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We Have a Right to Information

Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

We assume that in a democratic society like New Zealand we can take such rights for granted. However, it is roughly 70 years since the United Nations’ declaration was issued, and we live in a media environment that is now very different. Although some countries with repressive governments actively prevent their citizens from freely sending and receiving information, most democratic countries are now awash with it, and that brings a new set of challenges.

One challenge is that we now have so much information available that it can be difficult to know what we need and which sources to trust. The growth of social media like Facebook and Twitter and the dominant search engines like Google through which we navigate the internet have significantly altered the way in which many people discover news and information. Changes in the ways audiences seek out and access news and information has had a significant impact on traditional media business models, especially for our news media.

As social media have enabled the collection of increasingly detailed personal data, they have become increasingly attractive to advertisers who want to target their messages to specific demographics and taste communities. In turn, this has seen a shift in advertising revenue from the producers of news content to the platforms through which audiences source it. People are still reading the news, but Facebook and Google are increasingly shaping which news we discover and collecting the majority of the online advertising revenue.

Especially in the print news sector, there has been round after round of redundancies and budget cuts, forcing editors to prioritise cheaper, more popular news items that generate online traffic (‘clickbait’) while the remaining journalists are expected to maintain the same range, depth and quality. The thinning out of the mainstream news media makes them more susceptible to ‘information subsidies’ from corporate and government sources whose public relations teams have expanded as the news media have shrunk. Former newsworkers now employed in PR roles understand all too well how to craft media releases which can slot readily into the formats and templates of overworked news producers. Ironically, the proliferation of new online information sources may render government and business less, not more transparent to public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the internet is full of alternative news sources, ranging from international news producers to small-scale professional news websites, ‘indy’ news producers and collators of citizen journalism, as well as a vast range of blogs and postings on social media. All forms of news carry some level of bias, even in their editorial assumptions of what issues count as news and which viewpoints are the most salient to report.  But clearly some news sources are far more credible than others. Public media like the BBC generally provide far more balanced reports than, say, the commercial and overtly conservative Fox News. However, the huge range of other online news sources, especially those we access through social media ‘news feeds’, often have no guarantee of editorial integrity. 

The proliferation of ‘fake news’ in the US presidential election saw completely fictional news stories circulating through social media (most infamously a theory that members of the Democratic Party ran a child-sex ring from a Washington DC pizzeria). Here in New Zealand, we have had our own news scandals, notably the revelations of Nicky Hager’s ‘Dirty Politics’ and the efforts of Defence Force officials to discredit investigative journalist Jon Stephenson’s reports on the SAS’s military role in Afghanistan.

In a media-saturated world where many of us no longer have the inclination or the time to carefully peruse in-depth news, we are susceptible to being captured by the algorithms of our social media news-feeds. The risk is that in paying only cursory attention to the headlines and filtering out what we don’t agree with or aren’t interested in, we become complicit with our own echo-chamber.

The importance of public media as a news source becomes apparent when we are faced with crises such as the earthquakes in Canterbury and Kaikoura or the severe floods in in the Bay of Plenty. Local media and citizen journalists may play a role in enhancing resilience by providing real-time information about the unfolding of events in the immediate aftermath, but there is also a critical need for reliable public media like RNZ which have the capacity to step up reporting in emergencies and provide a reliable source of verified reports which everyone knows they can trust.

Maintaining a strong public media presence is obviously a core objective of BPM, but there is also a need for public education about media, especially in regard to promoting critical media literacies and encouraging people to be more discerning about which media they can really trust – not only in a crisis but in everyday news consumption.

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