Fact-based hope for journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hope”, she says, “lies in action.”

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

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

So I am hopeful.

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