With a Digital Services Act in the offing, regulation of platforms can make public-interest journalism sustainable again.
How on earth can we solve the existential threats humankind faces, if our information space is dysfunctional, if we can’t have a proper debate, if we can’t even agree on basic truths anymore? How can we advance our fight against climate change, manage migration, protect biodiversity and overcome a pandemic-plus-recession, if emotions and beliefs trump facts?
This fundamental question is now, by means of the coronavirus, infecting political agendas. Suddenly, we begin to understand—up to the highest echelons of power—that falsehoods are not only ugly, nasty cousins of fascism, driving us into an era of the grand de-enlightenment, scrapping science and derailing democracy. It is worse: disinformation, propaganda, lies and conspiracy theories can actually kill—not only in Myanmar, but also in Florida, Bournemouth or Belgrade.
At the same time, reliable information can literally save lives, everywhere.
Protection and resilience
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, or so the saying goes. However, the pandemic teaches us, among many things, that this is not enough to fight the virus: it did not miraculously disappear over the summer. We also need protection, resilience, antibodies, proper facilities and care to stay alive.
This is exactly the arsenal needed to fix our information space as well—not only to survive all sorts of ‘viral’ attacks but to thrive. Yes, journalism can shine a light on wrongdoings, exposing malpractice and corruption. But transparency is not an end in itself and it doesn’t function just so. It needs an enabling environment to have meaningful impact, which requires a range of safeguards, a solid infrastructure and a degree of collective fitness.
Both Covid-19 and viral disinformation can wreak havoc inside an already weak, even sick body much more easily. Pre-existing conditions make us more vulnerable, as an individual human being and as whole societies. A number of patients were suffering from inadequate oxygen way before the pandemic struck. Now journalism finds itself in a life-and-death state of emergency, in dire need of intensive care, cure and protection.
However, the reckonings of 2020 include not only a range of revelations. They can also bring about a momentum for change.
Coal and steel
Traditionally, the European Union was about ‘the economy, stupid’. Its founding mothers and fathers sought reconciliation but built it, literally, with coal and steel. The EU’s signature project responding to Germany’s reunification and regime changes further east and south was a common currency. The complicated relationship with the United Kingdom (‘I want my money back’) and Brexit, finally, is now all about payments, subsidies and trade.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cultural and media policies were always underexposed in Brussels. Lacking a clear mandate, the European Commission cannot be blamed for a hotchpotch of narrow or non-existent competencies. As the core, founding members of the union didn’t want to let go of their national monopoly to regulate broadcasting 30-odd years ago—and one might guess why—how can we expect the EU to tell governments in Budapest or Zagreb to get their digital agendas right today? And why should they listen and play along anyway?
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Yet talking about journalism, press freedom and media policy today means regulating tech. And just as with climate change, migration or the coronavirus, this only works across borders: you cannot reign in artificial intelligence or Facebook out of Bratislava or Berlin. As this awareness trickles slowly—albeit during the pandemic a bit faster—into the political arena, we may finally see a critical mass in favour of a holistic and transnational approach.
Increasing pressures on media outlets are mostly economic these days, resulting in self-censorship, closures and eventually a loss of pluralism and diversity. The disintegration of traditional business models and the further drop of advertising revenues during the pandemic amount to a perfect storm and make it even easier for autocrats to control and further narrow the information space—a trend which seems almost impossible to reverse at national levels.
Regulation of platforms can offer a way out, however, by directly remonetising authoritative sources and thus strengthening their sustainability at the global distribution level. In some cases, ironically, it might even turn out an advantage to be out of reach of national governments.
In most countries, digital advertising is dominated by a duopoly of Google and Facebook, with above a 60 per cent market share. The metrics of distributing these revenues are mostly driven by ‘engagement’—fuelled by sensationalism and ‘clickbait’, the exact opposite of ethical journalism. This logic needs to be reversed, by providing preferential treatment and a competitive advantage online for public-interest journalism.
But do we want to define what’s journalism and what isn’t by law? Probably not. Fortunately, co-regulatory approaches may provide a way out and there are good practices in other industries from which to learn. Obligations for different stakeholders are defined by law—that’s the regulatory part—and the actual specifications are defined, governed and enforced by self-regulatory industry standards and bodies. In the media sector we have an abundance of the latter but a vacuum where the former should be.
So compliance with professional norms in journalism, though nice to have, doesn’t pay off in terms of digital reach and revenues. A co-regulatory framework to address this market-failure would require four critical elements:
- the journalistic community comes up voluntarily with a unified benchmark;
- self-assessment according to its criteria is open to third-party audits, to add compliance and accountability (and offer journalists a deep look into the mirror);
- machine-readable, real-time signals inform human and algorithmic decision-making in news distribution and consumption, and
- intermediaries and platforms are obliged by law to take on these signals, based on a transparent process, and provide due prominence for compliant sources.
The Journalism Trust Initiative initiated by Reporters Without Borders, together with partners such as the European Broadcasting Union and Agence France Presse, follows this very logic. It has developed and published an auditable and machine-readable set of criteria under the aegis of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN).
In the past we’ve seen similar mechanisms at play, in ‘must-carry’ rules for broadcasting and electronic programming guides, when the spectrum of distribution used to be scarce. Nowadays, through digital technology, scarcity has flipped from the supply to the demand side—defined by the limited attention span and time of consumers and citizens. Co-regulatory solutions must respond properly to this shift of paradigm.
The upcoming Digital Services Act on which the European Commission has been consulting provides a unique opportunity to enshrine this logic—even more so as it is expected to build on the EU’s traditional core competences in trade and competition. It should not only focus on weeding out malicious actors but strive equally to support the good by providing a tangible, economic benefit for public-interest journalism.
A resulting ‘must-be-found’ rule for search and ‘social media’ services would mean elevated reach and revenues, enabling eligible content providers to capitalise directly on investments in professional journalism and ethical conduct. It could simultaneously limit the powers of national actors to corrupt advertising markets and deprive independent journalism of the profits it deserves.
But wasn’t the advertising-based business model for media already declared dead—with organisations such as the Guardian and New York Times investing heavily in online subscription? Yet 2020 has also proved a very special year in this regard. Suddenly we have witnessed advertisers speaking up, leveraging their dollars in a boycott of Facebook and launching initiatives such as the Global Alliance for Responsible Media.
According to estimates, tens of billions of euro are wasted every year due to advertising fraud and unintentional targeting—and, even worse, these funds monetise hate, polarisation and division. In addition, more and more advertising-free, paywalled offers, such as Netflix, attract eyeballs and consume our limited time. The shrinking space makes advertisers demand accessible, brand-safe environments even more.
There is still a lot of money in the system. Let’s just envisage a fraction of what’s currently lost being redirected towards trustworthy sources of content.
Advertisers will not save journalism and they shouldn’t. But creating incentives, legal and economic, and technological mechanisms to align their spending to compliance with professional norms in journalism could make a difference for both—and for societies at large.
The EU has the powers to set this mechanism in motion and the legislative process is under way. The world is waiting.
A version of this article was published as a briefing by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, ‘Sustaining journalism during Covid-19’
Olaf Steenfadt heads the Media Ownership Monitor project and the Journalism Trust Initiative at the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), having previously worked for the German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF in various roles. He is a member of the High-level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation of the European Commission and of the Committee of Experts on Quality of Journalism in the Digital Age and the Committee of Experts on Media Environment and Reform at the Council of Europe.