Earning trust “story by story”:
Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age
by Allan LEONARD
4 October 2018
Ulster University — along with the UK press regulatory body, Impress, and the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) — jointly hosted a symposium event at its Belfast campus: “Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age”. Keynote speakers were Jonathan Heawood (Chief Executive Officer, Impress) and Peter Feeney (Press Ombudsman, Press Council of Ireland).
Dr Phil Ramsey (Lecturer, School of Communications and Media, Ulster University; Chair, MeCCSA Policy Network) welcome everyone and reviewed the topics for discussion.
Clodagh Rice (Business Reporter, BBC Northern Ireland) previewed Mr Heawood with a short video that described the work of Impress:
Jonathan Heawood argued that traditional news sources are being replaced by social media, alternative facts, and “fake news”. His explanation was clicks and tapping on links to generate advertising revenue for the platforms: “Clicks are the oil of this new economy.” Heawood said that it is relatively easy to create a digital publication with attention grabbing (but untrue) headlines, compared to a news organisation with professional journalists, where it could take months before you can publish quality copy and years before making any money: “Real journalism takes time!”
Heawood said that mainstream media is at a crossroads, with three choices:
- Let market forces determine fate: corporate owners could consolidate and close operations (loss of local coverage and breadth of topics)
- Trust social media platforms to sort it out, adjusting algorithms (“This is bizarre to give American and Chinese billionaires such power to wield.”)
- Talk carefully and cautiously with government to support journalism, across partisan lines
He argued that sometimes the market doesn’t deliver news stories, and mooted a “News Funding Council”, which would support organisations where the market fails. Heawood suggested that to be eligible for such funding, a media organisation would have to demonstrate the upholding of professional standards, how it deals with complaints, and agree to an arbitration process with unresolved issues. He made the case that organisations that can submit themselves to such scrutiny are giving something back to the public, as a way of earning its trust. Heawood added that it’s fair enough for news readers to be skeptical; it is up to media organisations to earn the public’s trust, “day by day, story by story”.
I later informed Haewood of the work of the International Fact-Checking Network, which supports the work of fact-checking projects globally. This includes the third-party verification of a code of principles, which informs viewers that they are on a bonafide fact-checking website.
Peter Feeney began his presentation by reflecting on the role of journalism during the conflict in Northern Ireland: “There was a chronic need to explain the context of what was happening in the Troubles.” But this statement was not followed up during the subsequent discussion: how well did we do this? How much did reportage exacerbate divisions and how well are we reporting peace building efforts now?
He did give an answer to his mooted question, “Can we trust our journalists?”, by saying that distrust is fuelled by social media: “But I despair at legacy journalists moaning about platforms!” Nevertheless, Feeney described much of what is published on social media as “pub talk”: “It has led to more coarsening of public discourse — but it’s not journalism, subject to regulation.”
Feeney said that Facebook and Google are victims of their own success, in that they started with a declaration that they are not publishers, “but that has to end”. He gave an example of a harassment case, where redress to Facebook is by email only: “How can Facebook in California understand the context of complaints sent from Dublin?” Feeney argued that Facebook’s policy of prohibiting advertising during Ireland’s recent referendum on the 8th Amendment is a self-acknowledgement that it is a player in public discourse.
He also discussed how social media can increase pressures on journalists to run with a story even if it hasn’t been thoroughly fact-checked, for fear of a competitor publishing first. This point was also raised during the question and answer session, when a health professional expressed her frustration of fielding calls from journalists, who then publish articles with incomplete information and/or context. Feeney acknowledged that one explanation is the pressure that a journalist will have from their editor. It was suggested that the journalist should challenge an editor in such cases, and say that they’re not willing for their byline (authorship) be attributed to the article; but considering the managerial chain-of-command, this could be difficult advice for a journalist to adhere to (unless adequate internal controls were in place in a particular media organisation).
Yvette Shapiro reflected on her time as a journalist thirty years ago compared to now — fewer staff, barren office space, less coverage. Whereas before you could develop a story, now there’s no time: “There is the licking of flames around your feet!” It is an uncomfortable landscape to work in, she remarked.
Yet to try to encourage those interested in a career in journalism, including those in tonight’s audience, she suggested four traits they should have:
- Be curious
- Be courageous
- Be committed
- Be resilient
Brian Pelan had some further, more unexpected advice:
“Don’t go straight from college into a newspaper [organisation] … Go out into the world and work at other things. Actually embrace life!”
In his presentation, Pelan pointed out that in the world of journalism there have always been distortions, bias, half-truths, omissions, and spin. Pelan saw the role of a journalist as to try to forge a path through that “and not to become lost in a swamp of weasel words and bluster”.
Pelan highlighted the role of bias — one’s own bias — in how each of us looks at the news. It explains why Trump supporters believe what he says, “even if the facts ridicule what he says at the same time”.
In our digital age, Pelan said, on social media platforms you will find truths, lies, smears, “and incessant noise of keyboard warriors who often produce horrendous sexist and racist garbage … the sort of material that would be dumped in any self-respecting newsroom”.
Pelan quoted former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, who remarked in 2003 — pre-social media — that opinion polls indicated that only 13-18% of the population trusted newspapers. The difference between then and now, Rusbridger argues, is a loss of “innocence”; how much scandal within mainstream media, combined with the emergence of social media and its disruption to the advertising business model, has challenged the concept of news in the public interest.
Maeve Connolly described how the Irish News is trying to address this challenge via its digital operations. It uses social media to build a community around its brand, as well as a source of information and user generated content. Social media also serves as a convenient way of distributing content globally (but recognises the vulnerability of Facebook’s periodic algorithm changes). The Irish News also has a metered paywall structure, “to show that journalism is worth paying for”.
Connolly said that a notable challenge is to transform stories written for its print format over to its digital format. She pondered whether implementing the New York Times’ method — forcing all its journalists to compose for mobile devices first — would be too drastic an action at the Irish News.
In designing the course module for the BA degree in Journalism at Ulster University, Milne Rowntree explained how he finds out what students are looking for, as well as from those currently in the journalism industry. He defended the print focus, i.e. writing stories, so as students can learn how “to put thoughts into words”. Rowntree then progresses students onto audio (radio and podcasting) and visual mediums.
Rowntree argued that regardless how social media and digital platforms evolve, and regardless of business model, three characteristics that distinguishes journalism are:
During the question and answer session, a student asked how these three points were upheld, or not, during the trial of rugby player, Paddy Jackson, earlier this year. Brian Pelan remarked that journalists were accurately, legally, and ethically reporting on what was actually said during the trial hearings: “And yet people on social media were criticising this. You’d be called in by the judge … if you were saying words that weren’t in open court.” Yvette Shapiro replied that indeed the case underlined the need for professional journalism to hold the line and keep standards high, otherwise you end up chasing viewers (via click bait) and drive standards down.
Máire Messenger Davies (Professor Emeritus, Media Policy, Ulster University) thanked all of the participants. She said that she was passionate about creating “educated consumers of media” and the need for all to learn media literacy.