'Window of opportunity' to halt the decline of journalism, says UN watchdog


By Steven McCaffery

At the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, when public anxiety was at its height, journalists played a pivotal role in helping communities to navigate the crisis.

The experience was a reminder that journalism matters.

After decades of decline for the news industry, an international watchdog now believes this could present a moment of opportunity, galvanising public support for new ways to fund journalism.

But UNESCO, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, insists that promoting the highest standards in news organisations will be crucial to any recovery.

SCI’s examination of media decline in deeply divided societies highlighted the social benefits of quality journalism. Now UNESCO’s new report says that high editorial standards are also a “key component” for the industry’s future financial viability.

“The time for action to address the news media viability crisis is now,” it said.

“As the spectre of retrenchment and closure of news outlets continues to materialise, it is increasingly hard to reverse. Action will require news media themselves to intensify efforts towards more inclusive journalism, alternative business models and diversified revenue streams.

“Solutions will also require steps from governments, internet companies and donors. The overall objective must be to enable dramatic increases in financial flows for journalism, as well as wider regulatory changes conducive to press freedom and media viability.”

But the report adds: “A range of news media still have issues of poor professionalism to confront, such as cases where political, business or personal interests skew their independence and reduce their credibility and societal value.

“These issues signal that the contemporary challenge is not just a question of saving existing news producers, but also of fostering their transformation.”

Media funding with 'no strings attached'

Tech giants that dominate the internet continue to erode media sustainability by swallowing-up advertising revenue. They also profit by sharing the content created by newsrooms.

Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code seeks to ensure that companies such as Google and Facebook pay publishers for the news content they share online. This is reported to be delivering results and now other countries are examining similar initiatives.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists seeks to redress the balance by proposing a tax on the powerful internet corporations.

The Journalism Funders Forum, a community of European donors, wants to see “public-benefit journalism” recognised in tax law. (See its submission on the European Media Freedom Act.)

UNESCO, meanwhile, says journalism could receive cash injections from donors, public coffers and tech companies, but all such investment ”should come without strings attached”.

The industry, however, must also be willing to adapt.

A 2020 survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that despite advertising revenue being absorbed by the internet giants, 67% of news organisations still saw it as a “significant source of revenue”, while 38% said it was still their most important or only source.

UNESCO advises news organisations to think creatively about their financial models. Crucially, it also advises that they recognise that media ‘best practice’ encourages consumer loyalty and therefore, is good for business. The bottom line is that media standards matter.

Best practice makes perfect

Key principles such as accuracy and balance are vital, but other factors also affect public confidence in journalism.

The latest research from the UK’s National Council for the Training of Journalists found 80% of journalists come from professional or upper-class backgrounds.

As reported here, this trend and the broader failure to ensure diversity in newsrooms, undermines media standards and erodes public support.

Newsrooms can and should reflect on how they work. For example, the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa reshaped its entire operation, to respond to the changed news environment and fully embrace diversity in the years after apartheid:

Newsrooms and news management teams must be diverse, but so too must news output. Milica Pesic of the Media Diversity Institute said “you don’t go just for extremes when you do your stories…it is our duty to give different voices”:

Media decline and divided societies

Media decline is having a global impact, with particularly serious implications for societies which already face deep division or conflict.

SCI is among a growing number of organisations and individuals highlighting concerns in Northern Ireland, where many of the media issues raised by UNESCO have already been identified.

UNESCO warns that where action is not taken to halt media decline, there is a danger that more outlets could close, or a risk of “hyper partisan output” from “weak news outlets”.

Meanwhile the only ‘cash rich’ news organisation in Northern Ireland, the publicly funded BBC, faces growing criticisms over diversity and balance. (See here.)

Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace agreement did not prompt the kind of media reflection seen in South Africa.

But there is an increasing need for a broad and inclusive conversation about how best to support journalism and promote best practice in Northern Ireland and other divided societies.