Image source: Bidnessetc.com
By Krystina Shveda
Are there genuine reasons for concern about press freedom in the age of new media? It depends on whether we believe that giant Western news organisations are press freedom. Indeed, may they stop their work as informers, verificators, investigators and government scrutinisers, would those who have the power become out of control? If so, would small, diverse new media companies be able to withstand the propaganda wars?
But let us look at the world outside the developed countries. How many non-English speaking nations in Asia, Africa, even Eastern Europe live under authoritarian regimes where major news institutions are subdued by the governments or influenced by the propaganda? Plenty. In Belarus, where I am from, “brainwashing” is a term most commonly used with regard to the local and Russian television, the main source of “news” for the masses. People in such countries can neither read global reporting in English nor rely on the official news channels, often owned by the government. There is no such asset as free press in these areas. There is only propaganda war, where small new media initiatives are the only voices of freedom.
Internet provided the third world with an opportunity to speak relatively freely. It also globalised the flows of information – be it data, news or mendacious propaganda. For instance, a YouTube search on “war in Ukraine” gives back 931,000 results [Note: the number doubled in two months], many of them having flashy “shocking truth” headlines. The so-called “citizen journalists” provide raw footage but also thousands of misleading comments and fake explanations. Without reliable journalists and scholars who verify and explain the background both international observers and local citizens would and do drown in the ocean of “truths”, in their turn imposed on people’s minds by higher levels of propaganda.
My conclusion from analysing this vicious circle is whoever can find the morale to act – be it major news wires, IT giants, media startups or international NGOs – and invest in sending independent journalists to hotspots, translating reliable information into national languages, optimising internet search, donating to improve free press worldwide, will be free press. I agree with an American journalist and coach Steve Buttry who said in relation to his country: “I don’t fear that Google or the internet threaten our First Amendment freedoms. The greatest threats to freedom of the press are Americans who don’t understand the First Amendment or politicians who do understand it.” (Buttry, 2009)
Robert Calo from UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism said at a lecture at City University London that, to gain people’s trust, the media, be it traditional journalism or startup, big or small, should be transparent, irreverent to politicians, cross-referencing. The emergence of many new storytelling devices is compelling, it opens horizons to tell a wider range of stories. He is sure that innovation in journalism will come from outside journalism (Calo, n.d.).
In a 2009 talk, Steve Buttry said about freedom of press in technology era: “It is healthy, it is thriving and it will not be stopped, even if the companies that own printing presses can’t find their way to a prosperous future” (Buttry, 2009).
Indeed, newspaper corporations are rattled by the financial successes of IT giants Google, Facebook et al. With more people choosing to consume “fast” news on social media or news aggregators, traditional newspapers lose moral authority, readerships and advertisers. According to Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, journalists don’t own and understand the channels of news production and distribution any more and have to follow the new rules set by “unaccountable software companies” (Bell, 2014).
But does shifting the control power from one corporation to another necessarily means limitation of free speech? Jeff Jarvis, director at the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY, wrote: “It was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations?” (Jarvis, 2014a).
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In my view, the future depends on whether traditional newspapers and software companies could cooperate. Similarly to how difficult but necessary mutual teaching between younger and older generations is, the sides who both claim their commitment to free speech should teach each other.
Media analysts argue that traditional newspapers could help Silicon Valley “define evil and good” (Jarvis, 2014a), take the “editorial decisions that affect our view of the world” (Ingram, 2014). Companies like Twitter already shown their position by fighting against disclosing their users’ information to the governments.
However, there is a tendency for software companies like Facebook and Twitter to deny their roles as content editors, saying that technology is neutral (Bell, 2014). But Facebook’s filtering algorithm, even if it is based on the audience’s preferences, is nothing else but an editorial tool that gives the company power to decide which information their users see.
Despite blaming Facebook for hiding conversations about Ferguson case, which means the algorithm is still not properly set for news dissemination, a sociologist of technology Zeynep Tufekci agrees that without Twitter and Facebook “such incidents would be buried in silence” and the readers would depend on whether a newspaper decides the story is worth national coverage (Tufekci, 2014).
There are even more ways traditional journalism can learn from the progressive techs. In a lecture on journalism disruption, Jane Singer, Innovation Journalism professor at the City University London Journalism Department, mentioned that people always needed time to adapt to new technology, starting from printing press to internet, there are similar adaptation stages: trepidation, resistance, acceptance, dependence (Singer, n.d.).
As the ideological founder of data journalism Adrian Holovaty put it eight years ago, “fundamental shifts need to happen for newspaper companies to remain essential sources of information for their communities. One of those important shifts is: Newspapers need to stop the story-centric worldview” and resort to structured information (Holovaty , 2006). Data mining, automated data analysis, interactive visualisations, mobile and social media reporting, streaming video and audio – all this computational techniques are shaping the new era of digital journalism. Despite rather pessimistic prognoses of the above mentioned analysts, I believe that the new generation of journalists will succeed in embracing the technology for improved reporting as well as finding sustainable business models for digital newspapers.
Jeff Jarvis who is a defendant of Google thinks the IT giant can help the newsrooms find new, sustainable business models (going to the public rather than waiting for them to come), invest in media startups in Europe, defend the net against NSA spying and free speech “against the protectionism and political opportunism of publishers and politicians” (Jarvis, 2014b). In France, Google did set up a fund to assist local newspapers adapt to the technological era. But in many parts of Europe, politicians pushed by newspaper oligarchs who worry that an American company is monopolising the online market with its omnipresent services are trying to push it out instead of encouraging its own institutions to innovate and achieve better results. On 16 December 2014, Spain introduced link tax for news aggregators that led to shut down of Google News in Spain and the loss of traffic for most of the newspapers. The director of Spanish eldiario.es Ignacio Escolar commented: “Saying that Google robs you while investing huge amounts of money in being the first one in the results page is hypocrite. It’s a try of the old press to improve their financial results by robbing an American who was passing by.” (Escolar, 2015)
To conclude, Western news corporations are not the synonym to press freedom – it can be executed in many forms by various types of organisations, if their activities are based on democratic principles and human rights ethics. Mutual support, cooperation and cross-investment between journalism and software companies may ensure a future of free press.
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Calo, R. (n.d.). Lecture at the City University London Department of Journalism.
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