As we’ve described here a number of times, one of the biggest disruptions in the media industry has been on the distribution end — the actual creation of journalism and other content has also changed, but even more important is the shift from media outlets controlling the channel (newspaper, magazine, TV network) to relying on outside platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google for distribution and attention.
That has brought with it a host of challenges, including ethical ones around how free speech and freedom of the press are handled by social networks that have no journalistic motivations or constraints whatsoever.
This is the landscape that Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, recently tried to outline in a speech to journalists in Britain given in honor of Hugh Cudlipp, former chairman of the Daily Mirror newspaper group. In a nutshell, Bell — the former head of digital operations at The Guardian — argues that both sides, social platforms and journalists, need each other more than they think.
Rise of the tabloid web
As Bell points out, most newsrooms — even the slow-moving, traditionally-focused ones like the New York Times — have come to realize that they need to understand and take advantage of the social sharing that platforms like Facebook provide, because that is how content works now. Everyone wants to “go viral.” In a sense, the web is encouraging everyone to think like the editor of a tabloid newspaper like the Daily Mirror. What do readers want and how can we give it to them as quickly as possible?
Control has been lost
The problem — as Bell outlined in a similar lecture last year at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism — is that journalists and media companies no longer have any control whatsoever over what happens to their content once they publish it. Proprietary networks like Facebook and Twitter and Google are now the power brokers who determine who sees your story and when, and their decisions are made for reasons that may have nothing to do with the journalistic quality of your content.
As publicly-traded companies with a bottom line to look after, these platforms have their own interests to protect, Bell says — and that means they may be less than inclined to support or defend principles that journalists take for granted, such as free speech or freedom of the press. While Twitter makes a point of challenging court orders and fighting government requests for the blocking of content, and Google has also been known to do this, Facebook seems more than happy to remove content, in many cases without notice.
As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out on a number of occasions, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become the new public square, except it isn’t public at all — it’s more like a shopping mall, where private security can have you removed at will. Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon made a similar point in her book Consent of the Networked, about how much of what we consider free speech has been taken over by private corporations. Says Bell:
We need each other
As an example, Bell points to Google handing over personal information about members of WikiLeaks to the U.S. government, something she calls “a chilling reminder of either how little Google understands what supporting free speech means or its naked dishonesty.” No serious news organization would ever do such a thing she says, and it calls Google’s trustworthiness as a platform into question (Google has since said that it tried to alert those users to the government’s secret court order, but was prevented from doing so).
It’s not just Facebook and Google that Bell is concerned about, however. There are other broader issues that the democratization of journalism brings up, she says — issues that were highlighted in two recent cases: one in which Jordi Mir filmed a French police officer being shot after the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and another in which Ramsey Orta filmed a New York police officer choking Eric Garner, who subsequently died.
The bottom line, Bell says, is that journalists and technology companies or social platforms need to work together to figure out how to handle the atomized, networked and democratized media environment we all find ourselves in. It’s not enough for Facebook or Google to say they aren’t journalistic organizations and therefore they don’t have a duty to consider things like free speech — they are functioning as journalistic tools, and they have a larger responsibility to society.
I think Bell is right — social networks like Facebook need the content that comes from media outlets because that’s what drives the engagement they need to sell advertising. But journalism and journalistic organizations should get something in return, and that is a commitment to at least consider the principles that should apply to such content, since they now control how and when (or even if) people see it. If the algorithm is the new editor, then it needs to be held to account for its decisions in the same way an editor would be.