An international conference on how decline in traditional media is affecting deeply divided societies was held in Belfast ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic. Former Editor of The Detail, Steven McCaffery, who was one of the organisers of the Social Change Initiative (SCI) event, draws lessons on how societies and the media can map a way forward.
THE decline of traditional journalism and the rise of social media is blamed for fuelling populism and polarisation around the world, but what impact is it having in societies which already face deep divisions or violence?
Ahead of the Covid-19 outbreak SCI held an international conference on the role of the media in deeply divided societies, featuring journalists from South Africa, Colombia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Turkey, the Middle East, the Balkans, Kashmir, Somalia, Syria, Nepal and Northern Ireland.
It highlighted the importance of supporting journalism, but it also revealed the impact that a weakened news industry is having on divided societies, including in Northern Ireland where the conference took place.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put news revenue under even greater strain, sparking calls for financial support, but the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter campaign have also highlighted issues of diversity in the media.
It is now more important than ever to support journalism, but also to promote good practice, especially in deeply divided societies.
Here SCI looks at the international issues revealed in the conference, examines Northern Ireland as a case study, and publishes videos with international media experts addressing challenges and solutions.
SCI's conference was held in partnership with the Political Settlements Research Programme and Conciliation Resources.
Director of the NYU Centre for Business and Human Rights Mike Posner detailed the scale of decline in the news industry, noting that in the United States ‘news deserts’ have been created by the closure of regional newspapers. The numbers employed in US newsrooms fell by 23% over the last decade and by 50% in newspapers in particular, as examined here.
The media's traditional business model relies on advertising. For generations that model powered an industry which informed debate and held power to account, but now that money is disappearing online. Last year the advertising revenue of Google alone topped $100 billion.
The global crisis facing traditional journalism has been deepened by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the furloughing and closure of news outlets. That trend affected the jobs of at least 38,000 news company workers in the US alone since March, as is detailed here.
In an article written after the SCI conference Mike Posner also examined the impact of media decline on democracy, the rise of populism and links to violence.
The conference heard how Facebook was used in Myanmar to fuel mass violence, how in parts of India WhatsApp rumours led to lynchings, how state-dominated media has exacerbated tensions in Turkey, while in Rwanda media was used to fuel genocide and could now be doing more to support a real recovery.
Even in Northern Ireland, where an established peace process ended one of Europe's longest running conflicts, the conference heard concerns at the impact of media decline.
Case study: Northern Ireland
The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement brought an end to the period of violence known as the Troubles.
The conflict lasted for 30 years, with more than 3,500 killed, 50,000 injured, an estimated 200,000 bereaved and 200,000 traumatised in a population of only 1.8 million.
Journalism played an important role in the peace process, where thriving newspaper titles, commercial TV and state-funded TV helped communities navigate difficult compromises.
But that media landscape has been decimated. Newspaper sales in Northern Ireland have fallen by a range of 35% to 70%. With commercial outlets under pressure, the publicly funded BBC Northern Ireland (BBC NI) has become dominant.
There has been virtually no discussion of the impact that this upheaval is having in what remains a deeply divided society.
The main Catholic and Protestant populations still largely live apart and are mainly educated separately, while the school system is also segregated along social lines. Smaller numbers of paramilitaries still remain actively involved in violence, intimidation and wider criminality. Tensions over political identity can still spark street disturbances or contribute to the breakdown of political institutions formed after 1998.
The SCI event provided a rare platform for community voices to discuss the media, as can be heard in the video below.
They raised concerns at the almost complete absence of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the media, over the treatment of victims of the conflict, plus the under-representation of deprived communities and of issues such as religious discrimination in housing. There was also a widespread media failure to fully reflect Northern Ireland's political, cultural, business and social links to the rest of the island of Ireland, despite such links with the Irish republic being formalised in the 1998 peace deal.
Ivy Goddard, who works to improve race relations, said: “You will never see anybody from an ethnic minority background presenting the news or on any local media in any programme (unless) there has been a race hate crime."
Denis Bradley, an expert on the peace process, said the BBC is failing to address the increased debate on Irish reunification, while he also raised concern at a "confrontational tone" which attracts audiences but could harm a divided society.
He called for a more reflective approach across the media: “They have almost avoided any in-depth examination of how media should react within a troubled and divided society at a managerial and editorial level.”
Senior figures from BBC NI took part in the conference and detailed the UK state broadcaster's contribution, saying it hosted difficult debates, produced content on deprivation and diversity, and was adapting coverage in what is a complicated society.
Other prominent media voices cited advantages enjoyed by BBC NI, including a huge staff of 650 and an annual budget of tens of millions, overshadowing all other outlets combined, with implications for balance, diversity and market sustainability.
Given concerns for the future of public debate in Northern Ireland, as expressed inside and outside the industry, what does the future hold?
To avoid news deserts in this divided community, conversations will be required on media innovation, on the potential for an independent Northern Ireland Media Fund, and a discussion on the merits of concentrating vast public funding in BBC NI while the rest of the local industry withers, especially in light of criticisms made of BBC NI output.
But to secure its future, the media must also be seen to promote best practice.
Yet, more than 20 years after the Good Friday agreement, non-white communities remain largely invisible in media output. The absence of daily coverage of life in the Irish republic, in most Northern Ireland outlets, fails to reflect both Irish and British connections. While deprived communities of all traditions are too often sidelined.
If this was to continue, not only is the industry at risk, but mutual understanding may be weakened between communities in a deeply divided society which is still emerging from conflict.
Addressing the challenges facing journalism
How can journalism adapt to new editorial realities? How can it fund itself? How can we promote good practice and address social media issues? Experts at the SCI conference addressed all these issues.
For Milica Pesic of the Media Diversity Institute in London, promoting best practice in the media is vital and while it is "not easy...it's not rocket science". Watch her succinct guide to what is required of newsrooms.
Ivy Goddard reflected the view of international speakers, saying diversity in newsrooms and media output is vital to combating hate crime.
News outlets need to innovate to secure resources, or may seek grant support and/or lobby for government support. But here Mohamed Nanabhay, Deputy CEO of the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) which supports independent media, gives an overview on how media outlets can fund themselves.
The media is operating in a quickly changing environment. Nic Dawes, former Editor-in-Chief at Mail & Guardian newspaper, discussed how the paper sought to put best practice at the heart of its news gathering in post-apartheid South Africa.
Anna Nolan was co-founder and Director at The Syria Campaign, helping elevate Syria’s heroic civil society. She discussed the dark side of social media, detailing how human rights were undermined by state-sponsored misinformation.
But there is also a place for innovation on social media. Juanita León from La Silla Vacía in Colombia talked about innovative approaches to inserting journalism into family political discussions on Whatsapp in Colombia.
Journalism plays a vital role in building mutual understanding in divided communities, as was underlined by Jonathan Cohen of Conciliation Resources.
The media world is in a state of flux, with huge implications for divided societies. But how did we get here? Mohamed Nanabhay started Al Jazeera’s New Media department and was at the cutting edge of the media's digital age. He reflects on the journey and how we deal with the challenges.
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