August 24, 2015

Journalism under fire

By Michael Lucy
Journalism under fire
Is there a war on journalism?

In The War on Journalism, Andrew Fowler shows us the many dangers that the practice of journalism (particularly investigative journalism) faces in the 21st century. A robust fourth estate is important, he argues, because an informed public is a basic requirement of democracy. While the book is rich in detail and anecdote, in broad strokes we can identify three main threats. They are closely intertwined, of course, and it’s a simplification (but perhaps a useful one) to pull them apart.

The first and perhaps most significant is the rise of the internet, which has threatened the survival of the organisations that have traditionally paid journalists to do journalism. The newspapers’ business model has been destroyed: the classified advertising that once provided the papers with “rivers of gold” has moved online, and readers have grown accustomed to getting news online for free. Essentially, as Eric Beecher and others have argued, the lucrative classified ads subsidised the production of “serious” journalism. As newspapers’ revenue has fallen, they have laid off staff to cut costs, and turned away from serious journalism in favour of tabloid-style clickbait to bring in readers. (A sad acknowledgement here is that large-scale serious journalism, which can act as a check on the power of the state and other vested interests, is perhaps not popular enough to survive without subsidy of some kind.)

The second threat comes from governments: since the attacks of 11 September 2001, governments across the world have become more and more hungry for information and control. (Their ability to gain this information and control has of course been massively increased by the rise of the internet.) In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “war on terror” more widely, governments called on journalists to keep their secrets in the interest of national security, and journalists often obliged. But this obsession with secrecy has spread into broader government practice (the refusal to talk about “on-water matters”, for example). Often the only way we find out what our governments are doing is when whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden speak out about what they have seen. Both Manning and Snowden have paid a high price for their revelations. Julian Assange, who facilitated their leaks, has also paid a price (though his situation is, well, complicated). Also, in Australia, the ABC – which, free of commercial pressures, might provide some of the missing serious journalism – is regularly under fire for irritating the government.

The third threat is largely a consequence of the first two: journalists have become too cosy with their subjects. When you don’t have the resources to do investigations, you become dependent on the information you are given. Politicians “drop” carefully chosen information to friendly journalists, who publish it in return for continued access to the politician. Journalists who ask too many hard questions might find themselves persona non grata. And at the same time, as journalists have learnt to identify with the interests of the state (for the purposes of national security, for instance), they identify less and less with their reading public.

So in summary, traditional news organisations (especially newspapers) are in possibly terminal decline. Our governments do not want us to know what they’re up to, and are prepared to take action against anyone who tells us. And where we hope that journalists will be fearless truth-seeking outsiders who serve the public, they are becoming more and more either clickbait producers or cosy insiders delivering PR messages from vested interests. As I said above, this is the picture Fowler paints in very broad strokes; there’s a lot I’ve left out (the huge distorting shadow of Murdoch that looms over Australian media for one), and counterexamples to these trends are not hard to find, though they don’t necessarily demonstrate that the trends don’t exist.

Is there hope for improvement in the future? For Fowler, perhaps not a great deal. A revivified public broadcaster might help, but otherwise journalism will depend on philanthropic largesse (like the Guardian and, from a certain point of view, the Australian), infusions of dotcom billions (the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, the Pierre Omidyar-funded Intercept), and relatively niche publications (the Economist, the Financial Times). None of these provide the mass reach and editorial independence of a lucrative newspaper of print’s golden age, of course, and it’s hard to see what might.

Still, some of the counterexamples that Fowler ignores do seem encouraging: the newspapers are not quite dead, and good journalism now occurs in strange places. Internet upstarts like Vice and Buzzfeed, having made their millions from prurience and listicles, have begun to throw resources into reporting and investigative journalism, and non-profits like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists are out there doing what they can. Part of Fowler’s problem may be that the public itself is more fractious and less homogenous than it may have been in the past – rather than a single public interest, journalism may now need to serve the varied and competing interests of many publics.

What do you think? Was journalism better in the olden days? Can we bring our governments back from their obsession with secrecy? What’s the best way to keep journalism viable? If you have answers, there are a lot of people who want to hear them.

This is a response to Andrew Fowler’s Talking Points session at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival. You can watch video of the session here and keep the conversation going in the comments below.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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