At the end of last April, about 120 newsroom leaders and digital journalistic entrepreneurs, from more than 30 countries, were gathered in Copenhagen for the World Media Freedom Conference. There, they experienced a simulation of a modern ethical dilemma.
Initially, the newsroom leaders were confronted with the following question:
You are the news director of a TV station. A terrorist group in another country has kidnaped the reporter of a rival TV station. They threaten to kill the reporter if someone broadcasts this information. The news director of the other station calls you and asks you not to run this story. What do you do?
With the conviction that news should not risk any lives, 95% of the participants agreed that the reason was strong enough to refrain from making the information public.
But then came the second part of the simulation.
The information has leaked on Facebook and the post has more than 100,000 likes. And now, what is your decision?
A massive majority of the newsroom leaders immediately changed their previous opinion. Since social media gave publicity to the kidnapping, there would be no more reason to keep silent about it.
Decline of editor's authority
What does this exercise reveal, besides an obvious subjectivity implicit in editorial ethical dilemmas? That, in the end, the editor doesn’t have the hegemony of the editorial decision anymore. A basic principle of the editor job description – what will be informed, when and how –is now outsourced to Facebook and its smaller brothers. Now the perception is commonplace in newsrooms that we have lost the ethical control to people in social media that have different moral restrictions.
Many editors have experienced this before. While a group of editors argues about how to deliver sensitive information to the public – a mere suspicion, for instance – the anything-goes of social media has already judged and condemned the suspect.
The end of the editorial ethical decision ownership by newsrooms could have a beneficial effect, when one takes into consideration the need for every activity to be transparent – and journalism is on the top of this social demand. But, when the motivation to make something public or not is subordinated to private, and not collective interests – as happens all the time in social media – the ethics that we are used to – the ethics of professional journalism – are not the most important factor to be considered.
Even worse. A big chunk of what goes on the net is just a fantasy or a fake that has its origins in motivations that vary from naivety to the struggle for power at any price. The ethical code, a sacred book in many newsrooms, is ignored in huge portions of the social media.
The perverse consequences of home production of adulterated information without ethical approval are just the tip of the iceberg of the effects of outsourcing editorial decisions to Facebook. Today, an anonymous person can push a button and implode the reputation of any individual or organization without being stopped by moral standards. But this is not the worst problem. Since social platforms are based on purely commercial conveniences, they emphasize, on a planetary scale, information that is connected only to their advertising strategy - with tremendous repercussions on the development or regression of societies.
For an editor of the twentieth century, it was up to him to assess the circumstances of the news, its origin, relevance and attractiveness, observing ethical and precision standards and then scaling into graphic patterns, space, frequency and public interest. Based on an editorial and journalistic technique but, in particular, his talent and his editorial perception, the editor used to give form and life to what the public would finally know.
Anyone who has lived a day in a professional newsroom knows that this is still a complex process, nothing Cartesian, full of twists and turns and course corrections. We make mistakes and sometimes take good and bad decisions when evaluating news, but, overwhelmingly, newsrooms are anchored to the commitment to delivering the best possible editorial products to the public and, ultimately, to society.
Enter the engineers
Yeah, but.... This world of news distributed exclusively by journalistic channels died or at least is in a vegetative state. Although editors continue making decisions, they no longer are definitive in the public eye. With the explosion of content via networks, it is increasingly an algorithm that decides what and when you will read, see and know.
In short, the dissemination of information, restricted before to editors, is moving into the hands of an army of engineers in Silicon Valley that have no reason to engage in editorial quality or ethics. Their business is not journalism: it is to capture users who supply information about their lives and say what passes in their minds, translate this into audience data and deliver personalized advertising. It's kind of like the commercial and marketing departments taking over the newsroom, with the difference that with an algorithm sitting in the director's chair, there is no one to argue or brandish rules of conduct - only submission to its cold logic and devilish effectiveness.
With different words, this outsourcing of journalism has been masterfully captured by Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. At a conference in November last year at the Reuters Institute in Oxford, Bell dissected the nature of the silent earthquake that is occurring right now. Some of her considerations should be recalled:
“When creating incredibly easy to use tools and encouraging the world to publish content, technology platforms now have a social purpose and responsibility well beyond their original intent. The mainstream media did not understand what it was missing, Silicon Valley did not understand what it was creating.”
“The Fourth Estate, who liked to think that it operated in splendid isolation from other systems of power and money, slipped suddenly and definitively into a world where it is no longer the owner of the means of production or distribution routes.”
“No other platform in journalism history had the concentration of power and attention enjoyed by Facebook.”
“If one can believe the numbers linked to Facebook (1.3 billion users, for example), then the most powerful media executive in the world is Greg Marra, product manager for Facebook News Feed. He is 26 years old.”
Bell notes that none of these great, new content distribution platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others, were created by the media industry or editors but by engineers. We can go further: our earthly penance is due to the fact that Adwords and Adsense were invented by engineers and not by media companies. So, Google advertising tools suck up tens of billions of dollars from the market every year. It is the loss of this income, added to that swallowed by Facebook, that has vaporized newsrooms around the world. The truth is that we were here for a mission: to preserve a model that worked and, ultimately, generated a social impact with a largely positive balance. With the notable willingness to give voice to everything and everyone, the engineers of Silicon Valley brought this down and put a new model in place.
New tools in social media attack
To heat things up even more, Facebook released last May Instant Articles, a tool that gives vehicles the power to publish texts and videos directly onto the social network. In exchange, Facebook promises to deliver a 10 times faster loading, a crucial advantage in the mobile era, plus 100% of the advertising sold by the vehicle or 70% of that marketed by it. The New York Times, BBC News, Guardian, National Geographic, and many others were the first to jump into the Instant Article boat. What many saw as a decisive sign of surrender, since users no longer need the vehicle of origin to have access to its content, is seen by the pioneers as an opportunity to reach an audience that could not be achieved otherwise. In other words, they sustain that if you can not beat your opponent, join him, with the restriction that, if it is not good, just get up and slam the door behind you.
In the last World News Media Congress and World Editors Forum, held in early June in Washington, I chaired a session with the suggestive title "Who runs the news? Emily Bell was there, along with Tom Rosenstiel, one of the classic authors of "The Elements of Journalism," and Vivian Schiller, former director of news from Twitter, and Liam Corcoran, from the NewsWhip blog. In the introduction, I tried to raise crucial questions about our future. Is Silicon Valley the new Fleet Street?
If so, what are the implications of this new system to democracy? What is the ethics of this world in which algorithms define what each citizen will know?
Time for counterattack
These questions, and many others, will hang over our heads for years to come. But it's right here in this watershed where there is a whirlwind holding in our current identity crisis that we have an extraordinary window of opportunity to counterattack. It is not the case to demonize social networks. They came, saw and conquered their space. One must first assume that the phenomenon is irreversible
So we must shake off our journalism out of its lethargy and jump to a new level, a new cycle in which professional journalists and journalistic ventures must position themselves well above the social media world, full of news of cats, scandals, celebrities and sex.
At this new level, the solution for professional journalism is not less journalism: it is more, and especially, better journalism. This new journalism should use the networks to leverage its relevance, and not just for the distribution of content. The new standard requires that reporters, editors and columnists assume the roles of certifiers of the reality. More than just narrating facts that are already in the public domain, it is up to the professionals to employ their technique and their talent to confront, investigate or otherwise endorse what was already circulating, usually in the social media platforms.
It can be argued that the millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000, no longer care so much about brands, but about content wherever they are. Maybe, but it's human nature in the past, now and forever, to not want to look like fouls. The status of an individual in a group is also measured by his ability to tell something that others do not know yet, and that this news is correct. If a subject is old or incorrect, the journalist or the vehicle which updates it or corrects it will rise in status.
So this new level of journalism must provide solid reporting, absolute precision, ethics and, of course, an agenda focused on what really makes a difference. It must provide the tools for your consumers to rise in status in their social group. The consumption or not of professional journalism, with high quality and density, in short, will be the dividing line between the court jesters and the village wise men.
Amid the fog of the current battlefield, many journalistic companies are already rising and creating or expanding their territories. Vox Media, which came to explain and not to confuse; Vice and Business Insider, with its original approach and unusual angles; ProPublica, with exclusivity and analysis in first place; The New York Times, with uncompromising quality standards, and The Economist, with reporting, reporting and reporting that is transformed into depth and credibility. All of them are examples of old and new media converted to the role of certifiers.
In our current journalistic world, vehicles have been guided and controlled by social media. In the next level, they should re-assume their role of agenda settler in society. Besides that, new journalism should add some crucial characteristics.
- To erect altars to exclusivity, giving people information that they will not find elsewhere.
- To identify, firsthand, what will become a trend, giving the reader the opportunity to be ahead of his peers who don't consume professional information.
- To introduce new approaches and angles of a story in all forms and on every platform.
- To become fact-checkers all the time, confronting information from different sources and endorsing it or not.
- More than report what is already public, professional journalists and their vehicles should become certifiers of the reality around them, confronting versions, filtering the social media and giving the public the truth.
The antidote to Facebook and its power will revive the newsrooms when professional journalism become widely seen as the ISO 9000 of information. If and when that materializes on a global scale, editors will no longer be nostalgic about the past. And engineers will once be just engineers.
Marcelo Rech is Director of Journalism for Grupo RBS, Brazil