The media are at a crossroads, with fears over the future of some of Northern Ireland’s best known newspapers. Existing trends favouring social media over print newspapers have been accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis, with additional financial pressures from a collapse in advertising revenues.
This is an appropriate moment to reflect on the future of the media and on ethical responsibilities on journalists working in a post-conflict society. The latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust features an interview with Suzanne Rodgers, a media commentator who is media studies lecturer at the North West Regional College.
“New types of newspapers are coming up,” she says, some of which have a more open minded view of society, less connected to traditional social and political divisions. “And of course bloggers, podcasts are becoming very popular. People are finding they have a whole range of other areas where they can access their news and information and also contribute to it as well.
”We’re now talking about two-way conversations, whereas in the past, certainly when I started my career in journalism, journalists delivered the news, delivered the information to people and people absorbed it. Now we’re having this two-way conversation. You’re finding even in the BBC where people are doing news programmes, even traffic reports, they’re asking people to come back and give their opinion, what’s happening where you are.”
But, Suzanne adds: “On the other side, we still have the very traditional news outlets. There hasn’t been a massive change since the deepest, darkest days of the Troubles. You have small places like Limavady, Strabane, Portadown, having two newspapers, because they are serving two very different constituencies: one nationalist, the other unionist. And there hasn’t been a huge change in that – which is strange, because I expected that.”
There have been limited changes in reading habits in recent years, with Sam McBride, the political editor of the News Letter, reporting that his newspaper sold out in nationalist areas because of his coverage of the RHI scandal. And some columnists write for outlets on both sides of the community divide.
“I suppose,” says Suzanne, “one of the things that has happened is that there are some people who have a social media presence and have lost their anonymity. They have become like a trusted person sitting at your kitchen table. I know from the students I teach, they would follow journalists sometimes, rather than the outlets.
“We have always been news hungry in this part of the world and people do look, even to be annoyed, to read someone like Newton Emerson, Alex Kane or Brian Feeney, because they are provocative. Maybe that’s a change that has happened. People feel more able to reach out and look at the other side and consider the other point of view.
“By and large people are now looking for online news…. The only paper I was aware of that was able to monetise that was the Donegal Daily”. It benefited from emigrants to Australia, Canada and America wanting to keep up with local news, “but very few others managed to do that.” Now, though, an increasing number of newspapers see their futures as being more online than in print.
But has the purpose of the media changed? “The role of the media has always been to stand to one side and to shine a light in dark corners,” insists Suzanne. “That’s what we all like to say. Of course, commercialisation and the commercial reality is that newspapers and media have to sell advertising space.”
One of the improvements to the media scene is the emergence of fact checking organisations, verifying truth both for consumers and reporters. “Some newspapers, some news organisations, have furloughed staff, so the less staff the less chance you have of fact checking,” Suzanne explains. “But we do have a number of organisations, like FactCheckNI, that do really good work, explaining what some of the myths are: they are there as a resource.
“The Ethical PRISM Network is working with different fact check organisations, to set up multiple tools, free online training and resource hubs, to help journalists check and cross check their facts. But the old rule of journalism still applies. You don’t put something out as a fact unless you have got more than one source for it. And unless you’ve got reliable sources for it.”
One of the big questions is whether journalists have specific responsibilities operating in a post-conflict society. Do we have a responsibility to help society improve, to reduce division, or at least to avoid making divisions worse?
“Journalists have always had to have integrity,” says Suzanne. “Integrity is key. We can’t say publish and be damned. You have to stop and think, what’s the context here? Am I adding anything here to wider knowledge or discourse, or is this just a sensational headline?… For journalists, that’s part of the job they are always weighing up. What are the consequences of this? Does it add more than it takes away? What’s my role here?
“In a post-conflict situation, I think maybe less so. It was more so while the Troubles were being reported. Hume-Adams, for instance, a lot of people knew that was happening, but people decided to give it a bit of space. In a post-conflict society, journalists can perhaps press the pedal a bit harder.”
So if we accept there are stories that should be ignored because reporting them would spark violence or other community harm, are there other stories that should be covered because they will do good, that might be termed ‘ethical journalism’?
“Yes,” says Suzanne. “I think journalists do have that responsibility, because they have a unique power to disseminate information, to reach out and ask questions, with access to people that people on the street don’t have.
“Maybe that’s where the real ethical responsibility lies. Not just how you report the stories that come your way, that you come across, or that you find, but also actually going in search of those stories that do shed a more positive light… I think it is incumbent on journalists to go and look for those stories.”
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of Holywell Trust, a peace and reconciliation charity, and is financed by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is author of ‘A New Ireland’, ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and other books. He is part-time policy advisor to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.