Is the decline of traditional media and substantive news reporting and the rise of news through social media harming our democracy?

Is the decline of traditional media and substantive news reporting and the rise of news through social media harming our democracy?

Dave Hardy’s abbreviated 17 February 2015 presentation to:  Why Should I Care? http://whyshouldicare.ca

The topic tonight is timely in light of the 6 month suspension of Brian Williams for exaggerating taking on fire in Iraq in 2003 and the demise of Sun Media.  Williams’ suspension showed me how important it was for NBC to maintain public trust through truth telling and factual reporting.

The demise of Sun Media prompted Liberal commentator Warren Kinsella[1] to state he was disgusted by the gleeful celebration by some people on Twitter and by the loss of 200 media jobs.  True to form, Kinsella’s comments prompted 47 pages of commentary from bloggers and tweeters.

My remarks focus on the premise that there is a substantial reduction in substantive news in relation to the health of our democracy.  I will comment as a non-journalist.  And, as a professional urban planner.

So, what are we to make of the flood of public opinion that now competes against traditional media news stories?

My good friend, and professional communicator, Brian Smith[2] observes that in society we believe that freedom of speech leads to truth.  So we don’t muzzel Jenny McCarthy when she shares the opinion that vaccination is a cause of autism in children.   For the health of our democracy we allow people to express their views.

Yet having 500 internet bloggers providing opinion with little or no research bumps into the historical views that we’ve developed in North America about what constitutes responsible journalism.

The underlying premise of responsible journalism is, substantive news is produced by professional journalists, (they are expected to do fact checking and print or tweet corrections if the facts are wrong) and that in turn supports the health of our democracy.  We expect journalists to disseminate quality information.  In contrast, Kinsella states, “…bloggers and tweeters don’t generate actual news – they just comment on it.  They offer opinions on someone else’s work.  Someone else’s journalism.”[3]

It’s not the job of bloggers and tweeters to correct falsehoods.  Although, there’s an uncomfortable amount of evidence showing professional journalists accepting facts and tweets without verification.  Perhaps with cuts to media budgets this will increase.

A second supporting premise is, responsible journalism separates the front page and the editorial page.  With the rise of social media, opinion gets through as front page journalism.  Whereas, in the past, opinion was filtered because it came through the funnel of traditional news organizations.

The third premise is, it’s the role of traditional media, according to Mark Little[4], Founder and Director of Innovation at Storyful, “to separate the news from the noise”.  Before the rise of social media, members of the public could check the integrity of news stories because they were following 5 journalists.

Little states the job of traditional journalists is to “filter the flood of competing narratives and to connect the most authentic voices to the widest possible audience.[5]  Society now has to scrutinize stories and facts produced by those 500 assorted bloggers, tweeters and journalists.  Author Nate Silver[6], states, “We face danger [in our democracy] whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it.”

Fourth, when matters are unclear, we expect traditional journalists to report that there are facts that need to be sorted out and to provide a nuanced tempered opinion when that is called for.

In contrast, bloggers don’t need to report that there are facts that need to be sorted out or that there is nuanced opinion about what characterizes the truth.  Nor do they need to consider the importance of reasoned debate toward identifying decisions that best represent the public interest.

We now have journalists, citizen journalists and activists communicating the news.  Hundreds of people have the same tools as traditional media but they are not bound by the tenets of journalistic responsibility.  They don’t need to buy into the principles of objectivity and fact checking.

On the other hand, perhaps there is some merit in saying that social media as a whole may also contribute to the health of our democracy.  What does social media do well?

In the past there was less transparency and decision makers didn’t necessarily have to take the broad public interest into account.  Why would they?  Who’s watching?

The point is, for some issues we need more voices not fewer to keep the political class accountable.  With Twitter, Instagram, Tumbler and Facebook, decision makers are conscious that someone is talking about their actions and decisions.  Using (or misusing) a Margaret Thatcher quote, social media provides the “oxygen of publicity”.

In terms of Kinsella’s comment that bloggers are simply commenting on someone else’s news reporting, bloggers and tweeters often get the story and photo’s first and share it with the public – raw.

What about Jenny McCarthy and the need for factual communication about science, the economy and complex public policy issues in a democracy?

In support of non-traditional media, the volume of scientific information has increased incredibly.  We have more access to science and health info than ever.  Yet, the public is not well equipped to sort out conflicting scientific information.

The problem faced by the public is, who do you trust?  The growth of info-tainment (news as entertainment) and traditional media broadcasters pandering for ratings has made dialogue on public policy issues and science increasingly difficult; in combination with decreasing social literacy about science, technology, engineering and math across society.

Yet, democratic decisions are made every day.  If we see the demise of substantive news as a threat to democracy, it raises the question of who are some of the other actors influencing these decisions.  Who’s holding decision makers to account?  In my experience, few politicians base their decisions on what the chattering classes say.  Pipelines, Official Plans, public transit expenditures and power plants are not approved based on the direction of internet gossip.

That brings me to my final point.  In terms of political and corporate communications, there are actors, such as Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, doing the scientific and public policy research, framing communications and influencing the democratic conversation about what is truth and what in the public interest.

When our work involves communications, we are unconventional.

We are as much subject specific experts (urban planners, economists, social scientists, engineers, geoscientists, physicists, epidemiologists, health physicists, medical doctors) doing ‘communications’ as much as we are ‘communicators with a second credential in the hard and soft sciences’.

Is there an emerging role for professionals to also enter the field as a type of journalist?

In a world where there is a substantial reduction in substantive news, would this role be to fill the gap that the decline of traditional news is leaving?  And, would technical professionals as journalists be a threat or would they contribute to the health of our democracy?

Dave Hardy, R.P.P.  28 April, 2015

[1] Warren Kinsella, Dear Sun News Network folks 13 02 2015

[2] http://www.the-lanes.ca/brian-smith.html

[3] Warren Kinsella, Dear Sun News Network folks 13 02 2015

[4] Mark Little, Founder and Director of Innovation and Storyful, “The Journalism of Terror: How Do We Bear Witness When Everybody is a Witness

[5] Mark Little, Founder and Director of Innovation and Storyful, “The Journalism of Terror: How Do We Bear Witness When Everybody is a Witness

[6] Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise a referred to in Little

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About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit www.hardystevenson.com
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