Our podcast: Alan Rusbridger discusses his new book and how to rebuild trust in news

In a chat with Rasmus Nielsen, he argues journalists should be more transparent and rethink their relationship with their audience
News and How to Use it
5th December 2020

The topic

Technological transformation and social polarisation have contributed to an erosion of trust in journalism prompting many to ask what the news industry can do to regain the confidence of its audience. In this episode of our Future of Journalism podcast, Alan Rusbridger discusses these fundamental questions and whether the idea of a journalist has changed.

The guests

Our host is Rasmus Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute. Our guest is Alan Rusbridger, former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian and Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. Alan has recently authored News and How to Use it.

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The transcript

On journalism's need for self-examination 

Rasmus: So, I wanted really to start with an observation that you make in the preface of your book, and I’m just going to read back to you a couple of lines and ask you to unpack one of the observations that you make there. You write that, "Journalism has always struggled to describe itself honestly, if at all. As long as the readers were there and the bottom line looked healthy, there didn’t seem much need for the public washing of dirty linen, and anyways, some of it was too complicated really to get into. Mix in the unhealthier omerta which sometimes provides a shield from the uncomfortable scrutiny editors like to visit on others, and many aspects of journalism go oddly unexamined." Why do you think that the profession and industry has been so hesitant to examine itself the way it examines other institutions?

Alan: Well, I think one of the answers is that for 250 years, or however you date journalism, it kind of worked. There was an income flow, there was a public, the journalists held the megaphone or owned the printing press, it was a very nice position of quasi-monopoly. And so there didn’t seem much to question. And I think that applies to almost all journalists say, over the age of 40 today. And although it’s a highly-competitive industry in many parts of the world, there was also a kind of sort of feeling that dog didn’t eat dog and it was a rough old trade. I hate to break this to you, Rasmus, but academics who study journalism were, you know, not greatly respected. They thought, well, you know, "what do they know about it?"

And so a sort of unquestioning attitude to what journalism was just existed for a long time. And of course, in the last 10, 15 years, almost everything has been unpicked or challenged. And of course, it’s very difficult if you’re over a certain age and you’ve been working in journalism for 10, 15 years you’re probably feeling quite insecure, quite frightened. And having to rethink what you do in your relationship with the public is really hard.

Rasmus: In addition, just to this astonishing observation that academics may not have been all that respected in some parts of the industry, only some I’m sure, but none the less, I wonder whether you want to comment on your terminology and the quote that I just read back to you. I mean, it’s one thing to make the observation that the profession may have been somewhat unexamined and unwilling to examine itself, but also just 'dirty linen', 'omerta'. I think that’s something we associate with organised crime. These are strong words, this is beyond the lack of self-examination.

Alan: Yeah, well, when I was editing the Guardian, so, you know, you have to write this off for the fact that my experience is six years’ old, six years out of date, I know for a fact many of my colleagues didn’t want to be covered, they didn’t think it was right for the newspaper industry to write about each other. Especially as, you know, even then the newspaper industry was in some trouble. So when we wrote about things like phone hacking, that was regarded as letting the side down, that was definitely dirty linen that shouldn’t have been exposed. They hated the fact that the Leveson Enquiry resulted from that and people started asking a lot of questions about journalistic practices.

I wouldn’t go so far, of course, to compare this with the mafia but, you know, in my time I received quite a lot of threats or demands from rival publishers who just didn’t want to be covered. You know, I think it’s an open secret that were kind of reciprocal arrangements, “We won’t cover you if you don’t cover us.” So anybody who then tried to write about the media, and I think the media should be written about because clearly it’s a very important force in society, was let’s say, discouraged.

Rasmus: I mean, looking back on this, I mean, would you go so far as to say that the profession, industry, may have let the public down with this lack of self-examination. I mean you write that, you know, somehow journalists expect the public to be able to distinguish the good from the bad and to recognise that not all of journalism is the same. Even though journalism may not always have been that willing to examine itself.

Alan: Well, I think we did. I mean, for the reasons I’ve hinted at just for the moment. If you’ve got a great force in society which is very powerful and, you know, I think most journalists would like to think they are powerful, then I think you can’t have unexamined power. That’s a bad thing in society, we would think of any other form of power, and so I think it’s bad to be part of a form of unexamined power. And I think that is letting the public down because actually, I think there’s a gulf of misunderstanding between readers and audiences and journalists now as to what journalism is. What it can do, what it can’t do, what it claims to be, what it actually is. And that was part of the reason for trying to write this book, to sort of try and fill in some of the gaps, both for journalists and for readers, I think.

On citizens filling journalism's blind spots 

Rasmus: So some of the examples of that problem are outright illegality, like phone hacking. But I suppose that some would argue that there are broader issues here. So we think, for example, of the way in which black Americans have taken to using mobile phones and social media to bear witness to police violence. Not just because these are urgent issues that they want to draw attention to but also because they feel that they have long been under-represented, not respected, not reflected, not really represented in mainstream news media in the United States, even amongst more liberal or progressive publications. And instead have turned to various forms of citizen journalism. I mean, is this a part of a reckoning, if you will, that is also, reflects this lack of self-examination in the past?

Alan: I think it is. I mean, there are a couple of things wrapped up in that question. One is this question of, we may hate the term 'citizen journalist' but nevertheless, it kind of describes what’s happening there. That, you know, in thousands of news stories in a year now, the people who are first on the scene or who are first to capture it or to come up with the clinching pictures or the video evidence, are not journalists but are people doing acts of journalism. You know, in forms of bearing witness or recording. And that is clearly a challenge to journalism and knowing how to negotiate that as opposed to professional journalism. But it also highlights what you hint at there, which is the sort of unrepresentative nature of journalism and the stories that weren’t covered and the communities that didn’t feel that they found themselves, their lives reflected in mainstream journalism.

And so they’ve taken it into their own hands or they’ve started creating their own kind of news media. And I think, I think news managers are waking up to the fact that, A, this is bad journalism. If you’re not covering communities properly, that’s just bad journalistically. But also the commercial threat that, you know, particularly younger readers. I think, let’s take an issue like climate change, I think they just think, “I’ve got nothing to learn from the kind of sceptical or under-coverage that mainstream media give this subject. So I’m going to go to the alternative sources that do this much better.” So it’s going to become a commercial threat as well as a journalistic threat.

On what a journalist is 

Rasmus: I mean, you talk about acts and journalism and we’re arriving here at a moment of truth, you have been a journalist and editor for most of your working life, I run an institute that studies journalism. I wonder whether the two of us, between us, can bring ourselves to try to answer the question of who or what is a journalist, that you raise in the book?

Alan: Well, it’s really hard. I mean, it’s hard because it’s a word that describes what somebody on the Sun does as well as somebody on the New York Times. Or, you know, a Fox News journalist would call themselves journalists but what they do is very different from the BBC. The Daily Mail is an excellent paper in some ways but it’s very different from, I don't know, the Frankfurt Allgemeine. So there are things that are just extraordinarily different in the nature of the craft or how people approach it or what they write about or their ethical standards, all calling themselves journalists.

And that’s before you even get on to your, you know, the people with the mobile phone who are recording things, or the bloggers or the tweeters or your Julian Assanges or your Tommy Robinsons, a sort of horrible fascistic thug who describes himself as a journalist. And so there’s this tremendous vagueness around this word and I’m not sure that you and I are going to solve it in the next five minutes. But nevertheless, you can understand why readers struggle to quite pinpoint what a journalist is or why they’re needed.

Rasmus: What is at stake, in answering the question, in your view? I mean, does it matter that the term is ambiguous or is there something lost if we don’t have some position or agreement on?

Alan: Well, I do think, I mean, we probably both agree that we’re living in an age, to a large extent, of information chaos, which is probably getting worse and, you know four years of Donald Trump certainly didn’t help. And the surveys that you do and others do show an awful lot of confusion about who to trust and what to believe. So I think it is helpful having, in an ideal world, people who are information professionals, who can say, “Actually, this happened, this didn’t happen. This is true, this isn’t true.” And to give those people a name.

And again, one of the changes over 250 years is that the economic model that existed before, which, in a way, blurred the lines between entertainment and information and the need to get mass audiences in order to get the advertising. That that seems to be breaking down now and there’s more of a thirst for information that might be thought of as more like a public service. So I think it’s help, it would be helpful to clarify what journalism is and what it tries to do. While acknowledging that there are people in society who will do perfectly valuable exercises in keeping people informed on matters of importance who aren’t, strictly speaking, journalists.

Rasmus: Is there a point then, in your view, where people who think of themselves as journalists should sort of protest or sort of challenge it when others use the term? I mean, is there a moment, you talk in your response there about sort of seeking truth and reporting it quite centrally in a definition of journalism. Is there a moment in which people who believe that they are, that that’s what they’re doing, should challenge Tommy Robinson or, for that matter, Julian Assange, or others when they try to appropriate the term? And say, “No, you may think you’re a journalist but you’re not.”

Alan: Well, I think Tommy Robinson’s probably an easier example than Julian Assange. The problem with someone like Julian Assange is that he’s a chameleon, he has multiple identities. He’s an information entrepreneur, he’s a publisher, he’s a whistle blower, he’s an activist, he’s an anarchist and he’s also a journalist. And some of the things that he’s in trouble for at the moment, I think would be things that journalists do and are perfectly defensible. Other things that he does, I think, journalists hold their nose and say, “Well, that’s not what we do.” So I think it’s very difficult to sort of, you know, attack these people and say, “Well, they’re not proper journalists.”

I think the better approach is to say, “Look, here is why you should trust us.” And again, I think in the 21st century, it’s not enough to say, “Look, I’m journalist, I work for the Daily Beast.” Well, actually, there is something called the Daily Beast, isn’t there? “I work for the Daily Bugle and therefore you ought to trust me.” I think trust in the 21st century is earned in a different kind of way, through greater transparency. And that’s probably how journalists had to distinguish between what they do and what others do.

On improving public understanding of journalism 

Rasmus: Maybe that’s the last topic to hear your, unfold your thoughts on a bit more. I mean, you write in the book that journalists should expect their readers to be as sceptical towards journalism as journalists would like to say that they are towards their sources. And really believe nothing without reasonable evidence. How would you do that as a citizen? I mean, what would you encourage a citizen or a member of the public to really pay attention to when he or she is passing judgement on whether they want to trust a particular journalist or a particular news provider?

Alan: Well, I do think, A, I would start teaching kids media literacy at the age of six, you know, so that by the time they’re teenagers or young adults, they’ve had a long time about thinking about what are the signifiers of trust. So it could be something as basic as sources, you know, that’s essential to all kinds of knowledge. Where did it come from, who is saying this, how can I evaluate this source, is there a source? You know, a lot of journalism, there’s a lazy assumption that you just don’t name who your source is, that pieces are littered with anonymous sources.

Let’s take barristers on Twitter. I mean, I’m interested in the law, partly because I spend so much time being sued. And there are a now number of fantastic barristers and solicitors who, since the development of the Twitter thread, you know, so you can advance quite a sophisticated argument now on Twitter. What I'm interested in is generally, when they write a thread, they say, “This is what I think or this is what happened.” And then they will include a link or a screenshot. So what they’re doing is saying, “Well, don’t take my word for it, just because I’m a barrister, here is the evidence, go and check for yourself. And, by the way, if I’m wrong, come back and tell me here and I will respond.”

Now, that’s almost the opposite of what a lot of journalists do. They say, “Well, take it for me because I am a journalist working for X. I’m not going to link, I'm not going to show you my evidence, I’m not going to tell you who my source is. And, by the way, I’m going to make it really hard for you to tell me I’m wrong or to correct.” Now, one feels to me like a 21st century technique of trust and one feels to me like a sort of age of trust where actually journalists didn’t really care too much whether they were trusted. And that, I think is, of all the areas that journalists are going to have to think about, "how do I earn trust through the changed craft of journalism, rather than assuming that it’s going to come back to me,?" which I don't think it will.

On journalism falling off its pedestal 

Rasmus: I mean, what you describe, I think, is a situation where it sounds like your fear is that many journalists are not so much interested in trust as they are interested in deference and a return to the relative continuity and comfort of the previous media environment in which they were kings of the hill. Is that a fair description?

Alan: I think it is. And it’s completely understandable, by the way, I think it’s completely human. That if you had the megaphone, you had the printing press, you had the broadcasting studio and you were, as it were, on a slight pedestal above the audience. And, you know, sure they could write a letter but you had the prerogative over whether the letter got published. So you were almost in complete control of the whole system. And then suddenly, this thing happens where they can write back, if you don’t publish it, they can publish it on social media, they can start criticising you, being nasty about you. If you’re a publisher that has comments underneath an article, for the first time in their lives, distinguished journalists were challenged by people saying, “Actually this is rubbish"or "This is wrong" or "How dare they?” And journalists absolutely hated it. Sometimes rightly because, you know, people sometimes don’t behave well on social media.

But I think there was a more fundamental, I mean, impossibility of conceiving what this was or why these comments were there or why an editor would allow people to comment in that way. And of course, lots of newspapers have now closed down their comment threads, they think actually, we don’t want that kind of discourse here. So there’s a huge challenge, as I say, to people who grew up with the megaphone, to suddenly find they’re part of a public square which is much less deferential, can be horrible, can be toxic, can be hate-filled. But I think the bigger problem is just acknowledging a different kind of horizontal relationship between people, rather than an age in which people looked up at the publisher or the editor-in-chief because they were the people, frankly, who handed down the information, they were the gatekeepers.

Rasmus: That complete control is certainly gone. The news is not. If you’re interested in more about Alan’s views on these matters, I recommend his new book, News and How to Use it. Thank you, Alan, for joining the Future of Journalism podcast.                      

Alan: Thanks, Rasmus, that’s, and I take it back, all I said about media academics, I love them, as you know.

Rasmus: You’re too kind.