Chapter 4 - What distinguishes the news media and why it matters

Discussion

How do the theory and new reality match up?

In the preceding discussion we have briefly rehearsed the traditional arguments supporting the roles the news media play in a modern democracy. We have argued that in order to carry out these roles effectively the news media must be independent and free of political and unjustifiable legal constraints. They must have access to Parliament and the courts and other institutions exercising power over the public. Recognising the importance of these functions, the news media have been granted special legal privileges and exemptions.

We then considered the implications of this civic dimension of news reporting for the way media organisations operate and for the practice of journalism. In order to be useful news must be reliable. Reporting processes need to be accurate, fair and transparent. Journalists and their employers need to be independent of those they cover and conflicts of interest made apparent.

Finally, we discussed the need for accountability. Media organisations that purport to provide reliable and authoritative accounts of what is happening in the world exert significant power in society. This power must be exercised responsibly and the news media called to account when it is abused.

The chief purpose of this review is to consider whether this system of privileges, matched by countervailing responsibilities and accountabilities, should be extended to some of the emerging web based publishers who are engaged in news-like activities. This task presents a number of practical and philosophical challenges.

To begin with, it has to be acknowledged that some of the assumptions which underpin the system of media rights and responsibilities we have rehearsed in this chapter are open to challenge.

While democracies all over the world acknowledge the critical role of a free press as a watchdog on power, it has largely been left to the free market to deliver this “public good” and, as Curran points out, the corporatised media of today is a very different beast to the pioneering public affairs newspapers of 18th century England.96

By contrast, media systems in the early twenty-first century are given over largely to entertainment. Even many so-called ‘news media’ allocate only a small part of their content to public affairs – and a tiny amount to disclosure of official wrongdoing. In effect the liberal orthodoxy defines the main democratic purpose and organisational principle of the media in terms of what they do not do most of the time.

Events unfolding within the British media at the time of writing tend to reinforce Curran’s contention that in an era of the conglomeration of news media “the market can give rise not to independent watch dogs serving the public interest but to corporate mercenaries which adjust their critical scrutiny to suit their private purpose.”97

Kovach and Rosenstiel raise similar concerns about the sublimation of the “public interest” function of journalism within the burgeoning entertainment industry and question whether “press freedom” may be used as a Trojan horse to advance purely commercial ends:98

[C]onglomeration and the idea behind much corporate synergy in communications - that journalism is simply content, or all media are indistinguishable - raise another prospect. The First Amendment ceases to imply a public trust held in the name of a wider community. Instead it lays claim to special rights for an industry akin to the antitrust exemption for baseball. In this world, the First Amendment becomes a property right establishing ground rules for free economic competition, not free speech.

At the same time there are indications that public trust in the news media – something we have argued is fundamental to both the news media’s commercial success and its public utility – has become increasingly strained.

Prior to the News of the World phone hacking scandal in 2011, there were already indications that trust in the media in some parts of the world was declining sharply. An independent review by Britain’s Media Standards Trust cites public research showing a significant decline in public trust in journalism across a range of mastheads including “up-market” newspaper brands.99 The report also examined the impact of the internet, economic pressures and competition on accuracy and professional standards.

Similarly in Australia recent public opinion polling has shown significant declines in public trust in media. The 2011 Essential Report showed wide variations in the public perception of the trustworthiness of different media brands with public broadcaster ABC retaining its perception of trustworthiness but declining levels of trust in commercial television news and current affairs and radio.100

We are not aware of any recent large scale independent survey of public trust in New Zealand news media. However a broad ranging review of the Press Council undertaken by Sir Ian Barker and Professor Lewis Evans in 2007 included a small-sample public survey with a question about perceptions of news media accuracy. The respondents were evenly divided on whether or not they considered the New Zealand press “does a good job of providing accurate accounts of events in news stories.”101

The conflation of commercial interests with free speech rights and questions over the news media’s trustworthiness inevitably muddy the debate around the news media’s role in society and whether and how the industry should be organised commercially and regulated.

Arguably though the greater challenge to the idea that the news media are a special class of publisher is external rather than internal. It comes of course from the internet and the democratisation and decentralisation of publishing enabled by the read/write culture of the web.

In theory at least, the public no longer need depend on the news media to provide “a clear and truthful account of events, of their background and their causes; a forum for discussion and informed criticisms; and a means whereby individuals and groups can express a point of view and advocate a cause” as prescribed by the British Royal Commission on the Press half a century ago.

Thanks to the web, there are now a multiplicity of sources via which citizens can inform themselves about what is happening in the world and literally millions of forums in which they can express opinions and “advocate a cause”.

In a special report on the future of news published in July 2011, The Economist argued that with the advent of social media, the news industry is coming “full circle”, returning to its discursive origins in the public houses and markets of the pre-industrial era where information and robust opinions were shared horizontally rather than vertically.102

This change, they argued, was altering the very character of news:103

News is also becoming more diverse as publishing tools become widely available, barriers to entry fall and news models become possible, as demonstrated by the astonishing rise of the Huffington Post, WikiLeaks and other newcomers in the past few years, not to mention millions of blogs. At the same time news is becoming more opinionated, polarised and partisan, as it used to be in the knockabout days of pamphleteering.

These changes could be seen to undermine the rationales for treating the news media as a special class of publishers. Instead, some might argue all publishers should perhaps be subject only to the minimum legal constraints on free speech which apply to everyone and be accountable only to their readers and the market with respect to standards. We return to these arguments in chapter 6 where we discuss the various regulatory options.

However, in our view The Economist’s prediction that “the mass-media era now looks like a relatively brief and anomalous period that is coming to an end”104 remains at least arguable.

While citizen journalism and participatory media may be producing new forms and giving voice to new players, the reality is that the internet and web 2.0 have also provided a platform by which traditional media companies have been able to grow audiences and create global brands with unprecedented reach and power.

The fact that newspaper revenues and paid circulation in many western nations are in terminal decline does not mean that these audiences have been lost.

For example figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations Electronic show that leading newspaper websites in Britain and the United States are drawing between 30 and 80 million unique monthly visitors. In Britain the most popular news website, the Mail Online receives 1.7 million average daily visitors.

Similarly, as discussed in chapter 2, online market research shows that a very significant proportion of New Zealand’s adult population continues to rely on traditional news services, including print, radio and television, as their primary source of local news – albeit often now accessed via new media channels, including third party aggregators and social media sites.105

Hence, while traditional newspaper and broadcast companies are without doubt confronting major challenges to their business models as a result of the shift to web, they continue to dominate the news market as a result of their ability to coalesce mass audiences.

Commentators argue that given the low barriers to entry on the web, the mainstream media’s monopoly on mass markets can now be quickly replicated by new players. The Huffington Post, for example, began life in 2005 and by the time it was sold to AOL in 2011, had eclipsed the New York Times in terms of unique monthly browsers. YouTube is another example of a content curator with an unprecedented ability to focus and engage global attention on content published on its site.

However these examples fail to acknowledge the distinctions and dependencies between many new media players and the traditional press. The Huffington Post, for example, relied very heavily in its initial stages on aggregating and commenting on the news generated by its competitors in the traditional media. Similarly, traffic to user-generated content published on YouTube is frequently driven via mainstream media.

Michelle Grattan, political editor of Fairfax Media’s Melbourne daily newspaper, The Age discussed the ambiguity of the diversity of new publishing models in a July 22 column:106

Like many other media issues, diversity is a simple concept that’s complex in reality. The expansion of digital platforms (by both the main media owners and others), endless websites and blogs have increased diversity. That’s good. But mostly this is not diversity based on the ability to gather news.

In general, the heavy-hitting media power remains in the hands of a very small number of media companies; in Australia concentration is very high. For example News Ltd has about 70 per cent of our newspaper readership market.

Within this new media ecosystem there exists a complex and evolving symbiosis between new and traditional media.

In the introduction to this Issues Paper we described the critical role that the publishing platform provided by Facebook played in fomenting the Arab Spring. We also discussed the phenomenon of WikiLeaks and the impact of this and other whistle blower sites on governments and citizens.

However, in both these instances mainstream media outlets played a critical role in amplifying, verifying and analysing the information released to the world.

The Economist makes reference to this growing interdependence between old and new media in its analysis of the Arab uprising. It describes how a Tunisian protest video posted on Facebook was spotted by journalists working for Al Jazeera, the influential Qatar based broadcaster, who then broadcast the images on air.

The Economist cites Middle Eastern media expert, Marc Lynch, who believes in this instance social media depended on the power and reach of Al Jazeera to realise its potential:107

Social media spread images of protesters in Tunisia that might otherwise have been suppressed by the regime, but it was the airing of these videos on Al Jazeera…which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realised what was happening.

In much the same way Julian Assange worked in partnership with some of the world’s leading traditional news media brands, including the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel in releasing a tranche of United States diplomatic cables.

In this way Assange was able make use of the agenda-setting qualities of these highly credible mass-market news brands and to draw on their staff’s analytical and editorial skills, allowing the public to make sense of the information that was being released.

But as The Economist notes, in the wake of the latest release of documents Assange has undertaken a strategic reassessment of WikiLeak’s position in the media spectrum. Instead of a mere conduit for the release of data, WikiLeaks now describes its activities as journalism, describing its staff as journalists and Assange himself as its editor-in-chief.

Significantly, from the perspective of this review, Assange’s assumed motivation for this repositioning is to ensure WikiLeaks is able to take advantage of the First Amendment press protections and the legal privileges, including the ability to protect its sources, which are reserved for traditional journalists.

James Curran Media and Power (Routledge, London, 2002) at 219.

Ibid, at 221.

Kovach & Rosentiel The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Three Rivers Press, Random House, New York, 2007) at 18.

Media Standards Trust: “A More Accountable Press Part 1: “The Need for Reform: is self-regulation failing the press and the public?” (2009) < www.mediastandardstrust.org >.

Essential Media “Trust in Media: Essential Media Communications Report 110725 (25 July 2011) www.essentialmedia.com.au >.

Ian Barker and Lewis Evans Review of the New Zealand Press Council (prepared for the Press Council 2007) Appendix V at [139].

Special Report: The News Industry “The people formerly known as the audience” The Economist (9 July 2011).

Ibid, at 16.

Ibid.

Analysis of online sites visited by New Zealanders in May 2011 by global digital measurement and marketing company comScore, showed that of the potential 2.8 million internet users in this country (aged 15 +)  96%  had accessed a newspaper website. This was twice the global average reach for news sites. New Zealanders also spend significantly longer on news websites compared with the global average. APN & Media’s nzherald site and Fairfax Media’s Stuff site lead the news sites by a large margin, both reaching about two thirds of the potential online audience. 

Michelle Grattan “Pressing news to discuss” The Age (Australia, 22 July 2011) < www.theage.com.au/.../pressing-news-to-discuss-20110721-1hqtt.ht >.

Mark Lynch “Tunisia and the New Arab Media Space” (2011) FP Foreign Policy < www.foreignpolicy.com >.