Beyond the headline race: How the media must lead in a polarized world

When US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer recently, the headline race was on once again. Instead of pausing for a moment to honor a great personality for her leadership and stamina in the quest for justice, most of the news media didn’t miss a beat. Who would President Donald Trump nominate as her successor, and how would that reshape American society? Reporting instantly took second place to speculation and opinion, drowning out the announcement of the 87-year-old’s death in a sea of noise.

The predominant frame for interpreting today’s world is winning and losing, and the media has bought right into it. Being faster, smarter, delivering yet another interpretation, speculation and judgement – a certain breathlessness has always been inherent in journalism. But in pre-digital times, news media only competed against each other. The difference now is that they are up against everything an average smartphone holds. The battle for attention shapes their very existence. And readers are responding by leaving in droves. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, one in three people now regularly avoids the news. A rising share of audiences find journalism too overwhelming, too negative, too opinionated with too little relevance for their daily lives. And they believe it can’t always be trusted.

This is bad news – for democracy. In a world of noise, propaganda and misinformation, leadership by independent media that provide the facts is needed more than ever. Studies show that voting turnout is higher, more people run for office and public money is spent more responsibly where local news media keep citizens informed and hold institutions to account. But business models are broken. Platform monopolies have gobbled up advertising money and optimize for attention; too often the media has followed suit.

Now there is no way that media companies can outsmart Google, Facebook and the like. News media have to go where their audiences are. But when opinion is everywhere, quality information becomes a critically important currency. Covid-19 has demonstrated that people crave trustworthy journalism. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, in the first weeks of the pandemic more people relied on major news organizations than on government agencies or even their own friends and family for information. This is a huge responsibility, but what to do with it?

First of all, listening to audiences is vital. Many journalists still spend more energy on beating the competition than attempting to find out what their audiences need. Among these are more explanation, more solutions, a clear distinction between facts and opinion, less noise, clickbait and talking down to people. Instead of indulging in thumbs-up, thumbs-down journalism, more constructive reporting is needed.

The news media cannot go it alone, though. The political sphere needs to secure press freedom; supporting the economic viability of the industry is part of it. And the platform companies that shape today’s communication infrastructure have to take responsibility too. Their algorithms have to optimize for quality content.

Yet blaming Silicon Valley for everything that is going wrong has been the easy way out for too long. A recent study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society confirmed what other research has already pointed out: the mass media are much more responsible for spreading misinformation – for the most part thought up by political leaders – than social media is. This is bad news and good news at the same time. Bad news, because journalism has not lived up to its potential. Good news, because the media still has plenty of agenda-setting power. Instead of blaming platform companies or foreign meddling for spreading “fake news”, the news media and its leaders should confidently reassert their historic mission to lead through a world of information confusion: that is, to deliver the facts, be transparent about their quest and stimulate serious public conversation. The health of our societies depends on it.

How – and How Not – to Restore Trust in Media

In an age of unprecedented access to information, true and otherwise, people of all ages must improve their media literacy. But that does not let media organizations off the hook. With the help of an aware and critical audience, they must monitor themselves and one another, as they have done in the past.

OXFORD – In most industries, a quality product is easy to identify, thanks to markers like price, brand, and reviews. But in journalism, discerning quality is becoming increasingly complicated, not least because, in the digital age, trusted brands like the BBC or The New York Times, which can be expected to adhere to long-established journalistic standards, are vastly outnumbered by upstart publications, blogs, and community reports.

Not surprisingly, therefore, as claims of “fake news” have proliferated in recent years, trust in news media – established and otherwise – has plummeted. According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report, those who regularly consume news do so with significant skepticism. Only about 50% of users trust the media brands they choose to consume; far fewer trust outlets that they do not use. With too many options and too little confidence in media, nearly one-third of people have given up following the news altogether.

But news journalism is not an expendable luxury. It is a critical public good, enabling citizens to make informed decisions, while helping to hold those in power accountable. It can serve that function only if it is a quality product – and people know that. Delivering such a product, however, is no straightforward task.

The first problem is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes quality journalism, which raises the risk that the standard of “quality” will become a tool of censorship. When Adolf Hitler wanted a book burned, he would assert that it did not meet the “standards” of Nazi ideology. Similarly, a government today could cite quality issues to attack critics’ credibility or to justify denying them journalistic credentials.

Some organizations concerned with the future of the media are trying to circumvent this danger by developing trust indicators. Most notably, the Journalism Trust Initiative, led by Reporters Without Borders, is creating voluntary guidelines and a best-practice framework that will evolve into an official certification process. Some organizations champion traffic-light indicators, like those used in food labeling, while others argue for an ISO 9000 system reminiscent of industrial quality management.

But what, exactly, would these systems be certifying? The most logical answer might seem to be media organizations. But even first-class newsrooms produce plenty of second-class content, owing to factors ranging from a lack of available sources to simple human error. This implies that not all content from a given organization can be trusted equally.

Of course, some organizations have a proven track record of following certain procedures to minimize mistakes and respond to errors that do slip through. But these are likely to be the same organizations that already enjoy significant public trust. Whatever trust they have lost in recent years will not be offset by a new label affirming their quality.

As for the publications that would benefit from such a label, they are more likely to be smaller, newer, and thus poorly equipped to deal with the extra layer of bureaucracy that a certification procedure would entail. Organization-level quality certifications could thus hurt new entrants, while helping incumbents.

The alternative to organization-level certification would be to focus on individual pieces of content. But this would be a herculean task in terms of volume; worse, it could create perverse incentives, as journalists chase certifications in much the same way they now may chase awards, sometimes to the detriment of the work. The German reporter Claas Relotius won multiple awards for his brilliant storytelling before it was revealed that the stories he was telling were not true.

In any case, the question remains what exactly constitutes a quality piece of content. Does it simply have to be fact-based? Does it apply only to serious political and business news, or does it include lifestyle, entertainment, or human-interest stories? These questions are complicated further in the digital ecosystem: some blog posts may count as journalism, but that certainly isn’t the case for all of them.

Journalism will never be like, say, the airline industry, where strict standards and procedures apply to every action and product. But, until recently, it didn’t need to be: journalists adhered to codes of professional and ethical conduct, and were overseen by bodies that took action in the event of a breach. Doing it right was the default – even though the concept of “right” has always been open to interpretation.

That is how societies work. An individual does not need a “trust certification” to participate in a family or community (though China’s government would like to change that). The social contract establishes certain behavioral norms with which people generally comply; labels are needed only when trust is broken.

This is the status quo to which journalism must return. That means, first and foremost, individual organizations taking responsibility for the quality of their content and adhering to a set of rules, including oversight and editing, to ensure it. When this cannot be done within the organization itself – say, when a citizen journalist is operating in an anti-democratic environment – external bodies could do the job.

In establishing such systems, lessons could be learned from collaborative reporting projects like the one that covered the Panama Papers, in which researchers enjoyed individual freedom – ensuring a plurality of voices and healthy competition – but had to meet certain standards. As technology advances, automated fact-checking could also be introduced, especially in less-resourced newsrooms.

In an age of unprecedented access to information, true and otherwise, people of all ages must improve their media literacy. But that does not let media organizations off the hook. With the help of an aware and critical audience, they must monitor themselves and one another, as they have done in the past.