Archive for the ‘Reuters Institute’ tag
This post was first published at mediastandardstrust.org on 10th December 2010
Richard Sambrook’s report – ‘Are foreign correspondents redundant?’, published this week by the Reuters Institute in Oxford, is a road map for news organisations and journalists who want to navigate the future of foreign news
The news popped into my twitter feed between 8 and 9pm on Wednesday evening. ‘#wikileaks hackers have brought down visa.com’. Wow! was my first reaction, that sounds important. Is it true? – was my second thought. A quick attempt to log into visa.com suggested it might be. If it is, what does it mean? – was my third response. Visa’s corporate website was down but did that mean I couldn’t make visa transactions? If I tried to make a visa transaction – say to pay for that basket of Amazon Christmas presents I’d just filled – was there a danger my card details would be lost, or stolen?
I relate this experience not to give a glimpse of how I spend Wednesday evenings and my various neuroses, but because it captures – in microcosm – the challenges facing journalism today, especially international journalism.
News travels fast. Very fast. Normally now in headlines of fewer than 140 characters. The race to be first – which used to be won by journalists and news organisations – is now won by whoever is closest to the action and has the fastest opposable thumbs. That may be a journalist but chances are, especially with international news, it might not be.
News can come from anyone, anywhere. The first tweet I saw about visa.com was not from someone I knew (it had been re-tweeted). Hence why I wasn’t sure about its veracity. Here the journalist can help (though they first have to overcome the urge to re-tweet without verifying).
And news initially tends to come unencumbered by context or explanation. It comes as a bald statement of fact. Visa.com has shut down. North Korea has just fired rockets at South Korea. The first Chilean miner is out. The journalist then has to work out what this means and explain its importance to his/her audience.
Speed. Verification. Context.
But if news organisations are losing the race to be first, in international news they also risk losing their lead doing the second and third.
This struck me reading Richard Sambrook’s excellent study, published this week, on the future of foreign correspondence.
To be able to verify something quickly you have to have some background knowledge. If possible you should have been on the ground (wherever the ground is) for a decent length of time so you can not only verify something but establish its importance and set it in context. This is hard to do from a standing start.
As Sambrook writes: ‘There are no substitutes for a prolonged process of first hand engagement to understand and report what is being witnessed. This may be the most valuable element of foreign reporting at risk from the changes underway.’
It is at risk because there are fewer staff foreign correspondents on the ground. Many news organisations have scaled back or removed their foreign desks. And most have closed or reduced their foreign bureaux.
This is not to say this is the only way to do foreign news coverage. There are alternatives to having your own staff on the ground, as Sambrook indicates. Technology now provides enormous potential for new methods of news gathering, and provides access to a much greater number of news sources.
The report cites a number of people and organisations who have taken up this potential, for example Global Voices, which ‘surfaces opinion and reporting in blogs around the world’; Demotix, a sort of 21st century international picture agency; and Ushahidi, a distributed mapping platform started from Kenya. Even the Foreign Office, not necessarily known for online innovation, has experimented with news aggregation and discussion. For the G20 meeting in London the FCO ‘built a website offering information in 40 languages but also decided to make it a digital hub to aggregate content and discussion about the summit’s themes’.
Yet ‘[i]t is notable’, Sambrook writes, ‘that most of this innovation comes from new start-ups rather than from within established media organisations’. Philip Balboni, CEO of Global Post, puts it more brutally: ‘The innovation in journalism is pathetic’.
Indeed, despite the opportunity to provide more international news, more cheaply than ever, before many mainstream UK and US news organisations are reducing their international coverage. The Media Standards Trust report published last month – Shrinking World – showed how coverage of international news in the UK print press (4 newspapers) has dropped by 40% since 1979. This is in the context of newspaper pagination exploding over the same period.
This is a shame because these organisations have the experience, the people, and the motivation to innovate, as we suggest in our report.
Still, Sambrook’s report not only provides a perspective on where international news has come from, it also points the way to where it could go. The question is, will news organisations read it and take action?
Flattering as it is to be referred to in the Reuters Institute’s new publication, ‘What’s happening to our news?‘, I better clear up a confusion before it gets fixed in people’s minds.
(f) Impractical to police – it would be very hard (an understatement) to stop people applying a label, even if not ‘permitted’ to (requires combination of honour system and legal sanction).
monitoring difficulties – by making the information highly visible (to machines as well as to people), mistakes and fraud are very easy to spot;
There was a distinct sound of chomping in the air at last night’s ‘The Power of the Commentariat’ event at the Royal Society of Arts. It was the sound of the press eating itself. A panel of commentators (Simon Jenkins, Suzanne Moore, Daniel Finkelstein et al) commenting on a report written by Editorial Intelligence and the Reuters Institute about the influence of commentators in front of an audience of… commentators.
At least it was – in some cases – self-conscious cannibalism. Simon Jenkins opened by calling the occasion ‘impossibly narcissistic’, and Suzanne Moore worried about the clash of egos. Still, one couldn’t help thinking that, if you’re trying to assess the power of media commentators, shouldn’t you do it with an audience of those they are supposed to have power over?
Still, despite its incestuousness, the discussion was not without its talking points. Polly Toynbee – from the audience – asking (in all seriousness) how we create an objective measure of the influence of commentators. Simon Jenkins saying, in reference to online debate and comments by the public, “we’ve unleashed a monster”. And Daniel Finkelstein claiming that Paddy Ashdown’s proposed appointment as chief administrator in Afghanistan was vetoed by Hamid Karzai due to a column published in a British paper.
Yet no-one raised the central question of whether the ‘power of the commentariat’ was rising or falling. The assumption implicit in the panel, and within the accompanying pamphlet, is that it is rising. I’d take issue with this. In fact I’d argue the opposite.
If, as Peter Wilby suggested in the Media Guardian on Monday, the power of commentators now comes mainly from their role as the representative voice of their readers – rather than ‘because their judgments were thought to have value in themselves’ (as in the past) – then as their readers splinter and atomize, so does their influence.
This is borne out by the increasing tendency of commentators – even those previously calm and measured – to shriek and yell to get heard. As Timothy Garton Ash says in the EI/Reuters report “I think it is true that the pressure is to shout louder and louder”. Take Anatole Kaletsky, the awfully smart political economist who writes for The Times. In a column about house prices and the economy last month Kaletsky told his readers they ‘had better reach for the Book of Revelations to find an appropriate word for Britain’s economic prospects in the next year or two’. Isn’t there a teensy bit of hyperbole there?
The current position of commentators is, I think, anomalous. They have temporarily filled a gap in the body politic vacated by local and national politicians, unions, and other bodies that developed to represent the public. But commentators’ right to that representation is tenuous to say the least. They were not voted in, they have no executive political power. All they have is the power of their pen. As their audiences drop and if they resort to hyperbole to cling onto those that remain, that power will, inevitably, fade.
It’s rare to see thoughtful reflection about the media from senior figures in public life. It’s even rarer be able to compare four very different perspectives. But that’s what we got last night (at Media Standards Trust / Reuters Institute debate).
A lawyer, a career diplomatic, a general, and the head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace talked about their experience of interacting with the media – and whether there was any substance to Tony Blair’s claims last June that the media was having a “seriously adverse” effect on public life.
And they didn’t say what you might expect.
All agreed the media was having a serious impact on public life but believed it was simplistic and fatalistic to say it was necessarily “adverse”. Public figures have a “symbiotic relationship” with the media – to use Lord Jay’s phrase – and as such need to figure out how to make that relationship work rather than withdrawing or shying away from it.
Yet from what the four said, it was apparent that each had devised quite different ways of dealing with it.
General Sir Rupert Smith compared himself to an illusionist. “Being a commander is like being [a Master of Ceremonies] in a Roman circus”, he said. “All around you in the stands is a highly factional audience” and it is your job – as a military leader – to produce a larger narrative. This gives the journalist a “line of logic” within which individual stories fit, and and prevents the media focusing on the immediate and the controversial. The General would make sure he kept the tap of information constantly flowing since in his experience “Most journalists are idle, frightened people who will go to my tap.”
Lord (Michael) Jay was more sympathetic to journalists and saw their relationship with public life as critical yet fragile. “It is a relationship of wariness and mutual respect”, Jay said. Yet despite changes in production and technology the ex-Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office did not believe the relationship was qualitatively different from twenty years ago. Seen from within government, the biggest change was not in technology but in legislation. The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act represents, Jay said, “quite a revolutionary change in the way government operates”. Civil Servants now have to assume that “everything is releasable”. This has seismic implications for those within government, and its scale and impact has still not been properly understood by the media or the public.
Tim Livesey, head of public affairs at Lambeth Palace, made a thoughtful plea for both sides to adapt. People in public life should not – as Tony Blair suggested – get better press offices. Neither should they withdraw from public engagement or communicate solely through proprietary media (official websites, podcasts, blogs). They have a responsibility to communicate and should do so as themselves, Livesey argued. Though if they do, the media should accept the corresponding responsibility to represent them honestly, and to humanise rather than dehumanise.
The danger of what happens when the media dehumanises was highlighted by Sue Stapely, the fourth member of the panel, who spoke in detail of the media’s treatment of Sally Clarke and her family. Stapely ran the campaign to free Sally Clarke after her wrongful imprisonment, and then helped her deal with the media interest (pro bono) after Clarke’s release. She described how the Clarke’s nanny was offered £10,000 for her story, and the “disgraceful” media scrum that prevented Sally Clarke’s husband and young son from getting into their own home the day after she died. Journalists are “daily required to compromise their instinctive integrity” due to their demands of their editors and proprietors, and this has to change.
Few soundbites (although Jay’s from “feral beasts” to “paper tigers” was eminently quotable), but some genuine insights into an issue that Blair and others have described as increasingly central to our democracy. A little less heat perhaps, but a lot of light.