World watches U.S. as press freedom erodes overseas

December 16, 2016 11:00

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman

Author’s note
: Last week I was invited to give a speech and participate on a panel discussion at a conference in Budapest, Hungary hosted by the Center for Independent Journalism and the Editors Forum. Independent journalism is struggling in Hungary due to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s tight control of state media, and private media outlets being bought by wealthy individuals who are friends of, or politically aligned with Orban. Hungary’s largest newspaper, Nepszabadsag, stopped publishing in October with journalists and the opposition alleging government pressure. The audience for the speech and discussion included journalists from across Southeast Europe and some government officials including Richard Damstra, the press attache from the US Embassy in Budapest. An abbreviated version of my remarks (without the Power Point slides) is below:
So it’s a great time to be a journalist isn’t it? I’m not sure how well sarcasm is understood when it’s being translated, but I’m being sarcastic. In reality it’s very difficult to be a journalist today, but also a very exciting time.

When I was invited to come and speak with you, it was before the surprising election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States, a candidate that was endorsed by your Prime Minister Orban. The political and social landscape in America is changing and the press has been knocked off balance – I’m not sure we can still claim to be able to offer advice to the rest of the world about a free press and the best practices for journalism - because since our election we have been debating amongst ourselves what journalism’s future might look like under a Trump administration.

Today, the United States has a president-elect that clearly dislikes the press, doesn’t seem to understand the meaning or importance of our First Amendment that guarantees a free press, and a frightening number of Americans that seem to agree with him.

Just last week one of Trump's major supporters defended his exaggerations by saying facts are not really facts. He said everybody has a way of interpreting what’s true and the press should not take Mr. Trump so literally when he speaks or tweets. How are journalists supposed to operate in a world where a President and his supporters believe facts don’t even matter? 

Our profession and industry face difficult challenges. Our traditional economic models don’t work well in a digital age, our audiences don’t trust us anymore, and the partnership we used to have with governments and powerful institutions, where they needed the press coverage as much as we needed access to them, no longer exists.

Digital technology, mobile technology and social media have changed the way media companies make money, the way our audiences find and share information, and the way politicians and businesses communicate with the public.

And to survive, journalism is changing – but we shouldn’t change everything about journalism.

Let’s review some of the challenges for journalists: From an economic standpoint, in both the United States and in Europe, newspaper circulation and advertising revenue are down and have been in decline for years.  

This is true in the United States and in Hungary and in all modern states where people have easy access to the internet. While state media like the MTVA may see its budget growing in recent years, we see major newspapers like Nepszabadsag shut down.

In the USA – many local newspapers no longer exist because they couldn’t afford to stay open, and the big papers publish less often and have much smaller newsrooms than in the past. In Detroit, the two major papers only have home delivery 3 days a week.

Social media like Facebook and Twitter has created a world where businesses and politicians can bypass the media altogether and communicate directly with the public. This allows powerful people and organizations to send their messages out unfiltered, without context, or fact checking.

A perfect example of this is all the tweets President-elect Donald Trump keeps sending in the United States. He hasn’t held a single press conference since being elected, but as of last Friday had posted 96 tweets. He frequently tweets out false rumors and bad information, and when the press points out the information is wrong, he attacks the press for being biased against him and makes his supporters even happier.

This ability to go around the media has greatly reduced our role as gatekeepers. When I started in this business thirty years ago, journalists were much more capable of setting the agenda. We’ve never really been able to tell people what to think, but we used to be able to tell them what to think about. Now Donald Trump or any powerful person can change the agenda with a single tweet.

When this tweet was sent [the tweet where Trump claims he would have won the popular vote had 3 million people not voted illegally], lots of news outlets including my own network were doing a lot of reporting about the conflicts of interest Trump will face when he takes office. But after he sent this tweet, much of that coverage changed and everyone was talking about this issue instead.

But the changes for journalism created by digital technology are not all bad.

Instant communication means journalists can work much faster, we can research topics as deeply as we want without leaving our desks, and our websites don’t have the space and time limitations that newspapers and broadcasters have to deal with. If you want to write a 10-thousand word story on last night’s city council meeting, go right ahead. Digital technology also gives us new and sometimes better ways to tell stories and provide visual material, data and context.

While technology has changed how we produce and deliver the news and how our audience consumes it, we need to be careful that is does not change the culture of journalism or the ethics of the journalism profession.

Old fashioned terms like independence, integrity, factual, balance and context remain the core principles for journalists and I believe they are more important than ever to maintain while everything else is in our industry is changing.

Our fact checking role in the age of digital media is extremely important. During the recent election in the United States, social media was full of fake news stories with outrageous headlines. Some of these were created as click-bait, and some were created by domestic and foreign political actors specifically to mislead the public.

And the speed at which digital stories can be shared lets fake news and rumors run rampant. This makes fact based journalism and fact checking journalists more important than ever.

But all that fact checking doesn’t matter if we are not trusted by our audience. Without the trust of our audience – our stations, publications and websites are no different than anyone else who is creating fake stories on purpose.

We can only be useful as fact checkers if we are trusted by the public, and that trust is built over time by adhering to our traditional professional principles. It’s also a trust that is easily lost by mistakes, conflicts of interest and perceptions of favoritism. We will not be trusted or believed in the long run by our audience without our ethics, integrity and independence.

And we are losing this trust. Audience trust in the news media is at an all-time low in the United States. Some of this in the United States is because there are so many things that are referred to as “the media.” Instead of a handful of newspapers, TV channels, and trusted journalists, the audience now has hundreds of thousands of news sources, many of which are simply repeating whatever they think might get readers or viewers to click.

The click-bait need to attract audiences to our websites has created a situation where even traditional, mainstream media outlets to create material designed to get quick hits and go viral. Mainstream media outlets will even share material that sometimes has little truth or news value to them. 

The way to gain audience trust is with a free, independent journalism profession with integrity. When journalism isn’t independent it is just public relations or propaganda. When the audience starts to believe we have an agenda other than just informing the public with the truth – that’s when we lose that trust. Partisan media with an agenda can be very profitable, and we see it on cable news channels in the United States, but it erodes the trust in all media.

The very reason for the existence of a free press is to hold the government and other institutions of power accountable. Yes, it can entertain, distract and educate us – but in a democracy, journalism exists to provide the information citizens need to make informed opinions – and to provide a safe place to discuss and debate issues with leaders and each other.

Journalism organizations like the Radio/Television/Digital News Association or the Center for Independent Media and the Editors Forum in Hungary, have a crucial role to play in helping news organizations and journalists restore this trust.

These organizations and others like them already create and define the ethics and standards for the profession, but they also need to do whatever they can to support quality journalism and educate journalists and the public about how important those core principles of ethics, independence and integrity are for journalists and audiences.
Journalism organizations are in a unique position to play this crucial role in journalism’s future. Our profession needs organizations that can remain above the day to day political and economic pressures of the newsroom and ask all media outlets to uphold high journalism standards, they should be the standard bearer of a professional and trusted journalism culture.

But this will take hard work on the part of these organizations. It’s easy to praise good work and present awards and hold conferences, but journalism organizations should also adopt the difficult job of being willing to point out publicly when journalistic ideals are not being met.

Here are five things I think journalism organizations should focus on in the future. Some won’t be that difficult, others will be challenging, but no less important.

Training -Many journalism organizations are already doing this, but the training tends to be technical and vocational. Journalism organizations should also be teaching professional values, instead of just espousing them.

Educating the public - Just as important as educating our journalists and editors, journalism organizations should also make it a goal to educate the public about our profession and our values. I think many people don’t trust the news media because they don’t understand why we make the decisions we do, how we do our job, and the challenges we face. In addition to educating the public about journalism, we should also find ways to increase media literacy so our audiences are better prepared to tell good journalism from bad journalism.

FOI Assistance - Journalism organizations are in a unique position to collectively push for more openness in government. While both the United States and Hungary have FOI laws on the books, we both can face unaffordable fees if we want what is supposed to be “public” information. In the United States, FOI requests are denied almost as a routine matter by officials who often don’t understand the law themselves. I think in Hungary you may actually be in a better situation because you have the National Authority for Data Protection and FOI as an intermediate step before going to court. All we can do is go to court.

Lobby Collectively on behalf of journalists and media outlets -In addition to asking journalists to operate freely, independently and with integrity, journalism organizations should work to protect the rights of journalists to operate that way, and be the collective voice of quality journalists in government proceedings.

Legal Defense Funds - This may be the most difficult, because it is the most expensive. But wouldn’t it be great if more journalism organizations had defense funds that could be used to assist journalists who get into legal trouble for doing their job? This is especially important for small news outlets that may not have a lot of resources to help their own staff.

In the United State the Society of Professional journalists has a legal defense fund, but it is usually used to help with Freedom of Information lawsuits and legislative lobbying. I’d like to see more funds that could be made available to journalists in trouble and unable to afford to defend themselves. This could become more important in the United States as President Elect Trump says he wants to review America’s libel laws – and has said he wants to get back at the press for the way it treated him.

Doing journalism well was challenging in the past, and is perhaps more challenging in the digital age – because for good journalists, for professional journalists – we still believe that accuracy matters, that balance matters, that integrity and editorial independence matters.

In the United States, and in Hungary, and anywhere else where these professional ideals are challenged – journalism organizations need to become stronger, more organized, more involved and more relevant – brought together by what good journalists have in common – old values like ethics and a willingness to share the truth – but also new struggles like collectively fighting for accuracy and the importance of facts and the safety to practice our profession.

In the United States we have long-standing, established journalism organizations already, and some new ones like the Online News Association. But some organizations are comfortable, and may be resistant to new ways of doing things and changing their focus. My challenge to them is to wake up and realize that journalism needs them to fight new fights and take on new responsibilities.

In Hungary, you have journalism organizations that are still just a few years old. My challenge to you is to keep it up… grow… get stronger and be a louder voice for quality journalism and a free press.

It isn’t easy, but it is worth doing. Let’s hope for the sake of our profession, our audiences and our democracies that we are all successful.