21st century News: the problems and solutions

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The media today is in a state of flux. The word media itself covers a broad spectrum – from social media to print journalism, television broadcasting to blog posts – and there is much uncertainty as to how we process information and data in a complex technological world. Underpinning every platform or device, however, is one historic phenomenon that drives human intrigue and emotion; a force so common and omnipresent in our lives we don’t normally see it as something we as citizens or journalists produce and distribute.

The phenomenon, of course, is news.

News, news, news; sports, entertainment, politics, education – I could go on! News is what drives us to communicate, and what drives the media: a need to acquire, produce, consume and broadcast the happenings of the day. As of late, journalism’s role in creating the news has been under sharp scrutiny.

Notably, politicians and pundits’ questions of whether information is “fake” comes up almost every day on any news provider, with social media playing a fantastic role in complicating matters entirely – for reasons I will come back to.

Therefore, there is no better time for a brief synthesis of the problems, possible solutions and some of the remaining questions for those involved with journalism to answer. Of course, I am limited by both word count and experience to explain all of the issues facing journalism today; this should, and has been done, by media journalists such as the BBC’s Amol Rajan, whose recent Bob Friend Lecture covered similar issues to this essay, and demonstrates that a discussion of the challenges and opportunities for the media industry as a whole is certainly warranted in our current political, economic and technological climate. But with a particular focus on news, there are major issues facing all the key providers of information.

For traditional broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV, this has come in the form of impartial reporting.

Lord Adonis and Alastair Campbell are just two of the extreme centrists who claim there is a bias in reporting on issues such as Brexit, which has created some doubt over the objectivity of news reports.

I disagree with Adonis’ approach to addressing this relevant matter – he is aggressive and explosive on Twitter day-in, day-out – but he is right in that our news’ impartiality must be maintained, otherwise we risk falling into the Third World of television and radio reporting that we see in the U.S.; what you see on Fox isn’t news, it’s opinions.

The BBC in particular has recently being criticised for not challenging Lord Lawson on the radio over his views on climate change. An example, the left of politics would say, of how our news is being distorted by an establishment in Portland Place.

With a particular focus on news, there are major issues facing all key providers of information

If you have read left-wing critiques of Auntie, like Tom Mills’ scathing Myth of a Public Service published in 2016, it is not difficult to nit-pick examples of how the BBC may be “biased” or now the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”. However, we should not isolate discussions of impartiality to the traditional broadcasters – whose star journalists insist they are doing their job right, even if you don’t like the variety of views on display.

Newspapers, too, are in a crisis of news reporting. A crisis which is centred around the fact that people don’t seem like to the way they report news. Look at any major publication in the UK and none have reason to celebrate in terms of circulation numbers. A sign of the times, some may say, but a major public distrust of slandering politicians and subjective positioning on political issues seems to have made people not want to pick up the paper.

Admittedly, news can be done well by these old guns in the industry. Recent revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica, after all, came through a joint-project between newspapers and Channel 4 News.

Yet this one example does not hide the fact that people are becoming warier of opinionated news reports, often seen during any election in The Sun, The Daily Mirror, and The Daily Mail, and means that the whole of concept of what is “news” to these outlets has to be interrogated.

The elephant in the room when looking at issues in the news is social media. We all know the dangers associated with Facebook by now. But remember: at least Facebook doesn’t proclaim to be a “news” site. Twitter, meanwhile, perceive themselves as a source of news. And it is, more than any other social platform. Aside from the annoying bot accounts and the ever-expanding character count, the issue with Twitter and news is the concept of the site in the first instance. You, as you are entitled to, follow people with similar interests or opinions to yourself. Consequently, you can have an enjoyable experience on the site; but you also are in danger of creating an echo chamber of views that can then be used to shape your views on what the news really is.

Not everybody will agree with my assessment above, but there are solutions to how we report the news.

For traditional broadcasters, it perhaps comes with new and interesting ideas like changing the format of the news. While television news figures are declining, a recent report published by the Reuters Institute, calls for more “experimentation” in broadcasts – with the potential of British channels to maybe follow the snappy fifteen minute style of the extremely popular German newscasts. But this doesn’t solve the issue of how we secure impartial reporting.

It could be argued that since we are all arguing over the news broadcasts, that they are doing their job well. This could be true. In spite of this and Lord Adonis’ destruction of the credibility for a case into a fair review of Brexit coverage on broadcasters such as the BBC, I still believe that there should be a discussion about how news is reported and in what sense there is either a “balance” of views on a discussion programme or the accurate reporting of facts on a news bulletin.

Moreover, media editors like Rajan need to continue their job, but also make sure turn to their own employers’ coverage of issues. This was well done during the gender pay gap row by the BBC, but more can be done more often. There’s also a lot of talk of reinventing journalism; this is perhaps what I may be calling for in this piece. But arguably the strongest antidote to poor or shoddy journalism is the continued publishing of good journalism. The investigative work of The Observer and Channel 4 News shows this is something everyone appreciates.

The strongest antidote to poor or shoddy journalism is the continued publishing of good journalism

For social media, there does need to be some reinvention in the way in which they operate, or at least how they define themselves. Otherwise they can be dangerous digital platforms where there is the possibility regulation needs to be undertaken to sort the problems out.

Some may question why I have not mentioned President Trump, perceived to be a threat to news reporting in the Western world as we know it. This is because I don’t see Trump as a problem. Sales and viewing figures up for the likes of the New York Times and CNN; he has arguably made it more obvious to liberal America that accuracy is what they need in their daily briefing of news.

Some of the biggest questions facing journalism cannot be addressed in a thousand words. For me, however, the answer to how we establish a dialogue on these matters has come with relaunching the media society at Oxford. For all reasons outlined above, what better place to kick-start the debate on diverse and difficult challenges and opportunities?

Yes, this doesn’t answer all of the questions that those involved in journalism have to face. How, for example, can we ensure that accurate news reporting reaches every person in the country? Can we integrate this accurate reporting to our social media platforms? How do we stop fake news? Do we regulate Twitter? Is print journalism doomed? Is a paywall accessible for all who want good journalism in society? How do we deal with an enigma like Trump?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions, yet.

Nevertheless, as long as journalists ask the questions, we may get the answers sooner rather than later.