Only heroic measures can save news now

To guard their autonomy and tackle the misinformation crisis, it’s time for news people to question old assumptions and embrace accountability Continue Reading Only heroic measures can save news now

When people don’t know what’s going on in their communities and around the world, they need access to reliable news.  

That’s long been the basic argument for autonomous news media (a.k.a. the freedom of the press) in democratic countries on six continents. Thanks to this logic, news people and their lawyers have persuaded audiences, lawmakers, and courts that news is a “public good” and news gathering a public service that needs to be protected through a range of legal privileges.

Among the most common privileges internationally: protecting confidential sources’ identities, preferred access to spaces and documents, and conditional exemptions from libel actions and data-protection laws.

In Canada and several other countries, the list of privileges came to include public funding through postal discounts, direct grants, tax credits, and, most recently, salary subsidies. Taxpayers, if they noted the costs at all, initially expressed about as many qualms with supporting news media as for road engineering and ambulance services. 

That was then. 

Today, the idea of people unconditionally privileging journalism – let alone paying for it – seems, well, quaint. Practically no one trusts institutions unquestioningly anymore, and no institution has ever had the right to expect it. 

Those road engineers and paramedics earn or lose public-service recognition through subjecting themselves to professional standards and accountability to their peers. Canadian news people, on the other hand, offer some version of: “Trust us, we’re journalists.”   

Newsflash: it’s not working. Canadians’ expressed trust in news has been falling since the Reuters Institute’s first annual Digital News Report. In 2016, 55 percent of Canadians said they trusted most of the news they saw, most of the time, compared with 40 percent in 2023. Only 11 percent of Canadian respondents said they paid for any online news last year. (French Canadians avow higher-than average trust in news but are no more likely to pay for it.) 

Why are so many people inclined to disbelieve news nowadays? After three years of intensive interviews with about 2,000 people in the UK, the USA, Brazil, and India, an Oxford-based research team reported a predictably complex stew of explanations, but some patterns did emerge. Those who said they followed and trusted news generally said they expected signs of fairness, accuracy, and impartiality; coverage of diverse communities and interests; demonstrable ethical standards; and engagement with audience feedback. 

Among the research team’s closing recommendations to the world’s newsrooms: ensure journalistic independence and credible ownership structures.

Supporting evidence comes from comparing democratic states to one another. The likelihood of people to pay for news seems glaringly correlated to their country’s history of defending press freedom and of making news workers accountable to one another for adherence to clear standards. Journalists in those countries think it’s simply reasonable in democracies to demonstrate their accountability for standards of factual reporting, and to provide plausible evidence of journalists’ autonomy from the interests of their employers and others. 

Yet, these reasonable ideas are practically taboo in historically anglo-Saxon news cultures, for reasons that have more to do with tradition and habit than with common sense or legal rights. Journalists in my generation, especially, have clung with striking self-confidence to inherited habits of news judgment and have largely resisted organizing themselves collectively beyond individual workplaces.

We have refused, in short, to be a profession.

I sense the next generation of Canadian journalists is readier than its predecessors to ask critical questions about journalism’s collective purpose and identity. But it will take more than questions to earn growing recognition of journalism as a public service. It will take brave thinking and focused choices. 

What kinds of choices by news people and companies could start earning public support amid the information crisis? Here are ten suggestions. 

  1. Meet communities’ needs. Any public service begins with listening to what people say and noticing what they lack. Likewise, respecting news audiences means taking a serious and open-minded interest in communities well beyond the publisher’s and editor’s own circles, and taking stock of who’s been over-served and underserved to date. That includes noticing the diversity of people’s experience, attitudes and interests and reflecting it in newsroom composition and story selection.
  2. Actively combat misinformation. Polarized information channels deprive people of access to unexpected facts and diverse perspectives about what’s going on. To earn respect as a public service requires news outlets to present audience members with surprising facts, to report the existence of unwelcome opinions, to allow time for verification, and to correct factual errors.  
  3. Budget for core mission. It costs money to get stuff right, to correct errors, and to foster professional development. In other words, providing high-quality news requires financial choices based, at least in part, on public need. Do voters need another branded poll to make ballot-box choices more than they need a new  investigation into infrastructure delays? When a royal gets married or buried, does every major news outlet really need to show up in London, or could these events, like many wars and natural disasters, be covered through wire services? Is that celebrity columnist really worth more than the combined salaries of the court reporter, city hall bureau and copy editor who are now on the layoff list? When owners can’t afford to provide reliable news, they can’t afford to be in the news business. In that case, their moral options include selling the title to employees or following the example of the few respected publications, including La Presse and Le Devoir, who’ve declared non-profit status. 
  4. Collaborate to check viral “facts.” Canada is one of the few democratic countries that still lacks an independent fact-checking service. Major news organizations elsewhere have pooled resources to fill this gap, but ours haven’t.  
  5. Embrace professional standards. The principle of equal rights requires that claimed privileges rest on demonstrable justification. The common-law libel defence of responsible journalism or public-interest communication is conditional on following processes of fairness and accuracy. The European Court of Human Rights has held that journalists’ right to divulge otherwise protected information on issues of general interest is conditional on journalists’ seeking accurate information in good faith. A similar contingency is built into South Africa’s data-protection law, which specifically defers to safeguards built into codes of journalistic ethics. 
  6. Accept self-regulation as the price of privilege. Journalists’ work can bring governments down, turn ordinary folk into heroes, make businesses bankrupt, give people hope, and break their hearts. But if you want to measure a leading journalist’s entitlement, try suggesting a measure of peer-accountability. True, their employers (the news publishers) have accepted a measure of peer review, but press councils in many countries depend disproportionally on the membership fees of the largest news organizations. Systematic instability makes adjudicators risk-averse, which is why judges have career-long employment terms. A possible solution: augment the council’s revenue mix with unconditional philanthropic endowments or arm’s-length, secured public grants. 
  7. Guarantee journalists’ autonomy. If editorial autonomy is core to press freedom, as most agree, owners should publicly and contractually waive the right to fire editors over content choices. Likewise, senior journalists should guard the rights of more precariously employed colleagues such as interns, those with short-term contracts, and freelancers. For those who think the piper’s payer calls the tune, I offer two words: collective bargaining.
  8. Learn humility. Journalistic work rewards self-confidence but standards require judicious restraint about knowledge claims. When reporters speculate or report rumours, they undermine the value of facts.
  9. Lean on Peers. Journalists could learn something from hospital physicians in cultivating a habit of private, honest discussions about unexpected case outcomes. The aim of such conversations should be to improve future work through building a shared sense of responsibility for the quality and integrity of information. 
  10. Be cautious and transparent with government dealings. There’s nothing wrong in principle with expecting taxpayers to support public services, but secret negotiations between news media and governments are no way to promote citizens’ trust in the press. Also, government promises are as temporary as governments themselves.  Budget priorities change; legislation can be repealed. News media need more stable bridges to their future than politics can provide.

It’s not the internet that is killing journalism—it’s publishers’ and journalists’ failure to greet the information crisis with demonstrable commitment and clear thinking. Now, in countries like Canada, the patient is at death’s door and it’s time for a stark question: do we hang a DNR sign over news operations, or are heroic measures required?

This column is adapted from the final chapter of Ivor Shapiro’s book The Disputed Freedoms of a Disrupted Press (Routledge, 2024)

Ivor Shapiro, the founding editor of J-Source, is emeritus professor and former chair of the School of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University, where he is now a senior fellow at the Centre for Free Expression. His research is in the professional practice and attitudes of journalists, and he has taught feature reporting and media ethics. As a magazine journalist, he was a contributing editor of Saturday Night magazine and managing editor of Chatelaine. A former chair of the ethics committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists, his latest book is The Disputed Freedoms of A Disrupted Press (Routledge, 2024).