Leading health media highlights the pandemic threat to public interest journalism

By Melissa Sweet

Thursday August 13, 2020


The pandemic is exposing and exacerbating many of the determinants of poor health and inequities, such as housing insecurity, poverty, racism, incarceration, precarious employment, low levels of health literacy, human rights abuses, inequities in access to quality healthcare, and the privatisation of public goods and services, such as aged care.

COVID-19 has also highlighted the fragility of another determinant of health: public interest journalism. As previously noted by Croakey, one of the many paradoxes of the pandemic is its devastating impact in Australia and globally upon the media sector at a time of soaring demand for public interest journalism.

The pandemic has not only undermined the media’s already fragile business model, it is enabling authoritarian action in many countries. Attacks on press freedom are widely reported, including across Europe, the United States, Mexico, Malaysia, Cambodia, India and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, the persecution of journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines has drawn international condemnation, with 60 press freedom groups and civil society organisations forming a coalition to support her and independent media there.

The orchestrated, longstanding campaign against Ressa also highlights the role of Facebook in contributing to the spread of disinformation and attacks on journalism, according to this significant analysis by Dr Julie Posetti.

In listing countries where press freedom is under attack, we cannot forget that Australia also has drawn international condemnation for the “dangerously fragile” state of press freedom here, with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance calling for reform to “bad laws” that criminalise journalism.

A Senate inquiry into press freedom is due to report next year, and today representatives from News Corp Australia, the ABC, Nine Entertainment and the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom are presenting to a public hearing.

Meanwhile, Australian Media’s Fight for Press Freedom Should Be a Lesson to Journalists Worldwide is the headline of a lengthy article in Nieman Reports in the US, published on 5 May, by Australians Gary Dickson and Margaret Simons, journalists and researchers associated with the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI). They wrote:

Even in an established liberal democracy, media freedom can be incrementally undermined.

Without the constitutional protections enjoyed by journalists in the U.S., Australian journalists can’t be confident that they are protected – and this at a time when the public is increasingly disengaged and distrustful of institutions, especially the media.

Perhaps the way forward lies in emphasizing not the rights of journalists, but the rights of the people to information.

Noteworthy developments

But let’s put the grim news aside for a moment, and look for some positives.

The European Journalism Centre has recently announced grants for year-long reporting projects on topics likely to be of interest to many Croakey readers, including the consequences of world trade and globalisation in the least developed countries, and how to sustainably and equitably tackle a looming hunger crisis for the world’s poorest people.

One grant will launch a weekly podcast looking at science and health in sub-Saharan Africa, giving African journalists a platform to talk about how science affects their communities and providing African researchers an opportunity to highlight their work.

The centre says that supporting “sustainable and impactful journalistic coverage is essential to increase public awareness for, and interest in, the many challenges and solutions contained within global development and the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The centre is also compiling a series, Resilience Reports, about how news organisations across Europe are adjusting to the COVID-19 crisis.

In Ukraine, Hromadske Radio, founded in 2013, is one of the country’s few non-commercial and non-governmental news talk radio stations and online media platforms, employing 70 full and part-time journalists and other staff. The station describes creating opportunities from the challenges of the pandemic, such as a podcast about women’s experiences of the pandemic, including domestic violence during lockdown, and a campaign urging its audience to be critical of information sources.

It’s worth noting that 95% of Hromadske’s revenue comes from international donors, such as National Endowment for Democracy, International Renaissance Foundation, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Pact. These donors are keen to support independent outlets like Hromadske Radio to protect the interests of Ukrainian civilians in a media environment at risk from influence by oligarchs (sound familiar, Australia?).

In Denmark, the start-up Koncentrat was founded in 2017 to help young people think critically about important and newsworthy topics. In response to the pandemic, it set up a free daily explanatory TV news program called Sofa News to strengthen media literacy amongst quarantined teens.

The program was broadcast live on YouTube and all eight Danish regional TV2 stations, with the audience encouraged engage with the guests via social media. Afterwards, viewers could read complementary articles about the topics covered in the show. Koncentrat worked also with its network of youth correspondents during lockdown to publish articles about COVID-19. School subscriptions provide Koncentrat’s main source of revenue.

Meanwhile, French MPs have voted to grant a tax credit to anyone taking out a new subscription to a current affairs newspaper or magazine after the government argued that the sector was “suffering enormously” from the coronavirus crisis, and other countries are reported to be considering similar measures.

In the United States, the non-profit news sector has been growing since 2009 and providing investigative, national and – increasingly – local, community-based reporting, according to the latest stocktake by the Institute for Nonprofit News. In 2019, the sector had an estimated US $500 million in annual revenue, and employed roughly 3,500 people including some 2,300 journalists.

The institute says its members tell stories that otherwise would go untold – connecting communities, holding the powerful accountable and strengthening democracy. “Our vision is a world in which all people in every community have access to trustworthy news.

While the pandemic’s impact upon this sector in the US is still unfolding, the institute’s report is quite upbeat: “In the midst of a pandemic, [non-profit media organisation] numbers are growing in contrast to the accelerating collapse of commercial, ad-based media.”

Australia’s non-profit journalism sector is nowhere near developed as in the US, but we can boast one global pace-setter: The Conversation, founded in 2011 with $6 million in funding from four universities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and the State of Victoria. According to a 12 June report from Columbia Journalism Review, this innovative model combining journalism and academic writing is thriving amid the demand for evidence-based stories that help counter pandemic disinformation.

Small independent sites such as Indigenous X, Michael West Media, and Renew Economy are also value-adding to coverage of critical public health matters, while the buyout of Australian Associated Press in Australia and Stuff in Aotearoa/New Zealand shows the potential for new models to arise from crises.

Amid ongoing shrinkage of news rooms across Australia, those announced yesterday by 10 News are just the latest in a long, long list (see the PIJI Australian Newsroom Mapping project for more details), although there are a few small shoots of growth in local and regional reporting (for example: in NSW, the Richmond River Independent and The Northern Rivers Times; in South Australia, The News in Naracoorte; and in Victoria, The Terrier at Warrnambool), while in Tasmania, there are concerns about a public relations company with political links buying regional newspapers.

PIJI’s mapping project also reported some positive developments in the news landscape during July with six new newspapers starting up: one in Victoria and five in regional Queensland. The Queensland papers all opened in areas where newspapers had recently closed – Chinchilla, Kingaroy, Emerald, Gayndah, Gympie. The project reported no further contractions during the month, while 34 newsrooms came back online after previous suspension of operations. As well, the latest grants from the Australian government’s Regional and Small Publishers Innovation Fund will benefit many smaller newsrooms, including Renew Economy, Inside Story and the Koori Mail.

The advent of the Judith Neilson Institute is providing a new source of support for public interest journalism and independent media, and – full declaration – is also helping to bring stories to Croakey readers, such as #JusticeCOVID, Inside Story collaborations with Jennifer Doggett, and Dr Tess Ryan and myself, and also a collaboration with The Mandarin on pandemic policy makers.

While welcome, these developments do not address longer term sustainability concerns for public interest journalism, and particularly for new and emerging models of independent and community-based media. These concerns would be more effectively resolved by policy reform for which there is no shortage of recommendations from various inquiries, including stable and adequate funding for public broadcasters, tax settings that encourage philanthropic support for journalism, and efforts to improve digital media literacy in the community. PIJI also publishes a range of recommendations and relevant research.

Croakey Health Media is advocating for reforms to enable wider development of a non profit journalism sector, including a clearly navigable pathway for set up, with access to deductible gift recipient (DGR) status (something we have been unable to obtain that would make a real difference to our capacity to remain sustainable). Creating a sustainable environment for public interest journalism, as a vital determinant of healthy people/societies/policies, is a key priority in our strategic plan.

It is also important to examine the impact of wider policies upon the sector. For example, the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia says Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s decision to more than double the cost of journalism degrees “strikes at the heart of democracy in this country”:

The decision of the government to more than double the cost of journalism degrees at a time when the industry is already under significant pressure is reckless and short-sighted…

This decision also effectively prices out some people from studying journalism at a time when there is a clear need to have better representation in news of the full cross section of Australians.”

Also encouraging

While the pandemic has brought way too many examples of poor media practice undermining public health, it has also heightened awareness of the value of public interest journalism in countering disinformation, scrutinising powerholders, enabling exchanges of knowledge, informing and empowering communities, and contributing to accountability.

Just as the summer bushfire crisis brought recognition of journalists as emergency responders, so the pandemic is seeing journalists described as frontline responders.

In June, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, cited reports that 127 journalists were killed in 31 countries between 1 March and 31 May. Others had been harassed and detained while reporting on COVID-19, he said.

“Journalists are critical to holding decision makers to account and communicating lifesaving public health messages to the general public. They should never be a target for violence; they should be protected so that they can continue to do their critical work,” he said.

On 7 July, the Vice-President of the European Commission, Věra Jourová, a Czech politician and lawyer, made a speech highlighting the importance of journalism during the pandemic:

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the essential role of journalists. They have been working in the frontline, sometimes putting their safety at risk, to inform us. Readership and audiences are record high. But revenues are record low.

This is not only the pandemic’s fault. It is a longer-term trend that sky-rocketed with the digitalisation and emergence of online platforms. The advertising is moving online, leaving the content creators, journalists, in a difficult situation. Almost half of EU citizens now rely on online news as their main source for information about national and European politics.

This trend puts the local media, those that are the closest to citizens, at special risk.

All this has an impact on our democracies. The weaker the ‘fourth estate’ is, the weaker its ability to watch the hands of those in power – the weaker our democracy.”

Jourová said that in September the Commission would release an analysis of media pluralism for each country in the European Union, ahead of proposing measures to strengthen media freedom and pluralism and to address disinformation under the European Democracy Action Plan by the end of this year.

Gutting the ABC

In Australia, ABC broadcaster Dr Norman Swan’s tireless, evidence-based questioning of policy making and research findings has been one of the most obvious contributions of public interest journalism.

It speaks volumes that the government made clear its displeasure about his reporting, but we’ve heard of no such interventions following the dangerous rubbish circulated on high-impact News Corp platforms, which of course also have form in undermining an evidence-based response to another critical public health crisis, climate change.

The ABC, whose critical importance was highlighted during the pandemic and bushfire crisis in particular, faces ongoing attacks, via News Corp, and successive funding cutbacks by the coalition government, leading to the slashing of staff, services and programs.

In another indication of the political power of News Corp, the government has excluded public broadcasters from a deal that may see the digital giants forced into making payments to media businesses.

The power of News Corp is also reflected in the ABC board’s decision to have Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest present the Boyer Lectures, according to Melbourne-based writer Tim Dunlop. He writes in Meanjin:

Few media landscapes are as dominated by a single proprietor in the way in which News Ltd dominates the Australian media market, and it has a stifling effect on all aspects of public conversation….

[the decision] can’t be seen outside the constant bashing News Ltd inflicts upon the National Broadcaster: it is a classic case of how the ABC constantly second-guesses the reaction they will get from News Ltd should they dare to step outside certain boundaries.

It’s a familiar story in England too, where the BBC is also facing further funding cuts.

The cancellation of the 2020 Andrew Olle media lecture due to COVID-19 is poorly timed.

Power matters

Late last month, “four of the most powerful men in technology” were brought before the US Congress for the first time.

The New York Times reported that the appearance of chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, four tech giants worth nearly US $5 trillion combined, faced withering questions from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike for the tactics and market dominance that had made their enterprises successful.

The Washington Post reported that the executives “took a brutal political lashing” as Democrats and Republicans confronted the executives for wielding their market power to crush competitors and amass data, customers and sky-high profits, with concerns raised about threats to democracy itself.

Whether US lawmakers have the courage to enact public interest reforms remains to be seen and will no doubt hinge on election results. Likewise, the jury is still out on the impact of moves to develop a mandatory code in Australia governing relationships between Google and Facebook, and media companies.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has released draft legislation and is seeking further submissions by 28 August. Croakey has raised concerns about the disadvantaging of independent and smaller media organisations in this process, and argued for civil society and the public interest to be central to these developments:

The mandatory code between media organisations and the digital platforms is a critical opportunity for addressing matters of profound and wide-reaching public importance.

Explicit efforts are needed to ensure civil society is able to contribute to the code’s development, implementation and review. This will require determined attention to issues of procedural justice and equity, as many civil society organisations may not have commensurate resources to contribute.

These matters are too important to leave as negotiations between media organisations and the digital platforms. Public interest, rather than commercial imperatives, should be centred in the processes and the outcomes.”

It seems likely the process will lead to funding going to existing powerbrokers such as News Corp rather than supporting development of new and innovative forms of public interest journalism that might contribute more usefully to the health of communities and democracy and address gaps in coverage.

This seems to be what is happening with the Public Interest News Gathering (PING) program, which is soon to announce funding to regional publishers and broadcasters. The main criteria are not the basis of a community’s need for public interest journalism or the quality of an applicant’s public interest journalism pitch, but the size of an organisation’s regional revenue and employment (declaration: Croakey Health Media is an applicant).

Experienced media executive Hal Crawford has put forward a detailed argument for why he expects the mandatory code will not come anywhere near fixing the crisis in public interest journalism.

He wrote recently in The Spinoff:

So we are left with this really big problem: the very expensive and necessary task of gathering true information about what is happening in our societies has become not only financially unattractive but impossible. As much as we’d like to find someone to blame for this situation, pointing to two plump digital newcomers and baying like a pack of hounds won’t work.

A good interim solution would be to stop trying to find a direct and unequal value exchange between news media and the platforms and to instead raise a tax on digital giants directly.

That will require a lot of energy, but it has the benefit of clarity. It is a response to a very new situation, a situation where global tax laws have allowed these companies to contribute very little locally despite making lots of revenue on the back of New Zealanders and Australians.

When we have raised the tax, the real debate begins: how best should we use public money to ensure the continued unearthing of daily truths?”

Another important option is put forward by the global philanthropic organisation, Luminate, which was founded by The Omidyar Group, established by philanthropists Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, and Pam Omidyar.

Luminate is advocating for an international fund to support public interest media, noting that in many communities the pandemic will be a “media extinction event”, and stating that “public interest media matter now more than ever as a key pillar of democracy, good governance, and sustainable development.

It is, of course, not only the pandemic that adds urgency to the need to sustain a future for public interest journalism. As the climate crisis escalates with consequences both predicted and unforeseen, the roles of public interest journalism will become even more important.

Dr Melissa Sweet is managing editor and a director of Croakey Health Media, a non-profit public interest journalism organisation.

This article is curated from Croakey.

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