In a world where algorithms and bots are increasingly controlling the news, we need to go back to the roots of what a democracy is and work to protect free speech and a free press.
Addressing the EBU’s Women Executives in the Media (WEM) group in Berlin, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said: “Open, diverse and democratic societies live on free speech. An opinion building process where you talk about the pros and cons and decide on a consensus within society.”
“But now its Machine v Human. We need to learn how to deal with the algorithms, the bots and the trolls and dismantle fake news.”
Von der Leyen called on public service media (PSM) to help educate the public and talk more about these phenomena. But told them they must also take time, do the research, establish who is benefitting from what ‘facts’ and what the source of a story is.
With fake news fuelling division and hatred, ‘real’ news is more important than ever. PSM has an essential role to play but it must remain relevant and close to its audience.
While trust in media as a whole is at an all-time low in many countries (Edelman Trust Barometer 2017), there is a need for PSM to take the lead in being open and transparent and engaging with the truth.
In Germany, two thirds of the population still believe PSM is credible but one third do not. To address this ARD Chair Prof Dr Karola Wille suggested: “We need to better reflect people’s lives in all their diversity.” Surveys suggest that 50% of people feel PSM in Germany is not close enough to everyday people’s lives.
Ines Pohl, Executive Editor at Deutsche Welle, felt there were important lessons to be learnt from the USA. She said we must: “Remind ourselves that we do matter and play an important role. We need to leave the office and go out and report the stories on the ground. And think how we can reach those that don’t follow the news at all.” In the USA 45% of people already use Facebook as their only source of news.
Similarly, for print media, Antje Homburger, Deputy Editor-in-Chief for German News Agency DPA, felt too many journalists were writing just for their pier group or ‘bubble’. The media need to change the language they use and the stories they tell if they are to connect with more people.
One of the key ways to rebuild trust in media is by increasing diversity. Too many newsrooms are still dominated by a male elite. Women represent just a quarter of all those who are heard and reported on in the news.
Lessons can be learnt from business and from other areas of the public sector.
Von der Leyen stressed that: “Putting transparency into the system is a huge help because then you can start to talk about the unconscious bias.” In the case of the German armed forces, that meant looking at why women were never progressing beyond middle management and starting to remove the obstacles.
As well as practical measures that help reconcile work and family life for both men and women, von der Leyen has formulated target agreements so it is the duty of senior leaders to ensure more women are coming into positions where they can be selected for top management.
Quotas are also being introduced in many countries. Without them many fear it could be another century before we reach gender parity at board and senior management level. The Federal Government in Germany has introduced quotas for listed companies of 30% women on Supervisory Boards. They help but do not change the mindset says Monika Schulz-Strelow, President of FidAR: “Quotas opens a door. We need to go through and we need to perform.”
Other measures discussed included mentoring and supporting female colleagues; networking; raising awareness of the issues and the unconscious bias among both men and women; and challenging the system that means women are still the ones that will give up work to raise children.
As important as structural change is, it is cultural change that will make the real difference. Change needs to be both top down but also bottom up – by coaching, encouraging and seeing what you can do individually as a female leader you can effect real change.