Still believe you are delivering “objective” journalism? That your reporters tell neutral stories, balancing different opinions and staying impartial?
Welcome to reality: They try, but they fail. And sometimes they don’t even try.
For those media companies who haven’t shaped up by then, digital doomsday is here.
While this industry is struggling to monetise quality journalism, there is an obvious risk that strategy discussions will become finance-focused, that we’ll forget the deeper values that are the true success factors when it comes to attracting future customers.
If your organisation’s long-term purpose is not clearly defined, you risk not only stagnation (in a time when rapid ability to adapt to change is business critical), but also you might end up with individual staff members creating their own purposes. And few of them will put the interest of the audience – or your company – first.
Some of this behaviour derives from personal agendas.
I know a case in which the reporter hid the fact that he was a suspect in a criminal inquiry. Saving face was more important than informing the public.
In another recent case, the reporter acted as the main source in her own article. To gain time, one would assume.
But not all deviations are on purpose like the above examples. The most difficult ones to address are the unconscious ones. Spreading stereotypes, for instance, or just adapting to what some communication theoreticians would refer to as “the dominant code.”
Values, opinions, and power structures that dominate in a society become “invisible,” and many journalists – just like their audiences – lose the critical perspective.
I’ll give you a concrete example I sometimes use when lecturing. It’s about money.
This topic is either treated positively, as in this headline from the Telegraph: “‘We’re all happy now.’ says £148 million lottery winner.”
Or negatively, as in this example from CNN: “HSBC CEO made $11 million in scandal-hit year”
Why is money that is bestowed upon us by chance better than what’s earned through hard work?
Voilà, a topic for an interesting editorial conference!
We are not settling this complex ethical topic here, but I hope you follow my line of reasoning.
These discrepancies in our day-to-day delivery will be out in the open when Big Data and analytics are everywhere and presented to us in simple and easy-to-grasp visualisations.
Our choices – even the bad ones – will be obvious. And by then it will be obvious to everyone that transparency goes hand in hand with accountability.
So, the connected world is pulling in on us. Our credibility is at stake.
What is the remedy?
- A lively internal debate on what values steer our day-to-day choices (of interview subjects, content mix, news angles, etc). Don’t limit this discussion merely to content, but also how you sell.
Does everyone get the same discounts, and do we exploit user data without prior consent from our customers?
- Analytics to support that discussion – and to warn us when we deviate (“too few people from the target group appear in what has been published the last 24 hours,” or “you are favouring politician X by angling all stories about her positively,” etc).
- Courageous editors who won’t back down from that difficult discussion with the editorial staff on the necessity of re-writing or re-editing the story or the video that did not meet the standards.
This is tedious work. It takes time. It seems extremely costly in the short run.
But viewed from a long-term perspective, it might be the most important investment you can make right now.
I don’t believe in neutrality. I believe journalism is purpose-driven. But this purpose should not be to bring down a powerful public figure on weak evidence just to advance a reporter’s career.
The purpose is public service (no, broadcast cannot monopolise that term) – to build a stronger community and democracy, a sustainable and better world.
I believe in value-based journalism as one of the sharpest tools to get us there.