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The Disappearance of the Gatekeepers

Illustration: The Disappearance of the Gatekeepers
© Polityka Insight

Writers complain that pictures of their cats are more popular on social media than their essays on the state of the world.

“All the News That’s Fit to Print.” It was in 1897 that those words first appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The slogan is still on the world’s most famous daily newspaper to this day; it’s been lauded, criticised and parodied countless times.

By Łukasz Lipiński, Polityka.pl

Editors are gatekeepers

The main question has always been, “Who decides whether or not news is fit to print?” For many years, the answer was simple. The editors of the most important media – the press and later radio and television – selected what content would be conveyed. Metaphorically, they were referred to as gatekeepers.

The editors of the leading newspapers and radio stations were for many decades the guardians of the flow of information in public space. It was their job to ensure the quality, credibility, timeliness and relevance of the published news and articles. They were experienced journalists who had been preparing themselves for this task their entire professional lives. Their work would be the subject of feature films, say, All the President’s Men about the Watergate affair in 1976 and Spotlight about the Boston church scandal in 2015.

This system had its advantages and disadvantages. The gatekeepers selected and monitored the information being circulated, but who was responsible for its dissemination – also in a legal sense – was entirely transparent.

Charlie bit my finger

Today we live in the digital world of the Internet and mobile devices; a world where anyone can become an editor and post their own news and comments. Often, we don’t even know who is responsible for a news item because the creator might be hiding behind a false identity.

The de facto anonymity offered by digital media results in a lack of responsibility for the content published. We’re living in an era of clickbait – sensational headlines meant to pique our curiosity because clicks mean money – and fake news – phony or fabricated news intended to manipulate the public for political or commercial purposes.

Initially, many industry representatives and experts were enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by digital technologies. Over the 2010s, the term “grassroots journalism” came into vogue to highlight the benefits of a world in which we are all journalists. But it soon became apparent that in that world there’s no one to watch over the quality of the news.

Universal access to more or less valuable information has led to the breakdown of traditional media business models of distributing information and selling advertising. The decrease in income necessitated cutbacks in the editorial offices, which in turn was reflected in the decrease in the quality of the articles. The media began to adapt to the new needs of recipients and advertisers.

A prime example of this change in the media market was the video “Charlie bit my finger,” which was the most-watched video worldwide in 2007 and to date has been viewed over 860 million times.

Technology, globalisation, entertainment

Technological progress was decisive for this change: the steady increase in the computing power of integrated circuits (Moore’s law) has led to the fact that today we carry supercomputers about whose possibilities would have seemed unimaginable to us a decade ago. In addition, these devices are also constantly connected to one another. The triumphant advance of the Internet has accelerated the flow of information. At the same time, globalisation is advancing and creating mutual dependencies between regions that are far apart. These two processes have resulted in information getting from one end of the world to the other in real-time.

At the same time, due to a chain of political and economic factors including the 2008 financial crisis, the culture of trust in experts and authorities was shaken. And the advent of social media has meant that today we increasingly trust people who are like us (or who claim to be) – a well-known mechanism of trust that has been reinforced and multiplied by the media.

In the global wringer

The new technologies have meant that news has spread faster and further, but at the same time has lowered its standards as many recipients prefer to be entertained rather than grapple with serious topics. Writers complain that pictures of their cats are more popular on social media than their essays on the state of the world.

The disinformation progresses almost unhindered; no one can possibly fact-check all the false reports, rumours, and conspiracy theories that arise. Studies show that fake news spreads faster and more frequently on social media than real news.

According to the February 2018 Eurobarometer, 37 percent of EU citizens state that they are confronted with fake news almost every day, 85 percent see it as a problem in their country, and 83 percent see it as a threat to democracy. The parallel circulation of non-fact-checked information plays an increasingly greater role. Many false theories spread in this “global wringer,” for example about the harmfulness of vaccinations.

Fake news also influences the public debate, favouring populists, and system opponents. In the US there is still discussion about the possible influence of Russian-controlled false reports on the 2016 presidential election and in the UK, documented information has been published about the influence of fake news on the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

A media renaissance?

The decreasing quality of information and the decreasing level of public debate are, however, not inevitable developments. In recent years the traditional media have experienced a renaissance – at least in certain areas. A good example of this is the New York Times mentioned above, which has gained 2.5 million digital subscribers.

The growth trend is in digital subscriptions. In Poland, the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Polityka magazine play a leading role here. More and more people are willing to pay for quality journalism the same way that they pay for films and music.

The digital media also make a contribution to the restoration of journalistic standards. More and more fact-checking services are emerging around the world. And leading tech companies like Facebook and Google are increasingly investing in combatting fake news.

There are also attempts at state and public regulation. A group of experts set up by the European Commission published a report in April 2018 in which, among other things, they proposed the introduction of a code of conduct regarding ​​disinformation, the establishment of an independent European network of fact-checkers and measures to strengthen media literacy and to promote high-quality, diversified information.

French President Emmanuel Macron presented the most extensive measures in the fight against online disinformation. They include mandatory identification of sponsored content and expedited judicial proceedings to delete false reports. Experts consider applicable measures unsuitable in the world of new media.

What can we do?

The signs of a media renaissance give us reason to hope that at least in part of the public debate it is possible to reinstate professional gatekeepers who help to select and hierarchise information and to ensure the quality of published articles.

Local media, which are less prone to political polarisation and whose information is easier to verify, could play a pivotal role in revitalising public debate. Traditional media can strengthen their position by investing in digital technologies and partnering with tech companies. The latter, in turn, should invest far more in measures to ensure compliance with journalistic standards.

Traditional media as well as technology companies, governments and local authorities should promote initiatives to strengthen media literacy in order to prepare recipients for life in an increasingly complex information society. In this way, each of us can become a gatekeeper, even though we cannot replace professional journalists and editors.