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A report from a broken estate

University of London journalism researcher Mel Bunce reports from ground zero in the post-truth age about what happens when your fourth estate collapses.

Living in London, I have a front row seat to one of the most chaotic periods of modern political history. Last week, the UK’s Prime Minister announced he was cancelling Parliament. This week, he wants a snap election – to fight the members of his own Party.

The pound has slumped, we might run out of medical supplies, and I can’t cross Westminster Bridge on my cycle commute home because it’s covered in protestors holding signs that instruct Boris to pleasure their hairy private parts.

And all of this – the implosion of political parties, one of the most momentous decisions of a generation – was prompted by a knife edge vote, the 51.9 percent of people voted ‘yes’ in the Brexit referendum.

Moreover, in the lead up to the vote, there was so much misinformation that many still reject the outcome altogether.

Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who helped uncover targeted, misleading ads placed on social media during the campaign, told the audience of her Ted Talk: “this entire referendum took place in darkness, because it took place on Facebook….This is not democracy -- spreading lies in darkness, paid for with illegal cash, from God knows where”.

I am a researcher and lecturer in a university journalism department in London, where we are still working to get our heads around the foreign governments, private companies like Cambridge Analytica, and political consultancies that appear to be manipulating the UK media for political gain. But we know that something dramatic has shifted in how citizens get their information, and it doesn’t bode well.

Reputable polls suggested that one-third of Americans thought Clinton was ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ running a child sex ring.

Things look even worse in US where, during the 2016 election, there were historically low levels of trust in the news media. Disinformation poured into this trust vacuum – including the now infamous claims that the Pope has endorsed Donald Trump, and that Hilary Clinton was running a prostitution ring from a pizza restaurant.

The allegations against Clinton were fantastical, incendiary and based on zero evidence – but a remarkable number of people believed them. Reputable polls suggested that one-third of Americans thought Clinton was ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ running a child sex ring. There was, essentially, no media outlet or institution that had the credibility to provide facts or dispel lies. The most industrialised country in the world, with the highest education levels in its history, seemed to have lost control of the truth.

As a Kiwi abroad, writing a book on journalism in New Zealand, I’ve given a lot of thought to the state of the news media, and whether these phenomenon could happen at home.

Could this happen in New Zealand?

The good news is that there are few wholly fabricated “fake news” websites targeting New Zealand readers, as there were during the US election.

The bad news is that New Zealanders are often exposed to misinformation swirling across social media platforms and discussion boards. On Facebook groups, reddit, Mumsnet, and beyond, audiences encounter exaggeration, misinterpretation and false information about some of the most pressing and important issues of our times: climate change, vaccinations, migration, and gender politics, among others.

In this information landscape, we need quality journalism more than ever before.  We need trusted professionals to seek out the truth and verify claims – to build trust with their audience, and help us navigate the political landscape, as well as the day to day decisions we make for ourselves and our families.

But, at exactly this moment, journalism is facing profound financial challenges of its own.

Audiences are no longer willing to pay for news they can find online for free. And advertisers have stopped giving their money to the traditional news media, using Google and Facebook to reach potential customers instead.

Without this advertising revenue, regional newspapers are closing and journalists are being let go  - the 2001 census showed that there were 2277 journalists working in New Zealand, by 2013 that number had dropped to 1527. Stuff’s owners would like to sell, but they cannot find a buyer; and Mediaworks say that TV Three may not be around much longer.  

These cuts are not stopping, and revenue is continuing to fall at most news outlets. If alternative income is not found, journalists will not be able to provide the information and critical views that we rely on in our democratic system; and we will become increasingly vulnerable to disinformation.

What can we do?

As individuals, we can do much more to support journalism – we can donate and subscribe to news outlets - and start to view independent news content as an important public good, worthy of our support.

We can also encourage more government funding for the media: New Zealand spends shockingly low amounts on public journalism compared with other countries. Those countries we routinely compare ourselves to, like Australia, Canada and the UK, all have non-profit public TV channels. New Zealand does not.

We also need to build more awareness around the challenge of disinformation.

Finland is leading the way in media literacy education and has recently been deemed the ‘most resilient to disinformation’ according to the Media Literacy Index. The country offers classes that train students in technical skills to verify online sources, as well as critical thinking skills to assess misleading content more generally. Many countries are now following suit, and New Zealand should be among them.   

The UK and US have given a clear example of the importance of trustworthy information to a democratic system. It’s time we hear that warning.

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