The Fourth Estate — the thin line

The byline on each edition of The Washington Post reads “Democracy dies in darkness.” It is a testament to a fundamental truth, that the media are a vital component of a healthy and functioning democratic society.

For many years, the print media was the mainstay of news reporting, each city hosting at least one full scale broadsheet publication, and often two, while provincial centres hosted daily newspapers. A healthy and competitive media environment flourished, supported by magazines ranging from soft “people news” stories through to hard-hitting investigative journalism. Television provided sound-bite style news coverage and documentaries.

All over the western world, newspapers and the press generally has been gradually dying, losing advertiser dollars to social media, such as Facebook, Google and Instagram. Classified advertising revenue, once reflected in voluminous sections in Saturday papers, dwindled as the trade in second hand articles shifted to Trade Me and other auction sites.

Progress is inevitable. The change in forum is irreversible, but it has led to some most undesirable outcomes. Never has the profession of journalism been so under attack as it is today. Anyone can be a publisher, and in that lies the problem. All manner of nonsense is published and given credence in a day and age when all that is required is the click of a mouse. Absurd conspiracy theories and “fake news” circulate and are given oxygen by bands of followers.

It is difficult to imagine any reputable journalist reporting such claims that the earth is flat, NASA faked the Apollo lunar missions, aliens live on the Moon or the World Trade Centre terror attacks on 11 September 2001 were caused by UFOs, yet this type of rubbish circulates freely on sites such as YouTube, unhindered by fact check or editorial review.

The rise of Donald Trump in the United States has perhaps brought the whole issue into sharp focus, with some of the most extraordinary attacks directed against media organisations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC News and others. In a nation that prides itself on freedom of speech some of the vituperous comments President Trump has directed at the media are matched only by his loathing of President Obama, his predecessor. Anything that Trump does not like he seems to label disparaging as “fake news”, a cry echoed by his fanatical supporters.

As advertising revenue declines, the newspapers struggle to maintain the staffing base necessary to sustain their operations. Circulations have also plummeted, a casualty of the shrinking subscriber base in an age when all manner of information, both high quality and bogus, is available at a few keystrokes. Yet we need the dedicated journalists more than ever. It has been said that the definition of “news” is information which someone, somewhere, wishes to keep hidden. All the rest is advertising. Although cynical, there is truth in that. Digging into the secrets that the well-connected and powerful wish to keep secret, unearthing the loose ends and shining the disinfecting light of publicity into dark recesses is an essential function in any properly functioning democracy.

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