Dynamic coalition on the sustainability of journalism and news media

27 Nov 2019 16:40h - 18:10h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

The Internet plays a great role in journalism. From the production of content to its distribution, the Internet is an important tool for interacting with audiences all over the world, and a great source of information, especially in countries where public media is state run. Issues related to professional journalism and news media have been directly linked to the way different layers of the Internet are regulated and managed; as a result, the Dynamic Coalition of Sustainability of Journalism and News Media was launched.

Over the next year, the Dynamic Coalition will be looking at regulatory debates and provide research and advice for stakeholders to create an environment, online and offline, where independent journalism and media can both survive and thrive.

The coalition said that the media has changed with time. Like the revolution that came with the television, the media and news production and consumption were revolutionised with the rise of the global Internet. Because of digitalisation, the circulation of newspapers has dwindled. As media companies continue to adapt to digitalisation, they must continue to update their business models and find innovative ways to monetise content, but these changes threaten their focus – reporting the news. For some news and media organisations, the membership model works as an ethical means to support some forms of advertising (e.g. native advertising). Others have turned to philanthropy and donations to support their work.

Participants asked what the focus of the Dynamic Coalition should be. Should it focus on business models? Ethics? Equality? The crisis of journalism?

Citing the work of author and media scholar James W. Carey, participants highlighted his theory that communication is a ritual instead of as a transmission of messages (see his writing in Communication as Culture, 1988). For Carey, news is not just information, but also a form of drama; it does not only describe the world, but it also portrays an arena of dramatic focus and action. Some examples discussed by participants focused on how news channels are dramatic and entertaining, and how the action of liking content on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, have made image sharing and image-based reporting a new form of journalism. Others pointed out that local news is no longer focused on regional or community news, but is instead fed by Facebook.

Journalism and the media are further challenged by the rise in the use of mobile phones. This is due to the way the media is consumed by the public. For example, instead of waiting to watch a news bulletin or buy a newspaper during the day, mobile phones can notify the user via tweets or alerts as soon as the news is out.

For the Dynamic Coalition, the future of journalism is in the use and dissemination of effective narratives instead of simple news stories. This type of output is doing economically well, and reaching hundreds of millions of people.

‘Journalism is a form of communication that is realist as opposed to fictional’, said Dr Courtney Radsch (Advocacy Director, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)). ‘Journalism needs to get to its audience wherever it is and the designs of these platforms are going to affect how you do journalism.’ He said that these new media platforms will affect what is being written about and how. Since data has evolved into a new form of social currency, and the vision of growth and the Internet has created the idea that surveillance capitalism is one of the dominant logics of the modern era, the media has figured out how to use data, and how to compete in the surveillance capital system.

The discussion then turned to issues like combatting disinformation. ‘There is an asymmetry between government actors or wealthy actors who are able to buy botnets and buy social media manipulation, whether it’s elected leaders as in the United States, Brazil, India, or whether you create armies, as in China and Iran, to manipulate social media. How are journalists supposed to compete in this information environment?’ asked Raj. Content moderation has also become an enormous issue for journalism due to the introduction of algorithms that make choices that are determined by platforms or governments, and not the journalists themselves.

Another challenge facing journalists is their safety. The number of journalists that have been imprisoned around the world is increasing, with 577 of those being Internet journalists. This means that journalists must find ways to protect themselves in both the physical space and online. Journalism platforms also face threats and attacks. This requires more funding to protect platforms and design new means of defending them, using encryption or privacy protections. One issue the Dynamic Coalition sees is governance. This is witnessed in recent actions by some countries to develop legislative frameworks that criminalise false news and introduce cybercrime bills, while in others, journalists are being imprisoned. For journalism to survive and thrive in the digital age, you need a conducive national legal and regulatory framework. The Dynamic Coalition aims to support capacity building and share best practices.

While media disruption is more of a structural crisis rather than an individual one. There is a concern that journalists are not able to reach their potential because the media infrastructure is not prepared for them. As a result, this has lead career journalists to retire from the industry, leaving young people to be the drivers and developers of journalism in most parts of the world.

Newsrooms have also faced challenges around salaries and the economic incentives needed to keep journalistic talent, but also to meet the requirements of their business model. This means that newsrooms must decide whether they are going to hire social media experts or journalists. They are also at the mercy of decisions around algorithmic changes when social media platforms, such as Facebook, make changes to the structure of their news feeds or change the visibility rules around different types of content. The decisions made by platforms and how they are communicated to the public have a real economic impact on the news media and on the journalists who must make decisions about where to devote their resources and how to adapt to those changes.

Similarly, multilingualism and linguistic diversity have arisen as important issues for Internet accessibility, relating it to the right to access to information which calls for the improved ability of local communities to access information that is important to their lives and specific to their communities.

In all, during this meeting, the Dynamic Coalition highlighted many issues that influence the sustainability of journalism and news in digital spaces, and recognised that they are complicated. For the members of the coalition, the challenge will be to pick the projects that will make the biggest impact.

By Mili Semlani