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Nine ways the media broke the news – and how to fix it

by Hannah Marsh

Media organisations need to stop ‘worshipping objectivity’, and be more frank about their position and purpose, according to Melissa Bell, of Vox.

Bell was speaking at the annual Reuters Memorial Lecture, entitled We Broke the News. How do we Fix it?  which saw her call for the media to admit its problems, and go on to list nine key areas she thinks the industry has failed on.

Here are Bell’s nine ways in which the media broke the news:

  • Losing audience trust – according to Bell, the media needs to think long and hard about how to operate in an environment of suspicion and cynicism. “In the US, in 1976, after a little paper I love called The Washington Post revealed some scandals in the White House, 74% of the population felt that we did an honorable job of reporting – fully and fairly – the facts,” she said. “This year, that number has plummeted to 32%. When you break it down by age, only 26% of people under the age of 49 believe we’re doing our job. This didn’t happen overnight. It’s been in decline since 1976.”
  • Ignoring revenue for too long – “We cannot do great journalism without building a great revenue model,” said Bell, questioning the division between advertising and editorial teams. “We must, at a minimum, make our business models understood and important to every person on our teams.”
  • Refusing to relinquish the idea of publishers – “The loyalty of fans has not dimmed, but our meeting point has shifted,” said Bell, listing YouTube, Snapchat and podcasts as just some of the platforms where Vox meets its audience. She said that while publications can’t control how their audiences find them, they can control the quality of their end product, and urged media organisations to focus on this.
  • Yearning for a news monopoly – “Once we lost control of the medium, we floundered to retain the message,” said Bell. “Instead of realising our audiences were facing new problems – too much information, instead of too little – we continued to offer them a product built for other mediums and other times.” She described too often witnessing a yearning for the halcyon days where the media held the monopoly on what people said or thought.
  • Worshipping objectivity (or the idea of it) – “We rallied around the ideal of being truth holders instead of truth seekers, while every brown person reading a report largely construed by white men knew all too well the hollowness of objectivity,” said Bell, who described ‘editorial judgement’ as ‘what we think is important and think you should know.” The insistence of objectivity, rather than taking a clear, transparent and open position, she said left the industry open to those promoting a loaded agenda also claiming ‘objectivity’.
  • Ignoring the emotional impact of news – Emotions all too often trump facts. But we shouldn’t run from this, said Bell; “We shouldn’t respond by stiffening our lips, and straightening our ties. Especially when our audiences are suddenly inundated with news, forcing a stream of terrible moments in front of our faces every day.”
  • Competing over diminishing returns – Competition now goes beyond traditional media organisations, said Bell. But media has failed to properly understand that threat. And it’s not just revenue. “We fight over the same stories, chase after the same storms, leaving huge gaps in coverage,” said Bell.
  • Entering into a race for ratings – with the rise of 24-hour news, journalism has become a race for ratings, often to its detriment, said Bell. “We’ve made news programs more entertainment than information, and left the door wide open for charming media impersonators,” she said.
  • Fighting over the ethics of journalism – every time something new comes along, be it BuzzFeed or blogging, the industry tangles itself up in conversations about what is and isn’t real journalism, said Bell. “Rather than adjusting our expectations for a new medium, we waste an unnecessary amount of time wringing our hands over an iteration of a practice already set,” she said.

 

So what are Bell’s ideas for a solution? She offered six priorities at Vox as suggestions for addressing some of the challenges facing news organisations.

  • Be interesting – “It is not people’s civic duty to read the news. It's our job to make it appealing and interesting and something people want to consume it,” said Bell. “We cannot go too far so as to be entertainment, but we should not shy from being entertaining.”
  • Know yourself – understand your organisation’s mission, and let that guide your strategy across all platforms, said Bell.
  • Foster experimentation – Say yes, said Bell. And encourage experimentation. But also, know when to admit something’s failed; “shrug, dust your shoulder off, learn why it didn’t work, and move on to the next attempt.”
  • Foster exploration with your audience – “How can we help our audiences seek knowledge?” asked Bell. “No one likes to be told what to think. Most of us appreciate being deftly guided to our own understanding and conclusions. That’s what we attempt to do every day.”
  • Consider advocacy instead of objectivity – “I’d like to posit that instead of seeking to be objective, we seek instead to be advocates,” said Bell. Advocates for audiences and their interests and needs. For trustworthy information and facts. For advertising that does not hurt the experience. And for the people who want and need to understand the world around them.
  • Strive for decency – the digital world can be a challenging place, where bullying seems often to be rewarded. But Bell said: “We must carefully earn, every day, the respect of our audiences, and be unrelenting in offering them important, unsparing work. To do that, we must be good people first, and then we can be great journalists.”

Bell joined a panel discussion featuring Marty Baron (Editor, The Washington Post), Tom Standage (Deputy Editor, The Economist), Ritu Kapur (Co-founder and CEO, Quintillion Media). It was chaired by Alan Rusbridger.

A video of the full event will be available on our website soon.

The Reuters Memorial Lecture took place on Friday February 10, 2017.

Image: Rob Judges