American journalism is at its most consequential crossroads since the financial crisis and digitalization left print advertising in freefall. Now, rather than adapt to technology, legacy, and digital outlets must join efforts to tame the tech giants that have become indispensable deliverers of journalism which they have no hand in producing or, until now, underwriting.
Media organizations can’t go it alone in getting Facebook and Google to pay for the news content they provide to billions of users. Fortunately, legislators abroad have joined the conversation. And tech executives seem newly willing, if not eager, to listen. News publications must seize an opportunity to create fresh cash flows that subsidize top-notch reporting that counters the barrage of fake news.
Australia’s legislation should pave the way
Australia recently passed regulations compelling Facebook and Google through steep fines to pay news outlets for their journalism. The approved law included concessions to Silicon Valley, freeing it of some of the strictest initial requirements after Facebook blocked news-sharing in Australia. But the revised bill should still be a catalyst for other countries.
In fact, Google already pays media outlets for news in France, the first member state to ratify a European Union copyright measure requiring tech platforms to cough up for publishing content.
Such regulation has until recently been the third rail of American politics. But the tide was shifting even before the Democratic takeover in Washington. The Justice Department in October 2020 filed suit against Google, accusing it of using unfair tactics to secure search engine dominance. That was followed in December by 38 states filing an antitrust suit against the company. The Biden administration last week signaled its openness to break up Big Tech by naming Tim Wu, a vocal industry critic, to the National Economic Council.
There’s even emerging support for tech regulation by none other than Microsoft.
Brad Smith, the president of the software giant, recently said the company supported the Australian regulations and encouraged similar policies in the US. “Social media [has] unfortunately become a powerful engine of disinformation,” Smith wrote in a statement calling out Big Tech for aiding the “erosion of more traditional, independent and professional journalism”.
The disinformation and hobbled “professional journalism” that Smith mentioned is not distinct from the matter of content distributors compensating content providers — rigorous journalism costs. And that tech money would help journalism overcome years of reputational damage by cries of “fake news” from Donald Trump and his acolytes.
How to solve ‘fake news
Fake news in fact holds bipartisan appeal. A pioneering MIT study published in Science in 2018 found that, by every observed measurement, baseless rumors and lies outperformed traditionally reported news items on Twitter. Lies generated more clicks across the platform and users shared them at six times the speed.
Contrary to popular perception, Russian troll farms and popular provocateurs were not to blame. The authors instead described how the “underlying pathologies” of average Joes on Twitter make them the ideal audience for and spreaders of lies. They concluded that the novelty of lies, however outlandish, and the heightened emotional response they create is what make them popular.
Overcoming the fake news deluge therefore also requires uncomfortable conversations about human behavior and how journalists should or shouldn’t cater to it.
How can honest journalism fight back against the biological allure of online rumor-mongering? Not by reshaping human behavior, which is not journalism’s responsibility despite attempts by certain TV and radio outlets to make it so.
Instead, there must be an effort by media organizations to reassert the primacy of facts and protect journalism’s role in providing accurate information to audiences. The former requires news outlets to stick to the truth even at the expense of clicks. The latter involves media organizations joining the regulator-Big Tech fray and lobbying for a rebalanced dynamic.
Media companies must lobby for tech regulation
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia pushed hard for the Australian regulations, but small companies whose very survival hangs in the balance must also agitate and be heard.
If something good is to come out of the bone-deep Trump fatigue and lingering outrage over the Capitol assault and the election lies that precipitated it, it could be a cleansing backlash against fake news and a renewed yearning for well-reported facts. (The COVID-19 health crisis and the accurate communication of scientific data and safety measures that it required could also steer people back toward factual reporting with an eye toward public service.)
Granting news outlets more leverage against Big Tech won’t immediately address the problem of faltering trust in them. Gallup has been monitoring public confidence in mass media since 1972. It reported last year that just 40% of Americans — among the lowest figures on record — had “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media to report the news fully, fairly, and accurately.
Still, the momentum seems to be changing. Lawmakers and executives in the US and abroad are increasingly eager to reel in tech and protect journalism. The average citizen is exhausted by the four-year onslaught of Trump’s debacles and the pandemic’s upending of daily life.
In the battle for the soul of good journalism, the moment is ripe for media outlets to wrest back some control from tech behemoths and insist on the foundational value of truth.News Source: Insider