Taking responsibility for media quality

Offline or online, trust in the marketplace of ideas should not mean that citizens take a laissez faire attitude to media. This is a talk given at the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre’s annual conference in Jogjakarta, Indonesia, July 7, 2013.


In the course of the 20th century, we crossed a threshold in our relationship to media and in the constitution of what Roger Silverstone has called the mediapolis — that mediated public space through which public life emerges. Once upon a time, and in fact through most of human history, the main constraints on sharing ideas and discovering others were the technical limitations of media. The limited accessibility and reach of media meant that there was only so much you could do with them, even with the noblest intentions.

A hundred years ago, even if you had something extremely worthwhile to say, including important news like a death in the family, you would hesitate to telephone or send a cable to everyone you knew. It would not have crossed your mind to relay your every whim, your reaction to the latest book you read or meal you enjoyed, to your entire social circle. In theory, the technology allowed it, but the cost would have been too prohibitive. Today, as a result of successive revolutions in print, electronic and digital media, culminating in social media, the main bottleneck is no longer technical but ethical.

I use the term “ethical” in a broad sense, referring not just to professional ethics or codes of conduct but to the responsibilities of all citizens — including audiences, policy makers, media owners as well as media producers — for the quality of communication in their society, in particular for the communication required for collective decision making. This broad view of ethics does not focus merely on lapses by media workers in respecting privacy or striving for accuracy, for instance. It would also question marginalised minorities’ lack of voice in the media system and the neglect of investigative public interest journalism. These are systemic, structural failures that cannot be blamed on individual reporters and editors.

The reference point for such ethics is not any existing professional code, but “media’s potential contribution to human life”, as Nick Couldry has put it.

Professional journalism

The precise ethical bottlenecks vary from society to society, and among media. In traditional journalism, the key ethical limitation is our failure to respond to the fact that the kind of journalism we need for collective decision making — what Americans now call “accountability journalism” — is, in economic terms, a public good and a market failure. Our societies have not given much thought to establishing business models that secure free, independent and plural media that are capable of providing the kind of journalism we know we need.

This problem is most obvious in mature media markets, where the decline of commercial news organisations has resulted in dramatically depleting professional journalistic capacity. But it is also apparent in this part of the world. The media boom in many countries in Asia conceals the fact that most of that boom is in ratings-driven entertainment genres, and that many media outlets place newsmakers and advertisers ahead of the public, either because their owners are greedy — take the Times of India‘s scandalous treaty system for commercial partners — or because reporters are so poorly paid that they must take envelopes from sources, as happens here in Indonesia, as well as the Philippines and elsewhere.

The competitive pressure on newsrooms has resulted in obvious ethical breaches and even illegal conduct, the most infamous of which was the News of the World phone hacking scandal in Britain. But it has also resulted in less obvious compromises even by news organisations that treat professional ethics very seriously. Nick Davies is known today as the Guardian investigative journalist who helped expose News of the World. But his earlier work is not discussed enough. In his book Flat Earth News, he revealed how the British public was being shortchanged not by the racy tabloids — that’s hardly news, after all – but by so-called quality outlets. Davies’ research, conducted with Cardiff University’s journalism school, exposes how journalists are being squeezed to increase their productivity to such an extent that it has become impossible to carry out even basic fact checking when they receive a press release, allowing PR practitioners unfiltered access to the audiences of journalistic outlets.

Others have noted that journalists, who are supposed to make sense of the world for the public, are in a kind of information arms race with spin doctors and other communication professionals who are trying to manipulate that same public on behalf of powerful interests. Due to our collective failure to support accountability journalism, that arms race has already been lost.

Online deliberation

Online media have added significantly to media freedom, independence and pluralism. Indonesia has provided many inspiring examples of internet use. My Indonesian friends have told me the story of the Mount Merapi relief efforts, when ordinary citizens here in Jogjakarta used social media to mobilise impressive grassroots efforts. The Coins For Prita campaign in 2009 was one of the world’s earliest examples of effective political mobilisation through social media.

But even Indonesians would acknowledge that certain aspects of online behaviour have been disappointing. In particular, it has proven extremely difficult to generate the kind of online discussion that is worthy of the name of a public sphere. Yes, there is plenty of participation, but rarely does this achieve the quality we expect of democratic deliberation. Most online debates very quickly descend into, at best, irrelevance and, at worst, ugly name-calling. Voices that need to be heard are either too difficult to detect in the midst of the cacophony, or are silenced by a wall of hostility.

Of course, people don’t need to be serious, truthful or sincere all the time, and it is not a problem if they shout without listening on certain forums. But it is a problem if spaces that we rely on to serve a deliberative purpose are instead deluged by noise, just as it would be a problem if participants disrupted a town hall meeting or a panchayat village council where important issues are being discussed. People have a right to express themselves, but people also have a right to hear – and it is our right to hear that is compromised when online forums are not allowed to live up to their potential.

The evidence from online forums seems to support the democratic elitists who have long argued that too much participation is actually bad for democracy; and that most people should confine themselves to voting at elections and mind their own business in between. The internet, from this perspective, may be making it too easy for the unwashed masses to have their say.

But I think it is premature to conclude that the elitists are right — that most people are incapable of moderating their online behaviour and participating in reasoned discussions. Before we give up on public participation, we should consider this paradox: even as online spaces bring out the worst in some, people seem to have no trouble knowing when to practise civility in offline.

Offline, the same individual can go to a football match and shout vulgarities at the referee, and the next morning be completely respectful towards the chairman of a meeting. Asking which is the authentic self is the wrong question. Humans are skilfully attuned to social context. They observe different rules of etiquette even though these rules are not written anywhere and there is no visible enforcement.

So what happens when they go online? The most common explanation is that online anonymity promotes irresponsibility. To get round this problem, some news sites require registration or Facebook authentication, and this helps to a certain extent.

However, anonymity remains a necessary shield in countries where individuals with dissenting views still need to fear reprisal. It’s also interesting that anonymity alone doesn’t seem to destroy all inhibition in the real world. A lone tourist in a foreign country where he is a complete stranger still seems to behave better than many anonymous participants in online discussions.

Rather than focus on the effects of anonymity, we might want to pay more attention to the power of social cues in shaping people’s behaviour. The debate has instead vacillated between imposing restrictions on freedom of expression at one extreme and self-centred libertarianism at the other. Perhaps what is needed is the kind of soft paternalism suggested by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge: even as we preserve freedom of choice, we can modify the choice architecture to influence people’s behaviour for their own good.

This is a job for both interface designers, who should be introducing affordances that tell a new user whether he is entering the online equivalent of a seminar or a sports bar; and for the existing community  of users, who should feel enough of a sense of responsibility for a space to help maintain its norms.

Whatever the solutions, what is clear is that the marketplace of ideas cannot be expected to work automatically like some law of nature, whether in traditional media or new media. Making it work requires commitment, and practice.