“The change in newspapers’ front pages over the past five years has been extraordinary,” Robert Peston, ITV News’s Political Editor, claimed in a passionate accusation last week. “Newspapers are now activists in these culture wars. The notion that most newspapers now are impartially trying to present the news is a joke.”
Peston’s argument, made in a compelling BBC Radio debate titled ‘Impartial Journalism In a Polarised World’, was somewhat self-serving, in that he used it to present as “guardians of impartiality” the broadcast news sector of which the former newspaper journalist is now a part.
“Do we (broadcasters) respond by investing even more in being impartial, holding the ring, being the judge, or are we doomed to obsolescence if we are not permitted to enter into the great propaganda wars?” he asked piously (without acknowledging that regulated broadcast news still largely takes its lead from the press).
But clearly ‘Pesto’ has a point. The polarisation of the news-stand was one of the reasons why this title was launched in 2010 to offer an alternative of concise and unbiased news coverage. Since then the need for such balance has grown as the distribution of news has become more dependent on the charged milieu of social media, where polemic thrives.
‘Abandoned the search for truth’
Some media outlets, Peston argued, “have simply abandoned the search for truth and just become propagandists of the sort that you see routinely now on social media.”
Of course Fleet Street was always partisan. But Britain’s division over Brexit, in combination with the rise of the angry social media discourse that helped create it, encourages a new level of tribal journalism where blind loyalty to the cause takes priority over facts.
Is this an irreconcilable trend? Maybe not. A new global initiative aims to clean up the world of digital news by establishing a set of universal standards intended to distinguish the trustworthy from the malign.
Led by the Paris-based NGO, Reporters Without Borders, the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) is backed by 120 organisations, including the BBC, the Guardian and the Associated Press.
The search for truth
The project has now received $1.5m (£1.2m) in funding by Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, the online classified advertising service that helped to undermine the business model of print media. Newmark joins the ranks of Internet billionaires working to repair the news ecosystem, alongside e-Bay founder and media philanthropist Pierre Omidyar and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, who has given new life to the Washington Post since buying it for $250m (£201m).
In an email, Newmark says: “We are in a serious fight for truth, and the stakes that many countries face are a free press, an informed public, and a strong democracy. Especially now, news organisations need to stand up for transparency and ethics and make clear to the world that they can be trusted.”
Rather than going out to close down rogue sites created to disseminate false information, the JTI is designed to “support the good” by helping bonafide news outlets stand apart, says its leader Olaf Steenfadt.
News publishers must abide by key principles of accuracy, independence, impartiality, fairness, transparency and accountability. They can seek certification and submit themselves to outside audit. The system is designed for lone bloggers as well as large newsrooms. By using machine-readable signals, the project will enable tech platforms to support certified news outlets in their algorithms. It also aims to create a space where advertisers have confidence in brand safety.
Will Facebook and Google play ball?
Will it work? Much depends on Facebook and Google, the companies that have done most to create the environment now exploited by propagandists. Both US giants have pledged to improve the news ecosystem – Google last week announced it was prioritising original reporting in its algorithm – and both are backing the JTI.
Steenfadt says the tech companies have much to gain from allowing journalism to define its own standards rather than policing it from Silicon Valley. “It would take so much pressure off their backs, both Facebook and Google, if they can say ‘Here is a set of signals which is self-governed by journalism’ and not something happening behind the curtain.”
In the BBC debate, panellist Helen Lewis argued that Facebook should change its visual architecture to distinguish bonafide news and that Google should shut down its YouTube recommendation algorithm, which can surface extreme videos.
Ultimately though, an onus remains on news users themselves. America’s first amendment and Britain’s rumbustious newspaper tradition means that any definition of “good” journalism is likely to be broad enough to include the “tendentious nonsense” that Peston complained of last week.
Contrary to his implication, there is plentiful good written journalism out there. But in a world where only 30 per cent of Americans view democracy as essential, not everyone is as discerning as i readers in going out to find it.Read More