Inclusion Insight

“News for All” – Week Note 4

Guess What? Journalism is a Service

This week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Service Design Days Satellite Meeting in Cardiff. Given the context and the audience, it gave me the opportunity to dig into how important it is that we think more about journalism as a service – not least because it is. 

In the day to day though, my experience is that it’s not at the forefront of our minds as much as it should be. Having endured (and endured is the right word here, for many reasons) 20+ years of editorial meetings at news broadcasters, the focus was often more on what competitors might do or how we could meet the needs of largely outdated formats than what information would genuinely help readers, viewers and listeners make sense of the world. 

That’s why it’s been so transformative for me to have been exposed to the disciplines of service and content design – most notably at the PDR Design Lab – as part of my R&D work with Clwstwr and Media Cymru. It’s really helped me focus on understanding the problem I’m trying to solve and the best way to solve it. It sounds easy, but of course it’s not. I’m really glad I get to continue that journey of learning and collaboration over the next couple of years.

Anyone can tell stories, getting someone to pay for them is the hard bit

The event also reminded me why I’m really glad that we got to share some of that with Inclusive Journalism Cymru members a few weeks ago, as part of our Inclusive Media Development Lab. One of the things I talked about at the Service Design event was how the business models of journalism have not only failed economically, but have also incentivised content which doesn’t meet the sense-making needs that citizens have. When your business relies on a programmatic advertising model – and you ultimately get paid for clicks – you naturally end up producing “journalism” which services that business imperative, what some people call “clickbait”. Although we may indeed click on that content, it’s not the type of content which creates any sort of long term relationship with a user. It’s also important to note that advertising-driven content often actively attacks or harms marginalised people because intense negative emotions will often drive the kind of crude engagement I’ve written about before.

Having said that, not all media organisations rely on an advertising model – with the BBC clearly being the most notable. However, when assessing storytelling “success” almost everyone uses precisely the same metrics – clicks, likes, shares – even when those metrics (they’re literally called “vanity metrics”) don’t incentivise content which meets the broader aims which e.g. publicly funded models are supposed to support. We need new metrics.

Anyway to get back to the point, at Inclusive Journalism Cymru, we’ve identified that the media industry in Wales (and of course beyond) could benefit from a couple of things – a more diverse workforce and more people with research, design, product, revenue and sustainability skills. We thought that we could kill two birds with one stone, and thanks to the support of the Welsh Government, Startup Migrants, Media Cymru, PDR, and the Institute of Welsh Affairs we were able to run a three day workshop doing just that.

Essentially the group we brought together were learning how to create services – not something that’s generally part of journalism training, but definitely should be. It was clear that the weekend was transformative for everyone involved – from aspiring journalists or media entrepreneurs, to those already working in the industry. The simple realisation that journalism has to provide value and meet a need felt strangely radical. It also felt strange but welcome to be in a space where you didn’t feel like you were the only one seeing things differently, or with a different perspective on the world. I talk a lot about how the journalism industry is made up of people from a very narrow demographic span and the impacts that has on those of us from the “outside”. Our Lab pointed to a world where things could be different.

Pragmatic scepticism as a way of understanding disinformation

Thanks to Jonathan Heawood from the Public Interest News Foundations for sharing this great journal article: Audience understandings of disinformation: navigating news media through a prism of pragmatic scepticism from JOMEC colleagues (who I actually haven’t had the chance to meet yet).

Of course I mainly recommend it because it backs up far more rigorously what I’ve been finding in my own work. The abstract puts it very clearly:

“…common definitions of disinformation go beyond ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories to include an array of phenomena, such as biased news, political spin and misrepresented information. Far from simply not trusting information sources or being passive recipients of disinformation, we argue that audiences have developed a pragmatic scepticism in their relationship with media across different platforms, which reflects a critical reading of news media both as texts and institutions.”

To return to my service design talk, I often think that journalism is the only industry where the customer is always wrong. The industry logic goes something like this:

We do public interest journalism – It is GOOD – Therefore People should like it – But they don’t like it – It’s just because they don’t understand just how GOOD our journalism is – Therefore we must give them a news literacy campaign to tell them just how GOOD our journalism is

What this paper makes clear is that the industry’s analysis is fatally flawed. I think why it feels “surprising” to the legacy industry is that it conceptualises itself as “unbiased”, “objective” etc. in contrast to fake news merchants who “have an agenda”. However – look, for example, at the very narrow demographic from which most journalism organisations draw their staff, business models which incentivise outrage and negative emotion and also the ownership of most newsrooms. Are we really saying that the systemic conditions exist in which you get fact-based impartial journalism from that legacy industry?

As the paper puts it much more coherently than I ever could, when talking about the “pragmatic scepticism” of news consumers: 

“This scepticism consists, on the one hand of a pragmatic trust and confidence in specific news sources, despite overall questioning the media. But on the other hand, it is expressive of rather sophisticated critical readings and understandings of political news. These readings include an acknowledgement of the political economy of media institutions and the conditions under which journalism operates. This critical scepticism, therefore, is illustrative of people’s engagement with the news in ways that go beyond questions of trust and distrust as diametrically opposed and defining of audience engagement with the news.”

What we as journalists need to take away from that is (at least) two fold. Firstly, it reminds us not to underestimate news audiences – to assume that they don’t understand how journalism works or why it produces the content it does. As the paper makes clear, they very much do. Secondly, we shouldn’t simply outsource the failures inherent in journalism, hoping they’ll magically be solved by external interventions. Instead, we need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the biases and distortions that the systems of journalism throw up. Until and unless we do that, we’re unlikely to solve the existential problem of trust.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.