Newspapers a key part of the increasing battle against misinformation

Long seen by many – especially by those in the industry, not surprisingly – as a cornerstone of democracy, newspapers have faced some tough sledding of late. For the dailies in particular, falling circulation and advertising revenues have led to cuts and closures. Certainly not good for those working in the media, but worse still for accountability.

We’re in the midst of National Newspaper Week, celebrating the role of newspapers in the communities they serve. Sure, it’s self-serving self-promotion, but there is something to be said for running the industry’s contributions up the flag(ging) pole.

Besieged by new technologies, fragmentation in the market and what seems to be an increasingly detached citizenry, newspapers do have much to worry about. But the industry has been its own worst enemy in many cases, as concentration of ownership led to homogenization and a decline in quality, often fueled by new corporate masters more concerned with stock prices than with good journalism, the very thing needed to attract readers.

The changes in the newspaper business haven’t gone unnoticed by the public, with researchers finding a third of readers in some markets stopped turning to a news outlet because it no longer provided them with the news they were accustomed to getting.

There’s been a drop-off in quality in many quarters, which has only accelerated the decline.

Ironically, even as we’re flooded with information – from online news sources to Facebook and Twitter and that ilk – there’s a greater need for a source to filter and interpret all of that raw data. That’s precisely what newspapers have been doing for centuries.

And while more people go online to get their news, few people are aware that most of the material provided by news aggregators such as Google or endlessly rehashed by bloggers comes from newspapers, the organizations with trained journalists on the ground, attending meetings and poring through documents.

Moreover, the digital realm is a bastion of fake news, made worse by increasing partisanship that sees people in silos of (mis)information from which they seldom deviate, with the resultant decline in the numbers of informed readers.

While we tend to associate such downward slides with the U.S., Canadians are not immune to fake news.

Ryerson University’s Cybersecure Policy Exchange earlier this year found in a survey that 46 per cent of Canadians report receiving private messages that they suspect are false at least monthly, and 39 per cent report receiving private messages that they initially believe to be true, but later find out are false, at least monthly.

That comes as more people rely on private messages for news – 21 per cent, in fact, as compared to 11 per cent just two years earlier.

More than eight in 10 people in Canada use online private messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp; and over half are receiving messages about the news or current events at least weekly. Without greater transparency from the private platforms themselves and investment in digital literacy efforts, this growing vector for online news will continue to spread disinformation and other online harms, the Ryerson study found.

“To date, Canadian regulatory proposals to regulate big tech have focused on social media content that remains publicly accessible, but disinformation spreading on private messaging apps is a growing threat to our democracy. The federal government should join other international jurisdictions in regulating greater transparency into how online private messaging apps can manifest in public harms,” says Sam Andrey, director of policy and research at the Ryerson Leadership Lab.

The research found that the spread of disinformation and other online harms poses risks to social cohesion, public safety and democracy; and, as a result experts and policymakers have raised calls for technical and regulatory changes. At the same time, concerns have also been raised regarding over-censorship of content and that such regulatory changes may negatively impact freedoms and rights, particularly the right to free expression.

Social media and many online outlets are not subject to the same scrutiny and accountability as newspapers, meaning there’s often no recourse for digital postings of outright falsehoods, hate speech and even libel.

The loss of more real reporting will only lead to less information in an electronic media (including online sources) that has already descended into partisan bickering and screaming south of the border. Changes in this country, though less extreme, have not been for the better.

Often accused of relishing the negative (most commonly from those under examination), the media best serve the public when they challenge leaders on their actions, positions and statements. Yes, we also tell people stories about themselves and do our part to entertain, but the watchdog role is the cornerstone of the free press in a democratic system. ‘Why?’ is a perfectly valid question. Those who would make decisions that affect our lives must justify themselves – arbitrary actions are not acceptable.

As The Observer has noted more than once or twice, it’s much too commonplace for politicians and bureaucrats, including the local ones, to put their own agendas ahead of the public interest. Without anyone to shine a light on their actions, and to demand explanations, you can bet there would be even less accountability and far greater misuse of the public good and the public purse.

That watchdog function is what’s most at risk given the changes in the media, just as the oversight role in the corporate sector has been eroded by convergence and the rise of media conglomerates.

Somewhat removed from the industry’s internal issues by virtue of being local and independent, The Observer also takes seriously its role as the voice of the community in asking questions, while telling the people’s stories. Do we always get it perfectly right? Absolutely not, but we’ll continue to do our part in representing the public – feedback always welcome.

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