What are the main challenges confronting media, in Australia and beyond, as you see them?

The most pressing are directly connected — fragmentation and trust. The rise of the billion-channel model offered via social media means that everybody can, in some way, be a broadcaster (albeit in a narrow sense). Who would you rather consume — the curation and opinion of a bunch of strangers, or the curation and opinion of someone whose views and taste you can absolutely trust, i.e., you?

The Tower of Babel this has created — everybody shouting, nobody with the time to listen — has eroded trust in (and the need for) mainstream media. With that, crucially, has also gone the funding model which used to sustain it. What we lose when we lose media organisations with sufficient scale, experience, expertise, and corporate memory are the very necessary holding to account of government, business and large institutions they have always provided. It is clear that Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other rising behemoths are not skilled for, or even interested in, this task.

How can we combat fake news and misinformation in the digital age?

The most necessary (and, doubtless, most contested) step is to remove anonymity from the internet. If you have an opinion, a story, an allegation, a fact, or a rumour, then you must be prepared to sign your name to it. Genuine accountability will, in itself, make those who would spread lies (and worse) aware, at least, of the possible consequences of doing so.
 
The greater challenge is presented by advances in things such as CGI and face-mapping technology. In the foreseeable future it will be possible to create credible, but entirely fake, human beings (anyone from Marilyn Monroe to your next door neighbour). We might have to end up block-chaining human beings to vouch for their authenticity! As Grace Jones (almost) put it — slave to the algorithm.

Is there a crisis of trust in media, particularly in news media?

An escalation, certainly. I would contend that the phone hacking scandal which revealed the excesses and amoral actions of News International (read Dial M for Murdoch if you want your eyes opened wide) caused great damage well before Trump and the mantra of “fake news”. But, then, it’s ever been thus. Hearst, anyone? Berlusconi? Northcott? Who owns the media, owns the message. That being said, the clear and present threat to established media, as personified by Trump, has also driven to it new, and record, levels of support. All is not yet lost.

If so, what can be done to enhance that trust?

Supporting a genuine plurality of strong media voices, from all sides of the political spectrum. Public broadcasting is one model. The Scott Trust, which supports The Guardian, another. Neither of these are guaranteed, however. It has been mooted that Facebook and Google, who have profited greatly from mainstream media and journalism without having to fund it, should now help support the same via a levy. I can see sense in this, as nothing is more important to a functioning democracy than open and well-informed debate from all sides. We must maintain a credible public square if we are to remain a workable civic society.

How important are journalism and news media

See above. Perhaps the easiest way is to think of it in these terms. When a complex, multi-year issue such as the behaviour of banks and the ensuing Royal Commission comes up, who would you rather have exploring and exposing it (and then, if necessary, following through to ensure that bad behaviour does not go unchecked) — a handful of deeply commited bloggers, or a newsroom (in fact several) with journalists schooled in and dedicated to the task, supported by legal and financial heft guaranteeing them the freedom to do their work in the face of likely intimidation?

This article was originally published by the Centre for Media Transition at UTS.

Peter Fray

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