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Future of Journalism: Five Things Everybody Needs to Know

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is surrounded by members of the media as he arrives to testify before a Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees joint hearing regarding the company’s use and protection of user data, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1643A7EC00
Image: Reuters, Leah Millis

The five global trends are based on recent research conducted at the Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism. They reflect changes to the way people access news, transformations in professional journalism and the business of news, as well as changing political environments in some parts of the world.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Meera Selva

  • First, we have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences.
  • Second, this move to digital media generally does not generate filter bubbles. Instead, automated serendipity and incidental exposure drive people to more and more diverse sources of information.
  • Third, journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some countries, for the public’s trust.
  • Fourth, the business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures.
  • Fifth, news is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism in many cases better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

WHERE WE ARE WITH DIGITAL MEDIA AND JOURNALISM

Digital media have empowered people worldwide but also enabled the spread of disinformation and demagoguery and undermined the funding of professional journalism as we know it.

People increasingly rely on search engines, social media, and messaging applications, which help them access, discuss, and share news, but also risk exposing them to false or misleading information and malicious manipulation.

Recent elections in countries as diverse as Brazil, Italy, and the United States have demonstrated the continued relevance of journalism and how digital technologies empower people, but have also revealed weaknesses in our media environment, and shown how foreign and some domestic political actors seek to exploit them. Upcoming elections the European Union, India, and elsewhere are at risk as many of the problems we face seem to evolve faster than the solutions.

The resulting digitally accelerated turbulence challenges all established institutions, from governments and political parties to private companies and NGOs, and underlines the public role and responsibility of the platform companies that increasingly own and operate the infrastructure of free expression.

In this situation, independent professional journalism will be more important than ever in helping people understand the major challenges and opportunities facing us, from day-to-day local events to global issues.

But as the business of news changes, journalism also risks becoming less robust, and ultimately incapable of helping the public make sense of our times or holding power to account. This challenge is only compounded by increasingly open political hostility towards independent professional journalism, in the worst cases a veritable war on journalism.

Reporters without Borders noted that 2018 was ‘the worst year on record’ for violence against journalists, and according to Freedom House, 45% of the world’s population live in countries where the media are not free. ARTICLE 19 has documented a significant decline in global freedom of expression in the last three years, including mounting problems in countries with a strong history of liberal democracy and both democratically elected politicians and authoritarian leaders using the narrative of ‘fake news’ to openly attack the media and close down scrutiny of their policies and actions.

This combination of shifts in how people get their news and what media they use, transformations in professional journalism and the business of news, and change in the political environment that independent news media operate in pose risks that concern everybody.

In the absence of independent professional reporting providing accurate information, analysis, and interpretation, the public will increasingly rely on self-interested sources and rumours circulating online and offline, a shift that will hurt the political process, civil society, and private enterprise.

This report identifies five things everybody needs to know about the future of journalism from research done at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. These five trends will impact the work of professional reporters as well as everybody who works with them and relies on them, from the general public to politicians, NGOs, and private enterprise.

Precise developments differ from country to country, depending on the economic, political, and social context, especially as much of the world’s population is still offline and many governments do not ensure freedom of the press, but these five trends are global and cut across many of these differences.

The global move to digital, mobile, and platform-operated media means that journalism is more accessible than it has ever been. In high-income countries, more than half of all media use is now digital. More than half of digital media use is in turn mobile. And much of the time we spend with digital and mobile media is spent using products and services from platform companies like Facebook and Google.

This means anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection has access to a diversity of news almost unimaginable only a few years ago. It also means that the platform companies that people rely on when navigating digital and mobile media are increasingly important for how we access and engage with news and public life.

We have moved from a world of direct discovery, where media organisations controlled both content and channels, to a world increasingly characterised by distributed discovery, where media organisations still create content, but people access it through channels provided by platform products and services like search engines, social media, and news aggregators.

Digital media enable everyone with internet access to publish, resulting in an increasingly crowded media environment where news media increasingly compete for attention with everyone from ordinary users, more or less celebrity‘ influencers’, corporate communications, NGOs, social movements, and politicians.

Politcal parties and governments alike are actively trying to influence digital media discussions, sometimes by deliberately spreading disinformation (Bradshaw and Howard, 2018). But online discussions around, for example, elections are still heavily centred on established news media (Majó-Vázquez et al., 2017).

In this ever-more competitive battle for attention, speaking is not the same as being heard, and far from the death of gatekeepers, we have seen the move to two sets of gatekeepers, where news media organisations still create the news agenda, but platform companies increasingly control access to audiences.

While echo chambers exist, where highly motivated minorities self-select into insular news diets and like-minded communities, fears of algorithmically generated filter bubbles currently seem misplaced. While our own choices and preferences sometimes lead us to narrow information diets, technology seems to point in the opposite direction. There are opportunities here for journalists and publishers to pursue.

Empirical research thus consistently finds that search engines and a wide range of different social media including both Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube demonstrably drive people to use more different sources of news, including more diverse sources and sources they do not seek out of their own volition (Newman et al., 2018). In practice, most people only go directly to a few news sources on a routine basis, rarely more than three or four.

For most people, digital media use is thus associated with more diverse news use, but information inequality is a real risk, as is political polarisation – risks that are fundamentally rooted in political and social factors but can be amplified by technology.

Digital media give us access to more and more diverse information than ever before, and in this ever more intense competition for attention, journalism is at risk of losing out. While a small minority of news lovers are extremely interested in news and access news several times a day, a clear majority of the population is much less interested, and a far greater number of people access news less than once day. Segmented on the basis of interest in news and frequency of access, we can see that news lovers make up only 17% of the public, daily briefers about half (48%) and casual users, who access news less frequently than once a day, 35%.

Equally strikingly, in an era of unprecedented abundance and ease of access, journalism is facing widespread problems of ‘news avoidance’. In 2017, 29% of our survey respondents globally said they often or sometimes actively seek to avoid the news (Newman et al., 2017). People turn off the news because it feels irrelevant and depressing and does not help them live their lives; they often turn to entertainment or social media instead (Toff and Nielsen, 2018).

These differences are not only a function of competition for attention. They also reflect that much of the public is questioning whether journalism is in fact helping them in their lives and that people in many countries doubt whether they can trust the news.

Trust in news is also tied in with the issue of disinformation. While digital media and platforms are clearly central to current problems of disinformation, it is important to recognise that much of the public sees these issues very differently.

They identify poor journalism and hyperpartisan political content as just as pressing information problems as false and fabricated content pushed for profit or political gain (Newman et al., 2018).

Furthermore, while current discussions tend to focus on digital media, there is little difference in self-reported exposure to various kinds of disinformation between those who mainly consume news online and those who mainly consume news offline (Newman et al., 2018).

The wider crisis of confidence between many different institutions and much of the public, with low trust in journalism, politics, and business, creates the environment in which disinformation and populist demagogues can thrive. Attacks on journalism and news media by these, as well as other political and business leaders, can in turn further undermine trust (Duyn and Collier, 2018), demonstrating how trust in journalism is dependent both on trustworthy reporting and on a political context where public officials respect independent news media.

It is clear that cost-cutting, increased pressure to produce more stories across more channels/formats, and a 24/7 news cycle has led to a large volume of more superficial journalism. But the best is better than ever.

While some organisations have focused their resources and retained a commitment to accurate reporting and in-depth investigations, and recent years have seen several reminders of the power of journalistic revelations, many reporters have to produce many stories with little time, and some are left churning out clickbait from press releases and the like (Rusbridger, 2018).

Worryingly, even as many professionals working in complex organisations across business, government, and the non-profit sector specialise and know more and more about less and less, journalists are often forced to operate as generalists, and many know less and less about more and more.

At the same time, digital media have also allowed different marginalised voices to be heard and offer access to a far wider range of different sources and points of view. Journalists have embraced digital media and evolved various new formats, from deep engagement with readers over joint fact-checking work to cross-national collaborative investigative reporting, that are enabled by new technologies.There are more examples of inspiring innovation around the world than we can cover here, but it is worth highlighting how central digital media are to many impressive new initiatives in journalism.

Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live.

But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience. And the role of journalistic revelations in many different cases, in the #MeToo movement, in confronting corruption amongst public officials  in countries including India, South Africa, and elsewhere, and in fuelling public debate around platform companies’ power and privacy practices and other issues in the private sector, underline the continued importance of investigative reporting.

These five trends are global and important for journalists, but also for the public that relies on journalism, and for everybody who works with journalists, from politicians and NGOs to private enterprise. They will help define the future of journalism – more accessible as new platform products and services from augmented reality to voice assistants grow in importance to supplement search engines and social media; less robust as old business models built in twentieth-century media environments erode in twenty-first-century environments; more important than ever as we face complex global problems and the risks of unaccountable exercise of public or private power.

At its best, independent professional journalism can inform the public, help counter disinformation, contain populist demagogues, and help hold both public and private power to account. But a dearth of accurate, relevant, and unbiased reporting risks undermining trust in institutions, the political processes, and informed decision-making, and allows corruption and abuse of power to flourish.

That means strong journalism is essential for both the public good, politics, and private enterprise – it can help ensure that the rise of digital media and our current turbulence results not in chaos, but in change for the better.

To ensure this, journalists and news media need to continue to adapt to the digital media that people all around the world are eagerly embracing at the expense of print and broadcast, and build a profession and a business fit for the future. And we need collectively to protect journalists’ right to report and freedom of the media, in recognition that, at its best, independent professional journalism creates public value, and serves the public.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. He has done extensive research on journalism, news, digital media, political campaigns, and various forms of activism worldwide.

Meera Selva is Director of the Journalist Fellowship Programme at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. An accomplished senior journalist with experience in Europe, Asia and Africa, she has worked for the Associated Press, the Daily Telegraph, Handelsblatt Global, and the Independent.

  (Excerpts from “Five Things Everybody Needs to Know about the Future of Journalism”- Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism). Image: Reuters, Leah Millis)

 

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