News is a utility but, to survive, it needs charity
The importance of shared mythology to communities is a fascinating area of study that cuts across sociology, anthropology, psychology and more.
One of the obvious questions for the modern world is whether our sense of shared myths is fragmenting. QAnon, for example, is a wild and wacky load of nonsense (according to me) that nonetheless has millions of adherents seemingly immune to arguments that counter Q. The consequences have been astonishing.
People use narratives to understand the world around them. This has always been the case. At all times, the world has been too big and too complicated for individuals to comprehend it directly and entirely.
Even as our collective ability to store information and analyse it grows in the digital age, the world itself (and, specifically, human society) grows more complex.
Myths are one strut underpinning those narratives. Indeed, myths themselves are just narratives of a sort.
But if shared myths are important, what about shared information, and shared facts?
Society today is in the weird position of asking what should be done about facts. Our shared mythologies might be weaker - but our shared truths certainly are. This leads to two parallel issues.
One is the social effect of different individuals believing different and perhaps incompatible facts. The other centres on the importance of people believing facts that are actually true and correct - or, coming at it the other way, the effects of accepting as true things that are false.
New facts emerge every day. There is a process for finding, recording and publishing these facts. In fact, an entire industry has been constructed to do just that. That industry is in big trouble.
Journalism faces a crisis of resources. Since the dawn of the internet, the old model of dependable, massive advertising income (supplemented, in the case of print, by the cover price for each issue) has collapsed and not been adequately replaced by online ad revenue or subscriptions.
Newspapers still come out and they still have however many pages filled with words and photos and other images, but the editorial man hours propping up each page has been drastically reduced (see here or here, or any of the thousands of similar stories out there).
News journalism, in its purest form, is a real-time process whereby society details the important, emerging facts of the day and chronicles them in a way that makes sense and is accessible by the masses.
This process is on its knees, at every level - local, regional, national, international – and everywhere.
It is probably long overdue, but this issue is getting more and more political traction. In Northern Ireland, that is being led by SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole. He is chair of Stormont’s All Party Group on Press Freedom and Media Sustainability, which launched in December. The APG is currently calling for evidence on the future of media sustainability. This is a welcome move.
Press freedom and independence has been a journalistic issue since the dawn of journalism and will always be a concern. Sustainability, however, is a relatively recent and ballooning crisis. In the modern world, journalism is simply not paying for itself. At a glance it might look like there is still plenty of reporting going on, but even today it is not enough. It is not comprehensive, or exhaustive. This comes with great risks.
Some measures are already in place, such as rates holidays for local papers. However, any solution will be wider, deeper, and more long term.
The NUJ has prepared presentations for governments across the UK and Ireland, all of which say similar things. This includes a message that journalism cannot rely on the market for adequate funding. State support is required.
Another possible major funding stream is philanthropy or other moves into the third sector. The Belfast Media Group, publisher of the North Belfast News, South Belfast News and Andersonstown News, recently announced its intention to redesignate as a social enterprise.
Most journalism has been, for a long time, a private-sector business. Now, the influence of the public and third sectors are going to rise. Both are likely to be essential for journalisms long-term future. The details need to be worked out, and need to be constructed in such a way that journalistic integrity and independence is maximised.
What should a funded journalism look like? That remains an open question. However, one major change seems certain: a large part of journalism is going to join (in fact, rejoin) the third sector.
Unfortunately, this won’t be enough for journalism to fulfil its social function. Other challenges remain. They must be addressed.
Journalism is not in crisis, it is in crises.
People have an urge to comprehend the world around them. They do this using narratives. When they have a reliable source of facts to underpin these narratives, they are likely to be more solid.
Reliable, here, means two things. It means that the stream of facts produced by journalism are both broadly true and something close to being effectively exhaustive. It also means that a significant majority of people in society have faith in these facts (and that fact-detailing process).
Solid does not mean there will not be differences of opinion. However, constructive differences and debates are possible (if not certain) when people interpret similar facts differently.
People with wholly different sets of facts (and thus, almost certainly, narratives that are miles apart) will find it very difficult to discuss ideas. They may even struggle to relate to each other.
Journalism needs appropriate resources to be able to chase and notarise an effectively exhaustive lists of truths.
However, it also needs the bulk of people to trust in this work and, therefore, have faith in its fact-finding ability.
That faith cannot be blind or total. Moreover, it should not be. Healthy scepticism is important. This requires critical thinking.
Shouting “Fake News MSM” at a statement you wish to reject is neither critical nor thoughtful. However, the ability to look at the information we receive and think about sources and the process being that information is as valuable for individuals now as it has ever been.
Funding journalism is not enough.
Giving individuals – meaning everyone – the tools to navigate our world of information and disinformation overload while staying clear sighted and sane (and avoiding apathy) is just as important to the core mission of journalism as having enough professional, independent reporters to cover the events that shape society (it should also be noted that preparing individuals as best as possible to live in a world of disinformation is a curative not a preventative measure - the core problem there is disinformation itself).
An absence of reliable facts creates a vacuum. This vacuum will be filled by something. That something can be utter nonsense, and the consequences of utter nonsense can be terrible.
Journalism will never be perfect, but it can be good. Good journalism is a cornerstone of a healthy society.
Problems in journalism and problems for all of society. They need to be addressed with an urgency and commitment that recognises this.
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