Old is New Again: Public Service Media Rebuilding Trust

By Dr. Minna Aslama Horowitz

Public service media, in its different reiterations, is needed more than ever to support and defend democracy.

While political and cultural contexts, organisational configurations, funding models and resources, even programmatic priorities and technological capacities may differ, the unifying characteristics remain: the basic, traditional mission and remit of quality services to all kinds of audiences. And while pressures on public service media mount all around the world, there are many strategies that exemplify and support that mission. This was the powerful message of  the PMA Conference Speak Out! Rebuilding Trust in Media and Democracy, in Kingston, Jamaica, 13 August 2018.

Shared Challenges, Global Solutions

Until recently, a common joke amongst practitioners and scholars working on public media strategies was to note that public media is in crisis – once again. Nobody believed the crises to be serious. Today, the challenges faced by the public service media institutions in Poland or Hungary, in Denmark or Switzerland, are no laughing matter. Regardless of differing cultural or socio-political contexts, the pressures to PSM seem eerily similar. Commercial competitors declare that PSM organisations distort the market; political adversaries claim that content may be biased and claim public media to be a waste of public funds. As the scholar Anya Schiffrin has noted,

The age of censors physically redacting newspapers is mostly over. But press freedom remains highly vulnerable, even in developed democracies, as governments and vested interests engage in a kind of soft control that resembles regulatory capture.[1]

The reflection on a year of PSM stories from around the world by PMA’s Kristian Porter and Marta Catalano highlighted the range of shared challenges: funding cuts, or fears thereof, in Australia, Denmark, Ireland, and the US; political interference in Spain; and media capture in Central Europe. But, as they noted, where there are global issues there are shared solutions. The remedies include: multi-stakeholder collaborations, including audience involvement; continuous experimenting that, when successful can be scaled; and in essence, holistic strategies that extend beyond broadcasting.

Four Alphabets and Five Values for Rebuilding Trust in Media

In general, is there a secret sauce for rebuilding trust? Paul Thompson, the CEO of Radio New Zealand, shared core elements of the success of RNZ in gaining wide audience support. At the core is the “ABCD priority order” to think about how to make a difference in the multiplatform, global media landscape.

is for Audiences’ needs first: every news and programming decision is based on that premise.

,as in Brand, means the promise by the media organisation to its audiences; in the case of RNZ they are, for instance, of quality and trust.

Only then comes C, the specific kind of content.

is for the delivery platform. Not everything needs to be multiplatform; a great radio programme alone can exemplify A-B-C.

Radical sharing is essential for trust

Yet, strategic alphabets alone are not enough. Much depends on shared internal organisational and managerial values that are then translated into content. First, a news or any media organisation must be fiercely and openly independent. This is one of the key features in building trust. Second, the organisation must assess what it is doing right now, the best way possible; while, at the same time, thinking about innovation for the future. It may be good to keep the now and the new separate as management and content strategies, so that the present successes do not redefine future innovations, but the latter can emerge freely.  Radical sharing is essential for trust, and this means all kinds of coalitions and collaborations, including those with audiences.

Finally, what is needed is courage: even if we live in challenging times for democracy and trust we cannot give up but need to have courage to focus on the strategies and values needed to rebuild them.

Focus on Young Audiences

In her keynote, Fran Unsworth, the Head of BBC News, emphasised the same ingredients of regaining trust. It is not only about the accuracy of information but experimentation and innovation are key to sustainable, trustworthy media. And it all starts with professionals. Not everyone can be a journalist: News organisations will become irrelevant if they get rid of professionals and rely merely on user-generated content (UGC). In this context, journalism and journalists are needed more than ever and different ways to create trustworthy information are crucial. Some examples include BBC Monitoring, which tracks news sources worldwide, from legacy and social media; various fact-checking projects; as well as rigorous assessment and oversight of UGC.

However, perhaps the most urgent task is to educate future generations in digital literacy. The BBC creates workshops for schools in the UK, and is now taking that programme to New Delhi and Nairobi. Young audiences are the most significant strategic group for news organisations. For instance, the BBC is present on all platforms young people use but the challenge is to actually reach them. The BBC has introduced focus groups that bring younger citizens’ views to news programming. They also feature stories “beyond press releases”; matters that are important to our ordinary, everyday lives but do not get reported on. News media need access and content that speak to young people, to ensure audiences and informed citizens for the future.

Many Forms of Public Service

The conference brought forth two exemplary case studies of collaboration for public service content, yet by organisations that are not institutional public broadcasters.

Naja Nielsen, the Chief Journalism Officer of  the news start-up Orb Media, echoed Unsworth’s message: Everyone in the news industry has to take responsibility for the mishaps, as sometimes content is published too fast, without proper scrutiny and research. “If we want to get young audiences we need to be right”.

Another issue is that diversity, which many consider a buzzword, actually pays off. We live in a global media landscape and face significant global challenges. As individuals and communities around the world, we are dependent upon one another for our health, wellbeing and success. Trans-national, cross-cultural collaboration is key to managing our global challenges and opportunities. Diversity also works in the newsroom: the more diverse the skillsets, geography, knowledge base, age, the better stories can be created. Orb produces a new kind of journalism that challenges the way we see our world and brings us together around the things we share. It is a collaborative organisation, with a global team, that covers topics that matter to everyone: Food, Water, Energy, Health, Education, Environment, Trade, and Governance.

Trans-national, cross-cultural collaboration is key to managing our global challenges and opportunities

A different kind of collaboration was showcased in a session titled Windrush, what next? Introduced beautifully – passionately and personally – by Odette Campbell, Communications Specialist, this part of the conference dissected the story behind, and the stories that broke, the Windrush scandal in the U.K. in April 2018. Amelia Gentleman, a journalist at the Guardian, gathered stories on, and with, British Caribbeans who came to the U.K. as children after WWII, were never naturalised, and were now suddenly denied legal rights and threatened with deportation, in some cases deported. Caroline Bannock, Editor, Community and UGC at the Guardian described the process, and ethics, of the story that resulted in a major political scandal that is still ongoing.[2]  And the Guardian is not letting the topic die: alone in the first three weeks of September 2018, it has published 13 stories or commentaries on Windrush.

But there are issues in the coverage, which often lacks the perspective of those living, or those who have been deported back to, the Caribbean as part of the scandal. All participants of this session highlighted the need for transnational collaboration to ensure that these stories and contexts are told.

Old is New Again

The Reuters Digital News Report 2018[3] of nearly 40 countries showcases that the media is not very trusted, and that trust is declining year-by-year especially regarding online and social media sources. Audiences see “fake news” as a real problem. And they also expect governments, as well as publishers and platforms, to take responsibility and come up with solutions to the current “information disorder”. This is where the old values of public service come to play: quality, universality, full service, diversity.

As Julie Drizin, the Executive Director of the Current magazine, thenon-profit news service for and about public media in the U.S., put it in her keynote:  Public service media should be on a peacekeeping mission, fairness, trust must be earned over and over and over again. The American public service media  is behind the curve in diversity and inclusion, but it is trying to fill-in the news deserts. “We are going back to our roots to our mission”.

Sally-Ann Wilson, the President of PMA, crystallised it in her remarks: 150 media organisations in the world define themselves as public media. They come in all shapes and sizes. Quoting President Obama she reminded us that democracy depends on strong institutions. What is needed now is the kind of media that people turn to in crisis, when they need to come together and receive trustworthy information. That kind of media is traditionally, as well as today, the core business of public service broadcasting.


[2]The detailed story of the story can also be found: https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2018/apr/20/amelia-gentleman-windrush-immigration



Our thanks to our conference rapporteur Dr. Minna Aslama Horowitz for writing this report.