Liz Corbin, EBU Head of News, delivers a keynote address to ‘24 Hours for the Future of Journalism’, a Constructive Journalism Institute conference:
Thank you and hello from Geneva. It's my privilege to be talking to you today.
There’s a phrase in English football which says “It’s the hope that kills you”. It means it’s better not to hope that your team will win because, when they’re defeated, it makes it that much harder to bear.
But what is life without hope? Certainly, no-one would follow a football team if there was really no hope at all of victory.
Having lived through 2020, perhaps now you might be tempted to agree that those who had fewer hopes for this year were spared the depth of the disappointments. Hopes of travels, hopes of time together with our families and friends, hopes for new adventures, hopes for good health.
But it seems humans are pre-wired to hope. To look forward. To plan. To learn new things. To work to make things better. We can’t help ourselves.
And, contrary to some people’s opinions, aren’t journalists humans too? As individuals you will never meet a more hopeful person than a journalist. We do our jobs because we’re hoping to make a difference. We work crazy hours and agonize over every word and picture because we believe, we hope, it will make life for someone, somewhere, better.
That’s why I always find it surprising that us journalists have a reputation for thinking negatively, for always looking for the worst in people; for pointing out what is wrong, rarely what is right; for always criticizing, rarely giving praise; or for spending thousands of words discussing what someone said, and not enough on what someone did.
And no doubt, you probably wouldn’t be here today if you didn’t have hope for a brighter future for journalism. A hope to change that stereotype. To be better.
And is it the hope that kills us? No, hope is what keeps us alive. What keeps us motivated.
We know that the information we uncover in our jobs every day, is power. And that the best way to use it is to empower everyone else by making sure they have access to the best quality information.
If 2020 has been a good year for anything, it can be argued that it has been good for public service journalism. This is journalism done, funded and controlled by the public for the public. At the European Broadcasting Union, I work with more than 60 public service newsrooms. While production in almost every other area of broadcasting fell, news increased programming by more than 20%. Audiences for evening news bulletins were up by 250%. For a brief moment, TV audiences reversed the declines of the last 30 years – even young people were watching the evening news.
But of course it was the digital platforms which saw the most sustained success. Younger digital-first audiences discovered public service media brands, some for the first time. And they liked what they saw. The brands they had associated with their parents and grandparents were surprising them - delivering what they wanted, where they wanted it, and in a format they wanted to engage with.
The idea that national broadcasters are dinosaurs, incapable of changing quickly and destined for oblivion, was rendered extinct in 2020. Journalists even surprised themselves with how quickly they adapted and with how creative they were under the intense COVID restrictions and public scrutiny.
Yes, it has been exhausting, yes, it has been frustrating, dangerous even. But it has mattered, it has been appreciated and it has saved and changed lives. And if that’s what you’re in this business hoping to do, 2020 has been a successful year.
After a rough few years of alternative facts, a war against experts and the exponential growth of unregulated platforms which have destroyed the business model of commercially funded journalism… the fact is people suddenly remembered that truth matters.
That truth really can mean the difference between life and death.
That where we get our information is important. That journalism and public service media are precious.
And I don’t know about you but, as tired and bruised as we are from 2020, this is a definite upside.
We may not have wished to get here like this, but we have been yearning for this moment. So what do we do about it? How do we respond?
Maybe it’s not how you expected it to be. After all, there is no let-up in the attacks on journalists, on the values we stand for. In fact, the pandemic has brought out the worst in those who like to shoot the messenger when they don’t like the message.
And the demand for information has been insatiable – we haven’t kept up. No matter how much quality journalism we produced this year, people wanted more. And we lost them, lured by the honeytrap of closed groups and caught in the web of disinformation, many people are confused, struggling to know what to believe.
So, how is this a positive moment? Our budgets are lower than ever before. Everyone is doing more for less. TV and radio reporters are going live from their phones. Subeditors are writing headlines on their beds. And yet, before you say standards are dropping, have a look at an old television news programme, an old newspaper front page, listen to an old radio documentary, and then tell me if standards are dropping. They are not.
Because journalists always want to make things better. They always want to improve.
So, just as for almost every other industry out there, how we respond in 2021 is going to be critical. We hope we will no longer be in crisis mode but the bold ideas and decisions which the crisis forced on us must continue. This needs to be a decisive moment for journalism.
No-one is in any doubt that we are living and reporting in a time where the sands shift so quickly under our feet, we often wonder how we remain upright at all. Or we find ourselves chasing an ever-retreating tide, only to spot the tsunami on the horizon and end up running frantically in the opposite direction.
The fact is - changing everything about how we work all at the same time under all sorts of pressures - is not straightforward.
But this, to coin an awful new phrase, IS the new normal. And it was before COVID. Change is not only necessary, it is desirable. And it must be perpetual. I think that’s what a lot of people struggle with.
In the past, we have run big change projects and we treat them like a flight of stairs. You push everyone up the stairs, it’s super hard work but you persevere and you get to the top. Phew, I’ve made the change! Time to take a breather. And then a while later you do it again - take the next flight of stairs, get everyone to the top. We’ve done change! Time to relax for a bit.
No, we need to think differently about this. Instead of flights of stairs, think about those cool travellators which glide you and everyone on them relentlessly upwards. Change needs to be perpetual, it should not be a struggle and it needs to sustainable as part of our everyday work.
But how? It’s all very well having metaphors about stairs and travellators but how do we embrace change to such an extent that we no barely notice it?
To start with, we need to be more humble. That doesn’t mean the public service media type of humble – the one where they are so used to criticism, they forget to tell everyone how utterly brilliant and indispensable they are. No, being humble means letting go of our assumptions, frankly our biases, about how journalism should be done.
Journalism doesn’t have rules, it has values. That’s probably why, if you tell most journalists they can’t do something, they go out of their way to prove they can.
But that means we should never get stuck on telling certain types of stories or using certain types of story-telling. We must stick to our values but we MUST experiment.
So, when ARD, the producers of Germany’s highest rating and most formal news brand, Tagesschau, decided to experiment with TikTok, I can only imagine the raised eyebrows. But Tiktok reaches an audience Tagesschau does not – or did not. More than 700,000 followers later and they’ve found something which works.
Why did you get into the news business? What was it about journalism that made you think – that’s for me?
Luckily for you, I’m not one of those annoying people who says I got into journalism by accident. I didn’t. I chose to become a journalist because I couldn’t think of anything more interesting to do. And I still can’t think of anything more interesting than being a journalist.
Every day is different. And while we can all find change difficult – we should remind ourselves that change is what brought many of us here in the first place. We didn’t want jobs which were the same, day in day out.
Is it just me that when you are asked to state your profession for an official form or something you say “journalist” with a hint of pride. I think I like it even more now that I’m an editor, a head of news. Journalist is no longer in my job title but it’s my profession, it’s my vocation.
It’s also a massive privilege, not only to be able to witness events which really do change the course of history, but also have that heavy weight of responsibility for delivering accurate and impartial information.
So let’s go back to humility for a second. Without any rules, but with values, who decides what good journalism is, what is accurate and impartial? It’s a question being asked openly in public these days. But let’s not be defensive, what is the answer? It’s all of us, all of us decide. The journalism industry is like the biggest peer review community in the world.
But to be successful, that community - all of us - needs to have the widest range of voices possible, and it needs to make sure all voices are heard. Being humble means knowing that your point of view is not the only one. That, however long you’ve been in this business, you always have something to learn and the person who teaches you is probably not like you.
To serve our audiences we need to be them, we need to know what it’s like to be in their shoes. Of course, you can’t live anyone else’s life but your own, but collectively, together we can be better at this.
Just look at today for the evidence – a global event where you’re going to hear thousands of different opinions about how to improve journalism. No one person has the answers but together with the diversity of backgrounds represented we will make progress.
Today I want you to feel inspired. After a tough year, I want you to know how important what you do is. And the best thing you can do every day is great journalism which reaches as many people as possible and has an impact.
But it’s sadly not the only thing we need to do these days. Let our journalism speak for itself, for sure, but we also need to stand up for ourselves and for our values. We cannot stand by as commercially-funded journalism is laid to waste by an adtech industry gone out of control. As public service media organizations are attacked or compromised by their own governments. As social media companies, financially and politically bigger than some countries, become untouchable. Where consumers have become the product. And quality news is struggling to make itself heard against the noise of vested interests and political interference.
There’s no going back in time, but there are choices ahead.
Many of the people I’ve worked with in my career are the cleverest people I have ever met. So damn smart. But the smartest never realize they’re the smartest because they are always focusing on what needs to improve, they are trying to make things better.
Don’t stop hoping, don’t miss this moment, remember your values, be humble. And most importantly, embrace the change. The future of journalism depends on you. You’ve got 24 hours.