Holding up the mirror

September 10, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:36 am IST

Alan Rusbridger’s new book captures the troubling reality in the media ecosystem today

I am never tired of saying that the best journalism is akin to Umberto Eco’s idea of balancing humility and pride as a means for academic excellence. Academic humility, according to Eco, is the knowledge that anyone can teach us something. Eco then talked about academic pride. If years of dedication to a particular topic or field and reflections on its working did not make one qualified, what else would, he asked. He wrote: “On your specific topic, you are humanity’s functionary who speaks in the collective voice. Be humble and prudent before opening your mouth, but once you open it, be dignified and proud.” Last week, Alan Rusbridger’s keynote lecture at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford drove home this point succinctly.

A difficult phase in journalism

It would be an understatement to say that journalism is undergoing a tectonic shift. The business models developed over the last two centuries are no longer valid, and technological disruption has created a sense of desperation for news media managers as the decade-long search for a viable revenue stream remains elusive. How much blame should be apportioned to technology companies and their greed for the angst in the legacy media industry? Can we say anything with certainty about the future of journalism?

Mr. Rusbridger’s latest book, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why it Matters Now, has as many as 554 question marks, as a reviewer pointed out. The profusion of question marks is a sign of humility; it shows the unending list of unknowns that are confronting journalism. It shows a conscious decision not to shift all the blame for the crisis onto the digital behemoths. Mr. Rusbridger holds the mirror close, and the picture it captures is troubling.

For nearly a decade, the journalistic fraternity had neatly divided the information ecosystem, with the trusty old media on one side and the flaky new ones on the other. Marshalling evidence from the coverage of Brexit, Mr. Rusbridger has come up with a new division that removes the comfort of the earlier classification. He uses the terms “useless proper news” and “proper other stuff” to explain the complexities in the information ecology.

Presenting both sides

Given the intricacies involved in the question of whether or not the U.K. should remain a member of the European Union, Mr. Rusbridger argues that journalists did not present both sides of the argument to the voters which would have helped them make an assessment of the risks and opportunities accompanying the move. Instead, reports on the campaign focussed mostly on personalities rather than on issues. “Three quarters of all articles in the Express were pro-Leave, followed in partisanship by the Mail, Sun and Telegraph ,” he writes. He painstakingly establishes how a group of influential editors decided that their job was to advocate rather than inform. This act, he says, went against John Dewey’s 1920s justification of journalism — that it creates better-informed citizens who can make considered choices about their societies.

On the other hand, he documents numerous instances of experts who took to Twitter to expose the misrepresentation by some media organisations such as the Sun and the Daily Mail . He asks journalists to remember what Dan Gillmor said a couple years before Twitter was born: “My readers know more than I do.” He calls this the 21st century reality. He sees old and new media as a continuum of information in which the traditional definition of news often gets blurred. Mr. Rusbridger does not have answers to many vexatious questions that are haunting journalism and the news business, but he comes up with the right questions: “Will the Trump Bump last? Will the public rediscover their appetite for good, old-fashioned reporting and investigations? Will Facebook and Google sweep all away? Will the re-making of journalism be far more radical than most people can currently begin to imagine?”

As a person who believes that a world without news would be unbearable, Mr. Rusbridger finds the present chaos a collision of two worlds, old and new, in the fog of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding. He hopes that this collision will produce a new formidable combination of the best of these worlds. How I wish that day would come soon.


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