Three-D Issue 31: Earning trust “story by story”: Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age

Ulster University – along with the UK press regulatory body, Impress, and the Policy Network of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) – jointly hosted a symposium event at its Belfast campus: “Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age”. Keynote speakers were Jonathan Heawood (Chief Executive Officer, Impress) and Peter Feeney (Press Ombudsman, Press Council of Ireland).

The event began with a welcome by Dr Phil Ramsey (Lecturer, School of Communications and Media, Ulster University; Chair, MeCCSA Policy Network) and a short video on the work of Impress, introduced by Clodagh Rice (Business Reporter, BBC Northern Ireland).

Jonathan Heawood argued that traditional news sources are being replaced by social media, alternative facts, and “fake news”. His explanation was clicks and tapping on links to generate advertising revenue for the platforms: “Clicks are the oil of this new economy.” Heawood said that it is relatively easy to create a digital publication with attention grabbing (but untrue) headlines, compared to a news organisation with professional journalists, where it could take months before you can publish quality copy and years before making any money: “Real journalism takes time!”

He argued that sometimes the market doesn’t deliver news stories, and mooted a “News Funding Council”, which would support organisations where the market fails. Heawood suggested that to be eligible for such funding, a media organisation would have to demonstrate the upholding of professional standards, how it deals with complaints, and agree to an arbitration process with unresolved issues. He made the case that organisations that can submit themselves to such scrutiny are giving something back to the public, as a way of earning its trust. Heawood added that it’s fair enough for news readers to be skeptical; it is up to media organisations to earn the public’s trust, “day by day, story by story”.

Peter Feeney said that Facebook and Google are victims of their own success, in that they started with a declaration that they are not publishers, “but that has to end”. He gave an example of a harassment case, where redress to Facebook is by email only: “How can Facebook in California understand the context of complaints sent from Dublin?” Feeney argued that Facebook’s policy of prohibiting advertising during Ireland’s recent referendum on the 8th Amendment is a self-acknowledgement that it is a player in public discourse.

He also discussed how social media can increase pressures on journalists to run with a story even if it hasn’t been thoroughly fact checked, for fear of a competitor publishing first. This point was also raised during the question and answer session, when a health professional expressed her frustration of fielding calls from journalists, who then publish articles with incomplete information and/or context.

Rice then chaired a panel discussion, which included Yvette Shapiro (journalist and broadcaster), Brian Pelan (VIEW Digital), Maeve Connolly (Irish News), and Milne Rowntree (Ulster University).

Yvette Shapiro reflected on her time as a journalist thirty years ago compared to now – fewer staff, barren office space, less coverage. Whereas before you could develop a story, now there’s no time: “There is the licking of flames around your feet!” It is an uncomfortable landscape to work in, she remarked.

Yet to try to encourage those interested in a career in journalism, including those in tonight’s audience, she suggested four traits they should have: curiosity, courage, commitment, and resilience.

In his presentation, Brian Pelan highlighted the role of bias – one’s own bias – in how each of us looks at the news. It explains why Trump supporters believe what he says, “even if the facts ridicule what he says at the same time”.

In our digital age, Pelan said, on social media platforms you will find truths, lies, smears, “and incessant noise of keyboard warriors who often produce horrendous sexist and racist garbage … the sort of material that would be dumped in any self-respecting newsroom”.

Pelan quoted former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, who remarked in 2003 – pre-social media – that opinion polls indicated that only 13-18% of the population trusted newspapers. The difference between then and now, Rusbridger argues, is a loss of “innocence”; how much scandal within mainstream media, combined with the emergence of social media and its disruption to the advertising business model, has challenged the concept of news in the public interest.

Maeve Connolly described how the Irish News is trying to address this challenge via its digital operations. It uses social media to build a community around its brand, as well as a source of information and user generated content. Social media also serves as a convenient way of distributing content globally (but recognises the vulnerability of Facebook’s periodic algorithm changes). The Irish News also has a metered paywall structure, “to show that journalism is worth paying for”.

In designing the modules for the BA degree in Journalism at Ulster University, Milne Rowntree explained how he finds out what students are looking for, as well as from those currently in the journalism industry. He defended the print focus, i.e. writing stories, so as students can learn how “to put thoughts into words”. Rowntree then progresses students onto audio (radio and podcasting) and visual mediums.

Rowntree argued that regardless how social media and digital platforms evolve, and regardless of business model, three characteristics that distinguishes journalism are: accuracy, legality, and ethics.

During the question and answer session, a student asked how these three points were upheld, or not, during the trial of rugby player, Paddy Jackson, earlier this year. Brian Pelan remarked that journalists were accurately, legally, and ethically reporting on what was actually said during the trial hearings: “And yet people on social media were criticising this. You’d be called in by the judge … if you were saying words that weren’t in open court.” Yvette Shapiro replied that indeed the case underlined the need for professional journalism to hold the line and keep standards high, otherwise you end up chasing viewers (via click bait) and drive standards down.

Máire Messenger Davies (Professor Emeritus, Media Policy, Ulster University) thanked all of the participants. She said that she was passionate about creating “educated consumers of media” and the need for all to become media literate.

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