Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, by Victor Pickard

Suzanne Franks on what the decline of traditional media means for our ability to hold power to account

March 19, 2020
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Thomas Jefferson famously remarked that he would prefer to live in “a world of newspapers without government” than one of “government without newspapers”. In other words, we should never forget that the existence of the fourth estate is pivotal to any free society, because a genuine democracy is more than simply a system of electoral decision-making. This analysis is the starting point for Victor Pickard’s engaging contribution to the debate about the crisis in journalism and why the current digital transformation should be a matter of such urgency for all concerned with a free society. One of his previous co-edited volumes (from 2011) was memorably titled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights, so he is well versed in the pressures faced by the news media.

Pickard describes the perfect storm of declining print sales, deteriorating prospects for newsroom staff and vanishing advertising sales, in a world where the global technology platforms have overturned the traditional business models of news production and consumption. From there, he gives a grim picture of the consequences of these shifts on journalism’s ability to hold power to account, especially in the emerging “news deserts”, areas where regional and local press have pretty much evaporated.

There is a particularly prescient account of the ever-closer intersection of journalism and public relations, highlighting the blurred boundaries and inevitable ethical dilemmas created by “native advertising” (which blends in so well that readers may not realise it has been paid for) and “branded content”. Reliance on these represents one of several funding models that news media have clung to in an increasingly tricky world, and the book critiques it alongside the familiar options of wealthy owners, paywalls, philanthropy, membership fees and so on.

But amid this search for viable business models, Pickard’s key message is that none of these alternatives can adequately support a functioning democracy, which ultimately requires a well-supported and resourced public media sector. He writes very much from a US perspective, where such models have never made more than a marginal appearance. Watching the on-air fundraising appeals on US public television channels, with the hosts begging viewers to send in donations, can make a foreigner cringe.

It is interesting to discover that this was not an inevitable trajectory and that the current US system resulted from a series of missed opportunities. As a prelude to the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, the Carnegie Commission had crucially recommended that public television be funded by a duty on TV sets (similar to the BBC licence fee). It warned that reliance on congressional appropriations meant inevitable vulnerability to political whim. Alas, this was not translated into the legislation.

Despite the US focus, Pickard’s persuasive case for the value of publicly funded news media rings loud bells in the current UK media environment, where the BBC is about to fight for its future as an institution supported by a universal licence fee. There is also the global question of how big tech companies, having decimated the advertising, should contribute to newsgathering and to a responsible society generally. Here again, Pickard offers a somewhat gloomy analysis, although it does now appear that the tide against big tech companies is at last turning. Certainly in Europe, the appetite for meaningful regulation combined with appropriate taxation is growing – giving at least some scope for the much-needed reinvention of news media.

Suzanne Franks is professor of journalism at City, University of London.


Democracy without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society
By Victor Pickard
Oxford University Press, 264pp, £64.00 and £18.99
ISBN 9780190946753 and 9780190946760
Published 6 December 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: A strong vote for a strong press

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