Defence of democracy: How journalism plays a part

In the words of The Guardian investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr, “Democracy is not guaranteed, and it is not inevitable. And we have to fight. And we have to win. And we cannot let these tech companies have this unchecked power. It’s up to us: you, me and all of us. We are the ones who have to take back control.”

As consumers wrestle with the implications of one breach of trust after another – the sharing of our data, the spread of fake news (aka lies), or allowing atrocities to be played out online – it’s more critical now than ever to hold these global tech companies to account. The ability for lies and misinformation to be spread without accountability, for our personal data to be misused to manipulate what we are led to believe, is something that should concern us all when we think about the robustness
(or fragility) of our own democratic processes.

In his only interview given following the atrocities of the Christchurch massacre, Facebook chief marketing officer Antonio Lucio said, “change takes time” and “you only regain trust through actions and not words”.

But as we know, lost trust takes a lot of work to rebuild; in many cases, once it’s gone you can never regain it. Given recent events, the mission to regain consumer confidence is arguably set to be an uphill battle for these platforms.

That’s why, like other Kiwi media companies, Stuff is diametrically opposed to Facebook –because truth and trust are things we value most, and a strong code of ethics and editorial integrity is ingrained into everything we do. Although we compete with the tech giants for domestic advertising spend, our core purposes couldn’t be more disparate. It is not our job to manipulate your viewpoint or tell you what to think. Our job is to uncover and provide you with accurate information to allow you to make up your own mind. Our 400 journalists up and down the country get out of bed every morning to live out our purpose of helping Kiwi communities connect and thrive. They have each signed up to a robust code of ethics – of fairness, accuracy, and balance – which forms a collective moral compass, driving them to create journalism that will have a genuine, positive impact on New Zealand.

Journalism plays a valuable and important part in society – as a crucial
pillar of democracy, promoting truth and transparency, holding the powerful to account, and bringing justice by exposing injustice. Our journalists, and those of other news media companies around New Zealand, spend their days fighting for access to public information, turning over stones some would prefer were left untouched and giving a
voice to those who are powerless. This work is an essential part of a healthy democracy. As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and we all benefit from a society where a free press is able to provide that.

It’s a conversation that’s playing out internationally. In many US towns and cities that have lost their local newsroom, there have been well-documented increases in corruption in public institutions, as well
as a dramatic drop off in civic engagement. Basically, people stopped caring when there was no one left to ask the questions and report on the truth.

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this year, Droga5’s campaign work for The New York Times picked up the top honour. Compelling and beautifully crafted, ‘The Truth Is Worth It’ illustrated the relentless drive of journalists to unearth the truth, and to hold power to account. We love this campaign, because it captures what the Fourth Estate does. And yet, despite our critical role, it’s a challenging time for news outlets in New Zealand (and around the world) – as we each tackle the issue of establishing sustainable business models within the new world order.

TVNZ recently advised ministers that it did not expect to return a dividend in the “foreseeable future”. MediaWorks CEO Michael Anderson has called on the government to provide “more runway” for the sector and news bosses have met with government to consider how journalism can be sustained. More recently, Hal Crawford, chief news officer at Newshub, authored an eloquent summary (which ran in both the Sunday Star-Times and on Stuff) making a similar point – that it’s time to start taking the term ‘the fourth estate’ literally, and find a new model for surfacing everyday truths.

Although it’s encouraging to see central government starting to recognise how difficult it has become for commercial publishers to meet these needs, there’s much more to be done. Our role in serving our audience is being compromised, as indeed are some of the fundamental principles of democracy. Facebook and other social media platforms don’t like to describe themselves as publishers, because that would bring accountability for the information they allow to be spread. I am sure you can all recall some example of fake news pushed through a social platform by those with an agenda. Brexit and the last US election are filled with examples. In this era, a strong and healthy news media is more important than ever.

As a proud and progressive media organisation, Stuff has a rich heritage that stretches back over 150 years. Through the digital products we offer such as Stuff, Neighbourly and Play Stuff, coupled with our nationwide print operation, we also offer scale and reach.

When you consider that our publications and platforms reach a total of 3.4 million Kiwis each and every month (even more than Facebook) – an advertising dollar spent with us, is a dollar well spent in defence of democracy.

Bearing in mind the words of Cadwalladr – the future of democracy, and the media’s role in securing that future, is set to become one of the most pressing issues of our time. Advertisers, central government and the entire New Zealand media industry must work collaboratively to make sure that democracy is upheld, and at Stuff, we’ll be striving to lead that conversation.

By Sinead Boucher, Stuff CEO

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