As the world becomes more and more polarised, with populist parties tapping into people’s mounting distrust in institutions, journalism has become an increasingly risky business.
The media are labelled ‘enemies of the people’; incarcerated for speaking out; or even killed while trying to report the news. On average, one journalist dies every four days in their line of work.
Some politicians, keen to shun scrutiny, have found an easy target. As one recent study on ‘hostile media environments’ showed, human beings want to be loyal to tribes and, if the media are portrayed as part of an enemy tribe, it is almost impossible to become trusted.
Our new report ’50 Ways to Make it Better’, argues that journalistic organizations need to do more to defend themselves and respond to criticism if they want to rebuild engagement and trust in their profession.
We need to ensure people understand the vital role high-quality journalism, and particularly public service media, plays in our society. Its entire purpose is to serve citizens – all citizens – in a democracy. To act as an independent monitor of power and give a voice to the voiceless.
There is a reason that some would seek to silence us when we raise inconvenient truths or shine a spotlight on injustice.
Educating society about journalism’s purpose and ethics is a collective responsibility. As the journalist turned academic Sally Lehrman says in the report ‘trust is a relationship’ that requires learning about the institute or the journalist.
Public service media organizations have won the trust of their audiences over many years. But that trust should not be taken for granted.
Social media has given the public a more active forum for accountability but also amplified the spread of misinformation. We cannot afford to shy away from criticism or dismiss it as ignorance.
Neither can we let our standards and unique values be undermined by the pressure to follow social media. We need to resist the desire to always keep pace with a medium that remains largely unregulated, is not rigorous and has lost the trust even of those who use it regularly.
Hard-earned trustworthiness must be recognized, promoted and defended when needed. That might mean being more transparent about mistakes, strengthening alliances or coming up with initiatives to promote media literacy.
It also means that we must always continue to question ourselves, our approach, our own rigour. This is how we have earned that hard won trust that we value so much.
It’s heartening to see many of our Members are already actively engaging in a dialogue with their audience. The editor of ARD’s flagship news programme regularly blogs on social media to explain his editorial decisions; L’instant Detox from France Info engages people in conversations about fake news; while the BBC has an industrial-scale mechanism to deal with complaints. There we so many other examples.
Encouragingly, our research also shows that trust in traditional media – both the written press and broadcast media – has actually grown in Europe in recent years. It’s up to all of us to continue to communicate the value it brings to society.
Everything has changed since I was a journalist in Ireland in the ‘90s, yet, at the same time, nothing has changed.
We are here, as we always have been, to empower people – to give them a voice and help them make informed decisions – about their lives, their societies and their governments.
In a world where it is all too easy to control and manipulate the information that reaches people online, the role of quality journalism has never been more critical to society and to democracy.