Way too much talk, research, and handwringing are all about how to stop people from seeing or believing disinformation, such as the latest conspiracy theories. But pushing governments and platforms or anyone to censor information is not only ineffective in the digital age, but also likely to be dysfunctional – such as in activating the proverbial Barbara Streisand effect. You will only generate more interest in the information you want to censor. Moreover, you will not communicate the facts, narrative, or truth, as you see it.
Alternatively, think about two other ways to grapple with misinformation.
First, place greater trust in people – Internet users, for example, to be more intelligent and more discerning. Almost every empirical study of how people actually use the Internet and related digital technologies like social media indicates that most people who are interested in a topic will look at multiple sources of information.* If they are uncertain or suspicious of one source, they will double or triple check the information, such as by using search or going to a trusted source, such as Wikipedia or an official Web site. Most theories that frighten us about being caught in an echo chamber or filter bubble of false information are technologically deterministic and do not look carefully at how people actually look for and use information. It is clear that the proponents of censorship almost always assume that people are stupid. Only they know how to find the correct information!
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, put more effort into communicating the right news, information, or facts, rather than trying to block other information. It seems increasingly clear to me that too many government agencies and academic institutions – as two examples – are too complacent about reaching their audiences. They might set up a Web site, and post a report online, but not really put major effort into reaching out to ensure that a larger audience is aware of the work, can access it, and understand its message. Think about popular conspiracy theories, like QAnon. They have an evolving narrative, a distributed network of people sharing and helping to distribute their messages. They are motivated and creative in getting this information out. Legitimate and more authoritative sources of information need to be just as clever, if not cleverer and more motivated and ingenious in figuring how a narrative and various outlets will help them reach their audiences in not only digestible but compelling ways.
In the case of QAnon, I agree with a recent post by Abby Ohlheiser that it’s ‘too late to stop QAnon with fact checks and account bans’.** But it is not too late to stop being complacent about how you and your colleagues and organization communicate in this digital world. You need to be creative, smart and motivated to reach audiences. You may be an authority in your own eyes, but few people will come to you as a source of information. Putting something online won’t suffice. If you or your unit has important information, such as about protecting yourself in a pandemic, then you need to reach out to audiences that matter using all the tools available on Twitter, WordPress, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, and via the press.
As hypocrite in chief, at least I am writing this blog. But far more would need to be done in order to communicate this message. Agree?
* For example, see: Dutton, W. H., Reisdorf, B. C., Blank, G., Dubois, E., and Fernandez, L. (2019), ‘The Internet and Access to Information About Politics: Searching Through Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Disinformation’, pp. 228-247 in Graham, M., and Dutton, W. H. (eds), Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information and Communication are Changing our Lives, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. An earlier version of this paper is online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960697
The fight against conspiracy theories and other fake news about the coronavirus crisis is receiving more help from the social media and other tech platforms, as a number of thought leaders have argued. However, in my opinion, a more important factor has been more successful outreach by governmental, industry, and academic researchers. Too often, the research community has been too complacent about getting the results of their research to opinion leaders and the broader public. Years ago, I argued that too many scientists held a ‘trickle down’ theory of information dissemination. Once they publish their research, their job is done, and others will read and disseminate their findings.
Even today, too many researchers and scientists are complacent about outreach. They are too focused on publication and communication with their peers and see outreach as someone else’s job. The coronavirus crisis has demonstrated that governments and mainstream, leading researchers, can get their messages out if they work hard to do so. In the UK, the Prime Minister’s TV address, and multiple press conferences have been very useful – the last reaching 27 million viewers in the UK, becoming one of the ‘most watched TV programmes ever’, according to The Guardian. In addition, the government distributed a text message to people across the UK about it rules during the crisis. And leading scientists have been explaining their findings, research, and models to the public, with the support of broadcasters and social media.
If scientists and other researchers are complacent, they can surrender the conversation to creative and motivated conspiracy theorists and fake news outlets. In the case of Covid-19, it seems to be that a major push by the scientific community of researchers and governmental experts and politicians has shown that reputable sources can be heard over and amongst the crowd of rumors and less authoritative information. Rather than try to censor or suppress social media, we need to step-up efforts by mainstream scientific communities to reach out to the public and political opinion leaders. No more complacency. It should not take a global pandemic crisis to see that this can and should be done.
 Marietje Schaake (2020), ‘Now we know Big Tech can tackle the ‘infdemic’ of fake news’, Financial Times, 25 March: p. 23.
 Dutton, W. (1994), ‘Trickle-Down Social Science: A Personal Perspective,’ Social Sciences, 22, 2.
I watched the Iowa caucuses on Monday, February 3, 2020, from the UK. Good coverage came from a remote caucus in Florida – one of Iowa’s 87 satellite caucuses – in addition to 1,678 precinct caucuses. In that particular satellite caucus, Iowa voters, sunbirds residing during the winter months in Florida, seemed to be in a gymnasium. Each individual participant moved to a particular corner or location depending on the candidate they wished to support. If their candidate did not have a sufficient percentage of supporters, then they could move to one of the groups that did. Those in the more populated groups could not move, but there was obviously much discussion and toing and froing among the voters as they were urged to join with others.
Journalists were singing praises for the Iowa caucuses as nothing less that democracy in action. Watching volunteers and citizens debating and sorting themselves by their preferred candidate was inspiring. It was beautiful. Citizens were not simply rolling over on their couch to vote for a candidate but committing themselves in public and debating about the choice before them. Of course, not everyone can come to a caucus, but more caucuses were held and some after working hours to maximize access. Likewise, the satellites enabled citizens to vote even if not currently in Iowa.
But suddenly, just as the preliminary tallies were expected to be shown, and with media pundits anxious to discuss the meaning of the early returns, it was not to happen. Unexplained delays, followed by notification of problems reconciling the numbers across the different methods used to tally all the caucuses, and problems with the new ap being used to support these tallies, and finally partial returns.
Days later, the votes were counted and despite a close race between Bernie Sanders, the popular vote winner, and Pete Buttigieg, who edged out as the delegate winner (13-12), criticism focused on the delays and not on the overall shape of the final results.
But a torrent of criticism focused on early discrepancies, errors, and discrepanies in the tallies, which led to delay in reporting, and the process, which was slammed as unacceptable. Nathan Robinson in The Guardian called it a mess, a debacle, and a ‘blow to American faith in democracy.’ These problems have been the focus of much good journalism, but did they forget the major story? Instantly, a beautiful display of democratic practice was turned into an American debacle.
Commentators — as soon as on the very night of the caucuses — were posing sanctions on Iowa’s Democratic Party, saying that they should not be allowed to hold caucuses again, and that Iowa should no longer be the first primary in the election season. Iowa was going to pay for this screw-up for the candidates and the media.
Personally, I have not seen many if any candidate or media pundit go to the defense of Iowa. This is a shame. Discussion focused on whom to blame for the problems. Should it be the state party, the national party apparatus, the ap developer, the ap, the volunteers who couldn’t use it effectively, or some conspiracy. I did find a wonderful letter from Julie Riggs, a contributor to Iowa View in the Des Moines Register, days after the crisis, which claimed that the ‘Iowa caucuses are an American treasure’. She exclaimed: ‘Don’t take our caucus away!’. I completely agree.
Somehow, the media lost the plot when their expectations were not met, and they were left stammering in front of the camera with nothing to report. Flipping the story to the cause of the delays could have real damage to the democratic process. Democracy should be more important than efficiency, and real democrats should not surrender control to the media. As Julie Riggs said in her piece, through participating in the cut and thrust of debate in the caucus, she had a ‘palpable feeling’ that ‘the people hold the power’. You do. So don’t give that up. The media and the candidates can just wait a few hours or days on the volunteers and citizens making sure they get this right. Democracy is inefficient. The media need to get over it.
As an American living in the UK, who is not a journalist, I’ve long looked at broadcast journalism in Britain as a model for the US to emulate. Over time, however, my confidence in the UK’s coverage has declined. Rather than simply complain, let me offer a few observations and suggestions. Most recently, after weeks of watching broadcast coverage of the 2019 election in the UK, my concern over the state of ‘quality journalism’ was reinforced.
A common rant over highly partisan news coverage is one aspect of the problem, as illustrated by Fox News and CNN in the US. But through much of this last UK election, it seemed both Conservative and Labour Party supporters, along with politicians from the minor parties, were accusing broadcasters of overly partisan favoritism. For example, Channel 4’s Jon Snow has been accused of having a liberal bias in anchoring their news coverage. But partisan bias aside, which is even more evident in the US, partisan coverage is not my primary concern in the British case.
More importantly, broadcast news in the UK seems to be facing problems of quality coverage in several related ways that cumulatively contribute to polarizing the political process and undermining the civility of political discourse. I’ll provide a few problematic patterns.
Over-Simplify and Over-Exaggerate
First, we increasingly hear less from the mouths of politicians and candidates for office and more from journalists and the members of the public at large. While not a bad turn in itself, it has had negative consequences.
When journalists provide their summary synthesis of a candidate or campaign, it is inevitably very brief and dramatic. One could say this has long been guidance to even quality print news reporters: simplify and then exaggerate. This surely distorts news coverage, but broadcast journalism is particularly vulnerable due to the tremendous pressure to be exceedingly brief and conclusive – ending with a catchy theme. So leading journalists are led to over-simplify and over exaggerate and in the process, seldom allow politicians and candidates to speak for themselves. Perhaps news producers see politicians as too nuanced and long winded for live television news coverage, and more difficult to access and interview that their journalistic surrogates. But the resulting simplification and exaggeration can be misleading and polarizing.
Dramatically Contrasting Competing Points of View
A popular format for 2019 election coverage was moving a broadcasting crew across the UK to visit cities, towns, and villages that ‘represented’ leave, remain, or divided opinions on the Britain’s future in the EU. And during each stop, the team would broadcast short snippets of interviews with people on the street, in the pub, or in their homes. The idea of getting the views from the street was good, but these interviews sought out diverse, colorful, and often caustic viewpoints. One would call a candidate for office a liar, another would call a candidate a racist, and so on. Often, the interviews would end with concluding that the voters were forced to choose the lesser of various evils.
But of course, choosing four or five caustic or colorful interviewees off the street of any city is not truly representative, much less a systematic or scientific sampling of opinion. Rather than sampling opinions, the broadcasts showcase entertaining or jaw dropping insults, which convey a clear message: it is okay to insult the candidates for public office. This is cheap and quick and possibly entertaining, but it contributes to the toxicity and polarization of politics. Perhaps it is too costly to actually sample public opinion, but journalists should refrain from suggesting they are genuinely sampling opinion.
The Leading Question with No Such Thing as a Non-Opinion
An added element of interviews with the public is the prevalence of leading questions. With the journalist asking: “So you can’t really trust any of these candidates, can you?” What can you expect Joe or Joan public to say? Maybe the journalist discussed their views ahead of time, and simply want to push the interviewee to get to the point, but while going on air with a leading question might speed things up, it also leads journalists to over-simplify and exaggerate the public’s views. It may even create opinions when there are none. It is very common for members of the public to not have an opinion about many issues. Asking leading questions forces them to make up an opinion on the spot. This has been a well studied problem in survey research, when respondents are asked to respond to a question that they have no opinion about. It is also a problem for journalism that needs more study.
The Proverbial Horse Race
Finally, the public love a horse race encourages broadcasters to find a way to make any election into a horse race if at all possible. The weeks leading up to the 2019 UK election consistently showed a gap in the voting intentions in favor of the Conservative Party. But in the week and days before the election, pundits nervously claimed that there were signs of a narrowing of the polls, and a very real possibility of an upset. It not only didn’t happen, but post hoc, there seemed to be little sign of this narrowing, yet losers were more crushed than they might have otherwise been, and the winners were pleasantly surprised.
These are just a few examples of the ways in which journalistic practices might have gone wrong in ways that might well contribute to the toxicity of public discourse, and the polarization of public life. Perhaps this is not new. The old adage is that: If it bleeds, it leads. Notwithstanding, we are not just talking about car crashes but the coverage of candidates and elections for public office. People love to joke about politics and politicians. But journalistic coverage has gone beyond jokes to publicly cutting and insulting remarks that would come close to hate speech in another context.
This may well be a symptom of a decline of broadcast journalism that is driven by a raft of factors. More competition for the attention of viewers? Declining revenues and financing relative to demands? More focus on street reporting and immediacy, than on thoughtful synthesis? Efforts to entertain rather than to report? Whatever the causes, the problems may need to be recognized and agreed upon — that a problem exists and that there is a need to focus attention on higher quality journalism. There is a looming debate ahead over the future of public service broadcasting and that debate needs to address perceived risks to high quality broadcast journalism, and not become another example of sensational or exaggerated coverage.
Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of BBC News, and Katya Adler, the BBC’s Europe Editor, are the two most powerful journalists shaping the unfolding debate over Brexit. Almost alone, these two journalists are interpreting the activities around Brexit to the people of Britain.
It is hard to overstate the influence of the BBC on what the people of Britain know about the developments around Brexit. So in nearly every broadcast about Brexit, the BBC ends with an interpretation or synthesis of the apparent chaos by these two journalists. What is the state of play in the UK Parliament? Go to Laura. What are the 27 nations of the EU thinking about the latest proposal? Go to Katya.
These journalists are not news readers, or anchors. They have no obligation to simply report what the key actors have said. In fact, they very seldom indicate whom they have spoken with. Presumably, they have spoken to the key sources, so at the end of the day, they can authoritatively report their synthesis of what is going on for the people of Britain.
Laura Kuenssberg usually reports in or around Parliament, and Katya Adler usually reports from some vacant lot or empty mall in the midst of buildings in Brussels. For example, Katya might say, in less than a few minutes, that in speaking with leaders in the EU’s 27 nations, that they will support a delay. No attribution. No one is standing with them who could refute their views. They are the authority. They are the synthesis.
And their views do not even nod to neutrality, or reporting. Their syntheses of whomever in the world they have consulted or spoken to is presented as their authoritative views. They are not partisan political actors, but neutral journalists, which makes their viewpoints more powerful. But, of course, their views are anything but neutral and are shaping the future of Brexit.
How much more powerful could journalists be? How could the public put up with this journalistic interpretation of hugely partisan debates and decisions?
Should there be a response to their pronouncements? On Twitter, and other social media, you might well find corrections of errors of fact and interpretation by these commentators, but the public only watches TV. For example, I have never heard a criticism of any interpretation by any of these editors by another BBC journalist.
Surely the BBC and its editors have to be more sensitive to the influence of their statements. They are great communicators, and journalists, but they are too powerful for our own good.
Professor Noam has focused attention on what seems like a benign and economically rational technical shift from linear TV to online video. Most people have some experience with streaming video services, for example. But the longer term prospects of this shift could be major (we haven’t seen anything yet) and have serious social implications that drive regulatory change, and also challenge those charged with managing the media. What is the next generation of digital television? Can it be managed? Are the principles of business management applicable to new digital organizations?
The Principal of Green Templeton College, Professor Denise Lievesley opened the session and introduced the speaker, and two discussants: Professor Mari Sako, from the Saïd Business School, and Damian Tambini, from the Department of Media and Communication at LSE, and a former director of Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP). Following Eli Noam’s overview of several of the key themes developed in his books, and the responses of the discussants, the speakers fielded a strong set of questions from other participants. Overall, the talk and discussion focused less on the management issues, and more on the potential social implications of this shift and the concerns they raised.
The social implications are wide ranging, including a shift towards more individualized, active, emersive, and global media. There will be some of the ‘same old same old’, but also ‘much more’ that brings many perspectives on the future of television into households. The concerns raised by these shifts include threats to privacy and security to even shorter attention spans – can real life compete with sensational emersion in online video? Perhaps the central concern of the discussion focused around media concentration, and not only in cloud services, such as offered by the big tech companies, but also in national infrastructures, content, and devices.
This led to a discussion of the policy implications arising from such concerns, particularly in the aftermath of 2016 elections, mainly around the efforts to introduce governmental regulation of the global online companies and governmental pressures on platforms to censor their own content. This surfaced some debate over the cross-national and regional differences in approaches to freedom of expression and media regulation. While there were differences of opinion on the need and nature of greater regulation, there did seem to be little disagreement with Eli’s argument that many academics seem to have moved from being cheerleaders to fear mongering, when we should all seek to be ‘thought leaders’ in this space, given that academics should have the independence from government and the media, and an understanding informed by systematic research versus conventional wisdom across the world.
Eli is one of the world’s leading scholars on digital media and management, and his latest books demonstrate his command of this area. One of the speakers referred to his latest tome as an MBA in a box. The text has a version for undergraduate and graduate courses, but every serious university library should have them in their collection.
Eli Noam has been Professor of Economics and Finance at the Columbia Business School since 1976 and its Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility. He has been the Director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information, and one of the key advisors to the Oxford Internet Institute, having served on its Advisory Board since its founding in 2001 through the Institute’s first decade.
His new books on digital media and organizations have been praised by a range of digital and media luminaries, from Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, to the former CEO of Time Warner, Gerald Levin and former CTO of HBO, Robert Zitter.
The Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) has been an “informal forum hosted by Ofcom, for consumer representation to share information and views with each other , and with people who formulate and implement communications politics that affect consumers.” With announcements of new champions for communication consumers in the news, the CFC will no longer be hosted by Ofcom, but it might continue at least in the short -term as it is largely supported by the voluntary contributions of members’ time and expertise, at least until new consumer advocates are concretely launched.
I’ve had the pleasure of participating in the forum since I returned to Britain in July of last year, and have found it to be an inspiring group of committed consumer advocates, representing the various groups of consumers from the general public to more specialised constituencies, such as blind and disabled users of telecommunications, who use British Sign Language as a first language. Forum participants essentially share their observations about developments across the UK and worldwide to raise issues of importance to Ofcom, the industry, and all concerned about supporting the future of communication, telecommunication, and increasingly digital media and communication.
Yesterday, I attended their last meeting under the auspices of Ofcom, and wanted to thank Ofcom for supporting the CFC for many years, but particularly thank the most recent chair, my colleague Roger Darlington, who has been a champion for online child safety before I ever met him, and has chaired a wide array of other public interest groups. He has a blog called ‘Roger Darlington’s World‘, which would be of value to anyone with a serious interest in consumers. Yesterday, Roger completed his 19th meeting as chair over four and one half years.
So let me join all the participants of the CFC and Ofcom in thanking Roger for his service to the forum and consumers of communication. His colleague, Claire Milne, a Visiting Senior Fellow in Media and Communications at LSE, has agreed to shepherd the forum into the next phase of its existence, with all of us hoping that the need for consumer advocates will disappear in the foreseeable future. Best wishes to Roger, Claire, and all the varied categories of consumer (producers) of communication. Much work remains to be done.
The TPRC is seeking to select up to 6 TPRC Junior Fellows – early-career researchers engaged in research on the Internet, telecommunication and media policy in the digital age. Please nominate individuals whom you think might make outstanding fellows. Those who have wond student paper awards at the TPRC conference as well as those who served Benton Award winners could be candidates, but we are open to anyone you feel to have the potential to do outstanding research on key issues for the TPRC, and engage other early-career researchers in our activities.
The TPRC Junior Fellows Program was designed in part to award excellence but also tobring new members into the TPRC community. Those appointed will be honoured and serve as ambassadors for TPRC, working pro bono and appointed to two-year terms by the Board. Junior Fellows will be emerging scholars with good connections to their peers, including but not limited to successful TPRC paper presenters and alumni of the Graduate Student Consortium and Benton Award.
TPRC hopes that Junior Fellows will help broaden the TPRC community, and improve the participation of underrepresented groups, such as young academics, certain disciplines not traditionally involved in telecom research who are engaged in new media and digitial policy, and those engaged in new research areas, as well as those who bring greater diversity to our community, including women, minorities, and under-represented groups.
The TPRC Board anticipates that Fellows will disseminate information about TPRC on their personal networks, and identify and engage 1-1 with prospective attendees and encourage them to participate in TPRC. In return, TPRC will recognize Fellows on the TPRC web site, and publicly welcome new appointees during the conference, and provide material and mentoring to support their outreach mission. Of course, the Early Career Fellows will be able to list this service on their resumes. Each Fellow will have a designated Board liaison, who will check in periodically to discuss support needed and progress made. TPRC will aim to support your career.
We’re looking for people that meet as many of the following criteria as possible. None of them are required qualifications; we don’t expect that anyone will check all the boxes.
From under-represented groups, including women and minorities
Working in new research areas and those under-represented at TPRC
Academic talent and promise
Good network of contacts, e.g. active on social media
I joined up with Brian Loader in 1998 as a co-founder to help launch a new journal, Information Communication and Society(iCS) with Taylor and Francis Routledge. In our first year, we began with four issues per year, and most of our then small number of readers were located in the UK. Since stepping down as an editor, while staying on the Board, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the editorial team this week, and had an update that was heartening – even exciting – in every way.
Over the past 20 years of its existence, iCS has become a truly global journal, publishing 14 (yes, 14) issues per year. It is on- as well as off-line, with all articles published online as soon as they have gone through final proofing – months ahead of their publication in print form through a policy of online first. In 2018, there were 362K downloads of iCS articles, up 23 percent from the previous year. Its impact factor has risen to 3.084 and readership puts it top of all sociology journals in the UK, and 7th worldwide. It is 5th in communication worldwide. All upwardly slopping curves.
The journal was put together early in the rise of Internet and new media studies. Its mission was to draw ‘together the most current work upon the social, economic and cultural impact of the emerging properties of the new information and communications technologies’ in order to be ‘at the centre of contemporary debates about the information age’. So its success is due in large part to its central position in a burgeoning substantive area. It also has enjoyed a strong team, led by Brian Loader, and a supportive publisher in Routledge a member of Taylor and Francis.
In a recent online discussion about another more niche academic journal, several colleagues pronounced the end of print journals. My experience with iCS underscores the degree that print journals, like iCS, are routinely online as well as in print, and they are very much alive and well. They take time and hard work to build a dedicated community of scholars, but they remain one of the main channels of communication in academia, including the social and economic sciences, such as in cultural and Internet studies.
As a student of, and advocate for, digital citizens of the Fifth Estate, I have been seriously interested in journalism studies. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a symposium organized by the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University by virtue of being a Visiting Professor at the School this year. It was entitled ‘Distinctive Roles for Public Service Journalism in Challenging Times’. The event brought practitioners, mainly from the BBC, together with academics, for a set of well-chosen topics, outlined below. The symposium adhered to the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t attribute quotes to individuals, but I will try to capture some of the ways in which the discussions stimulated my own thinking about ‘public service journalism’ in the Internet Age.
Held on 27 November, the one-day event was organized by Professor Stephen Coleman at Leeds, and Ric Bailey, from the BBC, who is a Visiting Professor at Leeds. I presume that Ric Bailey took a strong role with Stephen in bringing speakers from the BBC and Ric moderated the entire day of discussion. This academic-practitioner collaboration was key to the day’s success.
The symposium began with a presentation by Joanna Carr, Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, who covered key challenges facing public service broadcasters. This was followed immediately by a panel led by Joanna and John Corner, a Visiting Professor in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, formerly based at Liverpool University,on the challenges of reporting and explaining complex issues covered by the media, such as ‘austerity’, climate change, or Brexit. The presentation and panel drove home some key themes for me of the entire day – mainly around the thought and craft that professional journalists put into their strategies for putting audiences at the heart of their work.
I approached this panel with some level of skepticism about complexity as an issue. First, my own academic colleagues too often lament that their work is too complex to convey in a more accessible way. But they nevertheless come up with engaging titles for their books, and abstracts for their articles, so it is not impossible to simplify. Complexity is not an acceptable excuse for being unclear. Secondly, I can never forget an editor of a prestigious news magazine once telling me that she instructions to her writers was to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. I’m simplifying, but nevertheless her phrase worried me. Simplification might be a central problem facing journalism.
However, this panel won me over to the challenges facing good journalists. It drove home the degree that leading journalists are truly focused on reaching their audiences with coverage that is both engaging and understandable. As one speaker reminded us: “You can’t force people to eat their greens”, or to listen to their news coverage.
So the ‘craft skills’ that journalists bring to the table in selecting, defining, and communicating stories is a huge contribution to the public, what one panelist referred to as ‘BBC simplification’ is not to simplify and exaggerate to gain readers or viewers, but simplify to deliver a public service. They seek to avoid ‘elite speech’, even though some well-regarded journalists believed in talking to elites rather than the mass public, and not simply report what the subjects of the news say freely, but to structure and sequence the flow of complex stories and determine what needs to be ‘dug out’ through good interviewing skills, often conducted in a highly politicized space. Their efforts are clearly around adding value to the news, not simply reporting it.
There was an interesting discussion of the differences in complexity across issues, such as Brexit versus climate change. Some complex issues are abstract and don’t have the ‘lighting flashes’ that that make some events, such as a crash, relatively easier to report. It also seemed to me that some issues are complicated but some well-known fundamentals, such as climate change, while others, like Brexit, are impossible to know precisely as they are unfolding and unpredictable futures – what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously called ‘known unknowns’.
The second panel focused on data journalism, kicked off by Professor Chris Anderson of Leeds, who spoke about some of the continuities and discontinuities that data journalism brings to traditional journalistic practices. John Walton, who leads the BBC data journalism team at the BBC, followed with an overview of their work. Chris focused more on the discontinuities, but I kept thinking of data journalism as a continuation and growing sophistication of a long tradition of journalists valuing data. Social scientists are often advised to provide some percentages in their press releases to increase the likelihood of a story being picked up. But today, the best news organizations are developing more sophisticated teams within their own organization, like the BBC journalism team, to locate and analyze data that can create news items, often in collaboration with others. Of course, the same trend towards more collaborative and team research is evident across the social sciences as data sciences in academia as well..
After lunch, Professor Jay Blumler gave a brief talk that identified some of the new challenges facing investigative journalism. He surveyed the changing context of journalism as well as the enduring value of journalistic roles, such as in exposing wrongs, before providing a litany of challenges facing investigative journalism, such as when the targets of investigative journalism are overwhelmed and find it difficult to reply in a timely and comprehensive manner. He also argued for journalists more explicitly considering the social implications of journalism, such as the degree to which investigative reporting might lead politicians and other public figures to consider themselves ‘sitting ducks’ for the media. What impact will this have on the willingness of individuals to step into the public arena? His talk was followed by responses and additional input from Gail Champion, Editor of the BBC programme, File on 4, and Phil Abrams, who gave impressive examples of stories that got things right, and a few where they ‘got things wrong’, but learn from them.
This panel was followed by one focused on the enduring challenge of moving journalism beyond its centre of gravity in the London/Westminster bubble, such as with the decision to locate the new Channel 4 headquarters in Leeds. Professor Katy Parry led off this panel, followed by Tim Smith, Regional Head of BBC for Yorkshire, and Andrew Sheldon, Creative Director of True North TV. I found it amazing that the politics of broadcasting in the UK remains so focused on the nations and regions, such as in respect to the distribution of production and original content. The BBC and other major broadcasters in the UK have such national prestige that the locations of new headquarters, such as Channel 4’s recent decision to build in Leeds, can be very significant to attracting talent outside the London bubble. But even more interesting to me was the degree that the Internet and social media as well as on-demand streaming video was not viewed as a threat to broadcasting in the UK, as it would be in the US. In fact, examples arose of Netflix investing in UK content and production skills.
The final summary panel featured the symposium’s academic organizer, Professor Stephen Coleman, who nicely captured and built on the key themes of the day. His remarks were followed by a panel-led discussion. Stephen emphasized the motives of what he called ‘public service journalism’ by comparing public service media organizations to public universities, such as Leeds, where there are legitimate demands for a commitment to justice, accountability, and a civic – citizen – orientation.
This was of course a friendly and receptive audience for journalists. Nevertheless, I was left more convinced than ever that public service broadcasting is alive and well in the UK through the BBC and other public service broadcast journalism, and that collaboration between practitioners and academics, as orchestrated on the day, adds real value to both.