Journalism’s Enemy Will Be Its Saviour

Will Fake News Unwittingly Ride to Journalism’s Rescue?

Journalism is dying. The decline began early in the 21st century when ad and classified revenue started fleeing online. Social media accelerated the process. The trend reached its peak with Facebook’s “instant articles,” forcing publishers to cannibalize their own ad revenue.

Journalism 1.0 is on its last legs, and even journalism 2.0 is failing. Both declines threaten our very society. On one hand, local news – especially the print kind – is usually the only medium doing the unglamourous but essential work of reporting and investigating city halls, town councils and committees around the world. Without it, there’s a gaping hole in the fabric that holds local politicians and power structures accountable, and uncovers their misdeeds. On the other hand, thanks to Donald Trump, national news is needed now more than at any time since Nixon.

A short introduction to crap

The need for basic factual information has become acute over the last three years, with the advent of fake news, Russian electoral interference, Twitter bots and other misinformation. Fake news is becoming so pervasive and persuasive that it’s becoming impossible to trust anything you read online, and the trend is accelerating. As a society we’re becoming ever more efficient at creating lies and bullshit:

  • Artificial Intelligence is on the verge of creating fake news autonomously.
  • Deep fakes are making it impossible to tell whether video, which used to be the gold standard of objective fact, is authentic.
  • Bots in 2019 are even worse than they were in the 2016 election.
  • We don’t even know how bad electoral interference will be in 2020, but we know it’s going to be even worse than in 2016.

Enemies both homegrown and foreign are deploying these weapons on the social networks and online channels that caused journalism’s decline. Ironically, this could save journalism.

Lies, damn lies and journalism

In a world where it’s becoming impossible to tell lies, spin and manufactured truth from actual news, real journalism has a vital role. The Washington Post, the Globe and Mail, the CBC and hundreds of other mainstream news outlets aren’t unbiased truth warriors. Depending on how big a fan you are of Noam Chomsky, you might even think they’re just propaganda tools for vested interests. Whatever your opinion, traditional news outlets are only as valuable as their reputation. Their brand – in fact, their very existence – depends on your trust, which is why they have a unique value proposition in a world no one can trust: truth.

When the New York Times publishes an article, you might disagree with it. You might dislike the editorial slant. You might think it’s right-wing or left-wing or just wishy-washy, but it’s not a deliberate attempt to disinform you with made-up crap. Fringe groups are not using it to convince you that Obama was born in Kenya. Foreign powers are not leveraging it to make you believe the Democratic party was running a child sex ring out of a pizza joint. The worst charge that can be levelled at mainstream media is that they cater to a particular political point of view. If that’s the worst that can be said about them, that’s far better than the alternative.

When truth is at a premium, trust becomes invaluable and worth paying for. If people are willing to pay for information, traditional journalism stands a chance at a comeback, right when we need it the most.

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