In Institutions We Trust: What Is Quality Journalism?

Back in the day, it was all about pornography. “I know it when I see it”, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward argued in the ground-breaking verdict Jacobellis vs. Ohio in 1964, a ruling that settled much about what was legal and what was not in matters of show and tell.

“I know it when I see it” also seems to be a common response when it comes to quality journalism. Many of the debates we are having about the media these days often zero in on the question of what quality journalism actually is. And at first glance, the answer seems to be an easy one. But the deeper one digs, the fuzzier the concept becomes. And why does it even matter?

What Do We Mean By Quality?

It does because journalism is in trouble. Traditional business models are being rocked and so is trust, while the risks for journalists are rising even in Europe. Increasingly, new talent seems to be opting out for these reasons. If the trend continues, the survival of the profession will be at stake.

This is why initiatives to support quality journalism are mushrooming. The Council of Europe is running an expert committee working on guidelines for member states (the author of this text is a member). Journalism trust initiatives and projects are trying to help, too. This is where the quality debate kicks in: If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part? Maybe – but where does the high-end begin?

If we want to save journalism, shouldn’t we focus our energy and resources on the high-end, high-quality part?

There are quite a few members of the wider journalism community who would, for example, like to deny tabloid journalism any support. “Where is the quality?”, they ask. Where is the value added when reporting about Meghan Markel’s possible pregnancy outfits, or in articles about the likelihood of an alien visit from outer space? Where, they ask, is the quality in a gruesome and overly detailed report of some fatal accident where even the bereaved haven’t had a chance to hear all the details in advance? Others opine that fashion reporting can impossibly be called quality journalism. At best, some say, this kind of content is justified if it pays for “the real stuff”.

What Is “The Real Stuff”?

But what is the real stuff then? Is it only political or business reporting, or investigations of any kind? What about sports reporting, food journalism, or the more entertaining parts of the culture section – and where, by the way, does “quality” culture begin?

It is here, where it becomes obvious that defining what is and is not “quality journalism” is not only an incredibly challenging task. It is also a slippery slope that can lead to all kinds of abuse. Authoritarian regimes, for instance, won’t find it hard to tell you what quality is from their point of view: certainly nothing that involves challenging those in power. And you don’t even have to go back as far as to Hitler-Germany’s book burnings. Viktor Orbán’s decision to ban gender studies in the name of quality is a more recent example. You can bet that we won’t see much balanced reporting on gender issues from Orbán-controlled media in the future. The lesson in this is: defining quality along the lines of content opens the door for censorship. So how can quality be defined without tapping into this trap?

Quality Is About The Process, Not Only The End Result

There is only one solution: The term quality journalism needs to be separated from single pieces of content. Everyone with newsroom experience in high-quality news organisations would agree that even here, low-quality content occasionally slips through. I’m not even talking about misinformation, but rather about the kind of copy-and-paste stuff put together hastily to meet a deadline or to make a boss happy. To be honest, there is plenty of bad journalism in high-quality publications.

“The censored press remains bad, even if it brings forth good products … The free press remains good, even if it brings forth bad products.” – Karl Marx

Instead of being associated with an award-winning story, the term quality should be tied to the processes that can lead to the same: reporting on the ground, consulting a second or third source, having a second or third pair of eyes editing a story, using relevant data, being independent of business interests, sporting a pressure-proof fact-checking process, providing transparency in dealing with factual mistakes and bad journalistic judgement, holding up the bar in talent recruitment and training – and nourishing a culture that is ready to scrutinise these processes. Making sure that a diversity of social backgrounds and viewpoints are represented in the newsroom would take the quality to an even higher level. Looking at it this way, fashion reporting can indeed be quality journalism, if it follows these procedures, rather than writing puff pieces.

Ultimately, journalism is about helping citizens to make their decisions and form their opinions in all matters of life, not just in politics or economics. It is about holding power to account, about lifting the curtain, about explaining and portraying the world. And it is about the ambition–and obligation–to make these things interesting. Without an audience, journalism won’t achieve any of these goals.

We Need A Powerful Corrective

It goes without saying that size matters in all this. The bigger the organisation, the more of these standards can be implemented. A three-person newsroom cannot, for example, afford a fact-checking department. And yet, the proper collection and verification of facts will still be at the core of what they are doing.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility.

What about the lone blogger then, trying to raise her or his voice above the noise? Do they deserve the same protections and support quality journalism is asking for? Not quite. A blogger is protected by freedom of speech rights just as any other individual. But just writing, recording or filming something and publishing it on the web cannot qualify as the kind of institutionalised journalism any democracy should cherish and uphold.

The powerful need to be held accountable by a powerful corrective. This corrective can only be a collective, operating under procedures that stand the test of credibility. In the digital world there is much talk about the wisdom of the crowd, but in the end, the mechanisms of this world are about separating the crowd into individuals. Journalism stands as a force to counter that separation. It needs to remain and be supported as an institution.

This text was published by European Journalism Observatory on 5th November 2018

Connected but not equal

One common assumption about the internet goes like this: because everybody can access information, news, and knowledge freely, the web is making society more democratic. So much for the fiction; the fact is that the opposite might be true. At least this is what a recently published study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggests. The authors examined online and offline news consumption in the UK — and we better worry about the findings — not only did they conclude that news consumption in the UK was more unequally distributed than income. But more importantly, online news consumption was more unequally distributed than offline news consumption. “One in four individuals (25%) do not consume any news online, while only 13 % of respondents do not consume any news offline”, the authors found.

This effect could even be worse for other countries because in the UK there is plenty of free access to quality news. The BBC is overwhelmingly dominant, The Guardian relies on voluntary contributions rather than on paywalls, and tabloids offer a wide range of free news to choose from. People just don’t read them as much online. With media consumption –- like it or not -– increasingly moving from offline and broadcast to online and distributed, this is an alarming trend.

This has several implications. First of all, it shines a new light on the paywall debate. It has been widely discussed in journalism circles that paywalls are detrimental to democracy.

However, apparently people from lower social grades don’t avoid news primarily because of cost, but rather because they are not that interested.

With all the other distractions and entertainment that social media provides, news stories just do not capture people’s attention. So abolishing paywalls would just result in having even less people paying for news who are entirely capable of doing so. This would further erode resources for newsrooms and consequently the quality of reporting.

Second, the power of platforms to shape worldviews is even more pronounced in users from lower social grades. While better educated, internet-savvy users make the most of their online experience and access significantly more news sources these days than in the offline-only world, the less educated don’t seem to dive into news unless it is paraded in front of their eyes — like tabloid headlines on the metro.

If a powerful platform like Facebook decides that their algorithms favour “meaningful connections with friends” over hard-core news, many people will turn to chatting with their friends rather than devouring information that might be vital for them as citizens.

Third, it is more important than ever to make journalism interesting, simply so that it stands out from the overabundance of information that we are already surrounded by. Then again this is just another invitation to produce clickbait, which in turn leads to diminishing trust.The reliability, relevance and entertainment quality of journalism will be decisive for winning this battle.

The conclusion is, when access to news becomes more of a conscious choice, there is no way around the necessity of growing that conscious decision making process. Platforms need to understand their responsibility and act on it. And people of all social grades need to be educated in the fact that by knowing what is going on in the world they can make a difference in society. If they learn to appreciate news, they are more likely to use the benefits that knowledge will give them. They might even happily pay for it.

This text was published by NewsMavens on 27th October 2018


We Can Use Robots But We Still Need Journalists

The Panama Papers investigation was a momentous task. The multi-award-winning international collaboration led by German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung was mainly about manpower. Reporters spent an entire year sifting through data, looking for anomalies and following up on sources. But did it really need to be so laborious?

Some journalists who are hopeful about the advancement of “robot” journalism believe that had there been sophisticated software to support the 400 researchers from all over the world in analysing patterns and data sets, more could have been found in less time.

But it’s not that simple. Artificial Intelligence will create new opportunities for journalism, but the advancement of robots in newsrooms also poses significant risks.

Artificial Intelligence, The Saviour Of Journalism?

Unquestionably, there are huge advantages in employing AI in newsrooms. No wonder then that newsrooms all over the world are rolling it out. A recent survey among media leaders by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed that 69 per cent of them already use some type of AI in their newsrooms. Audiences seem to embrace the concept, too. As the Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report revealed, 54 per cent of all respondents preferred algorithms choosing the news relevant to them over humans making the selection.


The list of potential benefits is long. First, AI will free journalists of repetitive and boring chores and help them to focus on more valuable tasks. Second, it will outperform humans in terms of volume and potentially accuracy, as newsrooms that rely on the automated production of earnings reports or sports results already demonstrate. Third, robots will be able to do the kind of hyperlocal journalism that audiences are interested in but no publisher can afford. The example of a Swedish homeowners bot shows that automated stories can even drive subscriptions. Fourth, automated fact-checking helps to avoid mistakes and to stop the spread of mis- and disinformation, thus increasing credibility and trust (audiences despise mistakes!).

Fifth, data journalism opens up exciting new opportunities for investigations. “When used and analyzed correctly, Big Data can predict wars and labor strikes, terror attacks, election results, and online spending and help journalists tip readers off in advance to changing fashion trends, natural disasters, traffic jams, crop patterns, and much more”, as Amir Ruskin writes in the insightful book “Robot Journalism – Can Human Journalism Survive?”, edited by Noam Lemelshtrish Latar (2018).

Sixth, as a welcome side effect, dealing with AI and data will train journalists in skills that are sought after in a much broader array of professions. In an increasingly battled media landscape, it’s pivotal to have skills which improve one’s attractiveness on the job market.

Seventh, “real” robots and drones can be employed to operate in war zones and collect data in dangerous environments, thus reducing risks for reporters and maybe even saving lives.

Additionally, there are all the advantages of AI improving customer relations, personalising content and supporting journalists in discovering new stories and managing their material.

Brave New World?

So what’s the catch then? Shouldn’t we speed up the advent of AI in newsrooms if it provides so many advantages? Well, not so fast. Let’s go back to the example of the Panama Papers for a second. Yes, robots might have been able to dig deeper into the data than humans. But the major challenge with the project was not a lack of information. It was the decision what to publish, and more importantly what not to publish.

Among the biggest controversies in the newsroom of Sueddeutsche at the time of the Panama Papers was: Do we publish too much and risk our audiences’ attention to fade away? And which are the stories that are not just interesting to tell but politically and/or legally relevant? AI cannot help with these hard decisions – at best, it can make suggestions. In the end, it’s editors who need to decide what to publish, not algorithms.


The advancement of AI in newsrooms could also pose yet another problem: It reveals a lot about the performance of journalists. In the future it will be increasingly easy to compare how individual authors contribute to the value of the company, depending on how well they are scoring with readers. Measuring and comparing the return on investment of the single journalist can increase the pressure in newsrooms tremendously. And it can tweak editorial choices in directions not necessarily conducive to the public interest (not to be confused with public appetites).

Another, no less serious problem is how third parties, particularly the platform companies, will profit from the abundance of data newsrooms are creating by employing AI. “We are feeding a system we have no control over”, as Zulfikar Abbanhy from Deutsche Welle recently remarked at a workshop on robot journalism organised by the European Federation of Journalists in Lisbon. It’s an aspect not to be overlooked.

The use of AI could also have serious implications on the job market for journalists. In an ideal world, AI will free up resources and help journalists to focus on more important tasks. Unfortunately, it could also be used as a cost-saving measure. Bring in the robots, get rid of the journalists.

Yet, even if this scenario does not come to pass, sparing journalists from the boring, more routine work can have negative consequences. How, for instance, will they train their skills to do the in-depth reporting that AI will supposedly allow them to concentrate on? Generations of journalists have started their careers by writing up news about police reports or covering local events. These tasks might be tedious but are good exercises in the kind of diligence that is so necessary for journalistic excellence.

In an ideal world, AI will free up resources and help journalists to focus on more important tasks. Unfortunately, it could also be used as a cost-saving measure. Bring in the robots, get rid of the journalists.

Increasing automation and AI-driven personalisation have another potential downside. By tailoring content too much to audiences’ interests, vital yet less attractive reporting could easily fall by the wayside. But simply succumbing to the law of the market isn’t journalism. High-quality journalism means holding power to account and to confront citizens with the less pleasant aspects of life. Journalism does not just exist to satisfy consumer demand but to serve democracy. Pleasing audiences too much through personalisation will be the death of journalistic freedom.

How Newsrooms Should Embrace AI And Automation

Where then does all this leave us when employing AI for journalism? What should we be looking out for when introducing “robots” in newsrooms?

First, we need to make sure journalists run newsrooms, not data scientists. While data experts belong in every newsroom and need to inform choices, decisions about content need to be made by editors and reporters trained in defining relevance and asking the right questions.

Second, we need to think about what happens with the data created in the process. Apart from protecting sources’ and audiences’ privacy, performance evaluations of journalists should not be tied to the metrics introduced by AI in newsrooms. Sometimes stories that don’t rank high on the “most read today”-list can still have tremendous political and social impact.

Third, don’t mistake efficiency for good journalism. Even if bots produce the pieces that drive your subscriptions, look at them as the tools to transport the greater good you are doing your jobs for.

And fourth, deal with the “problem of plenty”. Doing more of everything will kill people’s attention. At the end of the day, they won’t have the energy left for the stuff that really matters.

This text was published by the European Journalism Observatory on September 11, 2018

Can political Tinder save democracy?

How can we protect democracy if we only speak to Siri or Alexa but not each other? Democracy is based on the premise that everyone can express themselves, but it also implies other people are listening. Maybe it’s time for a real-life conversation.

In the language of journalists, you might call this a scoop: getting the German President to preside over a project nicknamed “political Tinder” and conceived by Zeit Online, sister of the prestigious print weekly Die Zeit. The aim of the initiative, “My Country Talks”, which is now an international venture, is to help people break out of their ideological bubbles and talk to unlike-minded contemporaries. On Sunday, September 23, the event ran for the second time, and attracted not only President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — overall, eleven partner newsrooms and 8,000 citizens in Germany took part.

This is how it works: when people apply, they must answer a few questions. Then an algorithm is used to pair up participants possessing different viewpoints on several issues. Last Sunday, these pairs met (in person, as you have to emphasize these days) and talked to each other face to face. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. “Actually, we had a good conversation”, was the most common commentary on Twitter. Sherry Turkle, psychologist at MIT and author of the eye-opening “Reclaiming Conversation”, would have said “I told you so”.

What actually happened was that people engaged with people who could have been their neighbours, most would agree these tend to be a pretty diverse bunch. In the digital age, however, talking to one’s neighbours, fellow travellers on the train or coincidental pub acquaintances has gone a bit out of fashion. And urban dwellers are well-known to increasingly resort to noise cancelling headphones.  In this respect the concept is fantastic for it reminds people of who we actually are, not individual brands roaming through social networks on a quest for followers and friends, but members of a common society.

Critics could say this was not much more than a huge marketing campaign, where journalists try to impress other journalists. In a way, this is true. These kinds of initiatives will never catch people on the political fringes who are not interested in having their views challenged. Some initial openness is required to sign up for experiments like this. But even if this is the case, so what! I think journalism deserves and needs some serious marketing if it is to survive.

Trust in news organisations has stabilized a bit over the past year but is still severely challenged. Trust in social media and search engines is even lower, which wouldn’t hurt journalism that much if young people weren’t consuming so much of their news through these means. So helping people outside of the industry learn that journalism is actually on their side is much needed.

Apart from our own direct experiences and critical thinking skills, only journalism gives us the tools to understand the world and make informed decisions as citizens. It is this endeavor that investigates, is committed to accuracy and facts, that follows rules and procedures like verification, finding second sources and having a second and third pair of eyes going over copy.  Democracy cannot exist without it. Journalism is so much more than simply the freedom of expression. It is hard work, a team effort. It is far from the elite thing some observers try to portray it as.

As witnessed this week, attacks on journalism tend to hit close to home.  If a European democracy like Austria suddenly feels it can rid itself of the uncomfortable parts of journalism, and critical voices that hold power to account, beware, dear citizens. When those in power do such things, they are not acting  in your interest but solely in theirs. Better talk to each other about it, before it is too late. And then go and subscribe to a decent news product.

This text was published by NewsMavens on September 30, 2018

Learning to read all over again

It used to take quite an effort to manipulate people. Considerable amounts of skill, knowledge, engagement and financial means were needed to sway public opinion, influence elections, create a popular uprising or sell low-value products at high cost. Not any longer. And now social media can do it for everybody.

Creating divisive content, lies, fake images, pictures, voice recordings and spreading them at scale has become easy for private and state actors alike, and it’s not surprising so many are taking advantage of it. “Social media manipulation is rising globally”, warns a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University, and “despite efforts to combat computational propaganda, the problem is growing at a large scale”. The report found that the number of countries where formally organized social media manipulation occurs rose from 28 to 48 within a year — and this is just influence exerted by political parties and governments, primarily around elections or referendums.

Social media has introduced a particular kind of market failure into the marketplace of information. While the costs of producing and establishing truth and trust have risen, spreading lies has become dirt cheap.

And despite all the efforts and good intentions to tackle the problem, no law, no regulation, no official task force alone will be powerful enough to break the dynamics. This is especially the case since this situation delivers big-time benefits to those who profit most from manipulation. We are not only talking authoritarian governments or powerful private sector companies here. There are plenty of politicians along the political spectrum who detest being criticized by journalists and feel that their hour has come, contributing to an anti-media narrative that raises the cost of reliable information even further. So what can be done?

The key to countering these dynamics is understanding them in the first place. As much as consumers have learned not to trust the promises of glossy advertising any longer, to look at commercials more as a way of entertainment and lifestyle than as a reflection of facts (even if the stuff reads “clinically proven”), they need the same healthy scepticism when looking at information. Audiences need to know how media works, whose interests it could be serving and what the underlying financial and political dynamics are.

They need to be aware of the fact that voices and images can be manipulated, that algorithms on social media favour the bold and loud, and what to make of this. And they have to keep on training those deep reading skills that help to develop empathy, critical thinking and reflection. Neuroscientists are already warning that the kind of distracted skim reading prevalent on social media and digital devices harms the brain’s capacities to understand complexities and emotion.

It would be a major mistake to target the media literacy of young children and students only. In fact many of the “digital natives” are much savvier and better equipped to understand the new media world than older generations, who take the written word at face value and are still in awe of all the information opportunities that have opened up to them over the past decade. Indeed, older audiences might need more help in navigating facts and fiction in the digital realm than their children and grandchildren.

As strange as it sounds — more skepticism can be the first step towards greater certainty.

This text was published by NewsMavens on September 8, 2018

Journalism’s Comeback

After years of bad news for the news business, recent data suggest that consumer confidence is slowly returning. To sustain this trend, journalists must continue producing quality content, and governments should explore new ways to support those who cannot pay.

OXFORD – After years of ill health, the news industry is finally showing signs of a modest recovery. According to the Digital News Report 2018 – the most comprehensive survey of digital media consumption – subscriptions are trending up while consumer confidence has stabilized. For a much-maligned business that trades in trust, these fragile gains amount to meaningful progress.

To be sure, the world’s media remain troubled; the report, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, shows that only 44% of news consumers believe what established media brands publish. But that represents an increase of one percentage point from last year, suggesting that the industry’s trust deficit has either stopped growing or is actually narrowing.

Other surveys are even more bullish; for example, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that journalists are regaining their credibility, while overall trust in traditional and online-only journalism is at its highest point in seven years. These findings prompted the firm to declare that “the return of experts” is upon us.

Although it may be too early for media executives to declare victory just yet, these are clearly good signs for an industry that has had its reputation battered in recent years. Political polarization has made people suspicious of media outlets that don’t support their views, while cost cutting in newsrooms has degraded the quality of journalism on offer. But, as the new data suggest, journalists appear to be finding ways to address these challenges.

Perhaps the most revealing trend in this year’s Digital News Report is the growing distrust in news shared via social media. For example, our study found that only 23% of respondents trust news they find on social media, and just 34% believe what they turn up in search engines. These figures will likely trouble Google, Facebook, and other tech giants whose businesses are no less reliant on trust than traditional media organizations.

But while platforms like Facebook stumble, many traditional media outlets are finding their footing; subscription trends support this conclusion. Of the 74,000 survey respondents, 14% said they paid for digital news at least once during the previous 12 months, while the average in the Nordic countries was closer to 30%. In the United States, President Donald Trump’s attacks on so-called “fake news media” have had the opposite effect, pushing more people to support independent journalism than ever before. In 2016, for example, only 9% of American consumers paid for news online; that share rose to 16% in 2017 and has held steady this year.

Even in countries like the United Kingdom, which has no shortage of free news websites, people are investing in quality reporting. The Guardian’s model of soliciting donations or membership payments is fueling a financial turnaround. In nearly every country surveyed, young people on the political left demonstrate the highest propensity to pay.

Some critics argue that the media’s payment model contradicts the original spirit of the Internet as a place for the free exchange of ideas, news, and information. Moving the best stories behind paywalls, opponents say, will give rise to second-rate news for second-class citizens.

But this argument misses three key points. For starters, the number of digitally connected people who cannot afford to pay for news at all can be presumed to be quite small; willingness to pay is much more a question of spending priorities. Moreover, paying for something that one perceives as valuable helps make it so, as the move to prioritize membership models over purely transactional approaches illustrates.

Finally, for those who truly cannot pay, there are viable options for bringing quality journalism to low-income households. For example, tax codes could be reformed to make the practice of journalism more affordable, while government or foundation funding could increase support for public media programming.

When people pay for content, journalists gain an incentive to deliver. They scrutinize their products for value, check facts thoroughly, innovate, investigate, and cut down on the cheap, attention-grabbing noise that plagues so many social-media platforms. Best of all, these trends are mutually reinforcing; the better the journalism is, the more consumers will value it.

It has been a long time since the media industry had good news to report about itself. Now that we do, it is imperative that we work harder than ever to sustain the trend toward quality, credibility, and financial viability.

This text was published by Project Syndicate on September 7, 2018

Democracy Doesn’t Come For Free

In a fast-paced world  attacked by rampant capitalism from one side and authoritarianism from the other, the institutions of democracy must be nourished. Public service media is one way to do it.

Imagine if there was a war and there were no pictures of it. This is the thought that comes to mind when visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, admittedly a rather one-sided account of what happened to and in Vietnam at a time when many of us were already alive. For this is a museum comprised of harrowing images, one after another, culminating in a whole floor of photos from demonstrations all over the world asking the US to keep out of the atrocities that in the end cost more than three million lives, two million of them civilians. It is safe to say that journalists helped to bring this war to an end, and an entire exhibition in the Museum is dedicated to killed or missing photo journalists and cameramen.

These were journalists from all walks of media — commercial, news agencies, and public broadcasters — and all these people and organisations paid a high price to keep the public up to date with what happened in an area of the world many people couldn’t have found on a map, if it hadn’t been pointed out to them on the evening news. But just imagine a day when people won’t be willing to pay this price any longer because they will be satisfied with what they can get on Netflix or YouTube.

Journalism is developing from a must-have into a nice-to-have service these days. Something audiences are willing to pay for if they feel the need, and many don’t. According to the Digital News Report 2018, only 14% of the 74,000 respondents paid for online news in the last year, and newsrooms are feeling the pain.

Staff cuts and the loss of capacities to hold power to account is what describes the commercial side of the industry today.

So luckily, there’s public service media. And they better hang in there as a pillar of democracy, and people better pay for them. Luckily, they do. In March, the Swiss referendum attacking the public service licence fee was killed by 71% of voters who wanted to maintain access to reliable information. And there was only limited outrage when the German Constitutional Court in July ruled in favour of the German public media fee. Citizens know what is at stake. In the Digital News Report, trust figures for public broadcasters regularly exceed those of commercial media.

They seem to be institutions of last resort when it comes to (relatively) unbiased and in-depth information, covering even local regions where producing journalism is a high-cost-affair that many private news organisations can’t or don’t want to afford any longer.

Critics argue that young people are abandoning TV and radio in droves, so why should they pay for them? And the web presence of many public broadcasters is limited at best, indeed. But that is a call for reform rather than for abolishment. Yes, there is a lot of red tape in public broadcasting, and very often there is too much politics and too little agility and innovation. But that can be tackled. It is vital to transport these institutions into the digital world by making them understand the rules of this new world and the needs of younger generations.

As with every institution, mechanisms of accountability have to be established, talent is needed to push them to the next level, cultural change has to be implemented and privilege scrutinized. But that doesn’t mean these institutions are not needed any longer. To the contrary, in a fast-paced world that is attacked by rampant capitalism from one side and new authoritarianism from the other, the institutions of democracy must be nourished. Public service media is one of the ways to do it.

This column was first published by NewsMavens on July 29, 2018   

Melania’s Jacket or What’s Wrong With Media Dynamics

Don’t worry, this won’t be another think-piece interpreting Melania Trump’s choice of wardrobe, this will be about media. A very unhealthy part of current media dynamics, that is.

For those of you who don’t live on this news planet and missed it, I am referring to Melania Trump’s visit to one of the infamous migrant children’s shelters at the Texan border. During the visit, America’s First Lady wore a Zara jacket with the slogan “I really don’t care, do you?” written on its back. And, while she may not care about her backside (though I seriously doubt this), social media certainly does. This is where news dynamics come in: what’s big on social has to be in traditional media as well. Nowadays, that seems to be the law.

Everybody covered and reflected on Melania’s clothing choice, from CNN and The New York Times to Teen Vogue, as well as from the BBC to the conservative German FAZ. In fact, the “how could she!” outrage grabbed almost as much attention as President Donald Trump’s infamous policy to separate migrant children from their parents. A quick Google search with the keywords “Melania jacket” brought around 71,000 results, while a search for “Trump migrant children” surfaced around 76,000 results. It is time to ask: should these stories really be of nearly equal value to journalists?

As the recently published Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed, trust in traditional media isn’t high right now. This year’s figure in the world’s biggest survey on online news consumption was 44%, meaning that on average more than half of the 74,000 users polled don’t trust established media. But trust in social media is a lot lower. It came in at only 23%. Consequently, when traditional media pick up everything that’s big on social just to boost their social media performance, they enter a vicious circle of diminishing trust.

Even worse, they devote energy to inflating stories that don’t really make a difference to people’s lives. Energies that are badly needed elsewhere. And yes, audiences notice. They become aggravated by copy-and-paste pieces of the kind they can find everywhere. And you can bet they don’t want to hand out cash for that kind of journalism. Also, show me the reader who turns into a devoted subscriber because of one columnist’s insights about dress codes at a symbolic political event. According to the report, on average only 14% of respondents paid for news online in the past year. In times like these I’m not surprised, because this kind of “herd coverage” massively affects trust. 42% of those surveyed said they had been exposed to “poor journalism” in the week before the polling, significantly more than the 26% who claimed they saw news that was entirely made up and “fake”.

Last week IBM presented a robot that engaged in a real debate with a person, coming up with the pros and cons of a controversial issue. The Financial Times quipped that this was great news: bots could write commentary and free up journalists for reporting on the ground or telling the bots what to think. This is indeed what journalism really needs: good reporting and more debates about what to do — and what not to. Let the robots do the predictable and write about Melania’s jacket.

This column was first published by NewsMavens on 29th June 2018


Get the Data and Get it Done: How to Tackle Gender Imbalance in Newsrooms

A comparative study by the European Journalism Observatory (EJO) revealed what has been obvious all along, but now it has some tough numbers to back it up. 41% of all stories published in eleven countries’ major newspapers were written by men and only 23% by women.

This is not just another report about gender inequality, it is about what our daughters are learning as they grow up — that it’s still a man’s world. In the eleven European countries covered by the EJO study, 41% of all stories were written by men and only 23% by women, the rest was mainly news agency material.

The authors wrote: “News coverage in Europe is overwhelmingly dominated by male journalists and commentators, who spend much of their time writing about other men.” Only in Portugal did bylines by women exceed those by men. Italy and Germany came in last — by the way, the second devastating analysis about gender equality in Germany published this week.

And it gets worse. In the newspapers and news websites that were analysed, only 15% of pictures showed women by themselves — and this included every female who made it into print or on screen, from German chancellor Angela Merkel to the barely-clad fashion model. In contrast, 43% of pictures showed just men.

Now please don’t anybody dare call this a pipeline problem. There are plenty of female journalists and often they even outnumber men, which is no coincidence either. This is newsroom culture. Like almost everywhere else in the business world, news organizations reward those who belong to the dominant group and behave accordingly, other talent doesn’t get seen. But journalism isn’t just any industry.

Journalism is supposed to represent society and be its voice, at least in democracies. Journalists filter images, facts, quotes and opinion – – they decide who gets a say. And they pride themselves on doing this job much better than algorithms. Only here is the catch, for while it’s important to question algorithmic choice, sometimes editorial choice can be just as bad or even worse. In the 2017 Digital News Report of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, an alarming 54 of respondents said they’d prefer news selection by algorithms to choices made by editors. Looking at the EJO study, who can blame them?

This is a call to action, if journalism doesn’t want to lose its credibility. And yes, there are ways to tackle this challenge. First, editors need to make sure that women are equally represented across all hierarchy levels, particularly in the prestigious genres.

But this alone doesn’t help. Many female journalists learn their skills in a male environment and adjust their work accordingly. This doesn’t make room for the new perspectives that people are attracted by, a critical mass of constructive dissenters is needed. No story the Financial Times ever published online was more read than an undercover report about hostesses being groped at a prestigious fundraising event. Women have an increasing say in the FT newsroom, and it shows.

Second, get the data! The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, for example, monitors the percentage of male and female coverage with a dashboard. They even invented a bot that points out to every single author how balanced their stories are along gender lines. Awareness is key, problems need to be acknowledged to get solved. And to solve them, clear targets are essential.

Third, newsrooms need to debate their values and think critically about their products. A distorted male/female ratio is a good indicator for a distorted view on society. If news is all about winning and losing, it’s most likely losing out on the people who don’t even show up for the game. Journalism needs to focus more on things that matter to citizens in their daily lives. Otherwise audiences tune out. According to the Digital News Report, 29% are already doing so.

Outside of the news media, the world is full of women. We need to show them to our daughters — and to our sons.

This column was first published in NewsMavens on May 18th, 2018

A Crisis Playbook for Big Tech

There are many similarities between the trust deficit that still plagues the financial sector and the one that is beginning to undermine technology companies. Firms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google should study five lessons that most banks never learned after the 2008 crisis.

OXFORD – The predictions were wrong: the global economy didn’t collapse after the 2008 financial crisis. Buoyed by taxpayer-financed bailouts, banks recovered and business at most institutions stabilized. But if there is one lingering casualty of that era, it is the erosion of public trust in the financial sector. Ten years after the crisis began, Main Street still has little faith in Wall

A similar crisis of confidence plagues the technology industry today. As executives at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica rationalize their companies’ use and abuse of personal data, trust in technology firms is approaching a tipping point. “Big Tech” can still salvage its reputation, but its most powerful companies will need to change fundamentally how they operate. And to do that, they must avoid the mistakes that nearly crippled the financial sector a decade ago.

Five key lessons from the financial crisis should guide decision-making in the tech sector today. First, consumer illiteracy can be costly. Shortly before the housing bubble burst, many investors realized they had no understanding of the products they were buying; some didn’t even know they were buying anything. Financial journalism contributed to this atmosphere of ignorance by focusing only on the potential gains, and ignoring the risks.

People engage with technology in similar ways. Companies, governments, and businesses happily plug their entire operations into platforms they cannot control. Doubt, if it does arise, is usually subdued, because the technology is too convenient to abandon. But, just like perilous financial products, the only way to mitigate the risks of new technologies is to be fully educated about what could go wrong.

The second lesson is that hidden costs add up. Before the financial crisis, many customers were sold products with undisclosed fees and financial add-ons that became massive liabilities. Today, more investors recognize that higher returns imply higher risk, but in the technology business, hidden costs continue to entrap unsuspecting consumers. Some of these costs are social – like being pressured by advertisers to buy products. And others are more tangible, like giving away personal data in exchange for access to a service.

Third, inequitable pay and incentive structures are bad for business. Much has been written about the extraordinary bonuses paid to investment bankers during the height of the financial crisis. But the CEOs of Silicon Valley are no Robin Hoods, either. Tech entrepreneurs might tell their investors they want to change the world, but many are intoxicated by the idea that the world will be better when they sell their business to the highest bidder.

Fourth, businesses that are male-dominated take more unnecessary risks. When the history of the financial crisis was being written, many argued that greater gender diversity would have mitigated the damage. In 2010, two years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Christine Lagarde, then-France’s finance minister, quipped that the crisis would have been less painful if “Lehman Sisters” had been managing the store. The same logic applies to the tech sector today.

Finally, as we learned a decade ago, the global economy is deeply interconnected; no bank was too big to fail or to be rescued. This is true for the largest technology companies as well. The collapse of Amazon or Google – however invulnerable they may seem – would have devastating ripple effects. While many argue that it would be unwise to regulate technology firms with a view to concerns over censorship and access to knowledge, these companies, like their financial-sector counterparts, have grown too big to be left to their own devices.

In the decade since the financial crisis erupted, structural changes have helped stabilize the banking and financial-services industry. Regulations have increased transparency and improved consumer awareness. But the old dynamics, power structures, and bloated pay scales have largely survived. As a result, the sector’s reputation remains in tatters.

For the technology industry to avoid a similar fate, its leaders must increase consumers’ literacy about the products they offer – and the potential dangers they hold. CEOs must support regulation, increase workplace diversity, and make compensation and incentive structures more equitable. Above all, tech leaders should avoid the mistakes made by other industries navigating crisis. And no industry offers a more relevant case study than the one that almost took down the global economy.

This text was first published with Project Syndicate, April 25, 2018