As someone with a long career in the profession, I have been asked to provide the younger generations with my opinion of what journalism is.
The fact is that in just over a generation, journalism has gone through a deep change. It is worth recalling that it was created for the elites. At the height of colonial era, the Times of London had a circulation of just 50,000 copies, all for the elite and the civil servants of the British Empire. It only become a “mass” medium when, in the 19th century and faced with a mass of immigrants, the United States had to adapt journalism to the needs of its “melting pot”, in which millions of people from very different places and background had to adapt to or adopt the American identity. This is where modern journalism comes from, with its baggage of so-called techniques that we duly study in journalism school, such as: all news reports must have a “who, where, when and how” or “dog bites man is not news, but man bites dog is”, and so on. However, on careful examination, such techniques do not teach you how to be a better journalist – they teach you how to package information in the clearest and most attractive way for the average reader.
Since the creation of mass media, a very important element of the journalistic profession was that you were accountable to your readers. You were supposed to enlighten them, to make them aware of their time and their world, and you were asked to provide that link, in the most balanced and fairest way possible, reporting different views and sources. Publishers basically shared that deontological view, of course with an eye to their personal interests.
Newspapers were able to survive the arrival of radio and TV, with each one of the three media taking a specialised path. But having worked in all three, I am convinced that the world of information changed with two totally unrelated events: the arrival of Internet and the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Internet ushered in an epochal change: for the first time in history, people could have access to communication. Information is a vertical structure in which a few give facts and views to a large number of recipients; it is a one-way process that authoritarian or dictatorial regimes were quick to use to support their vertical relations with citizens. On the other hand, communication is a horizontal process, where those who send are also ready to receive; this is why China has 30,000 full-time censors monitoring the net.
With the advent of Internet, the media were suddenly challenged as gatekeepers of society. Let me take just one example: the voice of women. At the First World Conference on Women organised by the United Nations in 1975, women’s voices in the media were very few and marginal. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, media coverage was equally pathetic, if you exclude the nearly 80% of media coverage of the conference that was given to Hillary Clinton (wife of the then President of the United States!). Media coverage did not address real women’s issues, just what happened in the conference. The point is that the Beijing conference was taken over by woman, who used Internet to create a common platform, marginalising officials, mainly men. Clearly, all over the world, women with gender awareness could not rely on the media for the information they wanted. Thanks to Internet, thousands of networks were suddenly created to focus on women’s issues, issues that the media could not deal with in depth. The same goes for human rights, the environment, civil society and so on. No media can compete.
The second important event was the arrival in 1981 of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States, a man who almost single-handedly – he was ably assisted by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – changed the very concept of international relations, which until then had been based on the idea of international cooperation. Reagan was the first politician to give simple answers to complex questions. Those answers were the ‘bytes’ of his political convictions. He dismissed the environmental movement, by declaring: “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”. He reduced tax for the wealthy by stating that “the rich produce wealth, the poor use it”. Thatcher echoed: ”… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women”.
It was in this period that the United Nations started its decline, and with it the idea of development and international solidarity. The slogan of the day became: ”Trade, not aid”. The Washington Consensus (1), which called for the dismantlement of the welfare state and the downsizing of everything public, was pushed all over the world by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. Treasury Department. This new view of the world seeped into all international organisations, especially the European Union.
Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall was brought down. And the victory was not simply of one side against another, it was of capitalism against socialism. It was the “The End of History”, as Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1992. Globalisation had arrived, and we all know the results. The 300 richest persons in the world have the same wealth as 3 billion people. And for the last five years, 75% of all wealth produced has been going to the 1% of the already immensely rich. The 100 hundred richest men in the world increased their wealth in 2012 by the equivalent of the national budgets of Brazil and Canada.
I maintain that both factors had a very deep impact on media and on their value system. Newspapers declined in circulation, because increasingly young people did not buy them and radio and TV are used for their recreational value. They have turned to internet, where they can tailor their daily information and analysis according to their interests. As a consequence, media are no any longer a business and the reaction has been to concentrate media in order to reduce costs; Rupert Murdoch is the best example of this phenomenon. Concentration has brought a reduction of diversity and style. Since Murdoch took over The Times of London, it has “lost” 20% of its vocabulary. Language has lost its literary value to produce shorter sentences where adjectives are “banned”. World coverage, which is complex, is losing space. And whereas homogenisation of the media was previously a superstructural phenomenon, it is now reaching the national level.
This has been accompanied by a serious change of deontology. Media must sell to survive. Information becomes more and more event-oriented and not process-oriented. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung wrote in the 1970s of a “scale of value of information”: what happens near you sells more than what happens far away; a known person will sell better than a common citizen; something dramatic and unusual sells more than an unattractive economic analysis or what can be described as normality; negativity attracts more than the positive; and so on. Well, that has become now extreme. The first online newspaper, the Huffington Post, has opened its pages to anybody. It pays according to the numbers of clicks that an article gets. Which rewards more, an article on the love stories of French President François Hollande or one on his policies on employment? As a result, people interested on the central issue of the impact of the austerity policies devastating Europe, click on http://www.troikawatch.net/2nd-newsletter-of-troikawatch/ and find what the media do not provide.
I speak out of personal experience. Tired of having my friends less informed than me on global issues, I started a daily information service (Other News) with the criteria of a press agency, but using the internet as source, and not journalists, in order to be able to provide a free service. From my 60 original recipients, it has now grown to over 20,000 users, both in English and Spanish: if you are interested, click on Other News and see what you will not find in your daily paper. Thousands of social activists, international civil servants and academics have sent thank you messages for providing them with another horizon … what a bishop called ‘the other face of the moon’.
The real problem is that journalism has become just a mirror of our times, abdicating any social function to be just a provider of information as a commodity. Our times are marked by neoliberalism, and vices like greed and individualism have become virtues, extolled by Hollywood and the homogenisation of the media. The values of development, embodied in all modern constitutions, were social justice, equity, solidarity and participation, among others. On the other contrary, globalisation is wealth and success, and the triumph of the individual, with the market and not man at the centre. Development was a process at the end of which you were more – globalization is to have more.
Add to this change of values the unprecedented fact that today we spend more per capita in advertising than in education; that political institutions have lost vision and ideology to become pragmatic (in fact, utilitarian), with less and less participation of the people; that the world of finance has taken over the world of production in global terms (1 trillion dollars a day in production, 40 trillion in financial transactions); that we now have cantors of a “new economy”, who conceptualise structural unemployment as a necessity; and this is what is reflected in the mirror.
In 1950, U.S. financier Bernard Baruch created a scandal when he argued that the boss of a company could make 50 times the salary of his workers. Now, we have gone over 500 times, and still counting. Every month, fines in tens of millions of dollars are given to banks for fraudulent activities, but this no longer makes news; and the same goes for revelations of political and economic corruption. People have basically given up and become either resigned or passive, helped by the anaesthetic impact of TV shows like ‘Big Brother’.
To save banks, we have spent the equivalent of 1,000 dollar per inhabitant. In 2012, in Spain alone, saving the banks cost more than the yearly allocation on education and health … but we are unable to provide proper nutrition to nearly 1 billion people, and the number of obese is catching up with the number of undernourished. The London School of Economics has published a study which projects for 2030 a return to the times of Queen Victoria, when an obscure philosopher named Karl Marx was in the library of the British Museum writing his essays on capital, labour and exploitation, and elaborating his manifesto.
We are in a stage of transition, from a world which is no longer viable – from a world where finance has no regulatory body, and capitalism left to itself is advancing in its destruction – to a world which must find global governance. We are unable to solve one single global issue, from environment to hunger, from nuclear disarmament to immigration, from controls on capital to fiscal paradises (where ten times the capital necessary to solve hunger, health and education worldwide is sitting), and we could go on and on.
All this shows how we are failing to ensure a better world for the coming generations. Once the Protestant ethic was widely hailed as more stringent than the Catholic ethic. However, in recent years, Wall Street and the City have become nests of unprecedented greed and fraud. Today, Pope Francis is the only voice defending the poor, calling for social justice, denouncing inequality, and asking for peace and cooperation. But in which business school or economics faculty do you hear about the Christian social doctrine?
So, we are in need of a new journalism, not just an update of the old one. Clearly, it will not be a profession associated with glamour and good life as it was until a generation ago. Even the surviving media of success are reducing costs (in other words, people). People are paid by the piece, and not much.
And in social media, to survive, you need advertising and attention, which are shrinking due to the enormous offer of internet. So, for those aspiring to be a journalist today, the first lesson is: if you do it, it must be because you believe that you are doing something useful, and that you are realising yourself by doing it … otherwise, go to work in a bank, where there is less stress, and more money and respectability. But today, few professions offer such an important, necessary and measurable impact in society.
The task of post-Reagan journalism (or to be less provocative, of the post-apex of neoliberalism, which is now losing lustre) is to redress the scale of values, and bring man back to the centre of the world. This should come not as a result of the teachings of Pope Francis. You do not need the grace of faith to realise that this world is a very unjust and polarised one, where the middle field, like the middle class, is shrinking The new journalist must be aware that the status quo is now maintaining an untenable situation for billions of people, and especially woman, children and young people. Therefore, he/she must avoid three traps which help the status quo.
The first is to fall into the myth of objectivity. Philosophers and scientists will tell you that it does not exist. Those that are successfully riding globalisation will tell you to be objective, and to do so you must not listen and report disgruntled minorities. The only way to look at your country is through macroeconomics, which divide wealth by head, not microeconomics, which gets bogged down by complicating factors like level of income, redistribution, social mobility, and so on. In the name of objectivity, you must report what the system says, without being encumbered by so many different voices from the street. Politicians are elected, leaders of civil society are not. Only official statistics are reliable: those from Oxfam on hunger or Greenpeace on environment are not objective, like the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control, which call for taking environmental decisions to save the planet which are against economic growth and our lifestyle, When you are asked to be objective, open your ears: you are being asked to help the status quo.
The second trap is to believe that only those in power have all the information, and therefore they are more qualified to give statements. They have all the information, but they often do not read it, or they ignore it when it does not suit their views. Never before in history has anybody had so much information as the U.S. government with the National Security Agency (NSA) combing all the communications throughout the planet. Has that made an improvement in U.S. politics?
The third trap is that you are more respectable because you have greater access to the establishment. That is just a form of cooption. Your respectability must be with yourself, being able to do what should be done, and this is not being done. Give a voice to the powerless, to the real people, not to the winners in a casino world.
And all the numbers are with you. The large majority is not in the top 1% which shares 54% of the world resources, but in the 75% who share just 15%. This is the reality of our time, and we must give voice to those in the 75%, to their problems finding a decent daily life. We must be equally able, when we look at the world, to underline what can bring peace and international justice, and expose what brings war and injustice. All this must be done with a simple professional criterion: give voice to all sides, and report as faithfully as possible what is happening.
The problem is that a journalist today cannot remain always impartial. Let us take as an example in climate change. You cannot put the interests of the oil companies and those of the human race on the same level. In doing so you would perpetuate a myth which is the result of a peculiar view of the world, even if it has no scientific basis, which is that the market will redistribute wealth, with a ripple-down effect to the last human being in the world, and will eliminate wars and poverty. Under this approach, you must keep in mind that oil companies give work to tens of thousands of people, and that the more money they make the better it is for all of us in the same kind of logic that brought the U.S. Supreme Court to dictate that corporations have the same rights as individuals, and can therefore contribute freely and without limitation in political campaigns.
Today, journalists have today an invaluable tool that we did not have in my time: the possibility to search the web, interview people without the need to travel to meet them, even using smart phone for applications like Skype, or as a camera or video recorder. In my days, the costs of communications and travel were enormous, and it was the norm to have a photographer with us. A TV crew was made up of at least five people, with over 300 kilos of luggage. Today, you have the journalist with his/her smart phone and that is it.
We are living in different times, not better in many senses, but with great progress in technology, which makes a journalist free to roam and search. The problem, therefore, goes to what Leonardo da Vinci called ”saper vedere”: to be able to see. Journalism, finally, is the ability to see, to put what you have seen in the proper order and to communicate that to your readers. And what makes the difference is not how you write it, but how you have been able to see it!
We are clearly in an era of transition, to a new world which is difficult to predict. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist thinker, wrote in his Prison Notebooks: “The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters”. We need a new journalism that will lead us through this period, will identify the monsters, and will make the voices of mankind in its entirety the path to the new world.
*The author is the co-founder and former Director-General of Inter Press Service (IPS). In recent years he has also founded Other News (www.other-news.info/), a service providing ‘information that markets eliminate’. Roberto Savio [email protected] / www.robertosavio.info
(1) A term used to summarise commonly-shared policy advice themes among Washington-based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury Department, which were believed to be necessary for the recovery of countries in Latin America from the economic and financial crises of the 1980s.