Increasingly frequently, questions around credibility and intent are asked of today’s journalism. In an era of growing populism—and partisanship—how should the press handle itself and do justice to the role it is entrusted with? There is growing perception that much of journalism is not credible any longer, and that isn’t good news for the profession, or for society.
To make sense of where journalism is headed, we spoke with Brock Meeks, one of the pioneers of online journalism and founder of CyberWire Dispatch, the first online news publication set up in 1994, about how online news has impacted journalism, the democratisation of information (and misinformation), self-regulation and the ethics of journalism.
Unravel: As one of the pioneers of internet journalism, what are your views on online journalism as it stands today, particularly in relation to disinformation and misinformation?
Brock Meeks: As online journalism has evolved there has been an explosion of online “news” outlets. Most of the dilution in the online journalism sector comes in the form of niche publishing that is incredibly partisan in nature. It’s no wonder that the general news consumer has a sceptical attitude towards online media outlets owing to the way that these partisan journalism outlets play fast and loose with the facts. I even hesitate to associate the words “journalism” and “news” with these types of services. Most of them are rumour mongers, trafficking in screeching headlines meant to whip up fear of what they see as opposing political viewpoints.
Unravel: In many ways, online journalism has proven to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has democratised the flow of information and made it easily accessible to everyone. But on the other, it has also opened a pandora’s box in relation to authenticity of news. How can this be reconciled?
Mr Meeks: There’s a saying that the way you combat bad speech is with more speech; speech that is accurate, fact-based and reliable. But that conventional wisdom seems to be losing the fight to shady news organisations that traffic in rumour or support thinly veiled conspiracy theories. Reconciliation can only be achieved by the readers. It’s incumbent on readers to investigate and question the source of the news they consume. Sadly, too many readers are simply willing to suck up whatever drivel is shovelled up by their favourite fringe news organisation simply because it fits with their own twisted political point of view instead of asking tough questions about sourcing and reporting.
There is no need to hype facts, write bombastic ‘click bait’ headlines, just let the facts of the story play out in a logical manner. Good stories, no matter what they are about, will ultimately write themselves.
Unravel: Is self-regulation really the answer?
Mr Meeks: There’s no other choice. The only alternative is what…to have the government issue a standardised set of criteria that regulates the media? If that happens, suddenly an independent press is beholden to government bureaucrats, operating in ways that the government deems appropriate. That simply can’t exist if there is to be a truly free and independent press.
Unravel: In the past couple of years, we have often heard about the “death of journalism”. With the rise of populist leaders around the world who seem to have no patience for a free press, where do you see honest journalism heading?
Mr Meeks: Journalism can’t get defensive, second-guess itself. If that starts, then all journalists are doing is self-censoring and that’s no good for anyone. Populist leaders may have one notion of how the press should operate, but they do so at great risk. Popular support for a free and independent press is alive and well, with majorities in Europe, North America and Latin America saying it’s “very important” to have freedom of the press. And support for freedom of the press has increased in several countries since 2015. I have continued faith in the future of honest journalism. Despite a huge percentage of the public having a negative view of mainstream media, I believe the public, at its core, hungers for solid journalism and news they can trust.
Unravel: Given we are in an age in which higher viewership ratings/ readership numbers are critical in driving ad revenues (and arguably the sustainability or viability of news outlets), how can journalists and their employers imbibe the right values to ensure the ethics of good journalism are preserved?
Mr Meeks: A journalism mentor told me early in my career: “Good stories write themselves.” What he meant was that there is no need to hype facts, write bombastic ‘click bait’ headlines, just let the facts of the story play out in a logical manner. Good stories, no matter what they are about—be it raisins or race relations—will ultimately write themselves if the journalist has done proper reporting. As long as journalists stick to the basics of reporting the facts and honestly providing space for both sides of the story to be heard, journalists and journalism will be alright.
There’s a saying that the way you combat bad speech is with more speech; speech that is accurate, fact-based and reliable. But that conventional wisdom seems to be losing the fight to shady news organisations that traffic in rumour or support thinly veiled conspiracy theories.
Unravel: Across the world, we are seeing what many would view as a mockery of journalism, wherein news publications and/ or studios are judge, jury and executioner. How do you think this impacts public opinion and the law itself?
Mr Meeks: Well, I don’t think it affects the law at all; however, its impact in the court of public opinion is quite another matter. The trouble here is that the audience is woefully inept at separating “news” from “opinion”. This is particularly true for broadcast media. People watch the talking heads on TV and take what they say as being news, when most of the time these folks are merely expressing their personal opinions on a news event or situation. So, the public simply has to become more informed and better able to parse opinion from fact.
Unravel: The chief editor of an Indian publication recently said: “Good journalism is not dying; it is getting better and bigger. It’s just that bad journalism makes a lot more noise than it used to…” Would you agree? Why or why not?
Mr Meeks: Well, that’s a great line. I totally agree with him. Bad journalism makes more noise because it’s finding a welcoming audience. I think a majority of people would much rather read something that tickles their ears rather than read a solidly reported, hard-hitting investigative story.
I realise my comments here put a lot of pressure on the news consumer to do a better job, that’s not to excuse sloppy journalism. Certainly, there is plenty of shoddy journalism happening, even at reputable news outlets.
I think the majority of journalists today are lazy; they reach for the easy quote; they have a small stable of sources that they go to over and over again rather than cultivate a robust network of experts. And they rely far too much on the computer and the internet for their research and reporting. There’s a lot to be said for getting off your ass and out from behind a desk and actually interviewing a source face-to-face. In America, we call that “shoe leather” journalism and we need more of it.