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Journalism: New Challenges, New Solutions

The past two months came quickly. It is still too soon to know how long the effects will last or how big they will be. But it is definitely a time to observe and adapt.

Information and media are playing a huge role as governments and citizens are facing a very real, yet very uncertain, threat.  Some media outlets relaxed their paywalls, maybe responding to the people’s “right to know”, or perhaps as a mere opportunity to catch new readers as the demand for information increased exponentially. Riding the waves of the information whirlwind we have a mix of, good information, unintentionally bad information, manipulated information, misinformation, hoaxes, science, pseudo-science and, of course, politicians using all of them to divide the citizens and bring them to their tent.

In a time of crisis, when concerted public action is urgently needed, the free flow of reliable information is of the greatest importance. Yet, as more media outlets are adopting subscription models which require long term commitments from readers, most readers, unwilling or unable to commit or pay, are receiving their information from the chaos of social networks and from the remaining free media outlets. If there were a high correlation between high quality content and paid content, then good and reliable information is reaching very few people. Is this the ideal model?

It is obvious that good and reliable information costs money. A new, balanced approach must be found which will sustain the news profession while keeping the general public well informed. Before digital media emerged, the model was simpler. Even though many people had a subscription to a printed newspaper and some to more than one, most people got their press at the newsstand. Maybe they bought the same paper most of the time. But they had a view of the other papers and might have decided, once in a while, to see what “the others” were saying. It can be argued that the flow of information, while paid, was more open and dynamic. And there was also a crowd of people who read yesterday’s paper after the original buyer was done with it, spreading good quality information even further down the line and for free.

When the moment comes when we achieve a new revenue model which is profitable for producers and does not harm the general availability of information and opinion, a problem will remain. Information itself.

In a free society, if an individual decides to act based on a given information, even if that individual is not fully prepared to understand that information, he or she should be responsible for the consequences. But as issues become more complex, and as the quantity of open issues that affect us multiply exponentially, two parallel problems emerge. On the one hand, as informers have more difficulty knowing and understanding these complex issues, it becomes more probable that their prejudice will influence their analysis, their emphasis on some issues over others, or their conclusions.  Informers and experts can also be subject to economic and political pressure.

‘Truth’ is a word that should be avoided. It is a word which might lead us to believe there is only one. ‘Fact’ is also dangerous, as it can be perceived from different angles and be seen differently. Any way we call it, it is neither absolute nor democratic. Even if 999 scientists out of a thousand agree on a theory about a complex scientific issue, it only takes one scientist to come up with solid proof about a different interpretation to change the ‘truth’ about the issue. Likewise, ‘truth’ in news is not measured in followers.

On the other hand, non-expert readers can encounter even greater difficulty sorting through the increasing complexity of issues and the huge quantity of information sources.  Social networks and the “like” culture do not help. There might be a lesson to be learned from scientific journals and expert peer reviews. But it is not an easy task. Who would anoint the experts in each field? Would media outlets allow their readers a full view of peer reviews of their content? We have seen so-called “fact checkers” arise, within and beyond media outlets. But, in the end, a self-anointed fact checker is just another media outlet, with the same virtues and limitations as all others. We could explore ways to use artificial intelligence to offer readers alternative reads on the theme being read. But even then, we could be victims to the rankings and choices the algorithm might produce.

Alas, we have to make at least three important objectives converge: freedom of choice, reliability of information and a fair return on investment to the information industry. The difficulty of the task must not draw us away from seeking it.

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