This is part of a continuing series of mine on platform regulation published by my employer, Public Knowledge. You can find the whole series here. You can find the original of this blog post here. This blog post is Part 2 of a three part series on media and social media. Part 1 is here.
In Part I, I explained why blaming digital platforms generally (and Facebook and Google in particular) for the current dysfunctional news industry and the erosion of public trust in journalism is an incomplete assessment and therefore leads to proposed solutions that do not actually address the underlying problems. To recap briefly, we have seen since the mid-1990s the steady decline in the quality of journalism and increasing public distrust of traditional newspapers and broadcast news. Massive consolidation financed by massive debt prompting an ever smaller number of mega-companies to cut costs by firing reporters and closing news rooms, shifting from hard news (which is more expensive to produce) to infotainment and talking head punditry, and the rise of unabashedly partisan talk radio hosts and cable networks were causing the public to increasingly silo themselves in partisan echo chambers. The relentless drive of these media giants to use the news to cross-promote their products, the increasing perception that the news industry had failed to question the Bush Administration’s justification for the invasion of Iraq and general perception that corporate media slanted news coverage to further their corporate or political interests (an impression shared by many reporters as well) all contributed to public distrust with the media and the general decline in consumption of news from traditional outlets long before online advertising was a serious threat to revenue. Finally, the unshakably wrong perception by corporate media that the public have no interest in substantive political coverage (despite numerous surveys to the contrary) prompted an audience hungry for real reporting to look to the emerging Blogosphere and away from traditional journalists.
Again, to be clear, there are genuine and serious concerns with regard to the potential gatekeeper and market power of social media and other digital platforms. The incentive of platforms to encourage “engagement” – whether by inspiring agreement or inspiring anger – warps both news reporting and news consumption. This incentive encourages these platforms to promote extreme headlines, hyper-partisanship, and radicalization, which in turn encourages those trying to attract readers to increasingly move to ever more extreme language and positions. These problems require a set of their own solutions, which I will reserve for a future installment. In this post, I want to focus on how we can begin to repair the problems with our dysfunctional news industry and the crisis of trust undermining journalism.
More Below . . .
What Are Some Real Solutions?
It’s a cliché that the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. Unfortunately, the news industry has the classic cliché response of blaming everyone but themselves. ‘It’s fake news!’ ‘It’s social media!’ ‘It’s those damn kids with their Twitters and selfies and whatnot! Blame anyone but us and don’t make us change!’ CEOs propose self-serving solutions of permitting further consolidation and requiring Google and Facebook to subsidize them without requiring any change that might address the real problems that steadily eroded the American people’s trust in journalism for the last 25+ years. We need a policy intervention to repair the reputation of journalism and to adapt journalism to the digital age.
As always with a complex problem, there is no single solution that will work. It took more than 25 years to reach our current level of crisis in the media. You don’t fix that kind of damage quickly or easily. Furthermore, we need to recognize how social media and other digital platforms genuinely enhance journalism and the ways in which the public engage. In the last decade and a half we have lurched between techno-euphoria over the rise of citizen journalists and breaking the bottleneck of consolidated Big Media to dystopian despair over the doom of democracy. (I call this “Billy Joel Syndrome,” the state of believing it’s either sadness or euphoria.) We need to take a clear-eyed look at how to change journalism in a way that incorporates the positive power of platforms.
Journalism and the Business of Journalism Are Constantly Changing in Response to Technological Innovations.
As I noted in Part I, we must not confuse the importance of journalism and the need for skilled journalists with the current “news industry.” Certainly, journalists need to be able to earn a living. Additionally, we must have some mechanism for ensuring that there are resources available on a local, national, and international level to permit investigative reporting, and regular reporting that goes beyond the crisis of the moment so that people can understand the world around them and govern themselves. Ideally, these funding mechanisms should not themselves provide incentive to bias the coverage of news. But the current business models are simply the most recent answer produced by the combination of markets and technology. A brief study of the history of journalism and the business of news illustrates the principle that the business of producing and distributing news changes constantly in response to new technology. We can learn important lessons from this history applicable to the current situation – including traps to avoid.
The introduction and widespread deployment of the telegraph created a revolution in reporting. For the first time, newspapers around the world could have access to news from independent reporters anywhere they could find a telegraph. The introduction of the camera likewise created the new phenomena of visually capturing the individuals or events unfolding, rather than simply an artist’s representation. This gave birth to a new breed of journalist – the celebrity correspondent (it also gave birth to the first modern paparazzi and the modern debate about privacy rights). Reporters such as Nelly Bligh and Henry Morgan Stanley gained fame by reporting from around the globe. (In the case of Bligh, quite literally – as her most famous series of stories came from reproducing Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days by being the first person to circumnavigate the globe in under 80 days.) Other reporters, such as Henri Blowitz, cultivated their personal connections with people in power to secure access to documents and information – giving birth to the modern political press corp. The new journalism industry also gave birth to investigative journalism and powerful editorial voices. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast was instrumental in exposing and bringing down the corrupt New York City politician Boss Tweed. A generation of socially conscious investigative reporterssuch as Upton Sinclair brought to light social and corporate abuses and helped to drive numerous social reforms.
Not all the changes were positive, however. Technology also allowed a handful of organizations and publishers to consolidate the news business over time. The power of the celebrity journalist and the investigative reporter gave way to the power of the consolidated news industry. In the early 20th Century, the Associated Press had monopolized the distribution of news by telegraph by imposing exclusive contracts on smaller independent newspapers which could not afford their own non-local reporters. This control over access to “eyeballs” allowed the Associated Press to dictate terms to independent reporters, since the only way they could publish their stories was through the Associated Press. For reporters, the only alternatives were the massive chains run by corporate news giants such as Pulitzer and Hearst. Journalism became “yellow journalism,” with the economics of newspaper chains driving content toward the ever more lurid and extreme.
New technologies continued to spur new business models and cycles of dramatic expansion and diversity followed by contraction and consolidation. (This pattern recurs so frequently in communications that Tim Wu literally wrote a book called The Master Switch describing this cycle and making some uncannily accurate prediction about the evolution of the internet, and explored the history of the press further in The Attention Merchants.) The combination of the emerging telephone and broadcasting created a new class of instant news broadcasters providing present and live coverage from around the country and then the world, followed by consolidation of content into the hands of two national networks — NBC and CBS. Movietone News and other “news reel” services rose and fell. Television created a new generation of journalists with “anchors” and “correspondents.” Cable created the 24-hour news network, and an entire cottage industry of “pundits” and “commentators” with entire networks devoted to reporting on subgenres such as financial news or sports. Newspapers collapsed as broadcasting and cable news took their audience, prospered again in the advertising bonanza of the Dot Com Bubble, and collapsed again when it burst.
At the same time, however, we must recognize that federal policy and private efforts played a huge part in shaping the business of news production and journalism. The rise of journalism schools helped to create reporting standards and standards of journalistic integrity. Vigorous application of the antitrust laws broke up the Associated Press stranglehold on the industry. The Federal Radio Act, and its successor, the Communications Act of 1934, required that broadcasters only operate pursuant to a federal license held as “trustees” for the local community and obligated broadcasters to serve “the public interest, convenience and necessity.” The creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting started a network of non-profit radio and television broadcasters with a mission to cover news without concern for ratings that would generate advertising dollars. The FCC over the years established ownership limits on broadcast licensees, and various “public interest obligations” and requirements to foster the development of local news. In the landmark United Church of Christ v. FCC, the federal courts revoked the license of a Mississippi broadcaster for repeated failures to serve the African American population of the community and for refusing to sell advertising to a black federal candidate in violation of FCC regulations.
Conversely, federal deregulation and the failure of antitrust enforcement likewise shaped journalism and the business of radio. As I discussed at considerable length in Part I, the relaxation of media ownership limits in the 1990s and early 2000s enabled massive consolidation with significant impacts on journalism. The industry continues to recover from the mammoth debt and massive bankruptcies that followed from the period of consolidation.
In short, history demonstrates that both the nature of journalism and the nature of the business that supports journalism repeatedly and dramatically changes with the introduction of new communications technologies. The current dramatic changes in the news industry and journalism are not only familiar, but predicted (in general scope) by scholars such as Professor Wu. But history also shows us that we need not sit passively by while the forces of the market drive the news business to consolidation and drive news content to the lurid and entertainment-oriented. To the contrary, both private initiatives and federal policy have played important roles in shaping both journalism and the business of news production.
How Have Digital Platforms Changed Journalism for the Better? Ferguson as Case Study.
In 2011, building on previous work on “the networked public sphere,” Yochai Benkler described the emerging and changing world of journalism in the digital age as “the networked fourth estate.” The interplay between journalism, social media, and activism – what Benkler has previously mapped as the networked social sphere (see here and here) – is perhaps most visible in the social protests in 2014 that began in Ferguson, MO following the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. These protests, and those that followed, are generally credited as the beginning of the transition of the Black Lives Matter movement from spontaneous protests to a nationally recognized social justice movement. Good journalism stimulates a strong civic response when it uncovers stories of injustice and abuse of power. Why this protest coalesced into a movement illustrates the manner in which social media has had positive impact on reporting and the dynamic of civic discourse.
Social media, particularly Twitter, proved instrumental in both allowing local and national activists to organize protest. Twitter attracts a particular use case very different from that of Facebook, particularly in 2014 when Twitter still posted tweets in user feeds chronologically. The ability to search and organize by hashtag (#) and to organize lists allowed individual users to follow rapidly evolving developments and facilitated one-to-many communications among protest organizers in a quick and efficient manner.
Simultaneously, these developments alerted a trained press corps that use Twitter to follow community leaders and social trends. These reporters, in turn, have their own followers – including other reporters. Several reporters from recognized national outlets came to Ferguson. Using only their cell phones and social media, they were able to provide live coverage to millions of people in real time. The trending hashtags combined with streaming video and running commentary by trained reporters on the scene dramatically altered the way in which the protests were covered. Police were caught live trying to shut down reporters and threatening them with arrest when they took shelter in a local diner.
This coverage contrasted markedly with traditional video coverage. The low cost and greater freedom of individual reporters to cover events without the need for an expensive camera crew and complicated logistics to arrange for live transmission facilitated coverage. As did the ability of social media to avoid the time-consuming process of persuading news editors and executives of cable and broadcast networks to preempt live programming when the story began to unfold. Ultimately, the traditional cable media did preempt programming and switch to live coverage, and national broadcast media sent crews and affiliates and began providing live updates. But none of that would have happened without trained reporters adept at following social media and distributing news using social media platforms and cheap mobile video. Just as the capture of police brutality in Selma by live national broadcast news changed the way the vast majority of white Americans related to the civil rights movement, the presence of trained reporters providing live reporting combined with raw video footage dramatically changed the way mainstream America looked at the policing of Black America.
Additionally, the nature of the coverage changed the way in which the story was covered. These changes included individual reporters sharing their own, unedited perspectives in real time – often from outlets that traditionally covered these stories very differently. Activists using the tools of modern journalism and social media actively confronted cable journalists attempting to structure coverage along particular narrative lines. This engendered debate over the coverage of police violence and race in America, and shaped coverage of subsequent incidents such as the reaction to the Eric Garner verdict.
Breaking out the lessons learned for journalism and news production from where the impact of platforms was most positive for journalism and civic engagement, we see the following:
- Trained reporters play a critical role in identifying news events through following social media. When reporters have both professional training and experience with the organizers and actors on social media they can not only anticipate important news events, but they can also contextualize them for followers and authenticate the raw footage and real time reporting.
- Even when considering the crisis of trust and generalized suspicion, it is important to distinguish the nuances. As this PEW survey found, many Americans may think that major news outlets such as the Washington Post are biased in their sympathies and how they cover events, but only a fraction of Americans believe that reporters from such outlets are actually staging live events with “crisis actors.” The ability to use ubiquitous and widely accessible platforms for real-time reporting helps to alleviate the trust problem.
- Platforms are not uniform, and do not need to be. Twitter has repeatedly proven superior for news reporting and breaking news for many reasons. While we must be mindful of algorithmic bias and other concerns, there is room for substantial differences in utilization of platforms for journalism.
- There is a lot more to social media and journalism than driving traffic or disseminating fake news. Skilled reporters can use social media platforms for a variety of purposes, including research and verification of stories.
- Platforms and new technologies can significantly reduce costs for traditional outlets, as well as for new entrepreneurial reporters. Just as the telegraph created a new capacity to do national and international reporting, the ability of trained reporters to use mobile phones and social media to replicate what once took a full camera crew and mobile truck with a satellite uplink enormously reduces both cost and the need to secure approval from multiple layers of decision-makers. An outlet that would need to think long and hard about the complicated expense and logistics about dispatching a full camera crew for a story that might not happen (and often viewed as “limited interest” to majority white audiences) can more easily afford to let a trained reporter follow a hunch armed only with a cell phone.
- “Advocacy journalism” from activists or sympathetic reporters should not be simply dismissed. The questions are both whether the reporting meets professional standards and whether advocacy bias is appropriately disclosed. Upton Sinclair had an agenda. It did not make him wrong about food safety and exploitation of workers.
With these factors in mind, we are now ready to approach the question of new economic models that take advantage of these new tools, while simultaneously addressing the ability of bad actors or reckless actors to leverage these tools to undermine journalism and democracy, in Part 3.
Stay tuned . . .