Emily Bell: Social platforms and journalists need to work together

by Mathew on January 30, 2015

As we’ve described here a number of times, one of the biggest disruptions in the media industry has been on the distribution end — the actual creation of journalism and other content has also changed, but even more important is the shift from media outlets controlling the channel (newspaper, magazine, TV network) to relying on outside platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google for distribution. And that has brought with it a host of challenges, including ethical ones around how free speech and freedom of the press are handled by platforms that have no journalistic motivations whatsoever.

This is the landscape that Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, recently tried to outline in a speech to journalists in Britain given in honor of Hugh Cudlipp, former chairman of the Daily Mirror newspaper group. In a nutshell, Bell — the former head of digital at The Guardian — argues that both sides, social platforms and journalists, need each other more than they think.

Rise of the tabloid web

As Bell points out, most newsrooms — even the slow-moving, traditionally-focused ones — have come to realize that they need to understand and take advantage of the social sharing that platforms like Facebook provide, because that is how content works now. Everyone wants to “go viral.” In a sense, the web is encouraging everyone to think like the editor of a tabloid newspaper like the Daily Mirror.

“Today, the new newsroom has optimisation desks, to make stories work better on social media, data scientists who analyse the information about story performance to tell journalists how to write headlines, produce photographs and report stories which will be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ more than others. It has aggregation desks, which scour the web to find news that ordinary people have posted for a wider audience.”

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Control has been lost

The problem — as Bell outlined in a similar lecture last year at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism — is that journalists and media companies no longer have any control whatsoever over what happens to their content once they publish it. Proprietary networks like Facebook and Twitter and Google are now the power brokers who determine who sees your story and when, and their decisions are made for reasons that may have nothing to do with the journalistic quality of your content.

“We are seeing unimaginably large new entities, which get their size from publishing not just a selected number of stories but everything in the world. Social networks and search engines are the masters of this universe. As we see the disappearance of print as a significant medium, and the likely decline of broadcast television, the paths our stories and journalism must travel down to reach readers and viewers are being shaped by technologies beyond our control.”

As publicly-traded companies with a bottom line to look after, these platforms have their own interests to protect, Bell says — and that means they may be less than inclined to support or defend principles that journalists take for granted, such as free speech or freedom of the press. While Twitter makes a point of challenging court orders and fighting government requests for the blocking of content, and Google has also been known to do this, Facebook seems more than happy to remove content, in many cases without notice.

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As Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out on a number of occasions, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become the new public square, except it isn’t public at all — it’s more like a shopping mall, where private security can have you removed at will. Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon made a similar point in her book Consent of the Networked, about how much of what we consider free speech has been taken over by private corporations. Says Bell:

“Google and Facebook are magnitudes larger and richer than any other entities, and more influential in terms of reach than any press company in history. Until now though, the default position of participants in the sharing economy, with the exception perhaps of Twitter, has been to avoid the expensive responsibilities and darker, more complex aspects of hosting the free press.”

We need each other

As an example, Bell points to Google handing over personal information about members of WikiLeaks to the U.S. government, something she calls “a chilling reminder of either how little Google understands what supporting free speech means or its naked dishonesty.” No serious news organization would ever do such a thing she says, and it calls Google’s trustworthiness as a platform into question (Google has since said that it tried to alert those users to the government’s secret court order, but was prevented from doing so).

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It’s not just Facebook and Google that Bell is concerned about. There are other issues that the democratization of journalism brings up, she says — issues that were highlighted in two recent cases: one in which Jordi Mir filmed a French police officer being shot after the attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and another in which Ramsey Orta filmed a New York police officer choking Eric Garner.

“Mir and Orta are not journalists, but they were sources. They were not on the staff of any newspaper or agency; they were not paid a salary; they had had no training; they were not members of any union, they have no added protections that might be afforded to the press [but] we have a responsibility towards them in both a broad and specific sense. They might not be journalists but they are part of our ecosystem of news.”

The bottom line, Bell says, is that journalists and technology companies or social platforms need to work together to figure out how to handle the atomized, networked and democratized media environment we all find ourselves in. It’s not enough for Facebook or Google to say they aren’t journalistic organizations and therefore they don’t have a duty to consider things like free speech — they are functioning as journalistic tools, and they have a larger responsibility to society as a result.

“Journalism needs a lot more journalists who are technically proficient, and the new gods, the platform companies, social networks and search engines, need to hire a lot more technologists who are proficient in news. Because at the moment we have a situation which is not working for either of us… we need to work together, because we are now part of one continuous global information loop.”

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