Focus on values is essential for news media in trying times

By Dietmar Schantin

Institute for Media Strategies

London, United Kingdom

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In January 2006, a Chinese journalist named Li Changqing was sentenced to prison for reporting on an outbreak of dengue fever in Fujian province, where citizens had been kept in the dark by embarrassed local authorities. He was literally jailed for doing his job.

As the three-year imprisonment of Mr. Li illustrates, journalists acting in the public interest are often punished when they should be celebrated. History repeats itself, as we see today with the coronavirus pandemic. Journalists are repressed, threatened, and also detained if they report something certain authorities around the world don’t appreciate.

The brave act of “whistleblowing” or raising an alert has been punished by governments not only in China and other repressive regimes, but in western democracies as well, and this was long before the COVID-19 outbreak. Sadly, the desire to “kill the messenger” persists. But what better defines the role of journalism than alerting citizens to a health threat when authorities fail to act or try to cover up things, or when they simply are trying to avoid endangering their re-election?

The denigration of early warnings to the COVID-19 threat by world leaders, and the subsequent explosion of cases, attests to this.

As a reminder, here is what U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted on 9 March: “The Fake News Media and their partner, the Democratic Party, is doing everything within its semi-considerable power (it used to be greater!) to inflame the Coronavirus situation, far beyond what the facts would warrant. Surgeon General, ‘The risk is low to the average American.’”

Tens of thousands of deaths, social distancing and the widespread closure of businesses show the warnings were not exaggerated. Yet attacks like this have an impact, even when media accuracy is self-evident.

Many people question the motives and credibility of mainstream media. And granted, many people working in media haven’t done a very good job of defending journalistic values. Our societies simply take independent media for granted or, worse, think they are biased and untrustworthy. Attacks on the press are much louder than the defence.

At the same time, the collapse of the print and advertising business model, accelerated by the coronavirus shutdown, weakens the ability of media to carry out its role. This makes it imperative for news companies to radically transform into digital- and mobile-first operations and to find sufficient revenue so they can continue to do their job properly.

But before embarking on how to do so, media leaders have to better articulate to everyone in the organisation why such fundamental changes are needed. If we needed a reminder, the coronavirus provides it: News media exists to serve the community and to ensure the information citizens need to make informed decisions is provided — even in the face of resistance and attacks from authorities who prefer their version of reality is unchallenged.

The media is increasingly under attack, even from within news organisations.
The media is increasingly under attack, even from within news organisations.

Even within many newsrooms, this basic mission has been taken for granted, or subsumed, by the relentless pursuit of clicks and eyeballs. Sometimes uncomfortable hard news is being replaced with rewritten press releases, and links to videos of alligators on golf courses and kangaroos in backyards, that should not have a place on the news sites of any quality or broadsheet media brand. And all in a quest to increase audience at all costs by “giving people what they want.”

But these practices result from short-sighted and desperate strategies that aren’t based on hard evidence and fail to fully consider just why changes are needed at all.

The transformation of news media isn’t ultimately about profits or even simply meeting expenses. It Isn’t even about recognising that old ways of doing things are obsolete and audience habits have changed. And this change has accelerated even more in the past weeks.

It isn’t even about embracing new technology and providing more compelling stories on multiple platforms. If a newsroom begins the transformation process with a focus on how it will proceed and what needs to be done, rather than on why change is necessary, it is likely to produce a short-sighted strategy that will be resisted by newsroom personnel before it even begins.

The mission of news organisations hasn’t changed, but the mission and vision often take a backseat to the urgency of getting things done, doing more with less, and navigating the constantly changing world of digital. The vision is often difficult to articulate, and it is easier to focus on what we are going to do rather than on why we are doing it.

This allows the critical voices to overwhelm the mission of news media and impedes the ability of news companies to carry out their essential role in society. After all, why spend the time and effort and resources to develop and implement new business models and new newsroom practices if the potential audience — and even some in the newsroom itself — think the role of media is irrelevant or worse, and we get our “news” from other sources anyway?

What is the point of digital transformation if we don’t first reaffirm why it is important to continue and why there isn’t any other choice?

Creating the vision is one of the most crucial and most difficult things. Why do we exist? What is our mission? This is the inspiration at the heart of our work, and it bears repeating. In an age where news media is under attack everywhere, and even from within, the future begins with a reaffirmation of values.

Banner photo courtesy of William Iven from Pixabay.

About Dietmar Schantin

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