The worst thing that has happened in journalism is the advent of the internet. The world wide web offers so many benefits, but it has undermined much of the mainstream media on many levels.
On the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, the newsgathering industry is in a difficult place. In the United States, the under-30s are now almost as likely to trust information on social media sites as from national media organizations. That will be music to the ears of those managing Russian bot farms.
When the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, the impact of digital technology was almost unimaginable. The main concern was with highlighting threats to the safety of journalists and the attempts by repressive governments to silence dissident voices. Those issues remain.
Last year, the number of journalists killed worldwide rose by almost 50% in the previous 12 months. The 67 deaths were the highest since 2018. The numbers are expected to climb this year. Russian forces have targeted correspondents covering the conflict in Ukraine. War zones always bring risks for the media but reporting in ostensibly peaceful countries like Mexico, Turkey and Brazil can be a perilous profession. The case of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian national who was murdered at his country’s embassy in Istanbul five years ago, continues to be a cause célèbre.
The dangers faced by journalists will never go away. What has added an extra layer of difficulty to the job is the growth of social media and the widespread use of camera phones.
These innovations have brought many benefits. Citizen journalism has allowed on-the-ground coverage of events that may not have otherwise been seen and noted. Bystander footage of the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police in Minnesota two years ago, illustrated the needless brutality inflicted by the officers involved and gave global impetus to the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are drawbacks, though. Clips of incidents are shared widely on social media without context and—from a journalistic point of view—fact-checking. This has allowed individuals and organizations to advance their own agendas by twisting or fabricating stories.
By the time the traditional media establish the veracity of viral content—or the lack of it—the misinformation has established a life of its own. Those who “consume” their news through social media—Facebook is particularly bad in this sense—tend to exist in their own echo chamber and are more prone to becoming conspiracy theorists. The Covid-19 emergency provided dramatic proof of this.
The traditional media has been either unable to adapt to the changing environment or pandered to it. Newspapers and broadcasters have always taken editorial stances and aimed themselves at certain sections of society, but television stations like Fox News in the U.S. and GB News in the U.K. have shed journalistic rigor in favor of indulging the audience’s prejudices. The “Facebooking” of TV news, where opinion trumps reporting, has had a detrimental impact on the broadcast industry.
In the face of the threat of the internet, traditional media has shrunk away from the challenge. Newspapers with dwindling circulations have reacted by cutting costs and trimming back their news desks. The consequence of this is short-staffing, corner-cutting and substandard journalism. No wonder the readers drift away in droves.
The internet is full of sites where office-based individuals rewrite the copy of other outlets and pump it out on social media without discrimination. Clickbait is widespread, but it often frustrates the reader and undermines trust in a publication.
The arrival of Artificial Intelligence has created a further problem for the industry. In March, the CEO of Axel Springer, the German publisher, said that programs like ChatGPT could replace journalists.
Where does this leave the media? In a difficult position—but there is hope. The need for investigative journalism is stronger than ever. The disciplines that made reporters successful in the past retain the capacity to attract an audience. The people with the best contacts will always break the best stories. It’s hard to see a whistleblower trusting ChatGPT technology.
Social media—and we are still in the early days of the phenomenon—allows quality journalists an unfiltered line to the public. Sites like Twitter are full of cheap noise and individuals who are making a career of appealing to empty biases, but the market for impeccably-sourced, accurate, well-presented stories is likely to grow bigger as the period of political populism passes and the damage wrought by the manipulative use of viral falsehoods becomes clearer.
The web has opened up a global audience and those with the correct approach may find their reputation will spread outside the traditional market for their work.
There are no shortcuts for journalists, even if the internet has given a generation of editors and writers the illusion that there’s a fast track to success. Too many have lost sight of the reality that the job is about telling the public something they didn’t know and about shining a light into dark corners.
Three decades on from the introduction of World Press Freedom Day, the need to highlight the impact of journalism in the battle for human rights remains. Those who aim to place restrictions on liberty fear a free press.
The quest for the truth will never become less important. Because of that, journalism will prevail and grow stronger in the digital age. In another 30 years, it’s likely we’ll think the best thing that happened to the media was the internet.