Journalism Under Fire: What’s Next for Digital Media?
On a Wednesday evening in the first week of May, journalists from the Independent Media Club gathered in the House of Lords to celebrate World Press Freedom Day, and to discuss the harms and benefits of digital media. Among their numbers were industry leaders, legal experts, students, and government officials. After a moment of silence to honour the passing of Irish journalist Lyra McKee, the committee addressed itself to an urgent question: what should be done about digital media?
Buzzwords flew across the room from all sides of the panel: chaotic censorship; fake news; alt fact; dark web; radicalisation; harassment. As the House of Lords continues to consider the opinions of journalists on one side of Parliament, The House of Commons is circulating the Digital Harms White Paper – a document outlining the government’s approach to digital media:
“Given the prevalence of illegal and harmful content online, and the level of public concern about online harms, not just in the UK but worldwide” the document states, “we believe that the digital economy urgently needs a new regulatory framework to improve our citizens’ safety online”. But what should this regulatory framework do, and how? Whose job is it to police the new digital landscape? Public opinion on the question of regulation remains divided.
Traditional journalism is changing fast. In the extreme instances, social media has been used to polarise opinion, subvert democratic elections and even promote terrorism. The Christchurch Mosque shootings of 15 March were livestreamed on social media platforms, and some governments have chosen to impose strict new sanctions as a result. Despite obvious pitfalls, social media platforms have also given voice to movements like MeToo and BlackLivesMatter, allowing for unprecedented first-hand reporting and protest. In the brave new world of digital media, easy regulatory solutions are scarce.
During the panel discussion, Shamim Ara Chowdhury, a correspondent from TRT World, Turkey, discussed the opportunities provided by direct engagement online. But BulBul Hasam, a British-Bangladeshi journalist and broadcaster, asked whether anybody trusts traditional media anymore, and lamented the public cynicism towards investigative journalism. The idea that new media is diluting truth was a prominent one. “There’s no such thing as real news anymore”, one journalist wryly commented. One Senior Staff Correspondent for Channel –I, said: “we should not be celebrating World Press Freedom, we should be mourning its death.” Many on the panel expressed concern that their readership had been hijacked by third party advertisers and skilful digital propagandists.
Adding to the complexity of the questions concerning regulation is a widening generation gap. On one side of the debate, some regulators and politicians are coming to terms with the realities of new media for the first time. In the Spring of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of US Congress, and was tasked with explaining basic uses of digital media. In contrast, a generation of new voters cannot imagine why censoring or controlling new media would be the government’s responsibility in the first place. Statistics have shown that younger readers are less likely to fall for fake news, and can read the digital landscape more shrewdly than their predecessors. Anisha Faruk, the 2019 President-elect of the Oxford Student Union, argued compellingly that student journalism could not find its true audience without digital media. Desmond Kramer, a student from an International School in London, responded to the panel by noting: “lawmakers are for the most part of the considerably older age range, they … are next to clueless as to how the internet works, and it’s scary.”
Who should be held responsible for the considerable harms of Digital Media? The government? Journalists? Or should these harms be put to the discretion of the reading public? With so much at stake, including the nature of the political system itself, these questions have never been more important.