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A US-based digital journalism expert says public broadcasters such as the ABC can help offset the “fake news” phenomenon that some argue influenced the 2016 US election.

However, Emily Bell, the director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, has cautioned the broadcasters from being strictly guided by commercial concerns when managing internal issues such as budgeting and staff cuts.

“The ABC and BBC’s issues are too often framed in terms of the market and not often enough in terms of civic need and what we might require public media to do to protect democracy,” Bell said.

“You have to keep your communities informed and connected. Australia is one of the few places that has the resources to create a national voice for debate.

“In America, there is an absolute feeling now that there is a lack of a space for public service journalism, which is really palpable, and you can feel the anxiety around that.

“Public media is not the only solution, but it is an important element in figuring out how we manage our way through a complicated and rapidly changing commercial, converged marketplace.”

The former Guardian journalist, who was in Australia this week to deliver the University of Melbourne’s annual AN Smith lecture, said that US news outlets have had to adapt to the ‘fabric’ of platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, often for the worse.

“If I pick up my mobile phone and look at a news alert, it’s going to come from Apple News. If I go on to Facebook, I have Facebook Instant Articles. If you go on to Snapchat, you have Snapchat Discover,” Bell told The Citizen.

“Traditional publishers are integrating into these platforms because they need their scale and revenue . . . They are hoping that revenue is going to be returned to them by doing that.

“The problem that American news outlets have is that revenue, in many cases, isn’t following and that control over the path your story takes to your reader, and your relationship with that reader, viewer or listener, is now out of your control.

“In America, there is an absolute feeling now that there is a lack of a space for public service journalism, which is really palpable, and you can feel the anxiety around that. Public media is not the only solution, but it is an important element in figuring out how we manage our way through a complicated and rapidly changing commercial, converged marketplace.”  Emily Bell

“It is clear in America that the market for journalism at some levels, particularly local levels, is failing and we’re not seeing anything from the new paradigm of control that gives us hope it’s being corrected.”

Titled “Live and Dangerous: Journalism and the Real-Time Social Web,” Bell’s wide-ranging lecture touched on President Trump’s Twitter-fuelled accusations of wiretapping by former President Barack Obama, the echo chamber of social media opinion and debates about so-called “fake news”.

The AN Smith lecture, named after one of the founders of the journalists’ union, the Australian Journalism Association, Arthur Norman Smith, was first presented in 1938.

Bell was originally scheduled to speak in October as part of the annual New News conference, but her talk was rescheduled due to ill health.

Dr Margaret Simons, the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, noted during a Q&A session that the extent of change in journalism could be seen in how much had happened in the short time since Bell was originally slated to speak — in particular, the US election.

At one point, Bell took aim at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s role in perpetuating false news stories after pointing out that fabricated stories outperformed real news stories on Facebook in the final stages of the US presidential campaign.

“Mark Zuckerberg has said he doesn’t want to be the ‘arbiter of truth’, which is lucky because at the moment that is a distant aspiration,” she said. “Perhaps a more achievable aspiration is not to be the enemy of truth either.”

However, Dr Bell softened those criticisms later, even reading from a 6000-word manifesto Mr Zuckerberg recently published on Facebook. Zuckerberg suggested that the election had forced a re-evaluation of the technology platform’s relationship with journalism.

“The advent of a President who calls the press ‘the enemy of the people’ has galvanised news organisations and handed them a mandate. We aren’t living in a world where facts and truth don’t matter anymore. People who care about democracy recognise this.” — Bell

“There is more we must do to support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable - from growing local news, to developing formats best suited to mobile devices, to improving the range of business models news organisations rely on,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote.

Despite the sometimes pointed criticisms of institutions and individuals, Bell nominated as a promising sign for American journalism the 300,000 new subscribers that the New York Times acquired in the last quarter of 2016. 

She attributed the spike to the “Trump bump” phenomenon, where news organisations being criticised by the administration had found themselves getting sudden spikes in subscribers or one-off donations.

“The advent of a President who calls the press ‘the enemy of the people’ has galvanised news organisations and handed them a mandate,” Bell said.

“We aren’t living in a world where facts and truth don’t matter anymore. People who care about democracy recognise this.”

Later, Bell tied this moment to her discussion of public broadcasters, calling for collective action in “understanding the complexity of the problems” at hand.

“We have an opportunity to make the right interventions to press for systems that favour sustainable journalism, but we have to be organised and we have to do it now,” she said.

 

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