Behind the bold headlines

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg; the two politicians appear to have benefitted...
Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg; the two politicians appear to have benefitted from misinformation spread on the tech entrepreneur's platform. PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES/REUTERS. GRAPHIC: MAT PATCHETT

The news media industry worldwide is in upheaval. Ironically, some of the best journalism is also being produced. It has important implications for democracy and demands swift action, journalism researcher Mel Bunce tells Bruce Munro.

Journalism faces challenges so extreme and so profound that its survival is at risk.

This is the stark assessment of Dr Melanie Bunce, a Dunedin-raised researcher and teacher at the acclaimed Department of Journalism, at City, University of London.

Journalists are under threat from creeping authoritarianism, Dr Bunce says. Globally, the number of countries where reporters can work in safety continues to decline.

At the same time, trust in the media has plummeted worldwide. In the United States it has dropped from 72% in the 1970s to 32%. In New Zealand a similarly low number of people trust the media to "do what is right".

The economic foundations of the news media also appear to be breaking up. Advertisers have flocked to online platforms. Google and Facebook now collect 60% of all digital advertising in the United States and United Kingdom. In New Zealand it is 50%. This despite research questioning the effectiveness of such advertising.

The impact of these losses on frontline journalists has been brutal, Dr Bunce says. As circulation figures and advertising revenues fall, reporters' jobs are cut and the work they are expected to do is increased, reducing overall quality and further undermining trust and revenue - a deadly spiral. In the US, in 1990, daily and weekly newspapers had 455,000 employees. By 2017, that was down 62%, to 174,000 employees. In New Zealand, in 2013, the number of print journalists had almost halved, in just seven years.

As a teenager, Dr Bunce was interested in international news. She also covered the New Zealand Youth Parliament, in Wellington, for the Otago Daily Times. For five years, while studying at the University of Otago, she wrote a student-issues column for the newspaper.

"It got me interested in the media," Dr Bunce says.

"Seeing the importance and influence of the media on people's lives, and wanting to understand it better.

"I don't think I would have taken the direction I have if it wasn't for the column."

That direction included a master's degree and PhD in media studies at Oxford University.

Dr Bunce has recently written a book, The Broken Estate: Journalism and Democracy in a Post-Truth World.

In it she describes the ODT as "one of a very small number of independent metropolitan newspapers in New Zealand" where "staff numbers have remained relatively constant" and "its pages are often packed with feel-good articles" as well as providing "an important space for public debate on issues that affect the region".

She also says there are plenty of other pockets of good journalism.

"Confusingly, we are also living through a golden age.

"Some outlets are seeking page views above all else (the `bikinis, sharks and crime' model). Others are investing in high-quality content in the hope this will translate into subscribers, members, brand loyalty and more lucrative advertising opportunities or sponsorship."

Her overall assessment of the news media industry, however, is dire.

In The Broken Estate, Dr Bunce details the "twin crises of disinformation and financial collapse".

She also unpacks why this matters.

"News and information are part of the scaffolding of democracy itself" - providing trustworthy information, holding those with power to account and giving space for public debate.

The book then examines "how journalism can be rebuilt".

The accompanying Q&A with Dr Bunce explores these vital issues.

Former Otago Daily Times columnist Dr Melanie Bunce, who researches and teaches journalism at the...
Former Otago Daily Times columnist Dr Melanie Bunce, who researches and teaches journalism at the University of London, says news media is a vital piece of scaffolding for democracy. Photo: Supplied
Democracy's watchdog: The state of journalism. Q&A with Dr Melanie Bunce 

Q What is the nature of the crisis facing journalism?

There are two big crises journalism faces. One being the intense economic pressures, with outlets losing the revenue they once relied on, especially advertising. That means there are news outlets that are shutting down and cutting their journalists.

Within that, my biggest concern is what's happening to newspapers. Because they are the ones that are struggling the most and they are the ones that historically have done by far the most journalism. There are many studies showing how important newspapers are to the news ecology.

Some people might think newspapers are yesterday's medium, but around the world, in most countries, newspapers do about 70% of the actual journalism that happens in those countries. That's because of the number of journalists they employ and the systematic nature of their work.

So, the first challenge is thinking through that economic challenge and what it might mean.

The second is this crisis in trust; audiences not being sure who they can rely on and getting misinformation from all sorts of places.

Q What examples are you seeing of that?

Here [in the United Kingdom] we had many issues with misinformation and trust around the Brexit referendum. Part of what made that worse was politicians making things up or exaggerating a lot. So, people didn't really know who they could trust to provide them with accurate information. There were really significant claims about how much the European Union cost and how restrictive it was to be a member of it. Some of it just wasn't true. Then, in addition to that, there were advertisements on Facebook that were really targeting people with misinformation.

In New Zealand we are protected from some of that. We don't have the partisan newspapers, the extreme tabloids that the UK has. And we don't have the same sort of fake news the United States (US) has, where people are creating news stories that are completely false and spreading them around. But we do have all the same kind of misinformation online ... where people are spreading misinformation about everything from vaccinations to climate change. leaving people unsure who they can trust.

Q Has the news media brought about its own demise by infecting society with its own cynicism?

I'm sure it's part of the problem in some people's minds. But I'm not too concerned about cynicism. I'm much more concerned about inaccuracy and getting things wrong but not caring enough to correct them. I try hard not to blame journalists, because I think for the most part they are doing an exceptional job with very little resources. But you think of news outlets trying to churn out huge numbers of stories, and they are not fact-checking or verifying things, that's were I think distrust really gets built.

In the US, cynicism, especially with polarisation, has certainly been part of the process, where news organisations have attacked each other.

The Grenfell Tower disaster may have been averted given focused local reporting of council...
The Grenfell Tower disaster may have been averted given focused local reporting of council business. Photo: Getty Images
Q In a globalised world, in which people in New Zealand can follow US news media, aren't they in danger of also becoming polarised?

You've put your finger on one of the other concerns about local papers shutting down, as some of them are. The Stuff newspapers that are closing; the research from the US suggests when your local paper shuts down the community becomes more polarised. One of the reasons for that is people without local news tend to get their news nationally, or internationally, and those tend to always be more polarised because they are talking about national politics and people fighting with each other along party lines, whereas local news is often much more constructive, focused on real issues that unite us. So, it is a concern when people start to only get their news from those sources.

Q Why do we no longer have newspapers whose mastheads proclaim "For the cause that lacks assistance, for the wrong that needs resistance, for the future in the distance, and the good that we can do"?

We had the luxury of being like that when we had a lot of resources. There was the golden era, a beautiful stretch, when advertisers were bringing in a lot of money and making a lot of people very rich. With that money they could afford to provide a product that was impressive and prestigious, and so advertisers sought them out even more. For me, I think it's very much a financial thing. There used to be incentives to make that kind of news because it would attract advertisers who thought you were a really independent, worthy place to advertise. It's not that that wouldn't attract advertisers now, it's just that they have other places to go. So, without that money, news organisations are having to experiment with very different models. I think some of them will continue in the noble mode because they are trying to attract audiences that do care about that. The Washington Post is one of the success stories right now. And what is their catch cry? "Democracy dies in the darkness." I think that is quite inspiring. They are successful. The New York Times is successful, the FT [Financial Times], The Guardian. But mostly that is because they have giant audiences. So, they can do these economies of scale.

But I think many journalists themselves still absolutely hold those values. Because we are still training and thinking of journalism in that way. It's just that there's fewer outlets doing it.

Q Why should we worry about what happens to newspapers, which are essentially a commercial business?

I think it should matter enormously to us. Because we really have relied on them to do so much work holding up democracy throughout the 20th century. We have relied on them to bring us the information we need to vote. And also to hold people accountable. Because they are the only independent source that has consistently been there to reveal and scrutinise all power operators at all levels of society; not just politicians, but regional and local issues and businesses and so on. And they are one of the few places we have to articulate our concerns as citizens and to debate the important issues of the day.

Q Could some entity other than news media be created or co-opted to perform the functions of the Fourth Estate?

It is such an important question. It's something that people need to start thinking about really seriously. I think in the future we will get our information from a more varied information landscape.

I think we could get people providing information and we could get forums to debate issues. But the one task that I think will be very hard for another organisation to perform is being critical and scrutinising those with power. That is the trickiest one, because you have to be independent.

There are many ways to arrange that. I think public [government-funded] media can be independent if it is set up well and there's a really clear firewall.

It is not so much where the money comes from; it's as much about the structure of the organisation.

In terms of your question, I just feel that no-one is emerging [to take that role of holding power to account]. Who is incentivised? Who is going to go to local council meetings and make sure they are doing what they said they would? Or who is going to go to courtrooms and notice there is a trend that this or that is happening? I just don't see who would emerge to do that.

Q Can subscriptions and paywalls alone supply the revenue needed for journalism to do its job?

We have examples showing they can in some places, especially if your audience has a lot of money. So, business publications often find a way to make it successful. But most of the examples of really successful ones have a big audience.

That is what I think is the big challenge for New Zealand - that we have a pretty small population and a lot of regional news is being produced for very small groups - so it is always going to be a challenge to make a subscription model work.

I think it is likely that subscriptions will only be one part of the model that news outlets use. I think we'll see increasing experimentation with things like sponsorship and membership schemes and events and side projects. There are lots of side-hustles. Even the Guardian has a dating website.

Q You say "we should assess journalism in terms of its ability to support democracy". Is that a lofty enough goal? Should it be supporting truth or humanity?

I chose to take one approach in the book, which was very much to think about journalism in terms of its role in democracy. Because that's what I'm most worried about.

That's what many of us got very worried about in 2016 - seeing the US elections, seeing the Brexit referendum - and thinking "Shit, politics might not work without good journalism anymore". That seemed to me the emergency issue, because it is so important to our democracy.

But I agree that there are many other aims that you could talk about. You could talk about truth. You could talk about having an informed citizenry ... The media can be a tool for all sorts of things. It can help create a more inclusive society, it can help wage social justice campaigns.

One thing I do think is important, is how the media plays a role in representing everyone, and how that is important for diversity and inclusion. I do worry about the representation of different ethnic groups and gender and religion. It's such a challenging question; how do we represent what happened around the Christchurch attacks? How do we represent these challenging, complicated issues around inter-racial dynamics? I think that requires really thoughtful journalists who have time to do that; to make sure the media really represents us all.

But for me, the way in which journalism supports democracy (or undermines it) is our really pressing challenge.

It is a bit too early to know in New Zealand yet but, especially if local newspapers keep closing down and if they keep under-resourcing the national media, I think we are going to see a bit more of what they have in the US where they talk about these news deserts - quite large areas where people don't have access to important information about their community. If Stuff continues to close newspapers then I think we do have a genuine issue on our hands.

Vaccination programmes have been impacted by baseless scaremongering on the internet. Photo:...
Vaccination programmes have been impacted by baseless scaremongering on the internet. Photo: Getty Images
Q Is it unreasonable to expect governments to support journalism, whose role is to independently hold it to account?

No, absolutely not. Some democracies have a Supreme Court that can knock down legislation. Also, our government pays for Ombudsmen who can evaluate what parts of the government have done. We definitely try to build scrutiny into the democratic system. And one of the really key arguments in the book is that if the market is failing, which it is, then government support is really important and completely sensible. New Zealand spends so much less than most countries on public media. So, we are really almost alone in not having a not-for-profit TV channel.

It is quite tricky for government to support newspapers, because they are commercial entities. It's much easier to support not-for-profit news outlets. Having said that, I do quite like the scheme the Government is piloting now, called Local Democracy Reporters, to "fill the gaps in the reporting of local bodies and other publicly-funded organisations, mostly in regional New Zealand, brought about by significant decreases in traditional media".

They have done a much bigger version of it in the UK, and it's been seen as pretty successful. So many news stories got made that wouldn't otherwise have. And what I really like, is that those stories got shared.

So that is a way a government can indirectly support for-profit media.

They are doing some great stuff in Canada. If you as an individual want to buy news content then you can get a tax rebate on your subscription. I think that's a really nice way to do it.

When I hear people in New Zealand talking about government options they almost always seem to be talking about broadcasting. Should we merge TVNZ1 and Maori Television? Should we make TVNZ1 commercial-free? There's not so much talk about newspapers, which I think is a shame because newspapers do so much.

Q Are there any self-serving reasons for government to support journalism?

Having critical journalism serves a really important accountability function. There are studies that show when you have journalists at local meetings up and down the country, elected officials tend to behave better, there's less corruption, people make better hiring decisions.

There's an incredible book called Democracy's Detectives, where an academic from Stanford has studied investigative journalism around the country. He's an economist who looked at thousands of stories. He's shown how much value the stories had to the country, in terms of the journalism leading to better laws, less corruption and so on. He put figures on it and it was worth so much more than it cost.

In North Carolina, for example, an investigation of the probation system led to changes in personnel, law, policies and state spending. For each dollar the newsroom spent on the investigation there was US$287 in net benefits to the state during the first year of the reforms alone.

Another example, here in the UK, was the horrible Grenfell Tower fire [in June, 2017, in which 72 people died]. A lot of media watchers think if there had been more local journalists there is a chance it could have been avoided. They say that because there weren't journalists at the council meetings where the fire safety of the building was repeatedly brought up as an issue. Twenty years ago there were journalists there and this is the sort of story they were writing, so the councillors were much more likely to do something about it.

Q What would be the dangers of allowing greater news inequality?

That is one of my concerns with the subscription model. Going back to the US - where we have the most research about what happens when the media dies - there are lots of communities now where there is information inequality because the people who can afford it pay [for quality news], and those who can't don't.

I think it is like any other form of inequality. We want to prevent it.

But the big thing about it, that is concerning me, goes back to what I was saying about the media still playing this really important role in raising issues to politicians. There is a lot of research to show that it is from the mainstream media that politicians take their cues for what the people care about.

If politicians are looking to the media to tell them what people care about, but the media is only targeting and reflecting the views of a segment of society - the rich, the house owners, those who fly all the time - then it is their views and concerns that will be floated up to Parliament; not those of the people who are living in substandard housing and need better rental regulation or whatever. That is the issue that bothers me; whose views get amplified to politicians.

But also we want everyone to be informed, because we want everyone to make decisions about things like vaccination, and so that when they go to vote they have the information they need.

So, there are reasons to worry about what happens to the people themselves and also about what happens at a political level.

Q Will the news media industry keel over and have to start again? What's your best guess about how this will play out?

There are definitely some hopeful signs, because there is some great news being made despite all these challenges and structural constraints. There's still some really great pieces of journalism and there's great journalists. I think it is just about, how can we support the business model? How can we make sure people have the resources they need to do the reporting? I think we know the audiences want it.

One positive is that young people are getting used to paying for media online. So, there's a small glimmer of hope that they might be more willing to pay than previous generations.

I think there is some potential in the audience model. But hopefully we are going to see, in New Zealand, more government support for the media. And that will make a difference.

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, it is common to hear the phrase "too big to fail". It refers to the idea that certain financial institutions are so large their failure would be disastrous to the wider economic system. They must, therefore, be supported by government if they face potential ruin. There is a parallel in journalism. But rather than too big to fail, journalism is too important. Its failure would be disastrous for the wider political system on which everything else is built.

 

Comments

Nihil utile quod non honestum (the joint). Old Latin masthead, the Christchurch Press.

Why is journalists' original work open to sharing on other media?

"In New Zealand we are protected from some of that. We don't have the partisan newspapers" Actually this is detrimental to New Zealand. One company owns most of NZ's print media and basically upholds a world view of Liberal Universalism and has a tendancy to attack anyone who doesn't subcribe to that view. Hence frequent articles mocking the Christian faith on their website.

 

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