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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2021

How could we define journalism as a service?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the newsletter. Today we are going to talk about the role of journalism, and the problem with tech regulations.

What is our value as the press?

It has been a bit quiet on the Baekdal Plus front over the past few weeks because I have been busy having very interesting discussions with different publishing groups. I have been doing a number of lectures/presentations, and the discussions have all been about different things that impact the role of journalism.

I have been telling publishers to move away from just reporting the news, and instead think about publishing as a specific service that we provide to the public. Because, when we look at what is happening in the world, this is what is needed to fix the many problems we have.

Problems like the increasing focus on news avoidance and news fatigue, which is caused by over-saturating people with negative news that people can't really do anything with, meaning that only about 10% of the public is willing to pay for news (on average).

And so, I have told publishers to publish less, be more positive, stop the 'both sides' focus that makes news feel pointless, and to be much better at defining a specific focus that would make news worth reading.

Of course, this has been a long-term focus. Just to name a few examples, back in February, I wrote: "Paid-for strategies: Defining what people pay for" (35 page report), and in March I wrote: "A publishers' guide to listening to your audience" (31 page report).

But, as part of these articles, there are three questions that have come up. These are:

  1. Isn't it the role of journalism to point out the problems in the world?
  2. Doesn't this make us sound more like activists?
  3. Doesn't focusing on the good things distort reality?

So, I decided to take this a step further and address those three things by rethinking news as three specific services that we provide to the public.

You can read about that in my latest article: How do we define the value of journalism in the future?

Tech regulation, freedom from harassment, and the role of the press

There is another very important topic we need to talk about. All over the western world, right now, there are multiple discussions related to tech regulation, and all of them have two key problems, and in the press, we are kind of letting it happen because of how it helps our own interests.

This is not good. Let me explain what the problem is.

I want you to imagine this situation. Imagine that you have four different groups of people. Each of them commit the same offense, which has a bad impact on society as a whole, and so you decide to create a law to stop it from happening.

However, the law is written in such a way that only one of these four groups are legally required to do something about it, another group is completely ignored, and two of them are exempted from it altogether.

Is this a fair and just law? I think we all know the answer to that ... and the answer is no.

To put this into perspective, let me explain this problem in another way. Imagine that you live in a country where people believe that driving is a fundamental right that anyone should have, and that there should be no limit to how people can drive or even how fast they drive.

What would be the result of that? Well, the obvious effect would be a dramatic increase in reckless driving and speeding, leading to far more traffic accidents and traffic fatalities.

In fact, because of this culture, streets are generally unsafe to be on, and so other activities, like bicycling or even walking, have become so dangerous that most people avoid doing them. So everyone is driving, because, in this environment, you are more protected in a car than on a bicycle.

Would you like to live in a country like that? Personally, I wouldn't. That sounds like an insane way to run a country.

And so, people start to demand changes, but they don't want to give up their freedom to drive as recklessly as they want. So what do the politicians do?

Well, the politicians have a brain-fart, and come up with what they think is a brilliant idea. They don't want to make it illegal to drive recklessly, and they also don't want to create any traffic laws because that would make people point fingers at them. So instead, they propose a law that focuses on the car companies.

They propose that car companies should be legally required to prevent people from driving recklessly. And if someone is ever found to drive recklessly again, these companies should be fined and possibly even face jail time.

But wait a minute, the car companies say, how exactly are we supposed to do that? The public is still legally allowed to drive however they want, and the politicians have not defined what driving recklessly means. Then how can we as car companies be able to define this?

Because remember, driving recklessly is not a fixed number. You can't just say: Okay, we are going to limit the speed of our cars to 50 km/h. In some areas that is unnecessarily slow, while in other places, that still might mean that people are driving recklessly. And what about where people drive? How can anyone be legally required to stop reckless driving if society hasn't defined it?

But the car companies are not the only companies to complain about this new legislation, the entire transportation industry is up in arms too. They say the opposite. They say that, because transporting goods and people is their livelihood, and because doing so is vital for society, they should be exempt from this. They should still be allowed to drive however they like ... even though there have been multiple cases where transport companies have been causing accidents.

And the politicians agree. They certainly don't want to get in trouble with the powerful transport industry, and so they add an exemption to the legislation for the transport industry, including any member of the public who is using any part of the transport industry to get around ... and again, they require the car companies to 'just make this happen'.

And then, of course, the politicians realize that they too often drive a car, and sometimes they too are in a hurry. So they certainly don't want to be limited either. So they add another exemption for themselves, so that they can continue to drive as recklessly as they want. This is particularly pleasing to some of the politicians who enjoy spending their evening street racing and are frequently causing accidents. Now they can continue to do so, and not face any consequences.

Okay... so what do you think about this? Do you find it acceptable if any country behaved this way? Do you think that such legislation should be allowed? And do you agree that the transport industry and the politicians should be exempt from the same rules?

I don't. I think this would be the most insane thing anyone could ever propose. You can't create legislation this way.

But, as you have probably guessed by now, this is exactly what is currently happening around tech legislation. Across so many countries, variations on this exact model are being proposed by politicians.

One example is the UK. They recently proposed new tech laws to prevent harassment online.

First of all, we do need legislation around this. Harassment online and offline has become a very big problem. When I did the special focus on equality and independent publishing back in January, women journalists facing harassment was the limiting factor. In fact, every single woman publisher I know has faced harassment as part of their work.

We do need to fix this.

But, in the UK they are proposing exactly what I just described. Instead of making laws that apply to society as a whole, they are saying that people should be free to harass as much as they want, and no rules should be made to define or prevent that ... instead, Facebook should be the one to stop it.

As Politico reported:

These firms - mostly the biggest American tech companies - will not only have to take action against illegal content, but also whenever they discover lawful material which can be viewed as potentially harmful to online users. That may include posts about self-harm or COVID-19 misinformation that do not meet the threshold of a criminal offense under the country's laws.

In other words, Facebook is legally required to remove content that is legal for people to publish based on an arbitrary definition of harm that nobody has defined.

But that's not even the most crazy part. The crazy part is that they also want to fine tech companies if they remove too much. As the Telegraph reports:

The Culture Secretary also announced that the new Bill would place a legal requirement on social media firms to protect "freedom of expression" and "democratic content", with measures to prevent them arbitrarily removing controversial political material.
Social media users will have a right of appeal to reinstate their content if it has been "unfairly" removed. It will be overseen by Ofcom, the new online regulator, which will have powers to fine companies that consistently remove material in breach of their terms and conditions.

So, somehow, tech companies are legally required to remove any harmful content, even those that are legal to publish, but if they end up removing too much, they will also be fined.


The Guardian explained this nicely:

The message of the bill is simple: take down exactly the content the government wants taken down, and no more. Guess wrong and you could face swingeing fines. Keep guessing wrong and your senior managers could even go to jail.

This is not possible to do. With rules like this, the only choice tech companies have is to not exist. Without a clear definition of what harm is from the politicians, there is no way they can remove just the right content.

In fact, if rules like this were applied to any website, we in the press would be strongly against this. Imagine if this applied to journalism? But, the politicians know this, and they certainly don't want to face the anger of the press ... and so they created an exemption.

None of these rules apply to the press and their readers posting comments. They are completely free to continue to harass as much as they want. In fact, the tech companies are legally required to allow that to happen.

Remember this front page?

Here the Daily Mail directly harassed and encouraged harassment against three UK judges that the newspaper editors happened to disagree with.

Under this new proposed legislation, Facebook is legally required to prevent harassment on their platform, but also legally required to allow this content, and allow any of the Daily Mail's readers to post their own harassment in the comments on Facebook.

As they say:

We've also placed a protective bubble around journalistic and "democratically important" content. News publishers' content won't be in scope - whether it's on their own sites or on other online services. The largest platforms will also have to protect posts on areas of political controversy, and companies won't be able to discriminate against particular political viewpoints.

And then of course, we have the politicians themselves:

Ministers have added new and specific duties to the Bill for Category 1 services to protect content defined as 'democratically important'. This will include content promoting or opposing government policy or a political party ahead of a vote in Parliament, election or referendum, or campaigning on a live political issue.

In other words, anything the politicians say cannot be limited in any way, regardless of how much harm it might cause.

So, a politician is free to say that "All Mexicans are rapists''. A politician is allowed to encourage people to try to overthrow a democratically elected government. They are allowed to drive anti-asian sentiment leading to a rapid increase in hate crimes.

As the UK government is saying:

Enough is enough. We're all sick to death of the bile and the threats. If it's illegal, platforms like Facebook and Twitter will have to flag and remove online abuse quickly and effectively or face the consequences. The same goes if it breaches their terms and conditions. No more excuses.

...except, of course, if we are doing it ourselves ... which is very often exactly where these issues start.

Almost all the harassment that we currently see on platforms like Facebook is based on things related to politics. So this legislation is saying that Facebook should completely stop online harassment from ever happening, but not touch any of the harassment happening as the result of press coverage, or anything happening because of political campaigning.

Let me give a simple example of this. Earlier today (as I posted this), the New York Times wrote an article about how posts on social media are causing harm in the conflict between Israel and Palestine: "How Lies on Social Media Are Inflaming the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict".

When you read that article, the very first thing you are told is this:

In a 28-second video, which was posted to Twitter this week by a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip appeared to launch rocket attacks at Israelis from densely populated civilian areas.
At least that is what Mr. Netanyahu's spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, said the video portrayed. But his tweet with the footage, which was shared hundreds of times as the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis escalated, was not from Gaza. It was not even from this week.
Instead, the video that he shared, which can be found on many YouTube channels and other video-hosting sites, was from 2018. And according to captions on older versions of the video, it showed militants firing rockets not from Gaza but from Syria or Libya.

This is... I mean... what the frak?!? Here we have very real-world harm being created by the political establishment, but under this new UK law, Facebook and Twitter would not be allowed to remove it ... while at the same time being legally required to prevent harm.

This is like saying: You are legally required to stop people from smoking, but you are also required to provide a platform for the tobacco industry to promote whatever they like. And BTW, as politicians, we are not going to tell people to stop smoking either. But we have had enough, Facebook must fix this!

Okay... so here is the problem that I see as a media analyst. While I have seen some journalists and especially other media analysts speak out against this, the media industry overall seems to be okay with this.

For instance, the Telegraph wrote that this is the result of 'their campaign' (whether this is true or not, I don't know):

The draft bill follows a campaign by The Telegraph for duty of care laws to combat online harms, and a Conservative manifesto commitment to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.

This cannot be happening. We are supposed to be the ones who hold those in power to account to stop laws like this from being made, but here we are helping them instead. And the reason we do it is because we are exempt from it.

If this law also applied to the press, we would instantly be against it and we would very quickly and very prominently, on every front page, point out all its flaws.

This is not okay. Not only is it an unfair law, but it's based on a lie. It's based on the idea that harm only happens on Facebook when we can very clearly see that this isn't how reality works.

Let me give a final example of a study that came out just a few days ago. A group of researchers looked at how the press is characterizing terrorism. As they write:

In recent years, the increasing number of Islamist terrorist attacks in Western societies has led to intensive terrorism news coverage. The news media frequently reports about terrorist attacks, for example, the attacks in Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Orlando or Paris, which have been realized by Islamist terrorists who self-identified as Muslims. In this regard, current research shows that the news media frequently associates Muslims and Islam with negative concepts such as aggression and violence. Effect studies revealed that repeatedly pairing Islam and Muslims as a group with specific negative attributes such as violence or even terrorism significantly and negatively affects news consumers' attitudes towards Muslims in general. Thus, linking Muslims and Islam to terrorism may promote Islamophobia and can severely damage intergroup relations between non-Muslims and Muslims living in Western societies.

So please tell me why there should be a law that tells Facebook to stop harm online, but we as newspapers and politicians should be exempt from any such considerations?

As the press, it's our duty to make sure that laws like this aren't made this way, not just in the UK, but in every country. It's our job to hold people to account, not help them create misleading laws.

We do have a problem with harm online (and offline), and yes social channels do play a part of that too, and we do need to fix this, but this is not the way to do it. This is just a lie.

We need to have a real debate about this. A debate that covers the press, the politicians, the tech companies, the public in general, and society as a whole.

But fundamentally, we need legislation that works when it is applied to all!

This is an archived version of a Baekdal Plus newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as unique insights written specifically for the newsletter. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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