Why journalist Emily Bell is calling for a civic media manifesto
'We need to think about journalism as part of a basic human right, as part of a civic service.'
'How can independent, civic-minded journalism survive in a world dominated by corporate media takeovers and fake news? Acclaimed academic and journalist Emily Bell suggests an ambitious civic media manifesto — a radical rethink to ensure journalism has a future.
"Journalism, I do believe, really does work. But there are many things about it that are broken," she told CBC IDEAS' producer Mary Lynk.
"The business model is broken. The publishing environment is broken. The public's belief in the reporting process and in journalism, unfortunately, is broken. And even, you might argue that the democracy that we are meant to be a part of, the functioning of that, too, is a little bit broken."
Bell confronts dilemmas the media face in her 2019 Dalton Camp Lecture in Journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B. She explores the state of the free press in a world where digital platforms are increasingly controlling society's news narrative.
The media scholar helped create Britain's Guardian newspaper website — which has more than 24 million monthly readers around the world — and still contributes as a columnist. She left England 10 years ago to become the founding director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
In order for journalism to thrive, Bell explains, the mission must come before profit.
"We have to put the kind of energy that we've put in to making money into fixing our civics. So I think we need to think about journalism as part of a basic human right, as part of a civic service," said Bell, a strategist on the state and future of journalism.
"And we need to be really committed."
Rupert Murdoch's 'superpower'
Bell has met media mogul Rupert Murdoch on various occasions. She considers him a fascinating character who she says prefers to operate behind close doors. She also notes he has cozy relationships with many heads of state.
"He always talks about how much he hates regulation, but really, his superpower is understanding how to play the regulators and the governments," she told Lynk.
"And...he's very close to all world leaders, and is very close to the current president of the United States. Fox has become a sort of default state media."
Bell also has stern words for public media, including the CBC and BBC.
"It still behaves like a competitor to the commercial market. And that isn't really its function anymore."
But she argues the biggest danger is coming from giant and powerful digital platform companies that are scooping up most of the ad revenues and are increasingly in control of the news narrative — both real and fake.
"Since the introduction of the share button on Facebook, which was in 2009, the spread of misinformation has absolutely rocketed, " Bell said. "Fact checkers told me that since 2010, an increasing amount of their work has been to debunk misinformation rather than keep lying politicians in check."
It is because journalism is at such a critical crossroad that Bell argues a civic media manifesto is so urgently necessary.
"I've thought about striking similarities between the crisis in our climate and the crisis in our news environment. Although the scale and consequences of both are completely different, they are, I think, related," Bell said.
"Both have been caused by profit placed as a higher priority than civic well-being."
* This episode was produced by Mary Lynk.