Can Real News Be Rescued?

10 Mar 2017

With insidious fake news popping up all over, the late Wolfgang Donsbach’s reflections on the interaction of society and media bear reflection. Below is an excerpt from his chapter in What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Media.

“One of the most important properties of a functioning democracy is an informed and participant public and a vivid public opinion,” writes Wolfgang Donsbach. “These citizens need a communications environment that offers valid facts and analyses about social reality about a variety of topics and viewpoints.”

Yet in the new digital media environment, sifting what’s valid from what is not becomes a more difficult task.  In the following except from his chapter in What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Media, Donsbach offers some suggestions…

There is always hope that things will not be as bad as scholars describe and project them. Provided that no major crises occur people will continue to “muddle through their lives” and be citizens of some kind. But the question is: of what kind and with what personal input to the political discourse and the development of their societies? What can media do to provide the kind of orientation needed?

Because professional journalism produces content of a different kind, citizens need to become aware of this difference to other forms of communication. How and where can this awareness and the criteria for distinction be conveyed? The first place that comes to mind is in schools. We have reasons to believe that professional media and their distinction from other forms of communication, particularly social media, play less and less role in education. Because students are excited about Facebook and friends, teachers feel urged to deal more with those phenotypes than with professional media institutions off- and online.

Other places for conveying the criteria of distinction are the media themselves. I have not seen powerful campaigns yet in which news media organizations advertise what makes their products different – and in many aspects better - than blogs. On the contrary, early on in the internet era, media institutions have made themselves a “me-too product” to the new forms of semi- and non-professional journalism. It is hard but not impossible to change course.

Professional media must prove every day that they are indeed different. So, we need a quality offensive by media and this means investment and not cut-backs in newsrooms. There is not only a meritocratic argument for this but also an economic one: US Newspapers with cutbacks in the newsroom have lost, and those that have invested in journalistic manpower have gained revenues. We again have reasons to believe that the trend is going the other direction. But maybe the economic argument speaks in a more powerful way to CEOs than does the democratic-theory one.

Related to this second point, journalism must be re-invented in the first place and its education revised. The two basic social functions of the profession, i.e. validity and shared reality require different handling and presentation than in the past. This is what Hjarvard and others call the “new knowledge profession”, a very different assignment to journalists than in the past. As the Carnegie Corporation wrote in its programmatic paper for the Future of Journalism-project: “[We] need the help of journalists who are superbly trained, intellectually rigorous, steeped in knowledge about the subjects they report on, steadfast about their ethical standards and courageous in their pursuit of truth”.

Finally, many quality content offers by professional news providers are – from a societal point of view – not-effective if they are not used by a considerable proportion of the population. Inevitably, it is again the schools that come into play. But rather than normative appeals to the qualities of the good citizen, again more utilitarian arguments might make the difference. When we can show that consuming the news correlates with a better material life this might trigger motivations. I have not seen this argument in the media’s self-advertisements either.

Such measures can help improve awareness of the importance of the previous roles of media in creating citizens and public participation. We cannot expect that the roles will be carried out in the same manner in the digital age as in the past, or that the public will suddenly alter its media behaviors, but increased public understanding of the need for social and political orientation may produce new ways of pursuing them.