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TCD probes future of journalism in ‘information bankruptcy’ era
Mark Little

16 Sep 2021 / technology Print

Journalism's future in era of ‘information bankruptcy’

The Schuler Democracy Forum was launched at Trinity College Long Room Hub yesterday (15 September).

The new three-year initiative is funded by Dr Beate Schuler, and will engage Trinity’s research in the arts and humanities with questions relating to the media and democracy.

Education philanthropist Dr Schuler told the gathering that her main reason for financially supporting the initiative  was the role of the media in the destruction of democracy.

The media is very influential and can be manipulative, powerful and dangerous, she said. 

Dr Shuler said that she hoped through the forum to restore an atmosphere of fair discussion and tolerance, and to create tools to detect fake news.

Prevent evil

“We have to stand up and fight for our democracy, we have to prevent evil,” she continued.

Trinity graduate and former journalist Mark Little, first Media Fellow of the Long Room Hub, said that journalism had done a bad job of preparing democracy for the future.

His work, at the intersection of media, technology, and democracy, had convinced him that society was facing a moment of exponential change in technology, where journalism could not survive unless it did things differently, he said.

The core function of journalism may be to prepare democracy for a period of history where the only constant is change, Little added.

Journalism can take a stake in the future of democracy, the Kinzen chief and former RTÉ journalist said.

'Flooding the zone'

However, a clear sense of whom to trust in the media may be absent. Little added that, instead of censorship in the traditional sense, autocrats now “flood the zone” with noise and divisive messages. 

“Once you create that level of distrust, that, for me, is the flourishing bedrock of disinformation and misinformation,” he said.

Disinformation is a “toxic feedback loop”, often inflamed by elite politicians with an agenda, Little added.

“It’s a reckoning. There is no way journalism survives this reckoning unless it changes.”

With COVID, the public and media was enlisted in finding the solution, Little said.

This contrasted with the financial crisis, when people were simply told to take the pain caused by decisions that politicians took.

With the pandemic, the role of the media suddenly changed. Expertise was valued and the media were the gatekeepers, playing a positive role.

“Our focal point in the media was building resilience in the face of ambiguity,” he said.

Little saw positive trends in the shape of “engaged journalism”, where the media now talks to its audience.

This insight was the reason he founded Storyful (later sold to News Corporation) – so the audience could be part of the work of verification of facts.

“We became that ‘archive of now’,” he said.

Reader revenue

Reader revenue, or payment for the service of journalism, is the most exciting business model in media, and will lead to a future of public ownership, he predicted.

“For the first time we have a business model that is aligned with the involvement of our audiences,” he said.

Quality of output will be based on depth of engagement, he predicted.

Solutions journalism is another positive, with reporters not simply diagnosing the problem, but actively investigating better outcomes.

The concern about fake news is now so broad as to be meaningless, Little said, with a consequent danger of over-regulation quashing freedom of expression.

Kneejerk reactions

“There is too many pieces of regulation emerging now, that are kneejerk reactions to online harm, particularly in the UK and Canada. I’m really worried that the backlash …could actually be quite damaging to the cause we’re fighting for,” he said.

We must fight for freedom of expression and freedom of speech that is transparent and not promoted by algorithms, he added.

“We are in a kind of information bankruptcy,” Little said.

“We can’t solve this problem by more information, it’s not about producing more truth. It’s about trying to build trust around a set of shared facts that we as a society need to agree on.”

High-quality news content should be freely available, and not behind a paywall, he said.

Public utility

“Information is a public utility, it’s like water, it has to be at the highest quality, available to all, supported by the public purse … it’s democratic right,” he said.

But ‘information’ differs from journalism as a service, and the key criteria is whether the journalist has earned the respect of the community for their expertise, which helps towards a better outcome.

“That for me is the currency in the realm of journalism,” he said.

However, the algorithms of social media platforms are often optimised for outrage, he warned.

That should be redesigned so that users have control of their data and privacy, and have their own settings tuned to their willingness to be exposed to new ideas, Little said.

Humane tech

“We also need a humane technology movement,” he added.

We need humans in the loop, in choosing the AI data-input that matters,  because there is a growing realisation that artificial intelligence is not magic, he said.

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