3.10In our Issues Paper we described how the entity we know today as the “news media” evolved haltingly over a period of several centuries, enabled by technology, but subject to a range of often conflicting social, political and economic forces. Mass circulation newspapers, and their broadcast media equivalents, gave rise to a new political force, public opinion, which was to have a profound effect on how governments behaved and democratic institutions evolved over the next 170 years.
3.11Throughout the course of the 19th and 20th centuries the idea that the press had an important role to play in the democratic process took hold, becoming a central plank in the defence of an independent and free press. An individual’s fundamental right to freedom of expression became conflated with “freedom of the press.”
A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business, it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of the community … it has, therefore a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by these two forces.
The press may be judged, first, as the chief agency for instructing the public on the main issues of the day. The importance of this function needs no emphasis ...
Democratic society, therefore, needs a clear and truthful account of events, of their background and their causes; a forum for discussion and informed criticism; and a means whereby individuals and groups can express a point of view or advocate a cause.
3.14Alongside these obligations to provide the public with reliable and accessible sources of information, the press was also charged with being the public’s “eyes and ears” and, most critically, using their privileged access to provide an independent watch-dog on the exercise of state and other seats of power. The expectation that the news media, in its varied forms, would perform these core democratic functions provided the rationale for their legal and organisational privileges and differentiated them from other purely commercial enterprises.
3.15However, the news media’s special freedoms were matched by countervailing responsibilities. Foremost among these was the requirement that the public must be able to rely on the truthfulness, or accuracy, of what they read. Fact and opinion needed to be clearly differentiated. And the public needed to be confident that the news media did not use its considerable power and influence to deliberately mislead or cause unjustifiable harm.
3.16This, in crude terms, describes the social contract which was understood to exist between mainstream news media and the public it serves, and on whom it has relied for its commercial success.
3.17In chapter 4 of our Issues Paper we asked how this 20th century construct aligned with the reality of mass participatory media in the digital age. We identified a number of fundamental internal and external challenges, including the following:
3.18This latter point, in theory at least, can be seen to challenge the fundamental rationale for preserving the news media as a special entity performing unique democratic functions. In an age when the barriers to mass communication have been reduced to previously unimaginably low levels, it is arguable that the public no longer depends on the news media for a clear and truthful account of events.
3.19Thanks to the internet and the World Wide Web, there are now a multiplicity of sources via which citizens can inform themselves about what is happening in the world and literally millions of forums in which they can express opinions and “advocate a cause”.
News is also becoming more diverse as publishing tools become widely available, barriers to entry fall and news models become possible, as demonstrated by the astonishing rise of the Huffington Post, WikiLeaks and other newcomers in the past few years, not to mention millions of blogs. At the same time news is becoming more opinionated, polarised and partisan, as it used to be in the knockabout days of pamphleteering.
3.21In our Issues Paper we acknowledged these changes could be seen to undermine the rationales for treating the news media as a special class of publishers. Instead, some might argue, all publishers should perhaps be subject only to the minimum legal constraints on free speech which apply to everyone – and be accountable only to their readers and the market with respect to standards. We return to these arguments in the following chapter.
3.22While acknowledging the step-change brought about by the digital revolution, we reached the preliminary conclusion that, for the moment at least, there remained a public interest in continuing to recognise the news media as a special class of publisher with distinguishing rights and responsibilities arising from the functions they perform.
3.23We based this conclusion on the following arguments. First, the type of communication engaged in by the news media has unique characteristics linked to its distinct purpose. These characteristics, including a commitment to accuracy, distinguish it from other types of expression. In discussing the role of new actors engaged in “news like” activities there is often a failure to recognise these distinctions. Advocacy, propaganda, public relations, activism – these are all legitimate forms of communication, but they serve a different function, and involve a different process, than the reasonably dispassionate gathering and disseminating of news of public interest. While alternative sources play an increasingly important part in the news ecosystem, for the moment at least mainstream media outlets play a critical role as primary news gatherers, and as an efficient mechanism for amplifying, verifying and making sense of the information released to the world.
3.25Third, while the digital idealists argue that the public can now source information and news horizontally and so no longer depend on institutional news media, the facts do not yet support this democratised ideal. Despite the plethora of sources and fragmentation of audiences, there are in fact few alternative primary news gatherers and market research clearly shows that for the moment at least the public continues to rely on mainstream media sources for their news – regardless of whether it is accessed via social media or via traditional channels.
3.26The majority of submitters agreed with the proposition that in order to flourish democratic societies need access to credible and authenticated sources of information and that, for the moment at least, the news media played a key role in fulfilling that need. However there was less consensus about the extent to which the news media are in fact fulfilling these democratic functions and whether, in the future, they will be required to do so. This divergence of views often reflected a fundamental philosophical disagreement about the desirability of a centralised professionalised group acting as an intermediary and “gatekeeper” or filterer of information in society.
When bloggers and citizen journalists can post stories comprising a mixture of fact, opinion and bias at the push of a send button; when the increasing numbers of public relations and lobby groups are generating and circulating their spin; when politicians are increasingly of the opinion that they should be able to determine what is published about them and their policies, and that they should not be subject to scrutiny, the role of the independent professional news media is more important than ever.
The traditional media promoted and protected these ideals [democratic functions of the press] through the twentieth century. But the rise of the Internet has led to a much broader toolbox of ways to achieve these same outcomes. Letters to the editor have been supplemented with blogs and social media; political blogs research and expose State actions; and citizens enjoy a wide range of avenues through which to contact their elected representatives and make their views known. While the traditional media remains a way to “represent the public”, new media allows the public to represent themselves.
3.32However, alongside this practical acknowledgment of society’s ongoing dependence on the mainstream news media, there was some scepticism about the extent to which the commercial news media were in fact fulfilling the democratic functions attributed to it in our Issues Paper.
3.33A number of submitters argued that as a result of competitive pressures and their own resource constraints the mass media were devoting less attention to the core functions on which their legitimacy rests: fact checking, verification, providing fair and impartial coverage of the courts, Parliament and local government and undertaking public interest investigative reporting.
Any standard political economic analysis of the news media in New Zealand would reveal a significant gap between the ideals of public interest journalism and actual news production practices. This is not generally attributable to the ethical shortcomings of individual reporters but the pressures to maximise audiences and advertiser revenue and the lack of time and resources to investigate issues in depth.
3.36We acknowledge the validity of many of the arguments put forward for questioning the future viability of the mainstream media as we know it. There can be no doubt that the traditional model for generating and disseminating news is severely strained by disruptive technology.
3.38This has allowed many more participants, whether amateur or expert, to participate in these activities. And in the process it has allowed citizens to challenge the mainstream media’s efficacy, and integrity, in performing these tasks and its role as gatekeeper and agenda setter.
3.39There is ample evidence of the profound and growing influence new media are having both on mainstream media’s culture and content. As we discussed in chapter 2 of our Issues Paper, there are well over 200 current affairs bloggers in New Zealand, some of which have become a rich alternative source of information and commentary. Although primarily a forum for the expression of robust opinion, a number of high profile blog sites are used to break news. Bloggers are also increasingly taking on a watch dog role over mainstream media, critiquing their performance and alerting the public to their alleged failures.
3.40The dynamic and symbiotic relationship between traditional and new media is increasingly evident in the news agenda, as news broken within the blogosphere percolates up into the mainstream media – either through strategic alliances or more organically through the use of social media and search engines.
3.41At the same time, mainstream media is moving to incorporate the values and tools of social media in their own processes and products. Readers and viewers are invited to supplement reporters’ coverage of live news events and to comment on stories. Facebook and Twitter are routinely used to interact with audiences, promote the sharing of content, source information and build brands. Most recently, Fairfax Media, publishers of Stuff, launched a separate section, Stuff Nation, allowing users to contribute their own material to the national website.
3.42But revolutionary as these changes are, they have not, in our view, eliminated the public’s need for ready access to credible and authenticated sources of information about what is happening in their communities and the world at large. Nor have they eliminated the need for primary news gatherers – people and organisations who gather information in a reasonably dispassionate manner for the express purpose of disseminating that information to the public, rather than because they gain some personal, political or organisational advantage from doing so. Nor have they eliminated the public’s need for fair and accurate reports of the activities of the private and public institutions whose decisions impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Nor have they eliminated the need for the impartial scrutiny of Parliament, legislators and the courts.
Since the 1990s, there has been a diversification in the way Australians access media. Australians have embraced smartphones and tablets to access news and entertainment. This trend will only accelerate. Despite these changes, Australians continue to get the vast majority of news and entertainment from a relatively small number of established providers.
3.45When asked to nominate their main source of information, 42 per cent nominated television, 25 per cent newspaper websites, and 11 per cent newspapers, with the remaining sources nominated as the main source by less than 10 per cent.
3.46Survey respondents were also asked if they received “conflicting or different reports of the same news story” in different media, which account would they be most inclined to believe. Again, and in line with its top ranking as the main information source, television far out-rated all other media sources for reliability with 48 per cent saying they would be most inclined to believe a television news report. Newspaper websites ranked second for reliability with 25 per cent support, Radio New Zealand 12 per cent, and newspapers 11 per cent. Only one per cent said they would rely on blogs, message boards, Facebook or Twitter.
3.47When asked to explain why they would rely on certain media more than others when receiving conflicting news reports, those who nominated television and newspaper websites referred to these two medium’s ability to provide live updates and live video footage. Those who preferred radio and newspapers felt the content available in these mediums was more likely to have been well researched with more attention to factual detail.
The majority of people still rely on the mainstream news media to identify, process and prioritise information and news that they will use as the basis for everyday life decisions, including decisions about voting.