Rebuilding public trust in journalism PJR 18 (2)

The themed issue of the Pacific Journalism Review, Vol 18, Issue 2, is now available. The themed section was guest edited by me and Prof Chris Nash.

Below you’ll find my editorial for PJR and the abstract to my article. For the full version: please see the print version of the journal or the on-line version via your library.

Editorial: Trust and transparency

SINCE THE call for papers to the theme for this issue of the Pacific Journalism Review, more tumultuous events in journalism have unfolded dominated by the agonising restructure of the newspaper arms of media companies across the region. Hundreds of editorial jobs are on the line. The increasingly desperate search for the ‘new business model’ has been stepped up. But is the new model the only answer to the current plight of journalism? Are media proprietors paying enough attention to the fact that the business model is built on the public trusting the journalistic practices that sit at the heart of the media brands? Perhaps all stakeholders should pay closer attention to Conboy’s thoughts?

                                 ‘…this doom-laden perspective, which permeates the news media industries ignores the fact that historically it is the audience, not the business model, which defines the contours of journalism. The business model has simply enabled journalism to marketise this audience for maximum profitability. (Conboy, 2010, p. 7)’

From this perspective to retain public trust in journalism and to rebuild lost trust becomes as important as the quest to make online journalism pay. Indeed, without, or with low, public trust in news media, will online journalism ever pay enough to sustain quality journalism?

One important tool to retain and rebuild trust in any professional practice is openness and accountability. It is to achieve this that industries construct ethical codes of conduct to complement the existing legal frameworks. Journalism and the news media companies have, in a long struggle during the last century, convinced other societal powers that it must be allowed to self-regulate (or employ variations of self-regulation such as co-regulation). This is to be able to fulfil its most important task: hold those that exercise power in society accountable for their actions.

Self-regulation is built on trust. What happens when the trust is not honoured? This eventuated in the News of the World debacle in the UK so eloquently captured by the Moir cartoon on the cover of this issue and the opposite page. Or in the words of the Lord Justice at the opening of the Leveson inquiry: ‘Who guards the guardians?’ (Leveson, 2011). Variations of this question have been asked many times, but never before in such dire circumstances.
The Australian versions of the Leveson Inquiry, the Independent Media Inquiry (IMI) (Finkelstein, 2011) and the Convergence Review (Boreham, 2012), have now both reported. The former provoked much debate regarding its suggestion to create an independent government funded, statutory-based News Media Council to hear complaints across all platforms. The Convergence Review produced a far less prescriptive document that seeks to engage the industry in shaping the future media regulation system in Australia.

What became clear in mainstream media’s coverage of the reports is that debate and discussion often gets stuck on the regulation issue and seldom deals with the core of the problem—public trust in and accountability for its practices.
In New Zealand, the debate has been relatively muted about public trust in the media in spite of a NZ Law Commission discussion paper last December which made far-reaching recommendations on ‘digital media age regulation’. The commission’s preferred solution is a new single regulator created by statute to which all complaints about ‘news media’ would be directed. Unlike the self-regulated Press Council or the statutory Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), the new regulator could intervene without any complaint being laid and—possibly—even before a story is published where there are concerns about the methods the journalist used to gather information. The commission recommends an ‘independent panel’ to appoint members of the new body, with the majority being from outside the industry. But public discussion has been more directed towards the Australian and British developments.

Now everyone is waiting for Leveson to report. Sometimes it feels like the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot. This time, however, Godot will arrive. The submissions and hearings in the inquiry have laid bare a culture of journalistic misconduct that reaches far into the British establishment. These malpractices are the most blatant betrayals of trust, a breach of the social contract for journalism, in recent times. Because of the severity of the breaches, the importance of the Leveson report and its impact outside Britain will be significant.

The themed section of PJR engages with a range of issues directly or closely connected to public trust and media accountability:
Duncan Bloy reflects in the first of four commentaries on missed opportunities in the Leveson inquiry, what impact it may have on journalism in the UK and elsewhere and what sort of regulatory model the Leveson report may recommend. Wendy Bacon provides one of few summaries that dealt with the substance of the Independent Media Inquiry Report, rather than singling out the one aspect of it. Her article was originally published in the alternative online news and current affairs publication New Matilda.

Rod Tiffen advised the IMI and was on the receiving end of some of the reactions by the industry and other commentators after the report was published. This piece, originally published in the The Sydney Morning
Herald, is his response. Dennis Cryle explores the influence and reach of News Limited’s flagship—The Australian, how the different editors have shaped the paper and its reaction to the IMI report. In New Zealand, while the debate has been far more muted than in Australia and the UK, changes are also happening, as Linda Clark outlines: ‘While there is no such political urgency to regulate the media the commission is likely to stick to its guns and recommend streamlining and strengthening.’

In the first of six research articles, Paul K. Jones foresees that the Leveson inquiry will be a watershed moment in multi-platform media regulation. Jones questions the neo-liberal orthodoxy that digital convergence would mean the expansion of the current newspaper self-regulatory model into other media formats and weighs up the Australian inquiries in the light of history and ‘first amendment fundamentalism’. Johan Lidberg argues, based on a content analysis, that close to all media proprietors that made submissions to the two Australian inquiries squandered the opportunity to seriously engage in discussing issues of public trust and the importance of media accountability. Mark Pearson suggests that there already is enough regulation in Australia and that content is better regulated and publishers held to account by drawing on and slightly amending existing consumer and privacy laws.
Patrizia Furlan examines matters of life and death—the trust relationship between medical reporters and PR practitioners representing the pharmaceutical industry. Most of the time the public/audience is unaware of this relationship.
Gavin Ellis provides a comparative overview of ethical codes using a sample from the Anglo-American press and countries and argues that the codes will endure and change little as they are still relevant and have developed over a long time. The issue at hand is to how to implement and police the codes in an effective way. Jared Obuya explores the fledgling steps of the Kenyan press council and finds good intentions hampered by a poorly funded body dominated by a few big media houses. A situation that is uncomfortably similar to the old version of the Australian Press Council.

There is a common thread to be found in all articles and commentaries in the themed issue—the issue of public trust and accountability in news media practices is not only vital for the future of the industry, but a necessity for the health of democratic systems. If the legal and ethical transgressions in some of the News International publications in the UK leads to a global serious discussion, including the media owners, regarding these issues, then something good will have come out of one of the biggest scandals in modern journalistic history.

References:

Boreham, G. (2012). Report of the Convergence Review. Canberra: Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Community, Australian Federal Government. Available at www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/independent_media_inquiry
Conboy, M. (2010). The paradoxes of journalism history. Australian Journalism Review, 32(1), 5-13
Finkelstein, R. (2011). Report of the independent inquiry into the media and media regulation. Canberra: Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Community, Australian Federal Government. Available at www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/independent_media_inquiry 

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’—Australian media industry attitudes to regulation and accountability reforms

Abstract

When the Australian Independent Media Inquiry (IMI) published its report most mainstream media reporting focused on the suggested statutory-based News Media Council and largely ignored any discussion of the underlying issues—public trust in journalism and news media and accountability for its practices. The aim of this study was to capture the attitudes held by the media industry toward these issues.
Based on a content analysis of 33 submissions to the IMI and the Convergence Review it can be concluded that only 15 percent of the submissions addressed trust or media accountability issues. Furthermore, the submissions illustrate a disconnect between the attitudes held by some media proprietors and the trust deficit reality displayed in multiple studies of the public’s attitudes to journalism and news media.
Keywords: media accountability, media regulation, Independent Media Inquiry, Convergence Review

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