The world’s leading newspapers are struggling to maintain their place as voices of conscience in society when via social media everyone is free to express alternative views and opinions. Of course, having a public voice carries with it the responsibility to use it wisely, to present information and opinions that are fair and balanced. Many newspapers do so, while others focus on the biases of their owners or of political parties. Today, in the face of myriad sources of information, the question of credibility has never been more urgent.
Writing in “Who broke the news?” (The Guardian, 31 August 2018), Alan Rusbridger, British journalist and former editor-in-chief of that venerable newspaper, asks:
“If journalists cannot agree on a common idea of the public interest – of the public service we claim to be providing – then it complicates the defence of what we do. And in an age of horizontal free mass media, it is even more important for us to be able to define and declare our values, our purpose – and our independence. Which includes independence from the state.”
Recently, many newspapers appear to have shifted their stance from impartiality – the kind that seeks only to present uncoloured facts – to what might be termed ethical bias – a penchant for a reasoned and reasonable position that takes sides. When it comes to human interactions, unvarnished truth may be at a premium. Yet truth can surely be stripped of layers of misinformation, deceit, lies, intolerance, xenophobia, and misogyny that are intended to cloud people’s judgment.
Public service media (traditional press and broadcasting outlets) asserted their credibility by fostering trust and promoting accountability. In this respect, they have a duty to enable people to access and use independent, engaging and relevant content to help them guide and improve their lives. Of course, that content can also be entertaining, provocative and controversial, but it has to be in the public interest: benefitting everyone without harming anyone.
As Alan Rusbridger points out:
“The ultimate defence of journalism is that it remains a public good. But how do we measure, or value, such a public good at a time when, in the words of the political philosopher Michael Sandel, ‘markets – and market values – have come to govern our lives as never before … Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out non-market values worth caring about’.”
Or what do others think?