The Crisis of Western Democracy is a Crisis of Journalism

Photo Credit: Rémi-Ange. cc-by-nc-nd

If we compare humankind’s present situation with the not-too-distant past, the many profound changes that have taken place encourage a degree of optimism despite continuing dangers – especially to the environment. In the past 30 years, extreme poverty has fallen by two thirds, 2 billion people have been saved from malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality has been halved and, even if certain tragedies continue to be appalling, armed conflicts are less and less deadly. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic model became widely “democratized.” And yet a spectre haunts our societies, that of modern despotism – of “authoritarian strongmen” – in other words, the spectre of democratic frailty.

Between the two world wars, the US essayist Walter Lippmann wrote that “in an exact sense the present crisis of western democracy is a crisis of journalism.” This is true nearly a century later. There is a crisis of confidence in institutions and media, a crisis in the portrayal of reality (as polls about conspiracy theories show), a weakening of the media’s economic model that is threatening the quality of journalistic content, a fragmenting of the public domain under the impact of “filter bubbles,” and there is domination by technology firms that praise transparency without applying it to themselves or their algorithms.

Despotic regimes are developing enormous propaganda machines and are trying to export their alternative models in order to create a “new world information order.” At the same time, an entire sponsored content economy, with often unstated but very intricate interests, is prospering on the ruins of yesterday’s (imperfect) world. Without quality journalism, democracies will be low-intensity ones and the world’s great problems will not find solutions. To reduce information asymmetries among citizens and avoid distortions of the public debate by specialised agencies, we need more than fact-checking partnerships between online platforms and media outlets.

Balancing regulation and self-regulation

We must proscribe an ecosystem in which the click-through rate is the only criterion, in which content produced with the utmost attention to journalistic standards is liable to be drowned in a flood of deceitful allegations. Should we trust Adam Smith’s invisible hand or does this market need some guarantees? We think the latter.

A better balance between regulation and self-regulation must be found in order to create the conditions in which quality journalism can survive and develop, while ensuring its freedom, independence and pluralism because, as Albert Camus said, “the free press can be good or bad but without freedom it can assuredly only be bad.” There is no freedom without truth and no truth without freedom, we can be sure of that. But how do we promote the one without attacking the other? That is the question. Democratic societies must resist information wars by rejecting their underlying premises.

Pushing online platforms to assume responsibility and take content deletion decisions themselves is clearly a dangerous road. A law adopted in Germany in the summer of 2017 quickly demonstrated its inanity: just six months later, on 8 January, the government has opened the way to its amendment. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) was very critical of this law and, in an irony of history, its chief proponent, the justice minister, has himself just fallen victim to it.

Standards and labelling

Using a very different approach in France, President Emmanuel Macron has announced new transparency obligations for online platforms with regard to “all sponsored content, so that the identity of advertisers is made public.” Preventing money from taking over public debate and restricting the dissemination of ads and propaganda disguised as journalism would obviously be positive. And getting independent judges to intervene is infinitely preferable to leaving decisions to the private sector. But the measures taken against dishonest content providers must be proportionate. The government will have to pay close attention to this.

According to the Munich Charter, issued in 1971, we must “never confuse the profession of journalist with that of ad salesman or propagandist.” Journalism is based on “honesty rules” that governments cannot impose inasmuch as they stem from self-regulation. In the Elysée Palace on 3 January, President Macron accepted the importance of self-regulation and referred to an RSF initiative as “not only interesting but also desirable.” This initiative consists of a debate within the media community and the coordinated creation of a set of shared standards on journalistic procedures and basic guarantees on which all participants can agree.

This set of standards would cover media ownership transparency, editorial independence, use of verification methods and respect for journalistic ethics. On the basis of these standards, news organisations could request certification that would recognise the guarantees they have implemented. Using the principle of whitelisting, a register would be established to distinguish, to potentially varying degrees, news organisations that respect good practices from those that ignore them. Adherence to the standards could provide concrete advantages in the form of a label for the public; more earnings from advertising; or better algorithm indexing leading to more visibility and, where applicable, more profitability.

Neutrality, independence and rigour

RSF’s initiative consists of a debate within the media community and the coordinated creation of a set of shared standards on journalistic procedures.

But why would Silicon Valley corporations adopt these criteria when they are not ready to accept external oversight over their products? As we know, governments are increasingly inclined to make online platforms responsible for combating “fake news.” Regardless of the grounds for the underlying intentions, this approach is dangerous because it allows – and even asks – commercial entities (the companies that operate search engines and social networks) to employ weapons (censorship and discrimination) that they know how to use but not with any discernment. Who would give a gun to a blindfolded person to shoot presumed burglars?

No technology can distinguish true from false or, as in the case of news and information, honest from dishonest. RSF’s idea is to provide a tool based on prior, neutral and independent verification that makes it possible to incorporate rigorous criteria into algorithmic operations. We will then be able to ask governments to get online platforms to use the relevant tools. To discuss this project, RSF brought together dozens of media outlets of different nationalities together with organisations that represents publishers, editors, journalists’ in-house unions, advertisers and so on. These organisations often clash but, given what is at stake, they see that the time has perhaps come, without eliding their differences, to work together to defend a common good – journalism, society’s watchdog and “trusted third party.”

This article was originally published in French in Le Monde.