Journalism’s digital challenge

Integrity of journalists is critical to restoring journalism’s credibility and distinction of being authentic source of news

By Author Geetartha Pathak   |   Published: 26th Jun 2019   12:12 am Updated: 25th Jun 2019   8:34 pm

Digital technologies are influencing every aspect of our life and changing the way we live. Such changes may improve the quality of life on earth by democratising communication. On the other hand, it may shift the opportunity to the hands of those who see information as a mere commodity.

Opportunities and challenges for journalism in the digital age is a topic that is frequently discussed in national and international fora. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) held a conference on ‘The future of journalism in the digital age’ just before the opening session of the four-day congress held at Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, on June 11.

The conference observed that: “New technologies which offered such opportunities to enhance journalism and for an extension of democratic rights and freedoms are instead being used by greedy employers to cut costs and undermine quality journalism or controlled by governments. Citizens rights to a diverse and pluralistic media are being denied by an increasing concentration of media ownership.”

Dwindling Numbers

Traditional media and journalists are under tremendous pressure as digital technology enters newsrooms and media business. It is estimated that in 2005 for every one digital journalist, there were 20 newspaper journalists. In 2015, for every one digital journalist, there were just four newspaper journalists. The ratio continues to decline further. It is apprehended that the trend will continue with greater penetration of internet and mobile technologies.

To combat the onslaught of digital technology, newspapers and TV channels are trying to reach more readers/viewers. Though they have substantially succeeded in doing so, they have failed to monetise these increased audiences. With the rise in digital technology and developments in news aggregation, the news industry is facing unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval. This new development has transformed how news is produced, distributed and accessed impacting the economics of the news industry. Advertising revenue for newspapers has declined dramatically in recent years.

Although the introduction of television had affected revenues of newspapers, the advent of digital media has taken this trend to new dimensions. In 2012, media baron Rupert Murdoch predicted that there might be no more newspapers within a decade. Such negative predictions are not uncommon yet there are too many factors involved to make any credible predictions. However, newspapers still remain the primary source of global news consumption. Globally, 2.5 billion newspapers are being read in print and 800 million digitally.

Distorted View

In the digital age, we cannot ignore the influence of contents dominating social media platforms. We have seen its indelible role in the Arab Spring and in the advent of major news like demonetisation, surgical strikes and Kerala floods. Social media and other digital platforms are instruments of non-organised news coverage that poses a challenge to accepted journalistic notions of factual reporting, accuracy and balance.

Members of the public now act as eye witness, news gatherer and publisher, though the so-called ‘news’ provided by social media may give a partial, partisan or deliberately distorted view of an event. Accuracy, pre-publication verification, balance and the nuances of ethical aspects differentiate journalism with unverified distorted narration of events in the free media — social media.

The integrity of journalists is critical for restoring journalism’s credibility and distinction of being a reliable and authentic source on news. If journalism loses its credibility to give way to free digital media, the survival of journalism will face a grave challenge in the near future.
Thousands of newspaper journalists have been fired across the world, a third of newspaper jobs has disappeared in just three years. Hundreds of titles have closed and many of those that survive do so with reduced staff and fewer pages. At the same time, the number of journalists working in digital publishing houses is increasing manifold. However, the journalists shifting to the digital publishing platforms are poorly paid, have no job security, more working hours and fewer social benefits than their non-digital conventional colleagues.

Monopolisation of digital business by a handful of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple, which control 95% of the world’s operating systems, 95% of search engines and 85% of social media have made the scenario worse. In 2016, for every dollar spent on online advertising, 49% went to Google and 40% to Facebook. Just 11% went to all the rest. And the irony is that none of them is paying taxes anywhere in the world against their profit.

Flouting ILO Policies

While the International Labour Organization (ILO) is celebrating its centenary labour rights won over generations, these are under threat from corporations and their digital business platforms, which pressure governments to dilute labour laws making work ever more precarious and weakening social protections. For example, the government of India under Narendra Modi is preparing to introduce a Bill that reduces 44 labour laws to four as part of its labour reforms agenda in the Parliament session. Trade unions say the codes will have a far-reaching impact on the country’s labour force of over 45 crore people.

The ILO is the only tripartite UN agency since 1919, which brings together governments, employers, and workers of 187-member states, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men. The unique tripartite structure of the ILO gives an equal voice to workers, employers and governments to ensure that the views of the social partners are closely reflected in labour standards and in shaping policies and programmes.

The tech giants are concentrating on business in all sectors flouting ILO’s policies, labour rights, competition policies, and avoiding taxes in billions. Nowhere is their impact more visible than on the media sector. The casualty is the quality journalism that feeds democracy the world over. The journalist fraternity must come together across work platforms to raise voice against injustices done to them and for tax justice to ensure the tech giants pay their fair share and contribute to national social welfare schemes.

(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)

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