Posted by Professor Richard Sambrook
Professor Richard Sambrook, recently went “head to head” with Bruno Torturra, the founder of Brazil’s citizen journalism project, Midia Ninja, on the strengths and weaknesses of old versus new media. This article originally appeared in the Index On Censorship Magazine, June 2014.
The “big media” face a crisis of economics and a crisis of credibility. Small media are certainly driving the modern news agenda. Firstly, because they are a way to connect and map public interest. And also because the so-called big media are having difficulties spreading their coverage across all the issues that now matter to people.
Credit: Mark Boardman (www.mark-boardman.com)
We started Mídia Ninja [the Ninja comes from Narrativas Independentes, Jornalismo e Ação and translates as “Independent Narrative Journalism and Action”] in 2011, because we wanted to create web shows and TV in cities and regions across Brazil that barely have local media. It was also to open a new frontier in free debate and speech, which are being constrained by the consolidation of mainstream media. It’s not traditional censorship, but big media do present a monolithic narrative worldwide, which alienates lots of people. The cable news in the USA is a good example. MSBC, Fox and even CNN are much more defined by their narratives than their news or scoops. Their public follows them not necessarily because of their trustworthiness, but because of their narratives.
Most people in the world today still find out their news from big media. The internet and social media have revitalised news, information and how we learn about the world – and will continue to do so. However, that does not mean we should abandon, ignore or tear up the best of the past. There is much wrong with big media, but also much that is right and good, which has been learned in the crucible of pressurised news coverage of major events over many decades. That should be recognised and built upon.
Big newspapers and broadcasters are still at the heart of the major issues – for the obvious reasons that they have the reach or circulation to ensure a story is read, seen or heard by the most people. As a consequence, big media have influence – with politicians, with business, with opinion formers, as well as with their audience or readers. They also have the resources and institutional weight to take on vested interests and withstand pressure – for example, The Guardian with the Snowden revelations.
There is much wrong with big media but there is also much that is right and good
Large news organisations can afford to employ full-time media lawyers, they can engage barristers to fight their corner in court, they have the budgets to resist being sued and they have the institutional weight that will make some think twice before embarking on malicious legal action. Small companies often have none of this and, as such, are more vulnerable to legal pressures and to making less informed decisions when under political attack.
I believe big media have failed in many ways. The democratisation of public dialogue should have provoked a huge change in economics, ethics and language. The media should have become more plural and accountable. To be brief: they failed us by fighting a wave they could have surfed.
I believe this has to do with two things: changing metrics (instead of just clicks, circulation and numbers, focus on engagement and quality of the buzz); and changing income streams (instead of adverts, invest in events, education and public debates, and engage in changing public policy). It’s also important to understand something basic: digitalisation of information is not just a technological advance. It demands a change in mentality and a change in the meaning of journalism.
We were planning to build our company much more slowly. Then the huge protests came along in Brazil. The official narrative was the usual one: that protesters were vandals who started the violence. Way more airtime was given to rubbish bins being burned than unarmed people being beaten by the police. There were no discussions at all about the constitutional rights of protesters. Apart from some brave photographers, there were barely any reporters on the ground.
Because of our agility, our national presence and the way we challenge the official and predictable media narrative, we were catapulted to fame in days. Hundreds of people joined, we were able to cover more than 100 cities and produce tons of information. But it was a process that was impossible to manage. So, instead of trying to control it, we opened the network and gave absolute freedom to our collaborators and reporters. Mídia Ninja triggered a national debate about the role and definition of journalism.
We were able, countless times, to change the public conversation about the country’s protests, police violence, the public workers’ strikes. We didn’t rely on big broadcasters picking up the story. Every single time we made the “big news” it was because it already was a huge story, already spreading out on the web. Of course, it had to do with the quality and relevance of our material, but also because of the public disappointment with the big media, and the hunger for a new way of producing and narrating news.
What citizen journalism is good at is providing evidence from the ground that mainstream organisations have been unable to get, and providing an outlet for a greater range of voices. But citizen journalism is no more or less “the truth” than any other kind of journalism. It may have an authenticity because it appears to be broadcast or published directly without the filters of editors and organisations in between. However, the term is increasingly confusing and unhelpful, I think. What many call citizen journalism is activism, lobbying or professional journalism delivered by different means and with a different flavour.
I believe good journalism – at any level – should apply a discipline of verification, evidence, analysis and explanation to provide high-quality information to the public. In theory, anyone can do that. In practice, it takes skill and experience.
There are incredibly brave individuals in Syria using their mobile phones to tell the world about the conflict there. But, at the other end of the scale, there are hoaxers, trying to con the public into believing something that isn’t true. And there’s every shade in between. That’s why it’s increasingly important for the public to be media literate, to be able to assess and understand what they are seeing. One role for professional media is to do that for the public. Trusted brands among big media can verify, aggregate and curate information – including citizen journalism – so the public understand what they are consuming.
People ask if we can trust citizen journalism, but I could also ask: how can we trust conventional journalism? I believe the same process that empowered citizens as reporters, will soon empower them to be fact-checkers, pundits, ombudsmen. A multiple, more diverse media environment tends to be more trustworthy as a whole. The same premise is behind the very idea of democracy. Can we trust citizen journalists? The best answer I can give you is “as much as you can trust the citizen”.
If we make a mistake, we correct it. Often we’re called out by the public: fact-checking is a public activity now. We’ve apologised not only about errors, but also when we regret an opinion or position, expressed by us or a collaborator. This is crucial to us.
Some distortion is, unfortunately, intrinsic to human communication. I believe that citizen networks can be more accountable and self-correct more quickly by their very nature. Reputation is of the essence.
Citizen journalism is no more or less the truth than any other kind of journalism
Given the horrible quality of online comments in general – here in Brazil, the comments box is often a playground for haters, trolls and racists – I can understand how some big newspapers don’t open to comments, but it’s almost futile. People will comment and share it anyway on social media.
If we didn’t have citizen journalists, the world would be less democratic, less informed, less interesting and with a much more entrenched political elite.
The public do need to trust the media. Accountability is a clear part of that. What happens if the public have a complaint that isn’t recognised as legitimate by a Mídia Ninja? Is there any form of arbitration or process where they can get their concerns addressed? Simply saying “We will apologise if we make a mistake” is good as far as it goes, but news coverage is more complicated than that. Sometimes organisations don’t recognise they have made mistakes and the public feel powerless to get a legitimate concern recognised.
Do big media companies bring higher standards and tougher regulations? It’s not black or white. Broadcasters in the UK are regulated to be impartial and to follow a code of conduct. Newspapers aren’t. Yet there are some newspapers that have very high editorial standards and there are occasions when broadcasters don’t. The debate over press regulation in the UK following the Leveson inquiry has been about how to make the press accountable without infringing its independence. That conundrum hasn’t yet been solved.
Small media are still learning to be more autonomous and dig out stories on their own
However, most big news organisations have a code of conduct and a complaints procedure. Corporate media have shareholders to whom they are accountable. Small media often don’t have any form of public accountability.
Editing is our biggest challenge. During the riots, it was a chaotic process. As we never had a proper office or official positions, the editing was being done on the go – on mobile phones – or sometimes not at all.
It’s also important to recognise that small media are still driven by the big media. Small media are still learning to be more autonomous and capable of digging out stories on their own. We’re getting there.
Would the big media of today collapse without small companies feeding into them? My short answer would be yes. But the biggest menace to them is their own commercial and centralised mentality – the idea that information is, first and foremost, a business, and an essentially competitive one. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be. Certainly media enterprises have to generate money, that goes without saying, but the resources have to come from an economy based on collaboration, not mere competition.
We can come up with more diverse and creative ways of financing media. We live in the age in which the public are no longer passive. The ideal, in my opinion, is for new media companies to be financed directly by the public: from donations, parties, courses, lectures, taxpayers’ money (in some cases), foundations, the products we produce. Smaller and more agile outlets don’t need much money.
I hope that small companies, collectives and more agile media players will help to update the big media. It would be sad and dangerous to see big newspapers, TV channels and media groups go bankrupt. But it’s up to them to get their acts together.
There is often an assumption that the tenets of social media will increasingly be necessary for success (collaboration, open working, networked coverage). However, many of the most successful media companies work in almost the opposite way – they are closed, dictatorial, highly directional. And they produce material the public enjoy and pay for in significant numbers. The MailOnline (the UK Daily Mail’s website) with its celebrity coverage is an obvious example: highly profitable, globally popular, but there is nothing collaborative, or open about it. In the end, the public decide what they want to consume – and it will include some small media examples, some open and collaborative models, but it will also continue to include big media acting like big media for the foreseeable future.
I’m not sure I’d agree that big media would collapse without the smaller players, but it would certainly be a lot less interesting. They might well stagnate, which is not quite the same thing. Small media can innovate, can take creative risks, in ways big media can’t or find it very difficult to do. That innovation is vital in media, including in news. And the innovation that starts somewhere small can swiftly grow to become mainstream. Look at how data journalism has come through to be an important part of our information diet.
Big and small media can be complementary. Take Channel 4, one of the UK’s major broadcasters: it was established explicitly to commission production from the independent sector, which has led to a diversity of voices and the nurturing of production and on-screen talent that might have struggled to succeed elsewhere. Also look at the freelance journalists who have found their work in major news outlets. It doesn’t always work harmoniously – but corporate and independent media can support and complement each other to the benefit of all.
Ultimately, as an avid news consumer, I benefit by being able to have all forms of media, from all over the world, available to me at my fingertips.
Richard Sambrook is the director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and former director of the BBC World Service
Bruno Torturra is a journalist and founder of Brazilian citizen journalism network Mídia Ninja