regard independent journalism at best with benign indifference, more often with rank hypocrisy, and very often with open hostility. Media policy, like all other forms of policy, is made by the politicians we have and will be used by those we get, it is not the exclusive province of the particular politicians each of us may personally prefer. We may hope that politicians will rally en masse to make a meaningful commitment to support journalism (despite the fact that there currently does not seem to be much public support for it). But I don’t think we have fact-based hope that they will.
So I am all for looking at evidence-based options for systemic change.
But, in parallel, I think we need to identify individual, organizational-level examples that can inspire fact-based hope.
* * *
And all around me, I see not just crises, but also evidence for fact-based hope.
The business of journalism second – it’s brutal out there, and few winners, many losers, but increasingly it seems the winners are not only some upmarket legacy titles but also some membership and subscription based digital born news media. After years of pretty unrelenting bad news, we are seeing some new investments in local news too, and some ad-supported popular titles at least in Europe have built huge online reach serving a far more diverse audience than often upper-crust-oriented subscription and membership-based titles. In addition to editorial collaborations, we are also seeing some publishers collaborate on the business side. And while limited and uneven, there is also a growing number of non-profit media and new ideas of how to support them. Finally, it’s also important to see that digitally-oriented titles often invest a far greater share of their revenues in journalism than legacy titles ever did – we can get more journalistic bang even if there may well be fewer bucks.
The public connection between journalism and the people it serves third – the coronavirus crisis has provided a reminder of the importance of trustworthy news. We have seen trust in news overall increase in many countries, we have seen some evidence more trusted brands seem to have grown their online reach more than others, research documents that news has helped people understand the crisis (just as it helps them understand politics). The way some journalists think about this connection is also evolving – with more emphasis on community engagement, a willingness to consider impact a measure of success, and a greater openness to using data to understand the audience. We are also seeing a greater recognition that unrelenting focus only on things that go wrong in the world (“negativity bias”) can turn people off the news, and an openness to think of constructive and solutions-oriented elements to journalism.
More than anything, across all four areas, I draw hope from how I see many journalists find one another in these discussions, whether in informal networks, professional associations, or unions, and face them with courage (insisting on the importance of change), curiosity (even if we don’t always know, in advance, exactly what we want), and community (we need to work together to get to where we need to be).
If we look at all these cases for fact-based hope and ask “will they work for all news media everywhere?”, the answer is clearly no. There is no single capital-S solution and no single capital-P problem.
But if we look at them and ask “will they work for some?” the answer is clearly, demonstrably, evidently “yes!” That provides the basis for hoping they can work for some others in some other places.
If we look at these examples and ask “will all journalists and all news media everywhere want to learn from these examples?” the answer is also clearly no.
Sometimes its because they may be a poor fit. That’s as it should be. Not everyone will want to walk the same paths.
Sometimes it is because, let’s be clear, some parts of journalism and some parts of the news media industry aren’t all that interested in changing. That’s in a way understandable, as long as we are clear-eyed that this is a choice, and that it too has consequences. In journalism as with the climate crisis, action and change can be difficult, but inaction has its own cost.
But we clearly can change, even in the face of the many, serious challenges journalism faces – there are inspiring real-world examples all around us, and I’m so inspired by how the fellows we host in Oxford engage with them, from Adele’s work on collaboration and climate coverage, to Peter’s work on business models to protect editorial independence, to Zoe’s work on diversity, to Ramisha’s work on how journalists can learn from one another and many more.
I think fact-based hope points to many different paths ahead, and I think it provides an antidote to resignation, a position between the equally misleading extremes of facile pessimism and facile optimism. Fact-based hope is not about denying the multiple crises journalism faces. It is about responding to them.
Let me end with a quote from Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement organizing to fight the climate crisis in the United States.
“The biggest mistake we all make”, she says, “is in trying to jam hope down each other’s throats without giving the space and time for us to feel the full embodied response of what is happening.”
“Hope honestly comes from the action that I both see myself and those around me taking on a daily basis.”
“Hope”, she says, “lies in action.”
Prakash is not oblivious to the (climate) challenges we face. But she knows that hope is a necessary part of facing them.
I think that goes for journalism too. And I think we have evidence to support fact-based hope.
The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report is out now. I’m so proud to be part of this teamwork. We cover 46 markets that account for more than half of world’s population, including six new countries in the Global South.
The report is always a flagship for us, and the further international expansion is a big step for us, and I think it is important.
As I write in my foreword,
“We are particularly proud to be able to include more countries in the Global South, primarily because we hope the data and analysis we present are useful for journalists, editors, and media executives there, but also because we strongly believe their colleagues elsewhere can learn a lot from the situation in countries where news media have long faced political attacks, financial precarity, and internet users heavily oriented towards mobile and social media – some of the realities journalists in historically more privileged parts of the world increasingly have to deal with.”
The report is available as HTML, in PDF, and there are more resources including a massive 192 slide deck. All of it meant to be used.
The moment we press “publish” is not the end for us, it’s just the start of the next stage, the conversation with journalists, editors, media executives, policymakers, and academics across the world who engage with our work.
Follow some of that conversation on Twitter where we are using the hashtag #DNR21, at the various discussions of the report at launch events across the world, or read some of the country reports our amazing country partners have published.
In this post just five highlights from me.
FIRST, trust in the news has grown.
Across 46 markets, 44% say they trust most news most of the time, up, on average, by six percentage points in wake of Coronavirus pandemic (back to 2018-levels).
No similar growth for trust in news seen on e.g. social media means that the “trust gap” with platforms has grown.
SECOND, trusted brands have often done better in terms of increased online audience reach.
Most news media saw a surge in audience during pandemic and lockdowns, but news fatigue is also setting in and the surge is in many cases levelling off – who can they retain increased reach as the situation evolve?
We looked at how many brands have a significantly higher reach in early 2021 than early 2020, and find more trusted brands have often done better.
THIRD, distributed discovery is growing ever more important.
The pandemic has accelerated the move to more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.
And despite trust gap and concerns over misinformation, various platforms continue to grow in importance for news discovery.
Just 25% of our respondents say going direct to a news site or app is their main way to access online news.
FOURTH, platform ecology growing more complex, especially among younger users
As Facebook, while still important, is less used for news, a slew of other platforms are growing in importance, especially among younger people.
This is a promising but also tricky space for news publishers in many ways – for example, on growing networks such as TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, influencers and alternative sources seem to command more attention than mainstream media and journalists.
FIFTH, the business of news remains winner-takes-most
There is some increase in payment for online news in a few rich countries, but the overall percentage of people paying remains low.
And in most countries a large proportion of digital subscriptions go to just a few big national brands, reinforcing winner-takes-most dynamics. Only in Norway do we see a large number saying they subscribe to local news online, and only in the US is the median number of digital news subscriptions now 2 (often a big national plus either a niche supplement (sports, opinion, etc.) or a local one, very rarely both).
Thus, while platform companies and some, often big, publishers are doing well, many commercial news media are struggling.
Those are just five highlights from me.
It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Anne Schulz, Simge Andi, and Craig Robertson on the analysis and writing, with invaluable input from our amazing country partners, support from the whole Reuters Institute team, and backing from 16 different funders.
It takes a village and I’m so happy to be part of this particular one.
Finally, if you like the Digital News Report – and the institute’s work more broadly – please consider giving a donation to our Journalists Under Pressure Fund. It helps journalists operating in difficult conditions join our fellowship program. Click here to donate.
Do we need a “New Deal” for journalism, a concerted set of policies and commitment of resources to secure an enabling environment for the freedom, funding, and future independent professional news reporting need to do its important job today and tomorrow?
I recommend reading the whole report, written for the Forum by Sameer Padania and a team of rapporteurs, based on desk research, tons of interviews, various submissions, and input from the working group.
My foreword is pasted below in case of interest, and I have summarized key points in this Twitter thread.
TL;DR – (1) Independent journalism is facing serious challenges around sustainability (as well as media freedom), especially at the local level and in terms of historically underserved and marginalized communities. Journalists and the news industry are leading on finding ways ahead on sustainability but (2) policymakers can help create a more enabling environment, if they are willing to move beyond talk and commit real resources, (3) whether we do this is a political choice, not a policy conundrum – blue sky thinking and new ideas are always welcome, but let’s not forget we have a number of existing policy options with proof of concept. Ignoring them is a bit like trying to combat climate change solely by risky bets on, say, geoengineering while ignoring the panoply of tools we already know can make a difference if we choose to use them. We should judge policymakers on their actions more than fine declarations, nice speeches, or lavish conferences, and always remember that inaction is a choice too.
My foreword below.
Less talk, more action?
“Quality, clear, and truthful information is essential for a democratic society based on the values of honesty and respect, fairness and justice, freedom and dignity.”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeausaid on World Press Freedom day this year, thanking journalists everywhere who “give us the facts to make better sense of the world, contribute to our communities, and lead freer, richer lives.”
This is more than just words. While journalism is imperfect, and sometimes problematic, years of research has documented how independent, professional journalism helps people stay informed, take part in political processes, and engage with their local communities, just as it can help hold power to account and reduce corruption and malfeasance in both the public and the private sector.
But journalism’s ability to do this is threatened on several fronts today, by powerful people all over the world waging war on journalism as media freedom erodes, and by the inexorable decline of the traditional business of news as people abandon print and broadcast in favour digital media and platforms, a challenge sometimes compounded by journalism’s unwillingness to reckon with its own shortcomings or adapt to a changing world.
If governments want to do more than talk about the value of journalism, and actually help the journalists and news media who are leading on forging new ways forward for the profession and the industry, they will need to step up and take real action.
Whether this is a priority is for the public and its elected officials to decide, but one thing is clear. Speeches alone will do little to help journalists. They need action, and the reality is that, at best, most governments have done little or nothing.
What can governments do? One place to start is with existing policies that have proof of concept, command broad-based support in the countries where they are in place, and are oriented towards the future of journalism. Blue-sky thinking is always welcome, but it should not distract us from proven tools already at hand. This report identifies a range of the most important steps governments could take – right now – to help ensure the freedom, funding, and future that journalists need to do their job. None of them are perfect, but all of them are practical, and all can be structured so they avoid simply privileging incumbents or lining the pockets of proprietors and shareholders.
They include, perhaps most importantly—
Supporting private sector news media through indirect forms of support such as tax exemptions, direct support specifically tied to investment in professional journalism and structured to prioritize local media and media serving minorities, and supporting innovation, without tying these forms of support to increasingly marginal forms of distribution like print, is one option, as demonstrated in Denmark.
Supporting public service media with a clear remit and ability to serve the public across all media, not just broadcasting, strong insulation from political pressure to ensure their editorial independence from government, sufficient funding to deliver on their mission, and a clear focus on serving those communities least well served by private sector media is a second option, as demonstrated in the United Kingdom.
Supporting the creation of non-profit news media by easing the creation of journalistic non-profit organizations, whether from scratch or by converting legacy titles, and creating incentives for both individuals and foundations to support non-profit news media, is a third option, and non-profit media are already making important contribution in some countries.
Supporting independent news media globally by committing at least some Official Development Assistance to journalism in other countries is a fourth option, whether done bilaterally or through joint vehicles. We can all benefit from stronger journalism, not just at home, but also abroad – if anyone need a reminder that our futures are tied together in an age defined by the climate emergency and intertwined economies, the coronavirus pandemic has certainly provided it.
None of these policies are silver bullets, but they can all make a difference for the better, as long as they are deployed within a framework of fundamental rights and respect for free expression and media freedom (otherwise they can quickly turn into instruments for state capture).
They all also come with proof of concept, and avoid the uncertainty of betting on opaque arrangements that can entrench dominant players and risk primarily benefiting a few large publishers who are often already doing relatively well.
All these policies, and more reviewed in the report, can offer inspiration for governments who are serious about supporting independent journalists and news media as they carve out a new sustainable future for themselves. They offer a chance to break with years of inaction, and an opportunity to reform inherited arrangements tied to waning media like print or broadcast.
A few countries already have some of these policies in place, many countries at least a few of them, but no country has done all it can to help ensure journalists can continue to do their indispensable work, so central to the functioning of democracy. The United States, for example, has long been an outlier among democracies in terms of how little it does to actually support independent news media, and of course also illustrate the vitriol with which some politicians attack news media who seek truth and report it. President Biden has at least changed the tone. But will he and other political leaders around the globe who recognize the real public value of journalism take more tangible steps news reporting at home and abroad?
If governments are seriously committed to creating an enabling environment for independent professional journalism, they will commit real resources. Journalists – and the public they serve – don’t need comforting speeches. They need concrete steps. This report identifies some of what can be done. Now it is up to elected officials and the public to decide if they want less talk, and more action.
Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and chair of the working group on the Forum on Information and Democracy Working Group on Sustainability of Journalism.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Ragedocuments 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.
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).
“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.