Polarisation and The Media
MHP Senior Director Keith Gladdis worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. Here he speaks to Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University and former Director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, about the role journalism plays in today’s polarised society and whether it is the role of reporters to drive change.
Centre for Journalism,
KG: Division, conflict and debate have been the foundation of good journalism for generations. Anyone can report what happened, but a good journalist investigates why it happened, who disagrees with it and who wants to put a stop to it.
In The Networked Age something has gone wrong. Journalism no longer breaks down barriers, it’s reinforcing them. In some cases, rather than simply reporting conflict and division, journalists are creating it – and shutting down dissenting voices. High-profile commentators like Bari Weiss (New York Times), Andrew Sullivan (New York Magazine), Glenn Greenwald (The Intercept) and Suzanne Moore (Guardian) have resigned, blaming bullying and censorship from their colleagues.
However, journalists now have a greater number of platforms to communicate directly with their audience. It means the old ‘command and control’ model of an editor dictating the kind of stories and opinions a title carries are coming to an end.
Journalism has always been adaptable but in the last decade the business models of news organisations, especially newspapers, has changed dramatically. How much has the new economics of journalism contributed to polarisation?
RS: The impact has been dramatic, the ‘middle market for the news’ has disappeared almost completely. You’re either fighting it out in the commoditised instant news space or you’re doing slower in-depth niche stuff behind a paywall. Short, thoughtful features don’t have a market anymore.
KG: One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is in local and regional media. How much of an impact has the commercial decline of local media had on society?
RS: The decline of traditional news has opened-up space for new players and not all of them are benign. In the US, Nieman Lab has found hyper-partisan publishers are replacing local news. In the UK local councils are publishing propaganda dressed up as local news. More positively, independent hyper-local is becoming an identifiable and sustainable sector.
The decline of big regional media means that we’re over-reliant on the London media to represent people’s views. This is exacerbating the lack of viewpoint diversity in journalism. Those communities don’t feel they have a voice that speaks for them.
KG: Yes, but hasn’t that always been a problem? Growing up in Manchester I would see the ‘North of England correspondent’ on the BBC News and that was alienating. Today, it’s very unusual to hear a northern accent in a newsroom.
RS: The decline of big regional newspapers has certainly made the problem worse. The Northern Echo or the Liverpool Post are not the big voices that they once were. It means the career paths into national newsrooms no longer exist. There is a big issue about diversity in newsrooms including economic and regional diversity. Communities outside of London don’t feel they have a voice in the national debate.
KG: You are now Professor Richard Sambrook at Cardiff University, which has one of the most prestigious schools of journalism in the country. What kind of students are you seeing come through today?
RS: They are highly motivated but there is an increase in activism. Ask a journalism student today what ‘fairness’ means to them and they might say ‘social justice.’ Some want an illustrious career, but most want to earn enough money to pay the rent, have some fun and pursue what they see as social justice. Some of them are very motivated by causes.
Aspiring young journalists don’t have job security, they can’t see when they will own a house, they have no certainties. All they’ve got to rest upon are their own values and their peer group.
Declining power of the editor
KG: One of the most striking changes I’ve seen in newspapers is that editors have a lot less control over their journalists than they did in the past.
RS: In the old model – a world of little choice for consumers – the proprietor and the editor would say “this is what I want to tell people and what people will hear”. The new model needs to be more open and responsive.
Newsrooms haven’t necessarily become more politicised, but the digital environment surfaces a lot of tensions and disagreements between journalists, which used to be hidden from the public.
And in newsrooms that debate has also become very lively. There is a growing phenomenon of the star writer, whose social media following is bigger than the masthead. Newspapers are vying to attract them to bring their audience with them.
The ‘golden age’ of journalism
KG: Don’t we need to be careful not to hark back to a mythical golden age of journalism and recognise the limitations of the past? Look at a newspaper from 30 years ago and the quality of journalism doesn’t compare to the best of what’s available today.
RS: I agree. There is great work being done by this generation of journalists. What we do have is a problem with media literacy, which has driven polarisation. We have a huge problem with media literacy where people can’t tell the difference between the New York Times and Breitbart because it all looks the same on their Facebook feed.
My generation of editors didn’t do enough to articulate what lies behind good quality, grounded journalism. The great growth of the 1980s and 1990s was taken for granted, people stopped articulating the democratic value of news, stopped articulating what distinguished high quality news from low quality news and therefore lost the public.
The public stopped understanding what news was about. Then the internet opened the floodgates and people are only just now catching up when it comes to media literacy. But people are beginning to catch up. In the long-term, this problem can be fixed.
The role of the BBC
KG: In some ways, things haven’t changed – some journalists have always encouraged tribalism. When I was at the Liverpool Echo in the 1990s, we played into polarisation. It was Liverpool against the world. Us versus them. However, now the tribalism has moved from local readership to the diaspora online. Does the BBC need to stand against this approach and play a bigger role in depolarisation?
RS: The BBC is an organisation with a constitution that explicitly promotes social cohesion but how does it fulfil that remit when no one wants to play that game? For private commercial media that is not their responsibility. For example, the way LBC manages impartiality is by having a range of incredibly opinionated partial voices.
There’s a risk programmes like Question Time on the BBC now follow that LBC strategy. It isn’t about trying to unpack policy any longer. Now, it’s about getting opinionated viral moments that it can push on social media. They will point to the large audience they are earning online, but what they are doing is driving social anger and I don’t think they should. The BBC should provide a firm foundation of verified factual information on which the public can make choices and form views.
Journalists and depolarisation
KG: Is it the job of journalists to depolarise? I’m not sure. I do think they have a duty to challenge their readers, however. People hate-read articles they disagree with from a brand they disagree with, but they are more likely to listen to their preferred media brand if it tells them something that confounds their beliefs.
RS: Viewpoint diversity is not a magic bullet. Talk radio stations manage impartiality with a range of opinionated and partial voices, that’s not about trying to reconcile people.
News organisations need to start doing their job better. That means proper scrutiny and holding people to account whichever side of the political divide they happen to be on. We are in an environment now where politicians simply avoid being held to account by the media. Boris says I’m not going to be interviewed in the election campaign like every other politician, he shrugs it off and gets an 80-seat majority.
What next for the industry?
KG: It’s possible that we look back in ten years’ time and see this as something of a golden age – where new challengers were innovating and established incumbents could still fund investigative journalism. What do you think the future will look like for journalism?
RS: One thing you learn is that new players who arrive with lots of fanfare and VC investment can make a lot of noise but once the money runs down or the investors want a return it becomes a lot harder than people think.
There will be some new players but perhaps not as many as we once thought. Even 18 months ago you would have said VICE was a big new player and now Buzzfeed has been hollowed out and is disappearing from news.
KG: Given the challenges news organisations face in The Networked Age, how will they survive?
RS: They have got to figure out how they will deliver a depth of value to rapidly changing audiences. An audience that rapidly changes the way it consumes news and information, an audience whose demographics and values are changing.
For example, climate change has been a secondary topic for some time, but boy is it going to come back and hit soon. The organisations that innovate will succeed. There are things to be positive about: The public is catching up when it comes to media literacy and there is a lot of research that shows that people who are on social media are exposed to and read a lot more sources than those that are offline. That’s somewhat counterintuitive.
There needs to be a whole reengineering of newsroom practices from being ‘command and control’ to being receptive to what the audience wants. It’s about being more open and thinking really hard about offering value. The New York Times is one example. A great growth in digital products, investing in the product and good journalism and then thinking ‘how do we get it to the people in a form they want to consume it?’ It’s really hard work and takes money and investment.
What will it look like? It will be primarily online and digital. Whether that’s broadcast or print. Some big brands will make it through, some will fall by the wayside and there will also be a plethora of small niche services too.
People need high quality information as much or more than ever. And they need news organisations to help filter and curate the information they need. Technology has transformed how that can happen – and we are all still catching up with its capabilities and new ways of offering news. But if the need is there, business can follow.