Journalism is facing a crisis on many fronts.
The business model based on advertising revenues is no longer sustainable and journalism layoffs are at their highest level since the last recession. Some political leaders are in a campaign against the mainstream media and social media algorithms are taking on the role of gatekeepers, deciding what kind of content people are exposed to. Recently, the spread of fake news gained momentum, and public trust in media has been declining ever since. But aren’t journalists also responsible for the shrinking trust in traditional media?
The arrival of social media democratized the access to and production of information, making people connect to each other more easily. Instead of getting closer to communities from the beginning, journalists just watched, believing they would still be the only ones responsible for disseminating high-quality information. Which did not happen— people relied on YouTubers and bloggers to get their news. Now, to regain the audience’s trust, journalists should find ways to reconnect with them.
The bad news is that audiences seem not to care about news anymore. According to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, almost a third of people (32 per cent) worldwide responded they “often or sometimes actively avoid the news,” including 41 per cent in the United States and 29 per cent in Canada. The report added that people run away from news because “it has a negative effect on their mood” (58 per cent) or because they feel “powerless to change events.”
At the same time, new technologies have brought enormous development and made it easier to produce and spread false stories. Although fake news is not a new phenomenon, they have gained more strength in a globalized world because of its speed, spread, and power.
Oxford research indicates that the production of fake news is associated with the origin of print media in 1439. At that time, there were already conspiracy theories about sea monsters and witches, or claims that sinners were responsible for natural disasters.
Today, however, fake news is spread in a much larger way. According to a Freedom of the Net report, the algorithms of Facebook, Google, and Twitter tend to promote viral or provocative articles that generate clicks, regardless of the veracity of their content. In effect, a BuzzFeed News analysis showed how false stories outperformed true stories from “traditional” media outlets on Facebook during the last US election.
Social media algorithms are taking the role as “gatekeepers,” a duty journalists once had pretty much to themselves—the only problem is that they can leave people to access false information. Despite some efforts, social media companies are still not fully engaged in combating the spread of disinformation on the internet—and I am not sure if they will anytime soon.
Besides, we see political efforts to weaken traditional media. Around the world, authoritarian leaders are appropriating the term “fake news” to characterize media coverage they do not like, which reduces the trust in these newspapers and media outlets. Inspired by Donald Trump, the president of my country, Brazil, the far-right conservative Jair Bolsonaro, often refers to the Brazilian mainstream media companies as “enemies,” moving people away from traditional newspapers and broadcast channels.
It is easy to point fingers at tech companies and political leaders and demand them to take responsibility for the rise of fake stories. But we cannot expect much from them. While they don’t take action to rebuild the trust in journalism, journalists should. Or, at least, it is the only option we have.
Rebuilding trust, however, requires a lot of effort and rethinking of journalistic practices. Perhaps the idea of objectivity that fit well in traditional journalism for so many years doesn’t make sense in such a complex world. Some claim that journalism should stand for something: to keep the powerful in check, to pursue the truth, to provide context and perspective. “We take journalistic objectivity to be as natural and immutable as the stars, but it’s a relatively short-lived artifact of 20th-century America,” author Antonio García Martínez recently wrote in Wired. We live in an era where events are instantly captured from a dozen angles, allowing multiple interpretations. To think that only one media outlet will produce the “undeniable truth” is a bit naive. People want to read other people’s opinions and discuss them, that’s one reason social media has become so politicized.
It doesn’t mean that journalism is dead and journalists don’t have a role in this new public sphere—they just have to get closer to audiences. Being transparent in reporting, which ranked among the most important factors that influence trust in journalism, according to a Knight Foundation and Gallup poll, can be a starting point. Also, focused listening—a practice where newsrooms try to listen to their underserved or disengaged audiences— has a great potential to create connections.
Stories with personal approaches are also becoming very popular; one reason why podcasts are amassing audiences right now. Freelance journalist Jonah Weiner argues that voices in podcasts convey “warmth, empathy, personality and provide us with company—an antidote to the loneliness of the internet.”
With so many resources to create storytelling, journalism should be seen as a field full of opportunities, not a dying career. A study by The Discourse found that independent, digital media outlets are emerging as a sub-sector of the journalism industry, with the potential to deliver public service journalism in communities using audience-pay models. These outlets use practices of “slow,” engagement and investigative journalism and, as small outlets, they connect with their communities.
The solution to the existential crisis may not be found in technology, but in reconnecting with audiences. It is simpler than we imagine and it is up to us.
Graphic by @sundaeghost