From fake news to slow news? The crisis of the mainstream media

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Free StageFestival Attractions


In the past 15 years, more than 200 local papers have closed, leaving 58 per cent of the country without a daily or regional title. Since 2010, the readership of the Daily Telegraph has almost halved – figures consistent with other newspapers like the Daily Mirror, the Guardian and the Daily Mail. The explosion of online news, social media and alternative media outlets means people can choose innumerable sources of news – all for free. Many also note a shift from journalistic ‘reporting’ to opinion-led ‘comment’. In short, the media landscape has changed beyond all recognition.

Today, these trends have come to a head in the so-called crisis of the mainstream media (MSM). In the UK, whether it is Labour activists condemning the coverage of Corbyn or Brexiteers accusing it of spreading ‘project fear’, everyone seems to dismiss the BBC as hopelessly biased. In the USA, a majority of the population say they do not trust the media. The culture wars now engulfing the media are by no means limited to print: broadcast media as well finds itself subject to accusations of bias, such as when Dorothy Byrne, a Channel 4 executive, suggested journalists should refer to Boris Johnson as a ‘known liar’. Many commentators now worry that the more openly political stances of media organisations are leading to distrust. Whilst news sources have always had a political leaning, research suggests people are increasingly drawn to more openly partisan news sources – and leading to the polarisation of traditional outlets as well.

This disruption has also provided opportunities for media outside the mainstream. A diverse array of new digital media organisations is proliferating. James Harding’s ‘slow news’ outlet Tortoise focuses its attention on what it sees as the big forces driving change in the world alongside its flagship ‘ThinkIns’ that invite readers into editorial conferences. Meanwhile pro-Corbyn outlets like Novara Media or The Canary embrace their partisan position and use savvy social-media strategies, including highly shareable video clips, to reach large audiences. More broadly, a slew of online outlets – from Spiked to Quillette, and Open Democracy to UnHerd – seem to challenge the mainstream.

While many welcome this disruption, many worry that it is a poor substitute for the supposed detached impartiality of the past. Worse still, some accuse new media outlets of focusing on clickbait, driven by what journalist James Ball called ‘irresponsible pay-per-click advertising’ and fake news.

So, what are we to make of the supposed MSM crisis? Have we seen a turn against ‘objective’ reporting, or has the culture wars just brought bias closer to the surface? Has the internet actually given opportunities for depth or ‘slow’ news? If alternative voices do thrive, what happens when they become mainstream? Or is the crisis of the MSM just more fake news?

This session will be run as a Tortoise ThinkIn. Find out more information about Tortoise ThinkIns here.