Can Journalists Survive the Media Disruption?
Given the sorry state of media and an ongoing war against journalists in some countries, on March 23, UNESCO held a colloquium entitled Journalism under fire: Challenges of Our Time at which there were lively debates from leading scholars, journalists, and representatives of social media companies and media development organizations about the recent challenges posed to journalism by “fake news” as well as the technological and economic transformations reshaping the media landscape.
The event was sponsored by UNESCO’S Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development with the support of the International Programme for the Development of Communication, the World Associations of Newspapers and News Editors (WAN-IFRA), and the Governments of Finland, Switzerland, France, Latvia, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
In organizing the colloquium, UNESCO said it hoped to "strengthen freedom of expression and press freedom, since modern societies cannot function and develop without free, independent and professional journalism".
What the participants failed to address is that news has always been to fake a certain extent. Only now, some of it is so grotesquely fake that it demeans the entire industry and obscures the concept of news.
While the meme that 90% of U.S. media is controlled by 6 corporations is not true, it used to be almost true. And it is true today that mainstream media in the U.S. is indeed controlled by a few sinister corporations who pursue their own socio-political agendas.
Media is a powerful form of social engineering and is used by those in power to protect and expand their power. It influences what people think and feel and shapes their behavior. Who we are as individuals is to a great extent a result of the movies, music, newspapers, magazines, ads and books we have consumed.
Starting in the late 1890's, William Randolph Hearst used his newspapers to shape public opinion through what came to be called yellow journalism. He was so successful at it that other papers started to imitate him. He is even credited with starting the Spanish-american war and certainly played a major role.
The Rockefeller's thought that U.S. participation in World War I would be highly profitable so they got together with J.P. Morgan, Coleman du Pont and H.H. Rodgers of Standard Oil to create the National Security League and used newspapers to create war hysteria and generate support for America's entry into WW I.
Before the U.S. entered the second World War, Hollywood, radio and print media participated in a conspiracy to shift a peace-loving neutral country into one eager to join the war. After the war they kept it up and helped establish America as a nation of perpetual war.
The CIA was founded primarily to serve the interests of the American ruling class, not function as a national intelligence agency for the benefit of the American people. Almost nothing the CIA has done or continues to do benefits the American people.
After WW II, the CIA came to secretly influence not just U.S. media but also other media around the world. Even today, the CIA is still deeply entangled with not just major media but also controls a surprising amount of seemingly independent or progressive media.
"We'll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false." William J. Casey, former CIA Director, 198., Leaked by Senior White House Correspondent Sarah Mcclendon. So, it is wrong to imagine that journalist and news media were ever truly the beacons of truth. They have long been purveyors of fake news but is only recently that their lies have become widely known.
For western journalists to start whining only now about fake news is worse than disingenuous. For journalists in other countries, they may have some justification for whining.
Digital Media the Great Disruptor
According to UNESCO, "technological, economic and political transformations are inexorably reshaping" the communications landscape. Which is putting it very mildly.
The Internet and digital media has radically altered the media landscape and today people have an almost unlimited choice of information from all kinds of sources. Traditional mainstream media is becoming irrelevant.
At no time in human history have we had access to so much information from such a wide variety of sources. Anyone can now be a writer, visual artist, musician, teacher or film-maker and upload their material for the world to view and judge. Anyone can also now disseminate lies and disinformation. One no longer needs to be a media mogul conspiring in smoke filled rooms to mislead the public.
No longer are we limited to what the powers that be want us to see, hear and think.
This great information liberation was supposed to have elevated humanity, but the results have been mixed. It has exposed corruption and hidden agendas and created great change in some countries, but it has also brought out the worst in humans and put it on display for all to gape at and comment on.
Just as anyone can now express themselves in positive ways and access endless amounts of useful information they can also express themselves in negative ways and access destructive information. Trolls and criminals dominate many parts of the Internet.
If humans were more intelligent they would flock to the new sources of information with the most reliable and useful information, but that isn't happening.
Instead they tend to flock to large disinformation media outlets while often ignoring other more reliable sources of media.
But, not everyone has devolved into a digital media troglodyte. Some people still read and want quality content.
As media has transitioned from print, broadcast TV and radio to digital, the traditional business model of news has mostly collapsed. Advertisers now go through Google to place ads at a fraction of what they had paid for ads before and can choose to only pay when someone clicks on their ad.
It used to be that a print newspaper with a few thousand readers could sustain a small staff from advertising and subscriptions. Those days are long past. Now one needs millions of readers and to load up a site with ads and generate additional revenue from other sources.
However, some newspapers have survived the digital disruption. Papers like the New York Times have survived by boosting subscriptions to digital content. The UK Guardian survives by selling memberships.
Because readers are so overwhelmed with ads and media, their attention-span has declined to a level where many simply don't respond to legitimate news of importance and respond only to the most crude and base forms of information.
Click-bait is the new driver for many Internet users, who are lured away from semi-legitimate news sources by lurid fake stories listed under "sponsored content", "from the web" to sites with mostly fake content and lots of ads. It used to be that being a journalist engendered a certain amount of respect, access and protection from abuse. No longer. Now journalists are routinely insulted, assaulted, denied access, arrested and even murdered.
In fact, war criminal Obama illegally put two journalists on his kill list and Trump has kept them on it. 46-year-old Bilal Abdul Kareem is an American citizen 54-year-old Ahmed Zaidan, is a senior journalist with Al Jazeera and is a Syrian and Pakistani citizen.
A recently filed lawsuit states: "During the past year, Kareem has narrowly avoided being killed by five separate air strikes, at least one of which was carried out by a drone."
One of the reasons why journalists are targeted is because there are fewer negative consequences. With the massive dilution of attention from over-saturation of media, no media has the power it once did and American presidents can literally get away with murder and horrific war crimes because the media no longer stimulates action on the part of the people.
In Honduras, the U.S. sponsored narco-dictatorship has killed more than two dozen journalists in recent years with little or no consequences for the killers.
UNESCO statistics show that more than 800 journalists have been killed worldwide over the past decade, and although the agency has been working with governments and the press on ways to end impunity for the killers of media workers, attacks on journalists continue on a daily basis.
Yet killing, imprisoning or abusing the "messenger" is only one aspect of the assault on professional journalism. The dissemination of so-called fake news, with "mainstream" media companies sometimes involved, has led to confusion among the public about what is real and what is false and contributes to the overall distrust of the press.
With widespread attacks on professional journalists and the rise of a new type of fake-news industry, media experts agree that journalism is increasingly under fire. But how can the press fight back and ensure its survival?
Judging by the stubbornly defiant tone at the colloquium, there may still be reason for hope in a media landscape ravaged by the killings of journalists, verbal abuse of reporters, job losses, low pay and "alternative facts".
"When Trump said that the media is the enemy of the people, it's perfect for journalism," said Vicente
Jiménez, director-general of the Spanish radio network Cadena SER. "We can eradicate some bad practices. It's a great opportunity."
Jiménez was one of several media professionals calling for journalists to clean up and protect their own sector, during the colloquium titled "Journalism Under Fire: Challenges of Our Times".
"Journalism used to be a pillar of democracy," Jiménez said. "But that model is changing with social media."
He said the dependence on "clicks" for online-media income was leading to "stupid" and "vile" stories, and he told participants that the three most-read stories in Spain over the past year were fake ones. He warned that the media would lose its relevance if this situation continued.
Carlos Dada, co-founder and editor-in-chief of El Faro digital newspaper, based in El Salvador, stressed that a distinction had to be made between "media" and "journalism". As an example, he said that during a certain period in his country, journalism was under fire while media companies grew rich, partly by being politically compliant and going about business as usual.
Dada said that technology was "not only a threat" but that it was also a "huge opportunity" in areas such as using data in investigative stories, for which El Faro is known in Latin America.
Still, the business model that has long served the press in general is changing, and the sector is universally scrambling to adapt in ever-transforming terrain, participants pointed out.
As some panelists noted, however, many journalists work under political dictatorship – in countries that are United Nations member states – and they "pay with their lives" or with their liberty for telling the truth, as one speaker put it.
While critics have particularly slammed social media company Facebook for its role in spreading false news stories, the company is adamant that the responsibility lies with its users.
"You'll see fake news if you have signed up to fake news sites," said Richard Allan, a former politician and Facebook's Vice President of Policy for the European, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, who participated in the colloquium.
Explaining how the company's "algorithm" works for showing content, Allan said that the "vast majority" of what users saw in their feed was the "sum" of material to which they connected. He told the colloquium that Facebook was trying to address the issue of fake news, but he added: "We don't want to be the world's editor."
If Facebook is unwilling to be a gatekeeper, who would take action though, asked Maria Ressa, a former CNN correspondent and now editor-in-chief and CEO of online news site Rappler in the Philippines.
"We have not only misinformation ... we have disinformation," she said, describing the deliberate spreading of false stories in targeted attacks against individuals, groups or policies.
For Serge Schmemann, a New York Times writer and editor, "fake news is more a symptom than the real problem". A crucial issue is how journalists are now expected to produce news, with often too little time or resources to work on an in-depth story.
But, said Schmemann, "We will adapt, we will survive... We have to remain honest reporters."
A key to survival may be getting the public involved, according to David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
In an interview on the sidelines of the colloquium, he told IPS that for professional journalism to continue, it will have to get people to value the service enough to pay for it.
"Sometimes ordinary people see journalists as part of the problem, rather than the solution, and journalists have to change this image by getting rid of bad ethics and practices," he said.
Financial support is already a possibility through crowd-funding, subscriptions and philanthropy, Levy said. In addition, the proper functioning of publicly funded media – where politicians refrain from interference while still holding the media accountable – was an essential part of the solution, he added.
Despite all these views and the organizing of one conference or colloquium after another (there will be a slate of them on World Press Freedom Day, May 3), the outlook remains troubling, even dire, for many journalists in the field.