HOW TECHNOLOGY DISRUPTED TRUTH: PART 4

 

Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian ran a long story on the impact technology is having on our perception of truth.

It was a thoughtful, informative piece that pointed out how social media are not only disrupting but corrupting journalistic integrity and honesty world-wide. We are seeing that happen in the United States with an unrestricted and uninhibited social media brimming with fabrications, smears, deceptions, and outright lies. Regrettably, those stories are posted and forwarded to millions of people as “truth.”

The story was reported and written by Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media. Because it was such a long story, I am running it on my blog in five parts. I have opted to leave British spelling and style intact.

Here is Part 4.

Chasing down every cheap click

 By Katherine Viner

A news-publishing industry desperately chasing down every cheap click doesn’t sound like an industry in a position of strength, and indeed, news publishing as a business is in trouble.

The shift to digital publishing has been a thrilling development for journalism – as I said in my 2013 AN Smith lecture at the University of Melbourne, “The Rise of the Reader”, it has induced “a fundamental redrawing of journalists’ relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status”.

It has meant we have found new ways to get stories – from our audience, from data, from social media. It has given us new ways to tell stories – with interactive technologies and now with virtual reality. It has given us new ways to distribute our journalism, to find new readers in surprising places; and it has given us new ways to engage with our audiences, opening ourselves up to challenge and debate.

But while the possibilities for journalism have been strengthened by the digital developments of the last few years, the business model is under grave threat, because no matter how many clicks you get, it will never be enough. And if you charge readers to access your journalism you have a big challenge to persuade the digital consumer who is used to getting information for free to part with their cash.

News publishers everywhere are seeing profits and revenue drop dramatically. If you want a stark illustration of the new realities of digital media, consider the first-quarter financial results announced by the New York Times and Facebook within a week of one another earlier this year. The New York Times announced that its operating profits had fallen by 13%, to $51.5 million – healthier than most of the rest of the publishing industry, but quite a drop. Facebook, meanwhile, revealed that its net income had tripled in the same period – to a quite staggering $1.51 billion.

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Unreported Britain: without local newspapers, who is keeping tabs?

Many journalists have lost their jobs in the past decade. The number of journalists in the UK shrank by up to one-third between 2001 and 2010; US newsrooms declined by a similar amount between 2006 and 2013. In Australia, there was a 20% cut in the journalistic workforce between 2012 and 2014 alone.

Earlier this year, at the Guardian we announced that we would need to lose 100 journalistic positions. In March, the Independent ceased existing as a print newspaper. Since 2005, according to research by Press Gazette, the number of local newspapers in the UK has fallen by 181 – again, not because of a problem with journalism, but because of a problem with funding it.

But journalists losing their jobs is not simply a problem for journalists: it has a damaging impact on the entire culture.

As the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas warned, back in 2007:

“When reorganisation and cost-cutting in this core area jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere. Because, without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state.”

Perhaps, then, the focus of the news industry needs to turn to commercial innovation: how to rescue the funding of journalism, which is what is under threat. Journalism has seen dramatic innovation in the last two digital decades, but business models have not.

In the words of my colleague Mary Hamilton, the Guardian’s executive editor for audience: “We’ve transformed everything about our journalism and not enough about our businesses.”

The impact on journalism of the crisis in the business model is that, in chasing down cheap clicks at the expense of accuracy and veracity, news organisations undermine the very reason they exist: to find things out and tell readers the truth – to report, report, report.

Many newsrooms are in danger of losing what matters most about journalism: the valuable, civic, pounding-the-streets, sifting-the-database, asking-challenging-questions hard graft of uncovering things that someone doesn’t want you to know.

Serious, public-interest journalism is demanding, and there is more of a need for it than ever. It helps keep the powerful honest; it helps people make sense of the world and their place in it. Facts and reliable information are essential for the functioning of democracy – and the digital era has made that even more obvious.

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Hillsborough disaster: deadly mistakes and lies that lasted decades

But we must not allow the chaos of the present to cast the past in a rosy light – as can be seen from the recent resolution to a tragedy that became one of the darkest moments in the history of British journalism.

At the end of April, a two-year-long inquest ruled that the 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 had been unlawfully killed and had not contributed to the dangerous situation at the football ground. The verdict was the culmination of an indefatigable 27-year-campaign by the victims’ families, whose case was reported for two decades with great detail and sensitivity by Guardian journalist David Conn.

His journalism helped uncover the real truth about what happened at Hillsborough, and the subsequent cover-up by the police – a classic example of a reporter holding the powerful to account on behalf of the less powerful.

What the families had been campaigning against for nearly three decades was a lie put into circulation by the Sun. The tabloid’s aggressive rightwing editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, blamed the fans for the disaster, suggesting they had forced their way into the ground without tickets – a claim later revealed to be false.

According to Horrie and Chippindale’s history of The Sun, MacKenzie overruled his own reporter and put the words “THE TRUTH” on the front page, alleging that Liverpool fans were drunk, that they picked the pockets of victims, that they punched, kicked and urinated on police officers, that they shouted that they wanted sex with a dead female victim.

The fans said a “high-ranking police officer,” were “acting like animals.” The story, as Chippindale and Horrie write, is a “classic smear,” free of any attributable evidence and “precisely fitting MacKenzie’s formula by publicising the half-baked ignorant prejudice being voiced all over the country.”

It is hard to imagine that Hillsborough could happen now: if 96 people were crushed to death in front of 53,000 smartphones, with photographs and eyewitness accounts all posted to social media, would it have taken so long for the truth to come out? Today, the police – or Kelvin MacKenzie – would not have been able to lie so blatantly and for so long.

Tomorrow: Traditional news values are important

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