Just how free and independent are the media? Are the social network platforms the ones who are calling the shots? Is there still a way for media companies to hold their ground by means of their newspapers, magazines, and online offers?
in her Duet interview with Dr Rieke C. Harmsen, Dr Caldarola, author of Big Data and Law, discusses the current influence of digitisation on journalism and media.
The way media gather revenue is changing owing to a lack of income from their traditional source, advertising. Meanwhile, social media platforms are taking over the markets once held by the media. At the same time, however, the quality is changing because the contents are no longer being curated or the curation process is being handled differently. What challenges do the media face?
Dr Rieke C. Harmsen: The politics surrounding media have been the subject of heated discussion. How can we handle the new attention-dependent economy? Renowned media companies are under a lot of pressure as they must figure out how to improve the way revenue is being generated? Entire markets and advertising earnings are disappearing and are landing at the door of platforms, such as Google, Facebook or YouTube. These platforms are regulating our information streams by means which are anything but transparent.
At the same time, however, it has never been more important for readers to obtain quality journalism. Publishing houses and journalists have to walk a tightrope between rapid online information und reports which have been thoroughly researched. For the latter we require in-depth knowledge and a good factual basis in order to orient ourselves and form our own opinions. For this requirement to be met, we need good and secure information – not to mention a respectful attitude towards differing opinions.
My opinion is:Dr Rieke C. Harmsen
The criteria for quality journalism in a digitalised world have not changed. We need objective, fact-based and independent reporting, contents we can easily understand and as much variety as possible in the news coverage.
Diversity is an important principle of our democracy which we should fuel and support.
As we have already witnessed, media companies are often being purchased by multi-millionaires from industrial or commercial sectors or by politicians who then influence the content of what is being reported or ensure that what is being reported is in their favour. What do you think about the relationship between the media and social networks?
First of all, it is very important to distinguish among the various types of media. In Germany, for instance, we have a great variety of media: classic newspapers and news portals such as SZ, Spiegel or Zeit, public broadcasters, private ones, regional offers, non-profit media but also small media companies, magazines, or famous bloggers. On the other hand, we also have social media, large platforms, who also market themselves as “media” but have little in common with quality journalism. These channels are merely distribution machines, but they are not editors. The fact that they are labelled as “media” puts them in the same category as editing desks, a status which they really do not deserve.
Editing desks, such as those at Spiegel or SZ, have an editing staff which works separately from the publisher or publishing company. Many publishing companies operate in accordance with detailed criteria to ensure quality, have legal guidelines, transparency criteria etc. In this way, editing can remain independent, free, and follow our democratic legal framework. The press is free and protected by the constitution and has a checks and balances function in our society, which is important and necessary.
However, the financial situation of many publishing houses has become difficult. They are simply no longer able to finance themselves by means of advertising nor can they live off of online subscriptions. Roughly 90% of media companies which produce journalistic content are convinced, according to studies, that the revenues from sales, advertising and supplements are no longer sufficient to finance classic print media. They have to come up with new solutions. They run events, sell wine or produce other products which have nothing to do with the classic news business. Nevertheless – at least according to a 2022 Reuters study concerning media – the proportion of online users who employ a news service which has to be paid for (often a subscription) is on the rise, albeit slowly, and has reached the 10% mark. Users have seemingly realised that quality journalism comes at a price.
A lot of different media – especially social media – consider themselves to be a marketplace for information and refuse to take on responsibility – at least in the US – for the content of their marketplace. Will this attitude remain or is it changing and breaking down already?
Social media have been under an increasing amount of pressure lately, which is a good thing. Particularly when they distribute messages and news, social media must attain the standards of quality media and have to do their share to fight fake news. Organisations, such as Algorithmwatch, have good reason to complain that we do not have enough transparency. We must know what the data basis is of these systems and how decisions are being made.
Many platforms explain they use likes and comments to determine what contents are to be shown to users. Studies have shown, also those by Algorithmwatch, that many algorithms employ a variety of dubious functions, such as preferences or emotions, for example. An experiment was able to prove that photos with naked skin, for instance, were distributed more widely, regardless of whether the user wanted to see them or not. A solution could be to allow research institutions to have a look at these functions, a process which would have a legal basis of course, or at least be able to get a hold of the data in question.
Information appears on end devices without having a real person actually saying them face-to-face. Because of this impersonal nature, it becomes easier to spread falsehoods and carry out smear campaigns and bullying quite freely, for example. Are digital media feeding grounds for conspiracy theories, rumours or extremist views?
The credibility of the media has suffered in the past years, to be sure. The company MediaLab Bayern put together a study which considered the relationship between the audience and journalists or media. The result was that, although German media had not lost any of their credibility, the readers had still reduced their media consumption because they simply no longer wished to read so many negative reports. Many publishing companies reacted by changing the way of reporting and using methods like “solution journalism”. Journalists still bring up the problems but suggest solutions or make clear how a situation could be changed.
There are also quite a few organisations and networks which are all working against conspiracy theories and fake news. Many editorial desks have set up their own fact checking units to verify statements and put them in their proper context. In this way, emotional debates, even those appearing in social networks, can be made more factual. Among these we can include the “fact finders” of the Tagesschau which specifically checks and evaluates articles. The Bavarian broadcasting station has developed a “fact fox data bank” and, at the same time, a number of interesting start-up companies have sprung up, such as the start-up “Facts for Friends” which was initiated by Katharina Klimkeit (CEO) and Valerie Scholz (CCO). Finally, let’s not forget about the collective group called “Correctiv” which offers top notch journalistic reporting.
A number of large companies, such as Google and Facebook, have been investing substantial amounts of money in journalism. In this way, they help to finance media companies, research projects, congresses, training programs and professorships. What have been the effects of this type of financing on the world of media?
The infrastructure of the media changes dramatically depending on which country you are considering. In the US, for instance, there is a long tradition of supporting projects and systems. This trend has been making headway in Europe now. I view this development with some concern. We need to have a debate in Germany where we consider the public financing of innovation in the media sector. The support programs of Google and Facebook are merely PR measures, as a poll of media representatives has made clear, which serve to patch up the shaky relationship to the media and, most importantly, to avoid regulation.
A study by the Otto Brenner Foundation has shown that financial support is not being distributed evenly, thus leading to an even greater lack of balance in the media world. The tendency is towards large, commercially driven media companies gaining more and more power and influence while small publishing houses and organisations, like NGOs or NPO media houses, are gradually disappearing from the world of publishing. Other problematic issues are the lack of transparency of the funds, the increasing influence on media companies, which is leading towards a hesitation to “draw blood,” as it were, and “self-regulation” on the part of journalists. Media companies are becoming technologically speaking more and more dependent while, at the same time, platforms are sucking away knowledge – and we just don’t know what they plan to do with the knowledge they have acquired.
I think we need more regulations and state-run programs. We have to push for technological change in media. This could be funded by public programs and tested at universities. We should also not forget about various initiatives and small organisations as well as NPOs and NGOs and ensure they get their share of the limelight. How can they be supported by larger media companies without being swallowed up? How can innovation in small and mid-sized media companies be encouraged and financed? A foundation could help to unite the big players at the European level.
The media have increasingly become more influential and are becoming the instruments of power of just a few people. Media can also be used to ensure that politicians, civil servants, CEOs and so on lose their positions. They can also serve to further the interests of certain sectors. Have we reached the point where we should start considering the media to be the fourth area of power?
At the moment, we are experiencing unprecedented changes in the media. Large media companies are buying up small regional newspapers which is leading to a real consolidation of media systems. I have my doubts whether smaller and medium-sized publishing companies will survive, for the legal, statutory, and technological requirements have simply become too complex. At the same time, I believe diversity to be an important principle of our democracy. For this reason, we have to figure out which instruments can be used to protect those small and medium-sized publishing houses, to strengthen their independence and to retain that diversity.
Ethical questions relating to the media are more relevant than ever. During the past years most editors and newsrooms have undergone a radical transformation. They have had to completely change owing to decreasing revenue from advertising, increasing globalisation and ongoing technological trends. Editors have also had to restructure themselves in terms of organisation and contents. Nowadays most work following specific guidelines and press regulations. Values such as precision, independence, objectiveness, humanity, and accountability are being listed specifically in operating procedures and rules of conduct. Naming one’s sources is now expected, along with fact checking and turning down financial favours. In my opinion, many publishing houses have become more credible rather than less in the last few years.
Will new laws be needed for digital media and tools?
The EU has made a good start concerning new legislation for the media, particularly with regard to consumer rights. The so-called “Digital Services Act“ provides for social networks and online businesses to have measures in place to protect users from illegal content, goods and services. Hate postings and misinformation have to be removed quickly by law. In addition, there are also organisations such as the European Journalism Observatory which are trying to influence EU politics as far as quality, ethics, freedom of the press and media policies are concerned.
There are, however, some disturbing developments. Crises and wars are endangering freedom of the press at the global level. Freedom of the press is declining in Germany according to the organisation Reporter ohne Grenzen (reporter without boarders). One of the reasons for this can be attributed to the hostile reactions and violence faced by many journalists who reported on those who were denying that there was a pandemic, to name one example, or about various crises, generally speaking.
Furthermore, not all legal developments in Germany are to be viewed in a positive way. The Cyber Security Strategy of the German government, for instance, is going to lead to more surveillance. Over 200 journalists, for instance, were being monitored by the spyware “Pegasus”. We need to strengthen the rights for information and protecting the sources for those working in the media.
Finally, the media companies will also have to change. Some editors have blurred the distinction between editorial and commercial contents and are selling “native advertising”, meaning advertising texts which have been integrated in the layout of the editorial work. This development harms the credibility of independent news reporting.
How is this sector being affected by AI and Big Data? What developments can we expect to see?
Algorithms are changing our world. The mathematician Cathy O‘Neil said “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code”- and this holds true for journalist reports which are based on algorithms. We are experiencing a dramatic change in how journalists work: Many media companies are using so-called “robot journalism” for weather reports or for reporting on sports. There are speech assistance systems and recommendation algorithms on news websites.
Algorithms simplify our lives and improve many processes – even in journalism. At the same time, however, we can see how algorithms reinforce the contents of filter bubbles and help spread conspiracy theories. Of course, this affects our society. As journalists, we have to think about how we want to work and use algorithms. We need transparency, a code of ethics and need to broaden the discussion about Big Data.
The task of quality media is, among other things, to expose wrongdoings and to reflect the complex nature of society. For this task to be fulfilled, we need to make sure that a bias is avoided when using algorithm-based systems and to support underrepresented groups.
Dr Harmsen, thank you for sharing your insights with regard to the current influence of digitisation on journalism and media.
Thank you, Dr Caldarola, and I look forward to reading your upcoming interviews with recognised experts, delving even deeper into this fascinating topic.