On February 26, I took part in a panel at the MIT forum called "Is democracy dying?" with Daron Acemoglu, professor at the MIT and the author of 'Why Nations Fail?', and Yascha Mounk, Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard. Here is more or less what I said in the introduction.
I’m gonna start by reading something to you.
“Readers were writing me, accusing The Post of ulterior motives, bad journalism, lack of patriotism, and all kinds of breaches of faith in our effort to get the news to the people. It was a particularly lonely moment for us at the paper.”
This is from Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post.
She wrote this in her memoir about how was Watergate just a few months before President Nixon was forced to resign.
There are many lessons in her book, Personal History. One lesson is the importance of perspective. We think about the Watergate era as the golden age for journalism and trust in the media in the U.S.
In fact, Gallup started to measure trust in the media in 1972 and those were the years where the media was most trusted in America. At its peak, more than 70% of Americans said they trusted the media. 70. That same poll by Gallup is showing now around 40%.
We sometimes long for the past, but in reality the readers of the Washington Post were complaining to Katharine Graham while the Government was dismissing the scoops of what became an institutional crisis. Sounds familiar?
It’s easy to be nostalgic, but the truth is the struggle we are living now as reporters and as readers is not so new or impossible to conquer.
Even if everything is more complex since mobile phones and social media have changed the way we deal with information.
When I started working in a newsroom in the 90s the interaction with readers was the list of the crazy calls of the day that someone answering the phone would relate to reporters. Usually late night calls from a lonely guy. Often someone would show up to the newsroom with a gift or some secret file in a briefcase.
Once in a blue moon that produced some actual news. Once in several blue moons. Now the audience is part of our daily job as journalists. That’s not a bad thing, although it could be tricky.
I have covered four Presidential campaigns in the U.S. and many others in Europe. What I saw covering the 2016 Presidential campaign and the first months of the Trump Administration was... different.
As a reporter, I was challenged constantly by campaign and other officials, the candidate and his voters on social media and in real life. I’ve covered the campaign for Univision and sometimes just the mention of my outlet made Trump voters not wanting to talk to me and made them giving me long speeches about immigration that I did not ask for. I struggled listening to voters enumerating lies.
I wondered if I should say something or I should keep listening and kind of smiling... That’s what you do when you interview ordinary people who are giving you their time, their stories. Smile, listen, smile.
At the same time, my stories had more impact, more readers, than anytime before. We reached people we couldn’t reach in the past. Social media is now a platform for hate, insults, and harassment.
But it is also still a place where you can find sources, double check people’s identities and once in a while have a constructive conversation. It’s not all bad. Perhaps the biggest change in society is happening in part because of a hashtag, #metoo. It wouldn’t exist if it were not for the months of reporting of three journalists at The New York Times and The New Yorker.
The Times story, and The New Yorker’s and others, wouldn’t have had that impact without the biggest readership ever because of their online presence in their website, their podcast and social media. Or maybe without that hashtag.
It’s hard to imagine how a group of brave, articulate teenagers from a high school in Parkland would have had the power to challenge directly politicians and companies if it weren’t for the impact of their messages on social media and of course also on CNN, broadcast live and online forever.
Print circulation keeps falling and the media have a dangerous problem: it’s not clear how to make money.
In the case of medium-size outlets and local outlets there may be no way out. Meanwhile there was never a time when more people read and have access to high quality, professional news. The New York Times has 2.6 million online subscribers, 2.6 million readers who are paying. The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, more than 1 million. And those are facts, beyond polls. Besides, they are new ways of consuming journalism.
I think one mistake in measuring the health of the media, or democracy, is just looking at the old parameters. The public, especially the younger people, may not be into reading a print copy of the Times every day but many are listening every day to a podcast called The Daily that it’s one year old. Episodes from The Daily have been downloaded more than 200 million times. 200 million.
The same way we cannot measure anymore political interest in terms of membership to unions or political parties, we need to come up with new ways of measuring the relationship between the media and the readers, viewers, listeners. People on the business side are doing that already.
The questions in polls can be tricky. If you ask “do you trust the media?”, you get one result that is usually low.
But if you ask “do you trust YOUR media, the outlet that you read or listen to”, you get a higher result. Even if you ask the question in a more specific way. If you ask if the news media are doing a good job in reporting news about government leaders and officials, in reporting news accurately or the most important news events, around 60% of people say yes. This is from Pew Research.
Beyond polls and subscriptions, we can all see how hard it is to convey the truth to a part of the population, who is becoming unwittingly the perfect target for propaganda with darker goals than win an election. We now have many details on the Russian operations to discredit democracy in the U.S. and Europe. Platforms as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have a big task ahead.
And also media organizations, which struggle to get the business model right and assert themselves in a world that is fragmented, often confusing. As reporters the only way forward is doing our job without ulterior motives, with an ideal of fairness and distance that gives us perspective and hopefully value. But there is also a share of responsibility for readers, viewers, if they care for their democracy, if you care about your democracy.
A few days ago, at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, we gave our annual prize to Elena Milashina, the Russian journalist who uncovered the persecution of gays in Chechnya.
Elena talked about a brief, golden moment in the 90s, when she began her career and there was press freedom in Russia, maybe the only time in the country’s history. She said freedom was given to the people and later taken from them in the same, quick manner. She said few people did care enough to fight for freedom, to affirm the importance of the free press for her country. Elena works at one of few newspapers that are still allowed to do their job, the Novaya Gazeta. But this is the exception. If you don’t want press freedom to become an exception, support it.
We in the U.S., in most of Europe, are in a better place, but still we need enough people to care about press freedom, democracy, to keep it. It’s about protests, it’s about voting, it’s about organizing, it’s about subscribing. But also maybe about being careful on what you share and where it comes from. As a journalist, as a citizen.
We’ve seen now how hate and propaganda are big drivers of the conversation.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Facebook and Twitter know there is some regulation coming and, worse for them, they are suffering a backlash. A backlash against mobile addiction, privacy invasion and of course misinformation, propaganda and lies on social media. Probably they cannot afford to be complacent anymore. But as readers, and certainly as journalists, we have to work on it too.
We can’t give up the public sphere to trolls or extremists or representatives of authoritarian regimes.
I believe technology could help. There are several experiments to promote a better public debate, also here at the Media Lab, as Ethan Zuckerman is trying with gobo.social or Deb Roy with the creation of healthy indicators of conversation.
Responsible platforms are needed, but also journalists who do their job beyond the shiny illusion of clicks and the arrogance of believing we have the monopoly of public opinion. Journalists who focus on their mission to do a public service that sometimes it’s hard, but maybe now is more clear than ever. Support journalism. And please, think before you share.
Foto: Jerry Kiesewetter
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