Door: Maxim Ijsebrands
In the past we have seen the ability of new and cheap communication-technology to bring about havoc as well as beauty. For an example you only have observe the inventing of the printing press. Gutenberg’s invention doused the smoldering ember of Jan Hus his systemkritik with gasoline, by spreading Martin Luther’s ideas far and wide. Bringing about the reformation. Besides the endless religious conflict, it also brought about a democratization of religion. No longer was the Bishop of Rome able to centralize spiritual doctrine. The peoples of Europe were empowered (to a degree) to make up their own minds. I bring this up, because a parallel can be drawn with the current internet-journalism revolution. No longer do a handful of media-outlets control our discourse. The reduced cost of spreading information with almost unlimited bandwidth, democratizes this sector as well. Everybody can start their own media empire on YouTube, Facebook and Google. Examples are The Young Turks and the Daily Wire.
It may sound all wonderful, but there is a dark side to this story. The tsunami of competition is driving down the profit margins of the established media. Making the good old-fashioned newspaper obsolete. Forcing them to migrate towards these internet-platforms. But this space is governed by different rules. Different incentives. While previously you might have been able to establish yourself by delivering a nuanced and truthful product. That is not guaranteed to work within this new space. Since everything is about attention and interaction. Clickbait and fuel for outrage garner way more views than a milk-toast but realistic opinion. But how come these new platforms are set up this way? Hasn’t advertising always been the primary source of revenue for journalistic outlets? Yes and no. Websites make their money not by displaying traditional advertisements, but with AdTech. “which is a form of direct marketing”. The main difference between this direct marketing and traditional advertising is that the former cares only about the number of eyeballs directed its way. While the latter does not directly care about the number of views on an article at all. Which means that the content does not have to be optimized to garner those eyeballs. Even though this seems like a frivolous difference, it would be naïve to underestimate the power of incentives. Especially in the highly competitive and dynamic period journalism finds itself in.
The effects are already visible. Clickbait, sensationalism and unfounded hit pieces. With trust in mass media remaining uncomfortably low, most established media-outlets gladly jumped on the #russiagate bandwagon without there being any convincing evidence. The New York Times jumped the gun with the “Covington kids” debacle last year; claiming that the kids were mobbing elderly native-Americans. Or again The New York times ripping a sarcastic statement made by Cenk Uyghur completely out of context, insinuating that he meant it literally. Most of this disinformation has been retracted and corrected but given the nature of the internet, the damage has already been done. I could go on with naming examples, but I think I made my point. The death of quality-journalism would almost be comical if it wasn’t so depressing.
If we would want to save quality-journalism, we would need to know what to aim for. What ought to be the role of journalists? The well-developed case law of the ECHR serves as a perfect springboard. The Court has ascribed a lot of fundamental roles within our democracies to this 4th estate. One of these is the enhancement of the public debate. This is to be done by the wide “dissemination of information and ideas”. This critical function enables the populace at large to form reliable and informed worldviews as well as opinions. The media in general and journalists in particular are thought to also serve as a forum for discussion or public debate. These roles have come under increasing strain in the last decade, with the steady advance of the internet as an interactive source of news and information. Thirdly and finally, journalists function as public watchdogs for our democracies. they start barking and hounding down the other three estates whenever they smell corruption or other wrongdoings. To sum things up: the 4th estate should serve as our sensemaking-organs, a platform for the exchange of ideas and as a vigilant look-out warning us of any abuse or misuse of power.
As hinted at before, what we have here is a misalignment of incentives. We need journalists to perform certain functions for our democracies in order to keep them healthy. Under the previous economic model, the fulfilling of these functions could go hand in hand with making a comfortable profit. Unfortunately, the AdTech-model makes this next to impossible. Jokingly the journalistic class has been dubbed the 4th estate of government. A description which is not unfounded! Imagine if any of our other estates found themselves in a similar pickle. The judiciary being rewarded, not for upholding and executing the law in a fair manner, but for giving as many verdicts as quickly as possible in a way as to stoke up as much controversy as possible. We would be abhorred and moved to action. But the exact same thing is happening before our eyes with the 4th estate. My solution would be to recognize the 4th estate as such. A fundamental and essential part of our democracies. Allowing this watchdog to leave its kennel behind and finally sleep within the house. Placing it on the same footing as the executive, judiciary and legislative powers.
And in doing so; forcing governments to take on a more comprehensive positive obligation to economically incentivize journalists to do the tasks we need them to do. Whether that be by dismantling the direct-marketing business-model of the internet, by offering a compensation-scheme for those organizations who take the desired roles upon themselves or some other solution. One thing is clear, in order to rid journalism of its ailments, we need a different approach to its law, policy and practice.
-Maxim IJsebrands 2020