This article is part of our special report #Media4EU: Can innovation beat the crises facing the EU and media?.
There is a dire need for the traditional media to change radically so that it can compete with social platforms in today’s information market and counter populist propaganda effectively.
Media insiders from all over the world can feel the butterflies in their stomachs: the political environment and the way its communicated are changing fast, both in terms of content, format and the platforms used to get the message across.
Global-impact events like Brexit, Trump’s victory and the rapid rise of parties such as Front National, Alternative für Deutschland, the Five Star Movement and others, materialise the rise of populist sentiments in society.
In parallel, the decay of traditional media to the benefit of social networks raises concerns as to the validity of the information which now spreads at an unprecedented pace.
François-Xavier Lefranc, editor-in-chief of Ouest France, said “we are witnessing the rise of nationalism and how the migrant crisis puts to the test the values upon which Europe was established and developed.
“We are truly at a turning point. Obviously we believe that it is Europe which can guarantee to us tomorrow’s peace and the possibility to pull through all future problems.”
The urgency of the issue is clear but how can traditional media fight against the parallel rise of fake news and populism? And what is, so to speak, their relationship status with social media platforms? Should they embrace them, even if they threaten to swallow them up, or fight them?
Middle class rebellion against the “system”
Many of the #Media4EU interviewees linked the rise of populist movements to globalisation, pointing out how the phenomenon impacted the middle class harshly in many European countries.
John Peet, political editor at The Economist, said: “I think the rise of populism in many countries in Europe and indeed the UK is partly down to people’s dissatisfaction with their economic position and a feeling that globalisation has not produced rewards for everybody. This perception is greater in certain sectors, particularly among people who used to have quite well-paid manufacturing jobs.”
As resentment against international trade liberalisation mounted, populist movements were able to channel the frustrations of the “left-behind” against the EU and its currency.
Deputy Director of La Stampa Marco Zatterin explained that “it was evident that Europe was used as a scapegoat […] We had this populist wave, people thought that there could be a shortcut out of the crisis, which has specifically been damaging their welfare and lifestyle. This shortcut was: ‘let’s get out of Europe, let’s kill our mother Europe’.”
Traditional media didn’t see it coming
The victory of Donald Trump in the US election served as a wake-up call to many in the industry, José Manuel Sanz, international director of the EFE news agency, pointed out: “The outcome of the American elections has been a big surprise.
“I think that the results show that the media and the pollsters don’t understand the real sensibility of the people. The media have a strong responsibility on shaping public opinion so we have to be very objective […] in our analysis of political debates.”
Miguel Castro from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation described how the internet revolution further compromised the sector’s symbiosis with its cultural environment: “It used to be fairly simple, by following the media you would get a sense of what society thinks. Nowadays, that has changed significantly: […] the number of voices is incredibly larger than it used to be.
“That makes for a very complex picture, in which what used to be called the silent majority now has a process to get its voice out pretty easily. If you add to that the fact that the conversation span is much shorter, that makes understanding what society thinks very complex.”
Class Editori Editor-in Chief Gabriele Capolino said that it is time for the sector to ask itself some tough questions, explaining that “we, the media, did not understand how bad this situation was. We tend to follow the stream and the stream lead us to polarisation. We did more and more news about the rich and the powerful and we forgot that what was happening to the middle, let alone the bottom.”
Democratic social platforms, lacking quality
The association between mainstream media and “the establishment”, a term that became 2016’s “dirty word” par excellence, meant that audiences lost trust in traditional reporting, looked for alternative sources of information – and found them online.
As a result, social platforms are cited as the primary source of information by an increasing amount of news consumers, and especially by the younger generation.
The catch, however, is that these platforms do not provide the ethical standards that traditional outlets are bound by, Emma Tucker, editorial director of The Times pointed out: “We operate by a code which doesn’t apply to social media and nobody’s quite sure how to tackle this problem.”
“We can be very careful and abide by rulings by, for example, not naming underage victims but then anyone can go on Google or Facebook or whatever and probably instantly find that name,” she added.
Europe Editor of Buzzfeed UK Alberto Nardelli hopes action will be taken against those who publish inaccurate information and he said that “I think self-regulation is always better but at the end of the day an argument can be made in favour of public intervention. […] Social platforms have always said ‘we are not responsible for this’, but actually the problem has such a big impact on democracy that they cannot get away with not being held accountable.
The Economist’s John Peet also commented on the issue, describing the so-called “eco-chamber” effect experienced on social platforms: “Social media plays on people’s prejudices […] The people who believed in Brexit tended to read sources of information they agreed with on social media and on mainstream media, while for those who voted remain it was the other way around.”
Particularly alarmed by the spread of fake news, Der Tagesspiegel Publisher Sebastian Turner warned about suspicious investments in the industry. Turner insisted “we should pay attention to possible social media abuse by propaganda actors in Eastern Europe. There, media organisations are increasingly being taken over by oligarchs, and also in the UK, France, Italy and others you have the same phenomenon.”
Should the media send social platforms a friend request?
The truth is that social networks are here to stay. Slowly but surely, the question for most organisations is shifting from whether to engage with them, to how to do so.
Although very critical of the lack of industry efforts into fact-checking, Buzzfeed UK has elaborated one of the most forward-thinking strategies to integrate multiple platforms as part of their modus operandi.
Alberto Nardelli said that his organisation sees “social media as an additional distribution channel and not necessarily just a way to have people clicking back to our website. Actually, lots of effort goes into formatting content in ways which are relevant not only for social platforms, but for different types of demographics and mobile as well.”
“I support the position of social media in that respect, because I think that they have the power of creating discussions. I don’t see a real threat to traditional media. (…) we try to discuss our content and to create a debate around it. That way, the people who are interested in the debate are able to buy the weekly,” he explained.
Traditional media needs intense innovation
Lola Huete Machado, editor-in-chief of the Planeta Futuro section of El País, asked a simple yet pivotal question: “In the US most of the media did not believe that he could win, that’s why they supported Hillary Clinton and only very few backed Trump. And yet he still won. So the question is: ‘after this election, are the media as important as before?’”
With abundant sources of information online, the fierce competition brought about by globalised capitalism seems to have reached the media sector as well, explained self-proclaimed visual activist Victor Fleurot.
“If people want hard facts today, Wikipedia has a fiercely independent business model and the most advanced, crowd-sourced fact-checking system in the world. There are also public services like the BBC with a higher guarantee of independence,” he said.
“If consumers want breaking news and opinion, they can shop around for formats that are attractive and easy to digest. For more challenging analysis, they may commit more personal effort and resources by supporting critical reporting they enjoy and trust,” Fleurot concluded.
Miguel Castro, who works for the branch of the Gates Foundation providing grants to support quality reporting on sustainable development, issued a note of caution to the sector: “The ball is in journalism’s court to demonstrate its impact and its value.”
“Let’s not fool anyone: we as journalists, […] we’ve operated on the assumption that journalism is important, and that we set the agenda and that people want to talk to us. That assumption is not enough anymore,” he warned.
“There is journalism that matters more than others. So when people or foundations make a social investment, they want to have the largest impact possible. Many other platforms currently have a greater ability to demonstrate their value than journalism, so we definitely need to look right at the industry and have them explain why funding the media is important,” Castro concluded.