Three-D Issue 31: Government reviews and inquiries: why we should use our academic voice

Since I submitted evidence to the Cairncross review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism in September, I’ve read two very different pronouncements about the role of academia in public debate that have strengthened my conviction that such interventions by academics are more important than ever. The first was a thought provoking article by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen entitled “No One Cares What We Know”. He gave a diagnosis of why political communication scholars have been conspicuous in their absence in public discussions about recent events where political communication has played an important role – Trump, Brexit, populism, disinformation, to name but a few. The second, was the transcript of former Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre’s farewell speech to the Society of Editors in which he made the case that the ‘good’ work of the British popular press outweighs its occasional ‘mistakes’, seeking to put it above criticism (from academia and elsewhere), before ridiculing the academic study of journalism as ‘ludicrous’ and tainted by a left wing bias. Or, to put it another way, he added another element to the diagnosis – no one should care what we know because our knowledge isn’t credible. At the same time, universities and academia have been under greater scrutiny than usual for a range of reasons that are likely to cloud public perceptions of the undoubtedly valuable contribution academic research makes to society – a lack of student diversity, unprecedented strike action, accusations of sexism, inadequate mental health and wellbeing services, encouraging a ‘snowflake’ culture, and VC salaries. Moreover, at a time when journalism, its definition and its very purpose seems under constant question, academic contributions give vital shape to the discursive construction of what journalism can and should be.

Nielsen’s insights into the reasons behind the absent voice of political communication are equally applicable to journalism studies. Talking mainly of the skills required by effective ‘primary definers’, he points to the external dynamics of engagement through the media that academia finds so challenging before turning to the internal dynamics of the field that steer us even further away from engaging in debates outside academia. These include that public engagement gets pushed to the margins due to an emphasis and higher value assigned to inward facing academic work (not to mention a trillion and one other competing demands on our time). Yet if the field is to prove its value in response to those who share Dacre’s view, it is essential that we put our wealth of empirical research and expertise to good use by contributing to inquiries and reviews into contemporary issues in our field. If we don’t then our expertise is not just lost, our absence works to amplify the voices of others who more often than not have vested interests, and almost certainly will not provide the kind of considered, evidence based knowledge such as that generated by academics. While there is not space to diverge into debates about normativity and values in research, this latter type of empirically informed understanding is crucial in countering criticisms of political bias.

The absence of academics from the panel of experts appointed to support Dame Frances Cairncross further highlights the propensity to overlook academic expertise. Despite a press release claiming the panel would “include experts in the fields of journalism, academia, advertising and technology”, the final panel predominantly represents the mainstream news industry, with academics only invited to contribute through the call for evidence. Further affirmation that ‘no one cares what we know’ despite a public declaration of an intention to listen, and enough to serve as a tipping point and convince me of my responsibility to ensure that academic voices are not excluded.

The call for evidence asked for responses to specific questions. My contribution focussed specifically on the provision of local news to address four out of the six questions where my research makes the strongest contribution. Here is a summary.

Are different approaches needed for different parts of the market (e.g. national and local; general and special interest news)? and, Where, at all, should any intervention be targeted?

If the review’s recommendations are to move us any closer to the stated aim to ensure the “high quality” journalism that underpins “democratic political discourse” it cannot overlook the special status of local news. Local news is a special case and the sustainability of high-quality news provided by the local press should be considered alongside the sustainability of a democratically functioning local news media ecology. The review should not consider local newspapers in isolation from other local news providers. News is no longer consumed or produced in the distinct platform silos of newspapers, radio and TV. Research points to the demand for joined up policy and regulation, which considers the future of the local press in the context of the broader local media ecology including all forms of online news.

Do you consider that the future of high-quality journalism in the UK is at risk – at national, regional and/or local levels?

In addition to stating and providing evidence to support my claim that there is no doubt that high-quality journalism at the local level is in flux and under threat, I urged the review to carefully consider the definition and the scope of what they termed ‘high-quality journalism. Without specifying what the review defines as high-quality journalism it is difficult to establish what needs to be safeguarded. The value of local journalism lies in the normative functions commonly attributed to news in liberal democracies. Journalists should inform local citizens about local issues, be representative of the opinions and voices of citizens, hold governing bodies and organisations to account on behalf of citizens (the watchdog role), and proactively campaign on matters of public interest (Barnett, 2009; McNair, 2009). Importantly, these functions may well differ from the journalism that guarantees commercial success and requires us to consider local journalism in the public interest as a public good, even if not funded in this way. In addition, these functions are not only fulfilled by the press, which points to the need to consider solutions for local news provision more holistically (in relation to news ecologies), not only in terms of measures to support local newspapers. The combination in local news ecologies of a free press, television news with public service broadcasting obligations, and commercial radio is already failing to meet the needs of local citizens. The BBC and ITV regional television news are not set up to address any of the failings of the local press. They are not local news providers. Their regional remit along with limited airtime limits the stories and localities they can cover. Their valuable regulatory requirement to provide impartial news prevents them intervening in debates and providing opinions that are a necessary part of public deliberation.

Pre-empting their consideration of whether citizen journalists and hyperlocal news can fill the gap, I drew on my own and other research to argue that citizen journalists and hyperlocal news providers are perceived to add a valuable set of new voices to the news ecology, but the perceived democratic value of these voices is limited by their reach, motivations, professional values, and sustainability. My comparison of emerging forms of local journalism with mainstream news media has shown that new news forms are not yet seen as fulfilling or replacing any of the democratic roles of news that are in decline in the mainstream media (Firmstone, 2016, Firmstone and Coleman, 2015). New entrants online tend to be hyperlocal (serving very small communities), serve niche audiences, have aims and values that differ from professional journalists, and face far greater threats to their sustainability than the press. Any value that such entrants add cannot be relied upon to replace what is being lost due to the precarious nature of most of their funding models. In addition, the contribution of the 23 new local TV stations to ‘high-quality’ news is questionable. Many have already retreated from requirements to provide local news and add little by way of plurality or diversity with news that replicates that already provided by the BBC and ITV.

The review’s objective is to establish how far and by what means we can secure a sustainable future for high-quality journalism, particularly for news. Looking ahead to 2028, how will we know if we have been successful, in relation to: a) publishers b) consumers.

In focussing only on publishers and consumers the review is too narrowly focussed on safeguarding the commercial success of the local press. If it is accepted that local news is also a public good then the review must also consider success through the lens of the needs of consumers as citizens. In order to engage, local citizens therefore need access to high quality news that they can trust. Shaker (2014) has highlighted the problematic consequences of the closure of local newspapers in the USA where he found a correlation between the absence of local newspapers and falls in civic engagement. The crisis of public trust in the news media is well documented yet it is often overlooked that citizen’s trust local media more than national news. Secondly, there are a range of additional stakeholders in local communities who rely on a quality and trusted local media in order to communicate with citizens. Local councils and other stakeholders need a strong local news media because it remains the dominant and most trusted way of communicating with citizens. Local authorities, the police, and non-governmental organisations are geographically rooted in localities by their remits and the people they serve. They have a strong need to communicate with local publics – and with the decline and changes in local news media they are finding it increasingly difficult to do so.

Finally, I recommended that the independence and recommendations of the review panel would be bolstered by the appointment of academics and representatives of newly emerging small community publishers to supplement the views of the existing industry orientated panel. Further, the government should work closely with the research councils to ensure that funding streams are available to support future academic work to objectively evaluate the success of any policies that are enacted.

Posted by Einar Thorsen