Trusted Journalism in the Age of Generative AI

Media strategist Lucy Küng regards generative AI as quite a challenge for media organizations, particularly since many of them haven’t even yet mastered digital transformation to the full extent. But she also has some advice in store: “The media industry gave away the keys to the kingdom once –  that shouldn’t happen again”, she said in an interview led for the upcoming EBU News Report “Trusted Journalism in the Age of Generative AI” that is to be published in June. Ezra Eeman, Director for Strategy and Innovation at the Netherland’s public broadcaster NPO, thinks that media organizations have a moral duty to be optimists around the technology. It will increase the opportunities for them to fulfill their public service mission better.  These are just two voices, many more are to come. 

The report that is based on close to 40 extensive interviews with international media leaders and experts will discuss the opportunities and risks of generative AI with a special focus on practical applications, management challenges, and ethical considerations. The team of authors includes Felix Simon (Oxford Internet Institute), Kati Bremme (France Television), and Olle Zachrison (Sveriges Radio), Alexandra is the lead author. In the run-up to publication, the EBU will publish some interviews in advance. They will be shared here:

Kai Gniffke, Director General SWR, Chair ARD: “AI is an incredible accelerator of change ..It’s up to us to use this technology responsibly“, published on 3rd June 2024.

Jane Barrett, Global Editor at Reuters: “We have to educate ourselves about AI and then report the hell out of it“, published on 16th May 2024. 

Ezra Eeman, Strategy and Innovation Director NPO, “We have a moral duty to be optimists“, published on 17th April 2024.  

Lucy Küng, independent Media Strategist: “The media industry gave away the keys to the kingdom once – that shouldn’t happen again“, published on 27th March 2024.

Nieman Lab Prediction 2024: Everyone in the Newsroom Gets Training

Up to now, the world’s newsrooms have been populated by roughly two phenotypes. On the one hand, there have been the content people (many of whom would never call their journalism “content,” of course). These include seasoned reporters, investigators, or commentators who spend their time deep diving into subjects, research, analysis, and cultivating sources and usually don’t want to be bothered by “the rest.”

On the other hand, there has been “the rest.” These are the people who understand formats, channel management, metrics, editing, products, and audiences, and are ever on the lookout for new trends to help the content people’s journalism thrive and sell. But with the advent of generative AI, taking refuge in the old and surprisingly stable world of traditional journalism roles will not be an option any longer. Everyone in the newsroom has to understand how large language models work and how to use them — and then actually use them. This is why 2024 will be the year when media organizations will get serious about education and training.

“We have to bridge the digital divide in our newsrooms,” says Anne Lagercrantz, vice CEO of Swedish public broadcaster SVT. This requires educating and training all staff, even those who until now have shied away from observing what is new in the industry. While in the past it was perfectly acceptable for, say, an investigative reporter not to know the first thing about SEO, TikTok algorithms, or newsletter open rates, now everyone involved with content needs to be aware of the capabilities, deficiencies, and mechanics of large language models, reliable fact-checking tools, and the legal and ethical responsibilities that come with their use. Additionally, AI has all the potential to transform good researchers and reporters into outstanding ones, serving as powerful extensions to the human brain. Research from Harvard Business School suggested that consultants who extensively used AI finished their tasks about 25% faster and outperformed their peers by 40% in quality. It will be in the interest of everyone, individuals and their employers, that no one falls behind.

But making newsrooms fit for these new challenges will be demanding. First, training requires resources and time. But leadership might be reluctant to free up both or tempted to invest in flashy new tools instead. Many managers still fall short of understanding that digital transformation is more a cultural challenge than it is a tech challenge.

Second, training needs trainers who understand their stuff. These are rare finds at a time when AI is evolving as rapidly as it is over-hyped. You will see plenty of consultants out there, of course. But it will be hard to tell those who really know things from those who just pretend in order to get a share of the pie. Be wary when someone flashes something like the ten must-have tools in AI, warns Charlie Beckett, founder of the JournalismAI project at the London School of Economics. Third, training can be a futile exercise when it is not paired with doing. With AI in particular, the goal should be to implement a culture of experimentation, collaboration, and transparency rather than making it some mechanical exercise. Technological advances will come much faster than the most proficient trainer could ever foresee.

Establishing a learning culture around the newsroom should therefore be a worthwhile goal for 2024 and an investment that will pay off in other areas as well. Anyone who is infected with the spirit of testing and learning will likely stretch their minds in areas other than AI, from product development to climate journalism. So many of today’s challenges for newsrooms require constant adaptation, working with data, and building connections with audiences who are more demanding, volatile, and impatient than they used to be. It is important that every journalist embraces at least some responsibility for the impact of their journalism.

It is also time that those editorial innovators who tend to run into each other at the same conferences open their circles to include all of the newsroom. Some might discover that a few of their older colleagues of the content-creator-phenotype could teach them a thing or two as well — for example, how to properly use a telephone. In an age when artificial fabrication of text, voice, or image documents is predicted to evolve at a rapid pace, the comeback of old-style research methods and verification techniques might become a thing. But let’s leave this as a prediction for 2025.

This post was published in Harvard’s Nieman Lab’s Journalism Predictions 2024 series on 7th December 2023.  

Interview with Prof. Charlie Beckett on AI: “Frankly, I’ve never seen industry executives so worried before”

LSE-Professor Charlie Beckett, founder and director of the JournalismAI project, talks about what AI means for journalism, how to tell advice from rubbish, and how the news industry adjusts to the new challenges.

Medieninsider: Since the launch of ChatGPT, new AI applications relevant to journalism have been announced almost every day. Which one intrigues you the most?

Charlie Beckett: A small newsroom in Malawi that is participating in our AI course for small newsrooms, recently built a generative AI-based tool that is practically a whole toolbox, It can be used to simplify newsroom workflows. The idea is to quickly process information and cast it into formats, a kind of super-efficient editorial manager. It’s not one of those sensational applications that help discover deep fakes or unearth the next Watergate as an investigative tool. But I think it’s great: an African newsroom that quickly develops something that makes day-to-day operations easier. I think the immediate future lies in these more mechanical applications. That often gets lost in the media hype. People would rather discuss topics like killer robots.

 

Do you think small newsrooms will benefit most from AI, or will the big players be the winners once again?

The answer is: I don’t know! So far, when it comes to innovation, large newsrooms have benefited the most because they can invest more. But if small newsrooms can find a few tools to help them automate newsletters or analyze data for an investigative project, for example, it can help them tremendously. A ten percent gain in efficiency can be an existential question for them. For local newsrooms AI could prove to be a bridge technology. At least that’s what I hear in conversations.

Because they can do more with fewer people? There is this example from Sweden of a tool that automatically evaluates real estate prices; it has been successful generating subscriptions, because readers love that kind of stuff – just like weather and traffic reports.

At least, that’s what editors at small newsrooms hope. They say they could use AI to produce at least sufficient content to justify the existence of their brand. Reporters could then focus on researching real local stories. We’ll see if that happens. But AI will definitely shape the industry at least as much as online journalism and the rise of social media have.

AI seems to unleash enthusiasm and a spirit of experimentation in the industry, unlike back in the early days of online journalism, when many were sceptical.

The speed of the development is almost breath-taking. In the beginning, we looked at artificially generated images and thought, well, that looks a bit wobbly. Three months later, there were already impressively realistic images. We’re moving through this hype cycle right now. No matter which newsroom in the world I talk to everyone is at least playing around with AI; by the end of the year at the latest, many will have implemented something.

But you say it’s too early to make predictions?

We’re seeing an extremely fluid development right now. Advertisers don’t yet know what to do, and in the relationship between platform groups and publishers, a lot is out in the open again. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything like this before. It’s clear to everyone that we’re facing a big change.

But isn’t it risky to just wait, and see?

Automation is still very unstable. Setting up new processes at the current level would be like building a house on a volcano. The right process is: let employees experiment, learn, and definitely think about potential impacts. If you’re asking me now, what are the ten tools I need to know, that’s the wrong question.

That’s exactly what I wanted to ask, of course. That’s what a lot of people want to know at the moment, after all. And everyone wants to be the first to publish the ultimate AI manual for newsrooms. So, do you have to be suspicious when someone confidently claims to have solutions?

We are currently collecting who is using which tools and what experiences are being made with them. But we are not making recommendations about what is the best tool. I just spoke to the CEO of a major broadcaster. They are doing it this way: In addition to regular meetings and information sessions, they take half an hour a day to simply play around with new tools. If you’re a CEO, of course you must budget for AI. But it should be flexible.

Many newsrooms are currently establishing rules for the responsible use of AI. Bayerischer Rundfunk is one example; the person who pushed this was in one of the first cohorts of your LSE Journalism and AI Project.

Establishing rules is a good thing, but it should read at the very beginning: All this could change. It’s also important to start such a set of rules with a message of encouragement. Any CEO who immediately says we don’t do this, and we don’t do that is making a big mistake. The best guidelines are the ones that say, these are our limits, and these are the important questions we should be asking about all applications. Transparency is an important issue: who do I tell what I’m experimenting with? My supervisors, my colleagues, the users? And, of course, a general caution is in order. Currently there are swarms of company representatives out there, trying to sell you miracle tools. 90 percent of them are nonsense.

How transparent should you be to the public?

Bloomberg, for example, writes under its texts: This is 100 percent AI-generated. That’s not meant as a warning signal, but as a sign of pride. It’s meant to say: we can handle this technology; you can trust us. I think editors are a bit too worried about that. Today it doesn’t read under texts: „Some of the information came from news agencies“ or „The intern helped with the research.” Newsrooms should confidently use transparency notices to show consumers that they want to give them more value. Some brands will continue to have clickbait pages and now fill them with a lot of AI rubbish without disclosing that. But these have probably always produced a lot of garbage.

How does journalism education need to change? Should those who enter the profession because they like to write now be discouraged from doing so because AI will soon be extremely good at it?

The first thing I would say is that not much will change. The qualities and skills we foster in education are deeply human: curiosity, creativity, competencies. in the past 15 years, of course, technical skills have been added. Then again fundamental things have changed. Today, more than ever, it’s about building relationships with users, it is not just about product development. Journalism is a data-driven, structured process of information delivery. With generative AI, technology fades into the background. You don’t have to learn how to code any longer. But a key skill will be to learn how to write excellent prompts. Writing prompts will be like coding, but without the math.

Journalists may feel their core skills challenged by these AI tools, but couldn’t they be a great opportunity to democratize anything that requires language fluency? For example, my students, many of whom are not native speakers, use ChatGPT to edit their resumes.

Maybe we shouldn’t use that big word democratization, but AI could lower barriers and remove obstacles. The lines between disciplines are likely to blur. I used to need data scientists or graphic designers to do certain tasks, now I can do a lot of stuff myself with the right prompts. On the other hand, I’m sceptical. We often underestimate the ways in which inequalities and injustices persist online.

We’ve talked a lot about the opportunities of AI for journalism. What are the biggest risks?

There is, of course, the great dependence on tech companies, and the risk of discrimination. Journalism has to be fact-based and accurate, generative AI can’t deliver that to the same extent. But the biggest risk is probably that the role of the media as an intermediator will continue to dwindle. Already the Internet has weakened that role; people can go directly to those offering information. But AI that is based on language models will answer all questions without people ever encountering the source of the information. This is a massive problem for business models. What kind of regulation will be needed, what commercial agreements, what about copyright? Frankly, I’ve never seen industry executives so worried before.

This is indeed threatening.

It’s existential. First, they said, oh my God, the Internet has stolen our ad revenue. Then they said, oh my God, Twitter has taken attention away from us. And now they’re staring at this thing thinking, why in the world would anyone ever come to my website again? And they have to find an answer to that.

Do journalists have to fear for their jobs?

Media organisations won’t disappear overnight. But there will be more products that will look like good journalism. We have a toxic cocktail here that is fascinating, but also scary. This cocktail consists of uncertainty, which journalists always love. It also consists of complexity, which is exciting for all intelligent people. The third ingredient is speed, and the old rule applies here: we usually overestimate the short-term consequences and underestimate the long-term effects. Over the 15 years that I’ve been doing this, there have been people who have said, 80 percent of media brands will disappear, or 60 percent of journalists will no longer be needed or things like that. But today we have more journalism than ever before.

But the dependence on the big tech companies will grow rather than shrink. 

On the one hand, yes. You definitely need friends from this tech world to help you understand these things. On the other hand, suddenly there’s new competition. Google may no longer be this great power we thought it was. New competition always opens opportunities to renegotiate your own position. The media industry must take advantage of these opportunities. I’m on shaky grounds here because the JournalismAI initiative is funded by Google. But I think neither Google nor politicians really care about how the media is doing. Probably quite a few politicians would be happy if journalism disappeared. We therefore need to redefine and communicate as an industry what the added value of journalism is for people and society – regardless of previous ideas about journalism as an institution.

Quite a few colleagues in the industry say behind closed doors, „Fortunately, I’m approaching the end of my career, the best years of journalism are behind us.“ Would you want to be a journalist again under the current conditions and perspectives?

Absolutely. It’s an empirical fact that with all the possibilities today, you can produce better journalism than ever before.


The interview was first published in German by Medieninsider on 9th September 2023 and in English on 14th September 2023.

Humor is constructive – Why laughing about climate change can open paths to solutions

Is it okay to laugh heartily even when the situation is serious? Yes, because it is precisely in these situations that humor can help journalism to make formats interesting even for people who might not care otherwise. A plea for more humor – in everyday life and at work.

Doom-scrolling rarely works. Research shows that journalism on climate change is more likely to have an impact if it not only highlights the many different issues involved, but also offers a few solutions. People who report that they regularly avoid the news would like to see more offerings that give them hope and explain things, rather than having to digest the same drama over and over again. This is also confirmed by the Reuters Institute’s latest Digital News Report. But what about humor? Is it okay to laugh heartily, even when the situation is serious?

One might seek permission posthumously from great humorists. In the 1942 comedy “To Be or Not to Be,” director Ernst Lubitsch even had his actors joke about concentration camps while World War II raged outside. But it’s not just about being allowed to joke – subject to a few rules, of course. Evidence suggests that humor is particularly effective at spurring people to action. This is, because jokes convey unpleasant truths the light way. They hold up a mirror to people without making them feel guilty, and for that very reason invite them to reflect about their behavior.

Laughing at yourself instead of feeling guilty

This also works when it comes to climate change. Matt Winning is a Scottish environmental economist. After work, he often climbs up London stages as a stand-up comedian; for a few years now, he has been combining hobby and profession. “We have to make content for people we don’t make content for,” he said in an interview for the report “Climate Journalism That Works: Between Knowledge and Impact.”

His shows, he says, are not so much for environmental professionals, activists and policy experts, as for those people who have been more peripherally involved with climate action. He says he is touched when such guests linger around at the end of the show to tell him that they have now got rid of their car, given up on flying for their summer vacations or found out about heat pumps. In his book “Hot Mess: What on earth can we do about climate change?” Winning tries to get people to understand the topic in a playful way.

Maxwell Boykoff and his colleague Beth Osnes are trying out something similar at the University of Colorado in Boulder. They had initiated the ” Inside the Greenhouse” project as a collaboration between the departments of theater and environmental policy. They published their first findings from it in an academic article in 2019: A light approach to the issues around climate change helps students confront their own feelings, especially fears, deal with them creatively and become better climate communicators, they said.

Why humor can help at the working place

Professors Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas teach humor in management at Stanford Business School. In their book “Humour, Seriously – Why Humour is a Secret Weapon in Work and in Life” they describe the role that cheerfulness can play in achieving (business) goals. Humor builds community, strengthens problem-solving skills and resilience. Managers who can laugh at themselves appear close and authentic.

In journalism, young people in particular appreciate humorous formats. It is important to them that content is useful, but they also like it to be fun. A study published in 2021 by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that young consumers remembered news better when it was presented in a humorous way. More brain regions would be activated during laughter. The rise of TikTok as a channel for news delivery – also documented in the recent Digital News Report – shows how quickly a platform specializing in lighter fare can catch on.

Of course, humor will always be just a complementary form of communication. This is the case also because only a few people have mastered the subject to perfection. For example, one basic rule is: Humor works when you punch up or among your peers. Anyone who makes fun of those conceived to be less powerful is most likely to miss the mark – which is why joking is a tightrope walk for leaders. In any case, what someone laughs at and what jokes he or she makes depends on the cultural context but also reveals a lot about character. As Aaker and Bagdonas write, “Humor is a kind of intelligence you can’t fake.”

This text first appeared in German as an Op Ed on Focus online on June 23, 2023. It was translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator and edited. 

Why climate change should be at the heart of modern journalism

The best insurance against misinformation is strong journalism. Professor Alexandra Borchardt explains how climate journalism and the data and verification skills we need to do this properly can transform our newsrooms.

It is often said that an abundance of questionable information drowns out facts. In climate journalism, the strategy should be to do the opposite: make journalism about global warming, its causes, and its remedies, so pervasive, that everybody everywhere can tell facts and reality from greenwashing and wishful thinking; drown out the misinformation with factual journalism.

This requires rethinking climate journalism from it being a “beat” or “specialist subject” to something that frames all our storytelling, particularly business reporting. This is a tough call, of course. Many obstacles hold media organisations back from prioritising investment in climate journalism. Climate issues often lack a newsy angle. They may be complicated and difficult to understand Coverage may mean expensive travel, and stories can be depressing, politically polarising, and if the journalism is delivered in a less than spectacular way, may fail to attract big audiences. All of which makes the commitment even harder.

Nevertheless, climate journalism is not optional. Journalists have an ethical responsibility, even a mandate to inform the public of threats and help them to make better decisions for themselves, their children, and their communities. Media has the duty to hold power to account and investigate wrongdoing. And a lot has gone wrong. Far too often publishers and broadcasters have kept global warming in the silo of science journalism, rather than at the heart of wider business and news coverage, even though it has been known for decades that the core issues are primarily economic, with powerful interests at play.

The good news is it might help editors and media managers to know that an investment in climate journalism will generate all sorts of benefits for their organisation. Precisely because climate journalism is so complex, the lessons that newsrooms can learn from doing it well can also be applied to other fields. To put it differently: sustainability journalism can make media more sustainable. This is the major conclusion of a report recently published by the European Broadcasting Union: “Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact”.

It identified seven such benefits:

  • First, climate journalism is about the future. Today’s journalism is too often stuck in the now. It needs to develop strategies to increase its legitimacy in the attention economy. This is especially true for public service media, which is under attack from various political camps. Who else should have a clearer mandate to contribute to the protection of humankind through better journalism? This way, public service media would also meet the needs of younger generations they are struggling to reach. Above all, it is their future.
  • Second, climate protection needs hope. People only act if they believe they can make a difference. In contrast, today’s journalism focuses on conflict, shortcomings, and wrongdoing. Constructive and solutions-oriented journalism offer a way forward. A project called Drive, in which 21 German regional publishers pool their data, recently proved that inspirational pieces were the most valuable digital content when it came to subscriptions.
  • Third, in climate change, it’s what’s done that counts. Today’s journalism still focuses too much on what has been said. The “he said, she said” type of journalism that dominates political reporting tends to be highly unpopular with users though. Modern journalism should be based more on data than on quotes. Fact-checking and verification come in right here: both need to become second nature for any journalist. Climate journalism is an excellent training ground.
  • Fourth, climate journalism that works approaches a variety of audiences with respect and in languages they understand. It explains. Today’s journalism often elevates itself above its audience in a know-it-all manner. Journalism must become more diverse and inclusive if it is to reach people, inspire them, and move them to action. This applies to formats and protagonists.
  • Fifth, climate journalism must be rooted in the local. In contrast, today’s journalism too often strives for reach, neglecting the specific needs of communities. To make itself indispensable, journalism should reclaim its importance as a community-building institution. Those who use or even subscribe to a media product often do so because it makes them feel they belong.
  • Sixth, climate journalism must have an impact, otherwise it is meaningless. It should therefore reflect on its own practices and use insights from research, especially from communication sciences and psychology. Today’s journalism does this far too rarely. Journalists tend to be curious but often surprisingly resistant to change. Media companies could gain a lot if their managers and employees developed more of a learning mindset and trained their strategic thinking.
  • Seventh, climate journalism benefits from collaboration. In today’s journalism, old-fashioned competitive thinking still dominates far too often. Yet so much potential could be leveraged through cooperation. This applies to networking within organizations among desks and regional bureaus, as well as to devoping links with external partners from within the industry and beyond. The journalism of the future is collaborative.

This blog post was published in March 2023 by the BBC’s Trusted News Initiative.

2023 Prediction for Nieman Lab: The Year Of The Climate Journalism Strategy

For the longest time, most newsrooms felt they were doing an okay job covering climate change.

They would go all out when reporting on potentially climate-related disasters, cover conflicts about energy, highlight what happened at the big conferences like COP27. But then again, they might not have been so sure. In the 2022 Reuters Institute’s “Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions” that is a non-representative international media leaders survey, 65% of respondents judged their own organization’s climate coverage as good, but only 34% felt that the industry as a whole was doing a good job with it. This gap in perception clearly revealed there were second thoughts, consequently room for improvement. As the warnings of scientists about a heating atmosphere intensify but audience engagement tends to lag behind expectations, many news organizations in 2023 will decide that their climate coverage needs a serious upgrade. And this requires a climate journalism and sustainability strategy.

It is badly needed. While the issue of global warming has been out in the open for decades, the media until recently hasn’t been too eager to jump on the topic — with the notable exception of The Guardian, which has been able to connect a climate strategy with the needs of its audiences and its membership-driven business model. The reasons for the industry-wide reluctance were manifold: climate change is a complex, slowly moving topic that doesn’t lend itself to capture audience attention for longer stretches of time in a news-driven environment. Reporting on it in a way that resonates with users requires scientific skills, time and thus considerable resources. And it is depressing, risking to drive people into news fatigue. Furthermore, in many countries it had evolved into a politically polarizing issue, making it necessary for newsrooms to rebut accusations of taking sides.

But things have been moving in recent years. Editors-in-chief have graduated from calling it “one of the defining issues of our age” (Alessandra Galloni, Reuters) to “perhaps the century’s biggest story” (Sally Buzbee, Washington Post). In 2022, large organizations expanded their climate coverage capacities considerably, sometimes with the help of external funders. In September National Public Radio established a new climate desk. In November the Washington Post announced to triple their climate team to 30 people. And these are just current examples from the U.S. Assistance from networks like the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, Covering Climate Now, and the Earth Journalism Network has been sought after.

Still, consistent climate strategies that are openly communicated and implemented throughout organizations are rare. Some examples: Norway’s public service broadcaster NRK developed one that establishes the role of climate coverage in the newsroom and how (not) to report on it. Radio France in 2022 published a strategy that includes a massive training program for all of editorial and sustainability guidelines for the organization. And French news agency AFP created its “future of the planet hub.” These are important role models, because while smaller players won’t have the capacities to establish hubs or desks, they will closely watch what happens in the industry and draw consequences that fit their individual context and needs.

A full-blown climate strategy makes good sense for several reasons beyond the obvious. Here are five:

First, engagement with climate issues needs to pick up, and this will only happen with excellent journalism that fits different audiences’ needs.

Second, younger, educated audiences are likely to be invested in the issue, and news organizations need to attract younger generations. So, this is a business opportunity.

Third, climate change needs to advance from topic to frame, gaining relevance in every beat to become more subtle and less one-off alarmist.

Fourth, comprehensive newsroom training is vital to make everyone climate literate, help them to apply it to their particular field, and to detect greenwashing.

Fifth, an editorial climate strategy cannot exist in a vacuum, it needs to be linked to an organization-wide sustainability strategy to maintain credibility.

At some point in the future, the absence of a climate journalism strategy might be a similar kind of negligence as the absence of a digital strategy. (Credit goes to Wolfgang Blau, who helped to elevate the issue to this level throughout the industry in recent years. For more, watch or read the lecture he gave as a co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/calendar/climate-change-journalisms-greatest-challenge.) Hopefully, this will help media organizations, citizens, and the planet alike.

This piece was written for and published by Niemanlab at Harvard University in the context of the 2023 prediction series. 

Getting climate journalism right means getting journalism right

Many newsroom look at expanding climate journalism as a duty, but not as an opportunity. This might be one reason why just a few media houses have a climate strategy. At the Constructive Journalism Day 2022 organized by NDR Info and Hamburg Media School, I talked about why climate journalism holds great potential for bringing journalism as a whole into the future. 

In November 2022, many people took in another big dose of climate journalism. For some, it may have felt like an overdose. The climate summit in Sharm-El-Sheik dominated the headlines for days. And we learned from the media: it was a disaster. “Less than nothing” had been achieved, was the title of a commentary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. In addition, there were the protests of young people who, in their rage, stuck themselves to streets or destroyed works of art. This, too, has been reported on in all its facets. Is that good?

It’s important, yes. But the debates about the protests, or even the big splash at events like COP27, obscure the fact that there are many reasons to be confident about the climate issue, too.

  • Researchers say the energy transition is no longer a technical problem, nor is it a price problem. It is a political problem – tricky enough.
  • New solutions are being invented practically every day, and a vibrant start-up scene has sprung up around green technologies, products, and services.
  • Most industries are intensely engaged in climate innovations, funds are shifting their portfolios, polluters are switching to climate-friendly technologies, even aircraft engine manufacturers have a climate strategy.

Only journalism does not. For the EBU News Report of the European Broadcasting Union – the world’s largest association of public service media organisations – we have been researching for months, interviewing editors-in-chief, researchers and other experts. We found that up to now, just a handful of newsrooms have strategically addressed the issue.

When you argue this way, you hear critics saying: What other industries are doing is often just greenwashing. That may be true in some cases. But if you want to be nasty, you could say that journalism often doesn’t even get greenwashing right.

When it comes to the climate, journalism lags other industries. Why is that?

  • Journalism is afraid of being perceived as partisan, activist. A small, vocal minority of skeptics sets the tone. Editors underestimate their audience. The majority has long since moved on, as surveys show. Most people know the problem – at least intuitively – and would like to see something happen.
  • There is little pressure. Many publishers are medium-sized, broadcasters are structured under public law. Newsrooms are not listed on the stock exchange, pension funds cannot withdraw money if the media botches on sustainability. Other things take priority, and cost pressure adds to the problem.
  • Climate journalism is misunderstood as one topic among many. Yet the protection of our planet’s livelihoods must be the frame under which journalism operates – just as it is with democracy or human rights. The climate must not only be an object to be observed and described. It must be the backdrop against which life plays out. It should define all storytelling.

The topic of climate is an opportunity for journalism because it exposes its major shortcomings:

  • Climate is about the future. Journalism is stuck in the now. The focus is on the quick news, the daily business. Surveys show: Too much is reported, too little explained.
  • Climate protection needs hope. Today’s journalism focuses on drama, omissions, failures. This is also expressed in language. Journalism warns, threatens, scares.
  • In climate protection, what counts is what is done. Today’s journalism focuses on what is said. The overproduction in “he said, she said” journalism often leaves people confused, empty, bored.
  • Journalism that works approaches people at eye level in a language they understand. Today’s journalism often arrogates itself above them in a know-it-all manner – especially when it calls itself quality journalism.
  • Journalism that wants to be effective respects its counterpart and relies on diversity, also in addressing the audience. Most of today’s journalism is still grounded in the age of mass media, where one size had to fit all.
  • Journalism that wants to have an impact reflects on its own practices and makes use of research. Today, many newsrooms almost pride themselves on ignoring academic knowledge. Yet there is a lot of knowledge about how communication affects people.

But can journalism that doesn’t have an impact be strong journalism?

To have an impact, you need to engage with your audience. What’s interesting is that the formats that win journalism awards don’t necessarily resonate with audiences – and vice versa. The impactful formats don’t win awards.

So, what is effective climate journalism, what do we know from research?

  • Effective climate journalism focuses on the here and now rather than the distant future when describing the problem. It anchors the issue where people live.
  • Effective climate journalism paints the possibilities of a good future, shows: What will be gained, instead of always emphasizing what will be lost, what will have to be sacrificed. It’s about developing a sustainable economic system. Climate journalism expert Wolfgang Blau calls it the biggest transformation since World War II.
  • Climate journalism works when it is constructive and solutions-oriented, instead of always painting the apocalypse on the wall. If you want to engage people instead of making them run away, even humor works better than constant alarm. Scientists are already looking at the effects of comedy in climate communication.
  • Climate journalism can work if it gives people agency instead of making them victims, or at least “those affected”, as is almost universally done in the news.
  • Effective climate journalism serves different audiences in a way that makes them listen. It takes note that the messenger is often more important than the message itself. At best, the ambassador is a person with high trust and credibility ratings. It also takes into account that an abundance of facts does not replace empathy.
  • Effective climate journalism is powerful journalism. Editors should not be too preoccupied with incidental details. A corset of language is not needed. What is important: depth, research, factual accuracy, strong images – especially strong images of solutions. What never works: Images of “men in suits,” as one Norwegian editor-in-chief put it.
  • Effective climate journalism needs a credible foundation. Media organisations should do their homework, work on their carbon neutrality. And that is possibly the biggest challenge. But anyone who writes flaming commentaries but does not live climate protection in a credible way is quickly exposed as a hypocrite.

Mark Hertsgaard, co-founder of the Covering Climate Now platform at New York’s Columbia University, said, “If we don’t transform the media industry, no other industry will be transformed.” You might hear some hubris in that. But the truth is that only constant public pressure will spur everyone involved to finally tackle the issue.

Climate journalism has what it takes to push journalism into its best future. It is high time to seize this opportunity – for journalism and for the climate.

I gave this keynote on 29th November 2022 at the Constructive Journalism Day in Hamburg, organized by Hamburg Media School and NDR Info. The research for this project has been funded by the news committee of the European Broadcasting Union. 

Climate Journalism – What works?

While the war in Ukraine and the pandemic have taken up a lot of space and energy in newsrooms recently, there is hardly any issue that will define our future more than the climate crisis: how it’s reported and received by audiences worldwide and how journalism can spur the debate on how to rebuild our economies in a sustainable way. 

I’m lead author of the upcoming report “Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact” – that will be published in full in Spring 2023. Working with me on this have been Katherine Dunn from the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, and Felix Simon from the Oxford Internet Institute. The report will look at how to craft journalism about climate change that is likely to have an impact and to resonate with audiences and how to restructure newsrooms accordingly. It will also include best practice case studies and Q&As from thought leaders and influencers on what actually works.

These are some key preliminary findings that we presented at the EBU’s annual News Assembly on 12th October 2022:

•    Facts alone don’t help. More facts are not necessarily more convincing
•    The messenger is often more important than the message. It is a matter of credibility with the audience.
•    It is important to make climate impact part of all the beats in a newsroom – rather than confine it to a dedicated climate desk. All journalists need basic climate literacy.
•    There is no one-size-fits-all model for newsroom organization, language to be used or visual policy. Everyone has to make it fit their resources, values, culture.
•    Images matter a lot and the formats need to fit the particular audience
•    Leaders experience little resistance when implementing climate strategies. When leadership doesn’t make the topic a priority, a climate desk might flourish but the rest of the journalism will stay the same. 
•    The media has a hard time living up to their own standards when it comes to measuring carbon footprints or making newsrooms more sustainable. Travel is a pain point. 
•    There is a lot of material out there on how to communicate the climate challenge successfully, particularly from the field of communication studies. Newsrooms just haven’t used it yet.

Academics doing research on climate communication have discovered: Stories are more likely to work if they are related to the here and know instead of to the distant future, tied to a local context, convey agency, are constructive or solutions-oriented, and envision a sustainable future instead of emphasizing sacrifice, crisis, destruction, loss, and disaster. While doom scrolling might capture attention for a brief moment, it also risks to drive people into news avoidance.   

We also uncovered some indicators on how climate change and the environment resonate particularly with younger audiences – and how focusing on sustainable issues could help public service media speak directly to this audience and solve some of their own problems in the process.

Interestingly the same focus also appeals to young staffers – and attracts young talent – in newsrooms themselves. And there is evidence that these topics energize veteran news reporters and help promote overall diversity. They make journalism broader, more constructive, and help to break the dominance of the “he said, she said”-type of political reporting that hasn’t served audiences too well anyway.  

We will cover all this and more in the next News Report. But you don’t have to wait that long to read our findings. We will be publishing selected Q&As with media leaders, climate journalists and experts in advance of publication. You can read Wolfgang Blau’s take on some of the challenges – and opportunities – for public service newsrooms.

Climate Journalism That Works – Between Knowledge and Impact by Dr Alexandra Borchardt, Katherine Dunn and Felix Simon, will be published on 1 March 2023. This blog was first published on the EBU’s homepage.
 

 

Free speech in the digital age – a constructive approach

Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way we communicate, express and inform ourselves. This requires new rules to safeguard democratic values. As the Digital Services Act (DSA) awaits adoption by the EU, Natali Helberger, Alexandra Borchardt and Cristian Vaccari explain here how the Council of Europe’s recently adopted recommendation “on the impact of digital technologies on freedom of expression” can complement the implementation of the DSA, which aims to update rules governing digital services in the EU. All three were members of the Council’s expert committee that was set up for this purpose, working in 2020 and 2021.

When Elon Musk announced his original plan to buy Twitter and, in his words, restore freedom of speech on the platform, EC Commissioner Thierry Breton quickly reminded him of the Digital Services Act (DSA). According to the DSA, providers of what it defines as ‘Very Large Online Platforms’ will have to ‘pay due regard to freedom of expression and information, including media freedom and pluralism.’ They will have to monitor their recommendation and content moderation algorithms for any systemic risks to the fundamental rights and values that constitute Europe. A video of Musk and Breton in Austin, Texas, shows Musk eagerly nodding and assuring Breton that “this all is very well aligned with what we are planning.”

But what exactly is well aligned here? What does it mean for social media platforms, such as Twitter, to pay due regard to freedom of expression, media freedom and pluralism? While the DSA enshrines a firm commitment to freedom of expression, it only provides limited concrete guidance on what freedom of expression means in a platform context. So when Musk was nodding along like an eager schoolboy, whilst his intentions may have been sincere there is also a realistic chance that he had no concrete idea of what exactly he was agreeing to.

The Council of Europe’s recently adopted recommendation “on the impact of digital technologies on freedom of expression” provides some much-needed guidance.

The leading fundamental rights organisation in Europe

The Council of Europe is the largest international fundamental rights organisation in Europe. Distinct from the European Union, the Council’s EU member states and 20 more European states develop joint visions on European values and fundamental freedoms, as enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights and interpreted by the European Court of Justice. Article 10 of the ECHRdefines freedom of expression as “the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

European media laws and policies have been significantly shaped by the Conventions, recommendations and guidelines of the Council. One of the most recent expert committees of the Council was tasked with preparing a recommendation on the impacts of digital technologies on freedom of expression, as well as guidelineson best practices for content moderation by internet intermediaries. The guidelines are already described here and here. In this post, the rapporteurs and chair of the Committee briefly summarise the key takeaways from the recommendation (for a full list of experts involved in the making of the recommendation, please see here). In so doing, we will explain the guidelines and address the question of how they complement and add to the recently agreed on DSA.

A value-based approach

The recommendation lays down principles to ensure that “digital technologies serve rather than curtail” freedom of expression and develops proposals to address the adverse impacts and enhance the positive effects of digital technology on freedom of expression. Here we note a first difference with the DSA. The DSA takes a risk-based approach: for example, Art. 26 requires Very Large Online Platforms to identify the risks and dangers that their recommendation and content moderation algorithms pose for fundamental rights and society. As such it focuses on the negative implications of technology.

In contrast, the Council of Europe Recommendation takes a value-based approach. It first clarifies that these technologies have an essential, positive role in a democracy by opening up the public sphere to more and diverse voices. According to the Council, the “digital infrastructures of communication in a democratic society” need to be designed “to promote human rights, openness, interoperability, transparency, and fair competition”. This value-based approach to digital technology acknowledges the need to mitigate risks, but goes one step further and demands that states, companies, and civil society actors work together to realize technology’s positive contribution to democracy and fundamental rights. It is vital to notice this difference, as both a risk-based and value- and opportunity-based approach will set the agenda for research and innovation.

Digital infrastructure design and the creation of counter-power

Where the DSA takes an application or tool-based approach, the recommendation adopts a broader media ecology perspective. The DSA addresses algorithmic content moderation, news recommenders and curation first and foremost as related to specific digital tools and applications. The recommendation takes a different approach and acknowledges that all those digital tools and applications together form the wider digital communication infrastructure that democracies rely on. According to the recommendation, these digital communication infrastructures should be designed to proactively promote human rights, openness, accessibility, interoperability, transparency and fair competition.

One key recommendation that arises from this media ecology view of digital technology is for states to proactively invest in and create the conditions to enhance economic competition and democratic pluralism in and on digital infrastructures. Other key recommendations include stimulating the digital transformation of news organisations, promoting open-source software, and investing in public service media. The recommendation also explicitly stresses the essential democratic role of local and regional media and the need to tackle concentration in terms of both economic dominance and, crucially, the power to shape public opinion. The recently adopted  Council of Europe recommendation on creating a favourable environment for quality journalism complements the document and provides more detail in this particular area.

Transparency, accountability and redress as a joint responsibility of states and internet intermediaries

Transparency and explainability are essential in both the recommendation and the DSA. Like the DSA, the recommendation requires internet intermediaries to provide adequate transparency on the design and implementation of their terms of service and their key policies for content moderation, such as information regarding removal, recommendation, amplification, promotion, downranking, monetisation, and distribution, particularly concerning their outcomes for freedom of expression. The recommendation highlights that such information must ensure transparency on different levels and with different goals, including empowering users, enabling third-party auditing and oversight, and informing independent efforts to counter harmful content online. In other words, transparency is a multi-faceted and multi-player concept.

Having said that, whereas the DSA places the burden of providing transparency in the first place on platforms, the Council of Europe’s recommendation also ascribes responsibility to states and regulators. It advocates that states and regulators “should ensure that all necessary data are generated and published to enable any analysis necessary to guarantee meaningful transparency on how internet intermediaries’ policies and their implementation affect freedom of expression among the general public and vulnerable subjects.” States should also “assist private actors and civil society organisations in the development of independent institutional mechanisms that ensure impartial and comprehensive verification of the completeness and accuracy of data made available by internet intermediaries.” This approach complements the DSA in at least two respects: it assigns states a responsibility to ensure the accessibility and usability of such information, and it supports the development of independent systems of quality control (rather than relying exclusively on the mechanisms of Art. 31 DSA).

The extensive transparency mechanisms must be seen in the context of the recommendations on contestability. Transparency can be a value in itself, but as a regulatory tool, transparency obligations are primarily intended to empower subjects to take action. Consequently, the recommendation includes an obligation for states to ensure that any person whose freedom of expression is limited due to restrictions imposed by internet intermediaries must be able to seek timely and effective redress. Interestingly, the recommendation also extends this right to the news media: news providers whose editorial freedom is threatened due to terms of service or content moderation policies must be able to seek timely and effective redress mechanisms, too.

Actionable and empowering media literacy

The Council of Europe has a long tradition of supporting and developing media literacy policies, and this recommendation is no exception. The recommendation promotes data and digital literacy to help users understand the conditions under which digital technologies affect freedom of expression, how information of varying quality is procured, distributed and processed and, importantly, what individuals can do to protect their rights. As in other domains, the recommendation stresses the positive role that states can play. States should enable users to engage in informational self-determination and exercise greater control over the data they generate, the inferences derived from such data, and the content they can access. Although it is undeniable that the complexity of digital information environments places a higher burden on citizens to select, filter, and evaluate the content they encounter, the recommendation aims to promote processes and practices that reduce this burden by enhancing user empowerment and control.

Independent research for evidence-based rulemaking

In current regulatory proposals, there is a growing recognition of the role that independent research must play. Among other things, research can help to:

  • identify (systemic) risks to fundamental rights, society and democracy as a result of the use of algorithmic tools,
  • monitor compliance with the rules and responsibilities that pertain to those using those tools,
  • develop insights on how to design technologies, institutions and governance frameworks to promote and realise fundamental rights and public values.

There is also growing recognition of the responsibility of states and platforms to create the conditions for independent researchers to be able to play such important role. The provisions in Art. 31 of the DSA on access to research data are an example of this new awareness.

The CoE recommendation, too, emphasises and requires that internet intermediaries must enable researchers to access the kinds of high-quality data that are necessary to investigate the individual and societal impacts of digital technologies on fundamental rights.  The recommendation goes one step further than the DSA, however, and  also emphasises the broader conditions that need to be fulfilled for independent researchers to play such a role. Besides calling for states to provide adequate funding for such research, the recommendation stresses the need to create secure environments that facilitate secure data access and analysis, as well as measures to protect the independence of researchers.

It is worth noting that the recommendation also suggests a new, more general research exception: that data lawfully collected for other purposes by internet intermediaries may be processed to conduct rigorous and independent research under the conditions that such research is developed with the goal of safeguarding substantial public interest in understanding and governing the implications of digital technologies for human rights. Such a research exception goes beyond the scope of Art. 31 DSA and addresses the problem that data access could be restricted because the internet intermediaries’ terms of use and privacy policies users agree to often fail to include explicit derogations for re-use of the data for research.

Conclusions

In sum, the Council of Europe’s recommendation offers a new vision of what it means to safeguard and at the same time expand freedom of expression in the digital age. There is a fine line between regulating speech and making sure that everyone gets a voice. The recommendation offers several actionable suggestions concerning the design of digital communication infrastructures, transparency and accountability, user awareness and empowerment, and support for the societal role of independent research. As such, the guidelines can be an essential resource for policymakers, civil society, academics, and internet intermediaries such as Google, Meta, Twitter or TikTok.

The latter companies are confronted with a challenging problem: prominent and ambitious regulatory proposals such as the DSA will require internet intermediaries to understand and account for the human rights implications of their technologies, even though they are not the classical addressees of human rights law. Fundamental rights, such as the right to freedom of expression, at least in Europe, apply in the first place to the relationship between states and citizens. Mandating that private actors such as internet intermediaries pay due regard to abstract rights such as the right to freedom of expression raises a host of difficult interpretational questions. More generally, the current European Commission’s focus on requiring the application of digital technology in line with fundamental rights and European values is laudable. Still, there is only limited expertise on how to interpret and implement fundamental rights law in the European Union, which started as, and still is primarily, an economic community. The Council of Europe’s recommendations and guidelines have an important complementary role to play in clarifying what respect for fundamental rights entails in the digital age and suggesting concrete actions to realise this vision.

This article, first published on 14th September 2022 , reflects the views of the authors and not those of the Media@LSE blog nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Jay Rosen: “Journalists have to become more explicitely pro-democracy”

Jay Rosen, journalism professor with New York University, recently joined the Board of the new Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue. His reasoning: If journalism is to survive in a polarized world, it has to provide perspectives and solutions. In this interview, initially published by Medieninsider, Rosen talks about attacks on democracy, diversity, innovation, and why the media industry is particularly reluctant to change. 

Medieninsider: American journalism has been pretty hung up with Donald Trump, now he is gone, at least as a president. What has this done to the industry?

Jay Rosen: Donald Trump was good for ratings and for subscribers, he was good to create interest in the news, but I don’t think anyone misses the kind of frenzy everyone went into when he tweeted something. The more serious question is, what happens when he runs again? Because his whole approach is to destroy journalism, to destroy trust in it. He tells his supporters, the press is critical with me, because they hate you. How should journalism respond to that? I think the industry has been reluctant to face this question, also because the stakes are so high.

But the industry must have learned something from the Trump years?

Our journalists did learn to say sometimes: This is a lie. They didn’t do that before that often. To simply offer a platform to someone who proceeds to supply disinformation is something journalists should not participate in. So the challenge is, how to avoid amplifying disinformation while still covering the news. The press is finally waking up to the fact that some people are antidemocratic. There are not just populists but fascists in that crowd. There is a real danger here to America democracy, and it is coming from an awakened right wing. Right now, the mainstream press doesn’t know what to do about it. A complicating factor is: The right wing has its own media system now and it doesn’t necessarily need the rest of the press. In this ecosystem things that we would call misinformation and disinformation are absolutely believed and promoted. There are actions being taken on the basis of misinformation and disinformation, like changes in law and governance, that arise from politicized fiction. Fox news is an extremely important actor in this. 

Has the significance of Fox News decreased now that Trump is gone or has it increased?

Increased! Now that Trump is out of the way, Fox is the home of his supporters. In a way Tucker Carlson, who is the most powerful figure in the Fox lineup, has taken over from Trump as a nightly presence. It is a very potent organization. 

Are these really two different worlds of journalism, or is there a crossover of journalists?

There is very little of it, a few journalists who start in conservative publishing like for example the National Review might change to other media like CNN or one of the big newspapers. But an increasing part of the right-wing media sphere is consumed with fiction and things that never happened, like the stolen election. Once you have written stories on premises that are false, it is very hard for that person to shift somewhere reputable, because they are on record with it. 

Many European countries have strong public service media. We like to believe that a polarization like that could never happen here.

That is a huge advantage and does make it harder for this extreme propaganda approach to reach as many people. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say it couldn’t happen. There are political forces on the extreme right wing, also in Germany. If they can discredit the public service media complex enough, if they can wip up resentment against paying the fees that are necessary to keep it going, they may be able to weaken the political support for public service broadcasting as part of their political campaign against elites. That would erode this advantage. You can witness this in the United Kingdom, where the Conservatives are attempting to push back the BBC. 

It is hard to overemphasize how much hatred for the media is itself a huge mobilizing factor in the politics of the right wing

What could the US teach the world about doing journalism in a polarized society?

We don’t have anything to teach the world with that. About 25 to 30 percent of the American voters are in many ways lost to mainstream journalism. It is not that they don’t use it. They mistrust everything they see. And it even goes beyond that: If a story appears in the mainstream press, it is a reason to disregard or disbelieve it. This is active distrust. It is hard to overemphasize how much hatred for the media is itself a huge mobilizing factor in the politics of the right wing. Nationalist populism generates power by raging at elites, and the central elite in that system is journalists. Resentment against the press is a political mechanism. 

What kind of consequences do reputable Media draw from that? Have they changed their approach?

I tend to say they are not doing enough. One thing we have seen is that how much the Republican Party has taken on the Trump attitude and approach. It is now the Republican way of operating, even if Trump is not involved. For example, Republicans are trying to make it harder to vote. Or they are making it easier for public officials to manipulate the vote. One of the things big news organizations are doing is they are putting a lot more people on the voting beat, covering changes in the voting system. The Washington Post has a new democracy desk, AP is doing something similar

Do journalists have to stand up more for democracy?

Journalists have to become more explicitely pro-democracy. They have to undertake the defense of democracy. That includes things like reporting about voting but also about disinformation. When you have a party that is turning anti-democratic, and you are supposed to cover that party fairly, you have a problem, because you are also supposed to be pro-democracy. Unfortunately, in the States being pro-democracy is increasingly seen equivalent with being pro Democrats. 

In 2018 you spend a summer in Germany studying “German press think”. What is it that makes German press think different?

One of the pillars of German press think is that journalism should help to prevent the return of totalitarianism. We don’t have that in the US.

Funnily, this is exactly what Americans taught Germans after the Second World War. So, is it time now for the American press to learn from Europeans?

That’s right. I don’t think in any of these problems we have talked about, American journalists are the leaders. 

Newsroom leaders have more and more to decide will they have the view from nowhere to prevail or will they have the “diversify the newsroom project” to prevail?

These pressures come at a time when many American newsrooms seem to be consumed by internal debates, for example about diversity and identity.

The campaign to diversify the American newsroom has gone on for about 30 years, even longer. The warning that the news media is too white goes back 50 years. The campaign hasn’t worked. In positions of power, you don’t see any real movement. Lots of minority journalists got frustrated with that and quit. 

Even with Dean Baquet having been the first black editor of the New York Times? 

Yes. In fact, just last year they had to do this big report on newsroom culture. The younger generation of minority journalists is more committed to these changes, they are less likely to accept excuses. They have also more tools for expressing themselves, they can always go to the internet. There is now a kind of confrontation happening between rhetoric and results. It is revealing this contradiction at the heart of the diversify the newsroom process:  Journalists are being recruited into the newsroom to bring in a different perspective to the news. Once they are hired, they are told to check their perspective at the door and show that they can be a professional like everyone else with a view from nowhere, as I call it. Newsroom leaders have more and more to decide will they have the view from nowhere to prevail or will they have the diversify the newsroom project to prevail. 

The debate about impartiality in journalism is alive and well in Europe, too. What do you think about it? 

I have to be careful when I talk about it. It depends a lot on what you mean by impartial or objective, in the United States that tends to be the term. We need journalists that are intellectually honest. If objectivity means, let’s use facts rather than arguments, that is important. If objectivity means getting a larger picture, that is extremely important as well. Impartiality means trying to describe what the situation really is instead of what we prefer it to be, that is super important and very basic to journalism. But if impartiality means you are above it all and you have no perspective, that is a lie. If you think of yourself as the only one who doesn’t have an agenda because you are a journalist, it is a dangerous thing to believe. 

The BBC has reworked the concept to make it fit their purposes, their regulator Ofcom now calls it due impartiality, meaning it has to acknowledge the context.

They discovered that the old concept didn’t work in daily newsroom practice. They saw that their managers who run the desks where doing this with climate change, to allocate the same time to climate change proponents and deniers. That is not what they wanted, so they went through this process. If you have two parties and one of them is powered by fictions, lies, and disinformation, simply reporting on what they do feels and sounds biased. 

If our newsrooms cannot learn how to become more helpful in problem-solving, they won’t survive as influential

The former editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, says that the media has failed in the biggest story of our times: climate change reporting. Do you agree?

Today’s news system, at least the one we have in the US, is not designed to create public understanding. It is designed to produce new content every day. With climate change the first step that is required is learning, you need background knowledge, without this the news about climate change doesn’t make any sense. But our news system is not designed to create background knowledge but to report what’s new today. It is a new challenge. Journalism has to become more problem-solving.

Is this why you decided to join the board of the new Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue?

Yes. If our newsrooms cannot learn how to become more helpful in problem-solving, they won’t survive as influential. It is a huge challenge for the profession, this will be around for the next 20 or 25 years. It is not like this week’s flavor of ice-cream. For us journalists it used to be that our job was to uncover problems, to put a spotlight on them, and it was governments’ job to solve them. This is no longer appropriate. But the move toward solutions journalism is happening. In the US the Solutions Journalism Network has been active for 15 years. They have reached 30 000 journalists and  collaborated with over 300 newsrooms. The movement is slowly spreading. Even small changes can take years. 

Can you please give us an example how this is reflected in American journalism?

With mass shootings it used to be that there was all this publicity about the shooter. You could read his bio in all detail. This encouraged other shooters to take up their guns. Critics said to major networs: You cannot feature the shooters as the star of the story without encouraging more violence. Now the stories are much more about the victims. This is a response to the criticism. It took 15 years. The adoption curve in journalism is absurd, it takes too long. We don’t have that long. The 2024 election is around the corner, for example.

Why is this industry so slow in adopting change?

One reason is, journalism is a team sport, in most cases it is collaborative. You need everybody to be on the same page on what our job is. It is a consensus practice. If the consensus becomes a problem, journalists are reluctant to give up their intellectual tools even when they are broken, because they need everybody to operate in the same way. There is the production routine after all, deadlines have to be met. Additionally, journalists get a lot of bad faith criticism from people who are trying to undermine the press. This is why sometimes they get defensive about criticism. Also, there is a cultural thing: journalists are a herd of independent minds, they are people who think alike but also think of themselves as individuals who make their own choices. This is how White House correspondents work: in their minds they are intensely competitive with each other at doing exactly the same thing. But the business prospects for the press are dim if they can’t help solving problems. When it is done properly, you often see in the numbers that people are paying attention and their satisfaction with the product grows. If those metrics show that people are paying attention and they find this kind of journalism more valuable this is a huge thing. 

Do we have to revolutionize journalism education then?

Slowly journalism education is changing. We are now seeing programs that are focused on innovation, teaching people how to become innovators in the newsroom and in these companies. That’s not the way it has been for a long time. Journalism schools were usually trailing changes rather than the other way around. It would be a significant change if they led the way. 

Do we also need more executive education?

Leaders of news organisations have to become smarter with a lot of things. There is a lot of pressure around developing the business of news. The news industry had remained remarkably stable and profitable for a very long time. That created a culture that isn’t build for rapid adjustments and changes, it is not exactly agile. That the news industry has to learn from the tech industry. 

Is there anything else the news industry could learn from the tech industry?

Iteration. This is a buzzword, I usually try to avoid those. Because the costs of trying things have fallen immensely in the digital era, you can use iteration. See what works, improve it. Innovation used to be creating a new food section. Now it is about quickly changing your product in response to user data. Incorporating your audience in the production of the news is also a whole new world. Previously the job of the audience was to sit in their seat and consume the news. The job of journalists was, finish your story, job done. Now your job is: how to get it to the people who really need it. That is something you cannot really outsource. In job interviews it used to be that the editors who did the interviewing had all the skills, now they ask the job seekers explicitely about the skills they themselves don’t have.  

So, it is all about figuring out user needs. What are the user needs journalism can and should fulfill?

People do consume news because they want to know what’s going on. They need journalism to know what is true and not true, what they can ignore and not ignore. But also: They want to know, how are we getting out of this mess? They need a reason why to keep paying attention. 


Interview: Alexandra Borchardt, the text was first published in German by Medieninsider on 20th May 2022.