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By Erik Rasmussen, Executive Chairman of Sustania

Recent international reports document the accelerating threats to free and independent media, and why even constructive news might be an endangered species time for journalism, and why Constructive Institute should initiate a new winning strategy and articulate the 18th Sustainable Development Goal.

Constructive news is the fundamental approach for reinventing the news culture, but constructive storytelling m​ight be the winning strategy. Never has the need for understanding and respecting freedom of expression and the importance of independent media been so challenging and pressing. But it takes a communication effort of an unprecedented scale to address that challenge. Fortunately the debate on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could provide important lessons for the media industry. The clock is ticking, and the media business is confronted with an existential crisis, forcing it to rethink its options.

There seems to be a striking parallel between the climate crisis and the media crisis. The more reports that are published on climate change, the scarier and more detailed their forecasts become. That too goes for most analyses dealing with the future of media and journalism – right now exemplified by four recent reports: ​Democracy & Disorder, ​published by Brookings Institute;​ Freedom of the Media 2019 ​from Freedom House; ​Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019 ​and Pew Research Centers analysis of m​ade-up news.​ They comprehensively document why these years are a crucial and defining time for journalism, and why the core of the news industry is risking the same kind of tipping points as seen in climate change: ​irreversible​ developments.

It is no news that the global news media is squeezed, but the past three-four years have with an almost exponential speed added new critical dimensions to the challenge and put the free media under a heavy and existentiel set of ‘cross pressures’. These are the political and business pressures, acting together to create a vicious circle for the media industry.

The political pressure

Freedom of media is deteriorating around the world, mostly due to a global decline in democracy itself. According to​ Freedom of the Media 2019​ “the erosion of press freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming”. The report finds the trend in Europe “very concerning” and “acute” because Europe has historically been a bastion of free media.

It is part of an intensifying global trend. Brooking Institute’s new report on
“Democracy & Disorder” concludes: “Key regions and countries around the world are experiencing a recession in democratic liberalism caused by a culmination of long term challenges, including ineffective governance, economic inequality and socio-cultural upheaval”. The problem has given rise to a continued growth of right-wing populism, which these years is undermining basic freedoms in many democratic countries, even EU-members like Hungary.

Here the development is alarming. Almost 27% of electorates in Europe voted for an authoritarian populist party last time there was a national election, according to a survey made by the Swedish think tank Timbro. And the combined support from left-and right-wing populist parties now equals the support for Social democratic parties and is twice the size of liberal parties. It might explain why 16 countries have deteriorated press freedom scores during the past five years. Their methods are different in different countries but have the same goal. ​Freedom of Media m​ entions government-backed ownership changes, regulatory and financial pressure and public attacks on critical journalists as frequently used attacks on the media.

The report is especially concerned about the development in the world’s leading democratic power, the U.S., and writes: “Press freedom has come under unusual pressure, because President Donald Trump’s continual vilification of the press has seriously exacerbated an ongoing erosion of public confidence in the mainstream media”. The US has during the past few years developed a hostile media atmosphere, an atmosphere were the President and leading politicians see the media as “enemies of the state”.

The result so far is a fast growing mistrust in the news. Pew Research Center has just published a comprehensive study, that should be seen as new wake-up call for anyone engaged in the media business: 50% of Americans now see made-up news as a major problem, bigger than violent crime, climate change, illegal immigration and terrorism; 68% feel that made-up news harms Americans’ confidence in the government; 54% felt it harms their confidence in each other; and 51% felt that it influences political leaders’ ability to get work done. In other words: news is seen as a major democratic problem in the world’s most influential democratic nation. Even if it addresses a special kind of news, it reflects the atmosphere around media. And 56% expect it to get worse the next five years.

The Freedom of Media 2019 concludes: “If democratic powers cease to support media independence at home and impose no consequences for its restriction abroad, ​the free press corps could be in danger of virtual extinction”. 

These are just snapshots from different recent reports, but they deliver the same message. We are facing a political climate, which to an alarming degree suppresses the freedom of news and expression, and therefore imposes an existential threat to a cornerstone of democracies. That was not the news culture we hoped and planned to develop, but we might end up with it – unless we address it in a fast and focused manner. But the basic question is: how fit is the media business to fight back?

The business pressure

The good news is that there is growing awareness and engagement among leading media outlets to face and solve the challenge. The strong and enthusiastic support for Constructive Institute is a promising sign. Obviously there is a clear and urgent need for setting a new agenda for the industry. The bad news is the current state of the business. The 2019 issue of Digital News Report from Reuters Institute tells the story about a still more fragmented and squeezed sector, struggling to develop a financially viable business model.

The business pressure reflects the industry’s delayed transformation to the digital age. Despite strong efforts there is only a small increase in the number of people paying for online news. In many countries people prefer to invest in entertainment like Netflix and Spotify rather than news. They consider news to be a “chore”. And still more people say that they avoid news. This has increased 6% over the past two years and accounts for 32% of the population. Instead smartphones continue to consolidate their position as the primary provider of news. But the accelerating threats to journalistically-driven media like newspapers, will have enduring and serious consequences, as 90% of the publishers’ revenues worldwide is generated from print.

The 2019 Reuters Report is a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the current state of the media industry, based on data from almost 40 countries and six continents. lt leaves no doubt about the severe challenges ahead: most commercial news provision will remain free and depend on low advertising revenues in a market dominated by the tech giants. “This is where competition for attention will be most acute, where journalistic reputation is most at risk, and where diversified revenue streams and smart strategies will be most critical for survival. A number of media companies are unlikely to make that transition”. The report foresees that many news publishers will be stuck in a vicious cycle of declining revenue and regular cost cutting, and still more countries will find authoritarian-minded politicians looking at the weakness of commercial media as an opportunity to capture or influence the media. It concludes with the following statement:

“These trends continue to play out at different pace in different places with no single path to success. Media users all over the world continue to flock to digital websites and platforms, and engage with many kinds of journalism online and offline. But we are still some way from finding finding sustainable digital business models for most publishers”.

This situation is especially critical in times where accelerating global challenges like climate change call for a constructive and reliable coverage of complicated events – making them relevant and engaging for people. ​Never has journalism been that threatened and marginalised, and never have we needed credible journalism that much.

The art of storytelling

Studies of business and political pressures combining to produce a vicious cycle tell a story of the media industry that must be rewritten. This is crucial not only for the sake of the media business but also for the survival of open democracies that rely on the capacity of the politically independent media to support themselves financially.

That story should be written by Constructive Institute and could be inspired by the climate debate. If we don’t change the narrative and do it fast, constructive news and journalism might be a very endangered species like the rest of the independent media. We now realise that we cannot take open and free democracies for granted. We have to fight for it, now more fiercely than ever. That sends a clear message to constructive news too, and that is why the debates on climate change and the SDGs could provide relevant lessons.

After a couple of decades with sporadic and scattered engagement in building sustainable societies and saving the climate, the challenge has within a year or so turned into a mainstream agenda and everybody’s concern – at least in large parts of the world. The meat story and the rise of veganism tells how fast mindsets and behaviour can change. The explanation is simple: a new awareness based on cruel facts and unfolded by comprehensive reporting and storytelling has created a collective wake-up call for people all over the world and might catalyse a new industrial, economic and social revolution. The difference between a risk and an opportunity is how soon you discover it. But the world has been too late with discovering the opportunities of sustainable societies. We waited too long for still more evidence before we started acting. ​But storytelling made the difference.

Developing a constructive Sustainable Development Goal

Convincing and compelling storytelling can do the same for the future of media and democracy. The four quoted reports prove the need and urgency, and their messages are confirmed by many other analyses. The UN has so far prioritised 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) about building sustainable societies, but it seems that the UN has missed one essential goal: ​“The Human Right to Trusted Information”.