Publishers such as Rupert Murdoch have complained that new media companies, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, represent not only a threat to their businesses, but also a threat to press freedom itself. New media receives several criticisms, from commercial gripes to concern over algorithms and the removal of content for various reasons. Despite this, some journalists argue that perceived issues with new media are simply commercial, and remain hopeful that new media can usher in a new era of press freedom.
The impact of New Media
Previously, Mudoch has complained that Google itself is a “parasite” and “content kleptomaniac”. He even went so far as to remove News Corp’s content from Google alongside introducing a paywall in 2010. Removal from Google searches meant content from The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun could only be accessed through their respective websites. As a result, The Times website saw the number of unique visitors drop by 62 percent, with page views falling by 90 percent. In 2012, News Corporation reversed their decision to stop articles featuring in google’s listings, amid fears that the newspapers’ exclusion was limiting their influence and driving down advertising revenues. The commercial power of new media can be seen in its projected profits for this year, with Google and Facebook predicted to dominate more than half of the UK’s £8bn digital advertising market.
New media’s impact on the revenues of mainstream media may harm the ability of journalists to report on stories. Dr Michael Bugeja warned “Google so dominates distribution… that fewer readers are subscribing to print outlets”, instead relying on a search of Google to find the information they need. Lord Black, executive director of Telegraph Media Group, has argued new media undermines press freedom by stealth, due to its impact on the commercial success of traditional media: “Commercial success is so important because if the press is not successful commercially it cannot be free, because it cannot invest in high quality investigative journalism”.
However, some journalists argue these concerns are strictly business related, and have little effect on freedom of the press. Steve Buttry suggested that because newspaper executives regarded the web with disdain, they “neither recognised nor sought to develop this new medium’s potential for helping us revolutionise our core jobs of informing our communities…”. Newspaper executives ignored the opportunities brought about by new media for too long, and have instead been left with the current challenge of adapting to change and monetising digital content.
Yet, some journalists themselves are highly critical of new media’s effect on the distribution of journalism. Former Guardian director of digital content Emily Bell has said that “the press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences”, instead, it is now “operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley”. Similar concerns have been raised by other journalists, who note “our masters are social media – and Facebook in particular, both because of its dominance and the way it manipulates what we see”.
A threat to press freedom?
New media impacts press freedom in several ways. Algorithms can facilitate ‘unintentional editing’ with unpredictable consequences, sometimes filtering, removing or censoring important news. The choices made in deciding who to follow on Facebook are only partly reflected in what’s seen, as Facebook’s own algorithms decide which posts should get priority on the news feed. Traditionally, a news website was assembled with journalistic views in mind, to provide a combination of “what you need to know, what you might like to know, and what might be pure entertainment”. Now, algorithms handle this task automatically. This can harm press freedom, with the public being unaware of how news reaches them. In an interview with the New York Times, the Facebook executive in charge of the main news feed said he didn’t think of himself as an editor. Yet algorithms constitute an editorial choice of what news is presented to the reader and what isn’t. Because algorithms are commercially sensitive, they can be altered by companies without transparency.
Similarly, Facebook often removes content that doesn’t meet its standards, without explaining why. Twitter has also previously removed content, such as the beheading videos uploaded by ISIS and blocked accounts after being forced to do so by the governments of various countries. Similarly, Google has recently removed links to pages on the BBC, Guardian and Daily Mail under the European Court of Justice’s ‘Right to be Forgotten’ ruling. Such editorial decisions can affect the public’s view of the world, and change the historical record of important events.
A new era of freedom of the press
Despite this, other journalists have argued that new media could usher in a new era of freedom of the press. As Emily Bell mentioned, journalism has become “augmented by untold numbers of citizen journalists who now break news, add context and report through social platforms”. If anything, this represents an increase in freedom of the press, broadening the pursuit of journalism. Similarly, it has been argued that new media is exercising freedom of the press whether it aggregates or originates content.
New media could lead not only towards greater freedom of the press, but also to a more ethical and transparent press. Richard Gingras, head of Google News and Sally Lehman suggested Google should prioritise articles by news organisations, journalists and other sources that show a high level of ethics, through adopting an academic ethic of citations, with links being the equivalent of footnotes. Similarly, Jeff Jarvis argued Google could give higher priority to articles with original reporting, which had received a high number of citations from other media outlets. Such algorithms would work in journalists’ favour, highlighting original reporting and giving it greater exposure.
It has also been argued that, far from limiting freedom of the press, new media has simply broken down the control previously held by mainstream media. Bell herself called Twitter “the free press of the 21st century”, praising its transparent layout which allows users to see everything from feeds they follow and for followers to see everything they post. The disruptive effect of new media on the monopoly of traditional media can be seen in the decline of home-page traffic as users turn towards social sharing to find news articles. Users now prefer apps to website home pages on mobile. This could have had a democratising effect on press freedom, as users share their favourite articles on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites. As Jarvis notes: “they, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now”.
While new media has become a significant threat to the business model of traditional media, potentially limiting its ability to conduct investigative journalism, this contention seems to be strictly a matter of coping with competition, something mainstream media has had to do for a long time. A significant concern lies in the power of new media corporations to shape the way the public receives its information through algorithms. Similarly, both Facebook and Twitter have removed content, while Google has deleted links to various news websites under the ‘Right to be Forgotten’. While Bell suggested that journalists should create their own distribution platforms, this suggestion seems dubious considering the current power new media already has. Instead, it is up to journalists themselves to adapt to the challenges of new media and work alongside new media companies to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded to the press.