We need news outlets we can trust (and not only when there’s a war)

Alongside the atrocities and the human suffering brought about by one man’s desire to start a needless war, the Ukraine invasion has highlighted something that was already present and continues to be a growing problem in relation to the information we consume in our day-to-day lives.

It’s been called ‘fake news’, disinformation or, if you want an old-fashioned term, lies.

Much of it uses the unregulated digital gossip channels known as social media and is spewed out from sources with no credible reputation for providing fact-checked, unbiased reporting. It is quickly retweeted, shared, reposted, viewed and commented on by thousands, if not millions, of people around the world.

It may include photographs and video footage showing what its creators want to illustrate. After all, ‘the camera never lies’, so the saying goes. Now, in this sophisticated digital age, we all know that isn’t true. But some people will be taken in by it, some will be duped. For the rest, it simply muddies the waters.

A lot of posts on social media are true. So how do you tell the difference?

The problem is, you can’t. There are even tweets and posts seemingly from authenticated sources, such as respected international news channels including CNN that have been faked (yes, including the blue tick).

Fortunately, we still have some traditional news sources – national TV channels (BBC, ITV, Sky), broadsheet newspapers and websites – which most people would trust for accurate (or as accurate you can get in a war situation) accounts of what’s going on. Indeed, if they report something that they are unable to verify, they will say so in order that we may take that into account.

One day, the Ukraine war will be over (we pray). Our lives will, hopefully, once again head back to ‘normal’.

But in that normal world, we will still have pretty much the same media landscape we ‘enjoy’ at present. We will still be subjected to a combination of news and fake news.

Changing media landscape

While we may retain the ‘big beasts’ of the national media corps, lower down the pyramid and across specialised media, serving particular interest groups and industries, the future is less clear.

Local and regional newspapers have been facing even faster decline in circulation than their national big brothers, with many simply shutting down and others being consolidated into groups; sharing news and resources across various regions.

The problem for traditional news outlets is twofold. The first is that if you can access free news online, why buy a newspaper or digital subscription? This has been compounded by advertisers being seduced by the likes of Facebook and Google in being able to target their adverts at a very precise audience, in a well-defined geographical location, far more cheaply and with less waste than they can using local newspapers.

Then we look at the area of specialist media, which includes business sector titles serving very specific audiences, who want to know what is going on in their industry. These titles are essential for executives and buyers and sellers operating in these markets. They are first and foremost news outlets, they are forums for industry issues, they share best practice, they are educational, they provide a marketing platform.

And yet they have struggled to make the transition from print to digital. Some high end titles in certain industries have introduced subscription models for providing news digitally. Others feel they can’t. Neither can some attract enough advertising revenue from digital-only offerings, so continue with a hybrid of print and online.

Many are just about holding their own, albeit with vastly reduced editorial teams, who face increased demands to service print, digital and social media news distribution. A vast number have had to close.

But what is the scenario if these important trade titles are unable to continue, because the finances just don’t add up? Where does the industry go to get its news, exchange ideas and promote its products.

Certainly, people will be able to access social media feeds from some of the players in the market. But where is the mediation? Who then decides what’s newsworthy or tempers company promotional claims with their own version of the ‘we’ve been unable to verify this’ caveat?

Independent media matters

The business media in the UK has provided a valuable and much needed service to many industries over the years. In days gone by you could find a magazine for virtually any industry you can think of. There is no doubt the sector is going through a period of change and will continue to do so until an equilibrium has been reached.

However, businesses need a reliable, independent curator of industry news and views; a focal point for each industry. It needs to be knowledgeable, informed and trustworthy, providing commentary on the state of the industry, highlighting the latest thinking, promoting product innovations and championing best practice.

Without it, businesses are left somewhat in the dark, forced to develop their own ad hoc network of industry players, attend industry gatherings – seminars and exhibitions – and expend a lot of time and effort in finding out what’s going on in their market. It’s not a preferable alternative for many people.

My guess is that business media will find a way back, because there is a need for it. Indeed, I believe that local and regional media will find a way to reinvent itself. People want to know what’s going on in their local community, without just relying on gossip.

For the wider world, however, the picture is less clear. While we hope that traditional news channels will continue to provide us with an accurate picture of what is happening in the world and challenge and probe elected leaders and people in positions of power on our behalf, there is still room in the digital space for conspiracy theorists and propagandists to peddle their misinformation.

It’s unlikely that social media channels will police their own platforms effectively (unless they are forced to) and it’s also unlikely that avid social media users will eschew these social channels and revert to traditional news outlets to inform their judgements on the world and the people in it.

Social media companies continue to resist calls for them to be recognised as publishers and subject to the same levels of regulation, claiming that they are merely ‘technology companies’. Yet they use algorithms that determine whose posts or news stories are fed to your screen, a bit like an editor would do in deciding what news stories are most important. That is a powerful position to be in.

And as many great and knowledgeable people have stated over many centuries (yes, including Spiderman): ‘With great power comes great responsibility’.



Categories: News Opinion PR Marketing