14th August 2016
By Tom Law

Media Crisis and the Rise of Populism

Applying ethical values to modern journalism is increasingly difficult at a time when the media industry itself is grappling with wholesale restructuring and deep economic crisis as a result of the digital revolution. Online services produced by Google and others have drained away much of the life-support of advertising from traditional media.

As a result some traditional media, particularly newspapers, allow their commercial and political ambitions to override the aspirations of ethical journalism. Of course, external threats abound, but inside journalism many wounds can be self-inflicted as revealed by the EJN multi-country report Untold Stories published in 2015. Investment in journalism has fallen in recent years. There are fewer jobs available and working conditions are reduced. Journalists are given less time for research and the news process has become faster.

Importantly, much less money is spent on investigative journalism which around the world has developed into a niche area of reporting supported by a regional network of investigative journalism groups, many of them funded by foundations and public bodies.

One of the most stunning examples concerns one of the biggest acts of journalism in recent history – the leak and publication of the Panama Papers in 2015. This global story involved cooperation among journalists on an unprecedented scale.

More than 370 journalists from 80 countries and covering 100 leading news media organisations came together to analyse and publish detailed stories of corruption in public life revealed in secret documents from 11.5 million files held by the global offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca.

The records were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICFJ) in the United States which co-ordinated the analysis and distillation of the material with its large network of international partners, including the Guardian and the BBC and almost every major media organisation on five continents.

It was a massive task which no single media organisation could have handled, and was only possible due to co-ordination by the ICFJ and its network of investigative reporters. But the ICFJ is no industry body, it is funded by, among others, Adessium Foundation, Open Society Foundations, The Sigrid Rausing Trust, the Fritt Ord Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The Ford Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and Waterloo Foundation.

This is a new reality of modern journalism with its increasing dependence on donor and public support for public interest journalism.

While journalism of scrutiny struggles to find resources, some mainstream media, particularly those in the tabloid market, vigorously compete for market share and increasingly use sensational, prurient and populist coverage to maintain audience and hold circulation.

In this world of journalism the voices of minorities are unheard; the racist and xenophobic messages of unscrupulous politicians are increasingly brought into play; and the anxieties of societies troubled by economic and social dislocation are exploited and reinforced. Headlines focus on conflict, the negative impact of migration, and religious and cultural differences. At the same time a culture of celebrity and consumerism dominate the editorial agenda.

The need for value-based journalism to shine through this dark atmosphere is most evident when violence and public safety are the centrepiece of the news agenda. In 2016 there was a succession of atrocities and violent attacks, some driven by terrorism, from numerous different locations including, Nice, Orlando, Munich, Dallas, Ansbach, and Sagamihara, and they arrived on almost a daily basis.

At the same time, there was unprecedented footage from the United States, where a black woman live-streamed the shooting of her boyfriend by a policeman and in Turkey the violence of an attempted coup and its aftermath were meticulously recorded by social media users.

This was a period when a mix of “instant news” from online users on the spot and their own staff tested the ethical judgement of editors and reporters in traditional media to the limit.

Journalists had to balance ethics of humanity (for instance over showing the explicit footage of violence and death on the streets of Nice that was freely circulating on the Internet) and truth-telling and the need for accurate representation of events as they happen.

These choices become more difficult when an alternative narrative, more vivid, explicit and threatening is being played out on the Internet. These images and stories may be popular, but they are rarely journalistic.

Journalists have to be careful. They have to avoid exploiting the fears and uncertainty of their audience. They must not glorify the perpetrators of violence. They have to be sensitive and not intrude on grief. They have to show humanity and not show images that are gruesome and cruel.

Getting the balance right is an important consideration for editors and publishers, not least because high ratings and audience reach are important factors in the life-or-death struggle of survival for media.

As mentioned earlier, the development of new advertising models means that all media, traditional and online, now measure editorial success by numbers alone. The digital business model requires high numbers of readers or viewers to trigger automatic algorithms that will provide advertising.

New media organisations, such as Buzzfeed, only judge success by whether their news goes “viral” and increasingly traditional media are also driven by the popularity of their journalism and the number of views, likes, and retweets it generates.

This inevitably leads to pressure for more dramatic and sensational coverage, and squeezes the space available for alternative opinions and minority voices. In this situation facts become less important than statements that trigger emotional responses. As a result, there are more opportunities for exploitation of the public information space by populist politicians.

As the recent British referendum campaign over membership of the European Union has shown, emotive rather than intellectual messages can easily overwhelm public discussion. So-called “expert opinion”, the life-blood of informed journalism, was swept aside in this debate by outrageous political statements with little or no reliance on facts.

In the same period, in the United States, the apparent lack of attachment to fact-based communications in the political campaigning of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, startled many, both inside and outside media, who have hitherto believed in a political culture where facts, in theory at least, have been paramount.

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