According to many observers two major stories – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – signal a moment of peril for the press, and media around the world are deeply alarmed.
The free circulation of malicious lies, the ineffectiveness of fact-checking, the resilience of populist propaganda, racism and sexism and the emergence of the so-called post-truth era appear to challenge a fundamental cornerstone of ethical journalism – that facts matter for democracy and that people want to be well-informed when called upon to make potentially life-changing decisions.
In the last months of 2016 media executives and leading journalists, policy-makers and media academics have been scratching their heads to explain what has gone wrong.
Some have rushed to blame technology and the bottom-line priorities of internet and social media giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter for the crisis. Others point to the media’s own failures – a deeply-flawed and politicised press and broadcast system stuck in a metropolitan bubble, itself part of the Establishment elite, and unable to properly connect with the frustration and anger of people and communities.
But singling out convenient scapegoats does little to explain why, in the face of evidence to the contrary, a major section of the public, both in the United Kingdom and the United States, appeared not to care about the deceit, bigotry and shameless bias of their political leaders.
They didn’t take much notice of what mainstream media had to say. In the US, according to Harvard University’s Nieman Lab, some 360 newspapers urged their readers to vote for Hillary Clinton with only 11 supporting Trump. Nor did they appear to worry about the facts. According to Daniel Dale, a meticulous reporter from the Toronto Star, Donald Trump told an average 20 lies a day between 15 September and election day.
If the public did really care about the spread of falsehoods, they could have used the internet to check quickly the claims of politicians and expose their lies.
In the months after the British referendum and during the brutal months of the US presidential election scores of fact-checking sites became available online.
But even this flowering of truth-telling machines had little impact, according to a detailed review of media performance during the Trump election carried out by The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review.
What is clear is that the news earthquake of 2016 provides much to discuss for people concerned about the future of democracy and the future of journalism.
The warning signs of a communication crisis have been flashing for some time. In September 2016 there was fierce criticism of Facebook by a Norwegian editor over its censorship of one of the most famous images of the Vietnam war that led to a rare moment of global solidarity among outraged writers, journalists, media experts and free-speech campaigners.
Espen Egil Hansen used the front page of the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten to publish an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, accusing his company of an abuse of power for removing the Pulitzer prize-winning photograph showing children fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam.
Within a day Facebook backed down, reinstated the photo and promised to discuss the matter with publishers. On the face of it this was an isolated storm over the use of just one picture, but it touched a raw nerve in journalism worldwide. It highlights the increasing controversy over the imperial power of internet companies and the threat they pose to the future of the news industry.
The row underscores growing concern over how internet giants like Google and Facebook have grown rich by using technology to impoverish traditional publishing and news media. Critics say they have become powerful by exploiting news through use of stealth technology, but they have little if any understanding or regard for the public purpose of journalism.
This may explain why in the aftermath of the US presidential election the issue of fake news on the internet created a firestorm in media circles. For months before Donald Trump’s election critics accused Facebook of allowing false and hoax news stories to spread freely across their news feeds.
It even led to an internal rebellion. A group of Facebook staff, according to The Guardian, created an unofficial task force to question the role of the company amid a larger, national debate over the rise of fake and misleading news articles on a platform.
Facebook is used by more than 150 million Americans and the unofficial task force challenged a statement made by Mark Zuckerberg at a conference immediately after the election in which he said that the argument that fake news on Facebook affected the election was “a pretty crazy idea”.
One employee told the news website BuzzFeed: “It’s not a crazy idea. What’s crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that, when he knows, and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign season.”
Although the notion that hyper-partisan websites spreading false and misleading information tilted the election towards Trump may be fanciful, companies like Facebook have the tools to shut down fake news.
If they were ready to invest in technology and people to moderate their feeds they could have avoided “news stories” such as “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide” or “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”.
The problem for Facebook is two-fold: first, it refuses to recognise that the use of algorithms to monitor and edit material is no substitute for employing people to edit and prepare news for publication and, secondly, it refuses to acknowledge that it is a publisher.
The row over the Vietnam war photo reveals how sentient human beings are still needed to analyse, to apply context and to make nuanced judgments over what gets published. In journalism not all nudity is indecent, not all images of violence are damaging and not all hateful words unacceptable.
It all depends upon the context. Editorial decisions need to be made by people who understand notions of public interest and who have an understanding of the framework of values in which journalism works.
As the EJN wrote at the time, this framework of core ethics – accuracy, impartiality, humanity, transparency and accountability – contributes to the fine tuning of editorial choice. Machines can do much but they can’t be encoded with the ethical expertise of journalists.
Zuckerberg argues his social network is “a tech company” and “a platform” but not a publisher.
However, many media experts strongly disagree.
They say he has become the “world’s most powerful editor”, and with good reason. He leads a business worth around $325bn – the world’s sixth largest company. It is a Goliath in the world of news in social media. Studies show that these days more than 50% of people get their news from social media and in the United States it is more than 60% according to the Pew Research Center.
Facebook would do well to stop denying it is a publisher and face up to its responsibility as a news provider. It needs to recognise and apply the principles and core standards of journalism and free expression that have guided the work of journalists, editors and publishers for generations.
It can best do that, say media experts, by giving editors of news media a voice in making the decisions about how they use the platform and by employing its own team of editors to work with professional media to resolve disputes when they arise.
The lack of transparency in the way Facebook and other social networks and internet companies work makes it hard for them to be held accountable. Only the leaking of documents by former employees has cast some light on the inside workings of the company – as highlighted by the EJN earlier this year.
This raises a question over who is held accountable for the company’s treatment of news.
All that is certain is that Facebook is creating, above all, a platform that will attract advertisers. It appears to have no interest in building a reputation in the news business. It’s a point also made by Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, herself censored by Facebook for circulating the napalm photo. Writing in The Guardian she said the company’s action was not transparent and responsible behaviour. Facebook had ended up “altering history, and altering the truth”. And she warned of the threat to democracy and free flow of information.
“Already, Facebook and other media outlets’ algorithms narrow the range of content one sees based on past preferences and interests. This limits the kind of stories one sees,” she warned. “We run the risk of creating parallel societies in which some people are not aware of the real issues facing the world, and this is only exacerbated by such editorial oversight. As we move towards a more automated world this is not a responsibility that should be surrendered to machines only.”
Change, albeit at a glacial pace, is on the way. Both Google and Facebook have promised action to limit the spread of false news, but other issues remain and there is increased scrutiny of their treatment of editorial content, reflecting their unrivalled power and influence in distributing news.
A major concern remains that fake or misleading news can spread like wildfire on social networks because of confirmation bias, the use of “likes” and sharing with our friends. This exploits an element of human psychology that makes us more likely to accept information that conforms to our existing world views.
An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that 38% of posts shared on Facebook by three right-wing politics sites included “false or misleading information”.
This process is encouraged by the financial model used by Facebook and others. A United States Facebook user is worth four times a user outside the US and the tiny fraction of cash income per-click of US display advertising — a sharply declining market for American publishers — can mean riches for impoverished people elsewhere. In the Western Balkans, for instance, according to BuzzFeed News, some young men found that the best way to generate traffic to their politics stories is to use Facebook to target Trump supporters — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and false content.
But the problem for journalists is not just the rise of the internet behemoths and the impact of technology. The crisis they face is that news in its traditional formats has become unfashionable, and that the media business no longer makes money out of news.
The communications revolution provides people with different ways to access information and they create their own filters for information they like or don’t like. For around 150 years newspapers controlled news and advertising markets, but digital technology has changed everything. Display and classified advertising have moved online and so far no convincing solution has been found to the problem of filling the ever-widening gaps in editorial budgets.
In the face of this crisis media have made lacerating cuts in their editorial coverage. News gathering has become a desk-bound process. There is less money spent on investigative journalism and investment in human resources – decent jobs and training – is falling.
As a result, media increasingly follow the agenda of political and corporate elites and there is a dearth of journalism that holds power to account. This may explain in part why some mainstream media have become disconnected from their audience.
How media rebuilds public trust in quality journalism will be a major question in the coming years, and not just for academics and students of mass communication. The information crisis is one that touches on the prospects for democracy. The rise of propaganda, hate-speech and self-regarding politics with an extremist edge threatens stability and peace both within countries and abroad.
People have not given up on fact-based communications but they are sceptical about how media – online and offline – are delivering their messages. In times of crisis and uncertainty they turn to voices that echo their concerns and fears, even if they are strident and divisive. Media have lessons to learn from the bruising experience of 2016, not least that they must be honest, fair and aggressive in their coverage of politics, but never lose sight of their audience.
The challenge of the coming years will be to reinvigorate the public purpose of journalism and to assist media to reconnect with citizens more effectively. This existential crisis requires, above all, for journalists to recommit to their craft with reporting that reaches out to their audience and listens to what is being said and reports it in context.
Solutions have to be found to the crisis of funding for public interest journalism. It requires political will to invest in open, connected and pluralist systems of communication. There needs to be more investment in quality information and actions to combat hatred, racism and intolerance; more resources for investigative reporting; more attachment to ethical values in the management and governance of media; and, not least, more training in the value of other-regarding communications within the population at large.