Monday, 2 March 2015

The missing dots to news neutrality

An informal submission to UNESCO conference, Connecting the Dots, 3rd to 4th March 2015, Paris.
Suggested addition to draft outcome statement from UNESCO conference, Connecting the Dots:
"2.5 Recognise concerns about a growing crisis in global journalism, and news neutrality, impacting quality of public access to digital information worldwide."
by Jason Brown

"Connecting the dots" is a comprehensive look at the state of the net - with some vital elements missing.
Starting today in Paris, this international conference comes complete with the findings of a global #netstudy, and a draft outcome statement.
That draft has seven sections, with 28 different recommendations, covering net neutrality, security, privacy, equality, access and freedom of expression, including safety for journalists.
A logistics note for invited speakers goes through the draft, with provision during the conference for "suggestions for improvements or points missed by the draft study."
From the far side of the planet, the logistics of getting to the conference proved too difficult in the end, and I missed out on an invitation to attend.
Concerns remain. A neutrality victory appears to have been won in the net's leading protagonist, the United States. My concerns here are less with what will no doubt be an ongoing battle for net neutrality, as news neutrality. As a journalist who began his career on a tiny island in the Pacific, I have much less experience and far fewer qualifications than many more learned colleagues.
However life on a small island has given me a little insight into the patterns of development agendas on a small planet.
An admittedly less than exhaustive reading of the papers associated with the conference reveal what I contend here are two major elements missing from the study.
The 95 page draft study has nearly 70 references to journalism and journalists, covering freedoms of speech and safety of journalists, including from impunity.
The first of what seems to me to be missing from the draft is the wider question of access to information. There is the question of quantity of access, with the bulk of the world's net users suffering expensive and often inferior broadband speeds, even in 'developed' countries.
An emergent prospect is that of free internet, with global giants such as Google and its Loon project offering a future where anyone with a mobile device can gain access. This would of course be a welcome development, while bringing its own concerns about privacy and security.
These concerns are referred to in the draft study:
"Solutions suggested include public provision of free Internet access, such as in libraries and schools, and the facilitation of universal and secure broadband and WiFi networks. Broadband access was also highlighted. Some nations are beginning to view broadband access as an emerging definition of universal service in the digital age, or even as a fundamental human right. Some respondents, however, expressed concern about the details of how universal access is provided. For instance, public provision of infrastructure might increase state surveillance capabilities and reduce market options; on the other hand, the provision of free public Internet access by private companies might be associated with content filtering, advertising, or intrusive data collection."
There are however other more major concerns, to do with the quality of access.
Many refer to an 'overwhelming' flood of information available on the internet. A prime example of this is scientific studies on climate change, which is an issue of leading urgency for my part of the world, with its tiny, isolated and remote islands.
But it's not just the public.
Journalism too appears overwhelmed with the weight of information.
This lack of capacity reveals itself in several aspects; resources, ethics and ownership.
Examinations of news media coverage shows more concern with giving equal voice to different sides of arguments about climate change, rather than the clear weight of scientific study.
Global warming sceptics have targeted what they feel is a politically correct and self-interested conspiracy to mislead the public.
Yet the weight of evidence suggests quite the opposite - that the news media coverage of this issue is more likely to be corporately correct, spreading doubt where there is increasing scientific certainty. Even long trusted voices such as the BBC have been accused of giving into political and corporate pressure to add prominence to voices from the scientific margins.
How this has come about needs more examination in the context of connecting the dots between the state of the net, and UNESCO's stated desire to drive "momentum for a new development agenda."
How might that be realised?
Like it or not, by far the main source of awareness amongst the public stems from the media.
One Pew Institute study showed that around 80 per cent of shares on 'new' media came from websites produced by 'old' media - radio, television and print.
Yet, particularly in print, old media resources are imploding.
Another Pew Institute study found that newsrooms lost US$1 billion in resources following the Global Financial Crisis.
Again using the US as an example, newsroom numbers are around 35,000, down from a 1989 high of nearly 60,000 a mere quarter century ago, according to a census from the American Society of News Editors.
If this rate of decline continues, mainstream media, acting as the 4th estate, will all but cease to exist in the US within the next quarter century. Other 'first world' markets show similar rates of decline. Third world markets show more commercial resilience, but suffer widespread corruption and editorial suppression. Given the lack of scrutiny given to financial markets and various conflicts, the same criticism could also be made of first world news media.
Once more referring to figures from the Pew Institute, a graph from the United States shows that much vaunted 'new media' ventures including citizen journalism attract just 1% of news media funding flows.
Despite this paucity, solutions to problems facing the future of journalism and the future of news refer almost exclusively to "business models". A casual search online reveals nearly half a million references to such business models, while the more neutral term "funding models" attracts barely 30,000 hits. Narrowing this down further, there are exactly 712 hits for "funding models" in Google books, against 2,900 for "business models".
Let's be clear.
Journalism is not a business.
This much is evident from the Global Investigative Journalism Network, which finds that freelance journalists have to subsidise their work - and public discourse - out of their own pocket.
Journalists may work within the media 'industry', the same as doctors work within medicine, as lawyers do while maintaining equality under the law.
Medicine and law receive vast swathes of public funding, but not journalism, despite its utter centrality to public discourse.
These issues of failing quantity and quality in news media are enough for some to draw from the Global Financial Crisis and refer to a Global Journalism Crisis.
The only question here, in my view, is to ask - what came first?
Much emphasis is placed on the role of the internet in collapsing old media incomes. Yet census figures in the US show that newsroom levels began declining long before.
Evidence for a Global Journalism Crisis hides in plain sight, with the Global Financial Crisis resulting from corporate media, both public and private, failing to adequately examine shonky stocks, instead acting as cheerleaders for endless growth on a finite planet.
There are other indicators for a GJC.
Thirty years after news media swayed public opinion against the Vietnam war, its descendants acted as cheerleaders for war on terror, promoting propaganda about weapons of mass destruction now proven false.
Falsity surrounding war and business has come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
At the same time as journalism resources are shrinking rapidly, 'communications' spending in public and private sectors has mushroomed. Where in the 1980s ratios of journalists to public relations workers used to be near one to one, they are now one to five in favour of corporate messaging.
Techno-utopian visions such as data journalism have little more chance of succeeding in conveying clear, neutral, independent information against these ratios than telegram, telex and fax.
What are some solutions?
First, admitting the problem.
World bodies such as UNESCO might play a leading role in drawing attention to the Global Journalism Crisis.
This role is badly needed as most corporate media have downplayed the crisis, dismissing it as 'old news', instead promoting "business models" despite evidence that business is part of the problem, not the solution.
Much talk about reinvention of journalism is trapped in the details of technology and resources.
What may be needed is reinvention of the wider concepts of journalism itself - including as an essential part of ongoing, lifelong, adult education.
Giving citizens greater access to independent information is a prerequisite to effective participation in future development agendas.
It is my hope that a future #netstudy will show that the Global Financial Crisis prompted recognition of a Global Journalism Crisis, with a resultant Global Journalism Agenda.
A good start would be targeting global aid spends, using the 0.7% formula to suggest 0.7% of global aid be spent on supporting independent global journalism.
At global aid targerts around US$200 billion, this would form a fighting fund of some US$140 million.
Such funding would include room for advocacy, calling on NGOs, governments and businesses to also allocate 0.7% of their rapidly growing 'communications' budgets towards independent journalism partnerships.
Quid pro quo for public funding could be increased adoption of charters of editorial independence, so that no matter what kind of organisation is funded, there are formal channels for transparency and accountability.
Some warn that public funding is a "slippery slope" towards political interference. Yet similar arguments made in relation to public funding for legal, medical or educational systems do not stop public funding from happening. And the same argument could be mustered against corporate interference that comes from private funding, including the ethical blurring of lines between advertising and editorial 'content.'
There are no perfect funding solutions. Direct funding from members of the public remains miniscule compared to private and public sources, and given continued inequality seems an unlikely saviour.
The answer to blurred lines is greater, more formal professionalism within journalism itself.
Journalists once rightfully resisted such formalisation as potentially fatal to freedom of information, in their role as guardians and gatekeepers of wider freedoms of expression, operating in the grey areas where law fears to tread.
Those roles can be relinquished somewhat in favour of the many human rights groups that now take a much greater if not equal role in defending such freedoms, thanks to the impact of the world wide web.
Where journalists were once the de facto defenders of human rights information, they can now absolve themselves of this conflict of interest situation, and return to their role as independent observers, scrutineers, and commentators.
So where to from here?
Connecting the dots requires that organisations such as UNESCO look at not just safety issues impacting freedoms of expression, but also the economic safety of journalism itself.
As above, solutions start with admitting there is a problem.
Delegates at Connecting the Dots could address this problem by writing in a new clause to the draft outcome statement, perhaps under the second section, "Options for UNESCO related to the field of Access to Information and Knowledge."
Such as:
"2.5 Recognise concerns about a growing crisis in global journalism, and news neutrality, impacting quality of public access to digital information worldwide."
To be honest, such an addition seems unlikely at this late stage. The #draftstudy is largely done, as is the outcome statement. But these difficult, sensitive and controversial issues must be confronted, and solutions found.
Either journalism is the 4th Estate, a cornerstone of democracy, fundamentally vital to this and all forms of modern governance and global outcomes. Or it's not.
Ignoring this issue is no longer an option, lest we face existential threats from climate change, endless war and rising inequality. As the war on terror and the global financial crisis attest, evidence and concerns about a global journalism crisis are well founded.
The rise of a 5th estate in the form of a digitally empowered citizenry only reinforces the need for a confident, well informed and strongly resourced 4th estate, one that practices news neutrality as well as professional independence.
Connecting the dots is already valuable as a conference in recognising the contributions of news media towards development agendas.
What is needed is recognition that journalism, as the 4th Estate, suffers a lack of equity not just in resources but also policy spaces such as this one.
. . .
Jason Brown has been a journalist in the Pacific since 1982. He is currently an editor on a volunteer basisi with the Pacific Freedom Forum.
See also from this author:
Links for this article:
. . .