Living in a state of unknown is, quite frankly, terrifying. And a lot of us deal with that fear by searching for answers. After all, knowing gives us back a little bit of control.
Amidst a global pandemic, information is key. Unfortunately, not all information is made equal.
Will injecting bleach cure COVID-19? Does putting an onion in all corners of your house protect you from the virus? In the absence of humans, is nature really healing?
While buying a few extra onions on your weekly grocery run is fairly harmless, other kinds of disinformation can be deadly.
Well-researched, verified facts are hard to find. It’s a lot easier to forward a WhatsApp message or hit “retweet” than to do the digging and find sources to support the stories.
That’s where journalism organizations come in. The Government of Ontario lists newspapers and broadcasters as an essential service. Yet, hundreds of journalists are getting laid off when we need them the most.
This is an industry that is struggling to survive.
“It’s killing us.”
Like many others, COVID-19 has highlighted unsustainable legacy systems in the journalism industry.
In just six weeks, more than 100 media outlets in Canada have made cuts in 11 provinces and territories. 50 outlets have temporarily or permanently closed.
But this was a long time coming.
In 2019, TorStar announced its shutdown of StarMetro print papers across Canada. In April, Postmedia announced the closure of 15 community newspapers. Both cited a decline in advertising revenue.
There’s a particular sense of grief when a local newspaper disappears: the TorStar and Postmedia shutdowns left over 150 reporters out of a job combined. They also left over 20 communities without news that was produced just for them.
With each layoff comes a series of tweets from the unlucky ones, followed by a wave of support from their colleagues in the industry. Watching it all go down, time and time again, is heartbreaking. Yet, in each flurry of tweets, I’ve also noticed a sense of resignation: a feeling that this was inevitable.
“Information is free, but facts aren’t”
Thanks to the Internet, anyone can say anything, at any time. But are you going to spend an hour looking into every video clip or post you come across? No! If you did that, you’d have no time left in the day.
But that’s exactly what journalists do. They spend their time slogging through data, chasing after government officials, and building relationships with sources. Every reporter is held to stringent ethics and standards. They ask the hard questions and do the research for us – so we, the readers, can get the best and most accurate information possible.
In a time of physical distancing, this looks like taping a microphone to a hockey stick when doing video interviews, or calling into Premier Ford’s question queue an hour or two ahead to increase your chances of getting your question in. (Even then, it’s hard. Just ask reporter Emma McIntosh who posted a thread of the questions she would have asked if she got through.)
All of those hours and equipment add up. And when advertising revenues have dried up, journalists and journalism organizations alike are reliant on their subscribers to fund their good work.
“Think of it this way,” says Laurie Few, Managing Editor at the National Observer. “[During] World War II, there was a paper boy who stood at the corner yelling ‘hear ye, hear ye’ and waved the paper around. You still paid 5 cents for it. Now, we are essentially standing at the corner store giving our paper away for free. And that’s the expectation. Not a dime.
I’m giving an example of the fact that everyone’s dropped their paywall. People have that expectation and actually question when there is a paywall. A paywall is just paying for a product. Nobody goes to the store and expects to get milk for free. You don’t go across the street and expect to get your coffee for free.”
When the press gets bad press
Part of the hesitation to pay stems from an erosion of trust in journalism organizations.
According to the 2019 Reuters Digital News Report, more than three-quarters of Canadians turn to online sources for news. and roughly half rely on social media. “Unfortunately, the way we regain trust is by showing people and explaining to people how untrustworthy unverified information is,” says Laurie. “That’s not to say ‘don’t have an opinion on Facebook.’ But do not depend on it as news.”
Meeting readers where they are is key. “I think it’s important that we have to expand our reach: find out where people are having those conversations and make sure we engage in those conversations,” says Laurie. “I have to […] flip over to Twitter or Facebook to make sure we’re getting the right information to people where they’re going to read it. It’s so obvious, but it’s not just where it is, it’s how we communicate. We have to work hard to convince people that factual verified information is the way to go!”
Reporters and publications are also taking extra steps to increase transparency.
“We’re looking at ways […] to integrate that information into the story itself and to show that we’ve achieved this standard of fact-checking and verification and transparency,” says Emma. “It’s little things like that that help show readers we’re a safe source and we’re someone we can trust.
“We do threads when we do a bigger story that explain the reporting process: why we chose that story, why we pursued it the way we did, and how we pursued it,” she elaborates. “A lot of the time, people really love peeking behind the curtain like that. And I find that it’s things like that that have helped us build a relationship with our National Observer readers, who I believe have a high level of trust in us.”
What needs to happen
If anything, we know we value good information. (Traffic on the National Observer website is up, Emma noted, even for stories unrelated to COVID-19.) But good information, like any good product, doesn’t come free.
If you can afford it, now is the time to support your local news outlets.
As for the future?
“There’s going to be an interesting reckoning of what the model will look like for the media in the future. It won’t just be us deciding, it will be the public deciding,” says Laurie. “What I hope we’ll decide is that any product that is verified and researched and meets journalistic standards and is truthful is worth paying for.”
Header photo by Marcus Spienke (via Pexels).