Journalism society’s much needed cure

Stop Press AFP / Scanpix

Journalism is a vaccination for democracy. Sometimes it hurts, but it protects the whole system from lethal diseases.

Technological progress is changing the world, but it cannot change one eternal law: those, who do not adapt go extinct. Charioteers were replaced by taxi drivers and taxi drivers are being replaced by ridesharers. Thus, it is only a question of time until ridesharers are replaced by autonomous cars.

Would anyone be very sad over this? Perhaps only the ridesharers and their family members. Whatever the case may be, our society’s structure will change little if ridesharing ceases to exist.

But is it worth worrying about our society and the quality of liberal democracy if the news media and journalists would vanish? This should have already been a discussion point because the process has been gaining momentum for sometime; we are rapidly nearing the red line, which when overstepped, will leave nothing left to save.

Journalism without journalists

The average person may note the imbalance in this analogy, why should we not care about ridesharers but worry over journalists and journalism? After all, the rapidly changing technologies will replace journalists eventually too. Let’s not forget that robots can already create sports articles and reviews of stock market results.

With China rapidly becoming a centre of Artificial Intelligence, there has been considerable investment into robot or AI journalists, and the groundwork is already being laid for news media without journalists. In all honesty, it must be said that it is a logical conclusion because, in a system with Chinese characteristics, the news media takes on the role of a servant. In such a system, robot journalists would flourish.

News media will survive in China, even without journalists though it will not have any massive impact on China. The news media will survive in the West as well, but when journalists and journalism vanish, so will the West.

News media business

Freedom of speech is one of the four pillars of liberal democracy and the news media and journalists are the heralds of that freedom. However, nowadays information can reach the people without the aid of news media outlets, thanks to the Internet and specifically social media.

News media was one of the industries that suffered the most from the industrial revolution 4.0. Admittedly, the news media is trying to find new business models, but is struggling to keep up with the technological progress. There was hope that it will be possible to survive on advertising, drawing large readerships. However, with content moving into mobile screens and with ad blocking emerging, this business model is increasingly unsustainable. Due to this, news media is gradually faltering.

Internet subscriptions often also fails to secure stability. Lithuania has Verslo Žinios (Business News), which businessmen and higher income Lithuanians can afford to pay for. There are the Financial Times, The New York Times, the Economist and other publications, whose internet subscriptions help compensate losses in advertising and declining paper print numbers.

The Guardian has just declared that with its membership model it has become profitable for the first time in 20 years.

Publications of such a calibre present quality information and analysis to their readers. But these are international publications that write little about our local problems. Furthermore, there is an even greater problem – the rapidly emerging information segregation in societies. How could this be? After all, the essence of the internet is the distribution of information.

The rise of the unnewsed

The Internet is forming a group in society, which could be described as the “unnewsed”. According to data from a Reuters Institute study, the unnewsed do not actively seek news, they are content with the news finding them. Even those who do read the tabloids like the Sun read it in fewer and fewer numbers.

That being said, higher-income and -educated citizens still actively seek out quality news sources.

They also subscribe to exceptional news media. The study stated that the problem of information segregation existed before, but it was hoped that the Internet would resolve this problem.

On the contrary though, information segregation is rising ever faster. Another problem found by this study is that quality news media is not interested in reducing subscription prices to encourage the unnewsed to subscribe. Meanwhile, to the unnewsed citizens, they are content with what stumbles upon them.

Thus, the situation is nearing a point where there are ever more unnewsed citizens and the information that does reach them is often of very poor quality. Even specialists must make an effort to distinguish verifiable news items from fake news and various taking heads, who – with the help of social media – can easily find the way to the hearts and minds of the unnewsed.

Nowadays, everyone can be a journalist, so why would professional journalists be needed at all? Even worse, specialist opinions have become completely inaccessible to the unnewsed and, to be frank, these expert voices are even less interesting to them. As one of the supporters of Brexit – the current UK Environment Secretary and former journalist – Michael Gove declared only a few days prior to the Brexit referendum, “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts.”

Of course, why would you listen to expert opinions which clash with your own when you can read from hundreds of other “experts” whose opinions do not challenge your own world view. Staying with the British conundrum, many such “experts” have already removed themselves from the Brexit process because they do not really know what to do next.

Democracy’s illness

When you start operating based on only your heart and feelings instead of your mind, sooner or later the decisions you make will have fairly unfortunate consequences. This is especially the case when you are talking about state governance. The citizens directly or indirectly participate in state governance by voting in elections and referenda; the outcomes of which are being affected by the rapidly growing number of unnewsed citizens . So will there still be room left for journalists in our liberal democracy?

Liberal democracy cannot operate without having universally accessible good journalism and objective, independent news media. The public needs journalists who write what is actually happening and not what the consumers of information want to read and hear. And it can hurt, it can be unpleasant and even annoying, but the truth is not always meant to be sweet. If we lose the sharp pen of the news media, we will lose our liberal democracies.

Vaccinations from measles are an excellent analogue. It is important to vaccinate from measles because facts show that measles can be contained only when 95% of the population has been vaccinated. Vaccinations are unpleasant. Journalism in the Western world is also unpleasant, but it is a necessary attribute of a healthy liberal democracy.

Otherwise, liberal democracy will fall gravely ill, and the situation with measles has shown what informational power lies in the hands of loud devotees who are uninterested in expert viewpoints.

News, opinions, journalism

The aforementioned statement that everyone can be a journalist is just self-deception. To have an opinion and know how to express it, does not yet qualify as journalism.

Influencers form opinions mostly by inciting emotions, which is not inherently bad. However, Journalists form opinions by employing facts and reflecting varied opinions. Information outlets (newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, internet portals) risk their reputation when they present information and opinions, which is why they value it.

Competition for a good reputation between news media outlets creates conditions for information reliability. Media influencers and experts in their areas have an excellent opportunity to express their expert opinions on their own platforms, from blogs to social media and various video platforms.

News media outlets can make use of this material if it is worth commanding other attention, a common practice exemplified by when you have quotes from social media entries. But journalists must create content, which does not always reflect their own opinion, but instead serves public interest and democracy.

Even if there is an unprecedented capacity for free expression, the number of newspapers, journals and even news portals is ceaselessly declining. With the decline in these information outlets, there are ever fewer jobs for journalists.

While the news media business is seeking a successful work formula, the one that would work is still nowhere on the horizon. So what, journalists can also work in ridesharing, right? Actually many do already, but won’t our democracy suffer from this circumstance, and what could save journalism and journalists? On that – the next article.

The article first appear at the Visegrad Insight and was written for the #DemocraCE project.

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