Alternative Journalism

Alternative Journalism

How alternative online journalism is contributing to our democracy 

Stack of classic journalism print newspapers
Classic Journalism is facing a crisis

Classic journalism is facing a serious problem: The public’s lack of trust in it. It is certainly not a new challenge, but it seems to have become more serious over the past decade. It appears that not only the lack of high-quality journalism due to low recourses and funding but just as much the sensationalizing and click baiting by professional news organizations have contributed to this. Additionally, many people see the media as nothing more than a business, controlled by the powerful to maximize profit instead of serving as the watchdog over government and corporate authority.

The trust of its audience is the absolute core basis to the functionality of journalism. So how would citizens be able to stay informed and make informed decisions without a trustworthy supplier of news? 

It seems however, that there is hope. Alternative Journalism, especially online has gained a reputation of not only trustworthiness but as the watchdog over government and corporate authority classic journalism was typically seen as. The direct involvement of citizens in content creation and the funding of specific investigations through the public provide for a different approach to journalism itself and the debate of the public sphere in modern democracies. 

Could alternative journalism online provide the platform for informed citizens to debate in the public sphere and monitor state and authority? 

Public Sphere

The concept of the public sphere is based on the theory by Jürgen Habermas. It is a domain within our social life where public opinion can be formed 1. Modern mass media plays a significant role in informing the public and influencing its opinion. “The public” here refers to people in general rather than a particular group with the informed debate within the public sphere providing at least an approach to public opinion.  

The model of the public sphere is certainly idealised. According to Habermas original definition, every participant would have to have access to all information and take part in every debate, which unfortunately is unrealistic. However, the concept shows the importance of a sphere independent of democratic politics and the necessity of access to information to make informed political decisions. Public discussion of private individuals rationalizes the power of governmental institutions and powerful corporations. Journalism is or was seen as the source of information for these debates and as crucial for the existence of a public sphere in general. 

Changes in Journalism

According to J.Y.M. Nip, there are five genres of journalism including traditional and citizen journalism. Traditional journalism refers to the classic understanding of professional journalists who filter through the news, selecting significant events to report on. This model of journalism has dominated the mainstream media so far. Citizen journalism in comparison includes a wide range of contributors or to put it in different terms, those who were formerly described as the audience.  

At the IMPRESS Trust in Journalism Conference in 2018, Chris Elliot, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network and former readers editor at the Guardian explained that “we should stop obsessing about what is a journalist. I think we should be much more thoughtful about what is journalism.”. According to him the contributions of non-conventional journalists to journalism itself is significant. Important to notice here is that not all user-generated, unfiltered content can be described as citizen journalism. Relevant pieces need to include some original work in the form of reporting, analysis or interviewing. 

Thanks to the rapid technological advancements over the past decade and platforms like blogs, Twitter or YouTube, media users are now able to actively participate in content creation and analysis of current events globally and news publication online has grown immensely. Blogs focusing on a variety of themes have surfaced and challenge journalistic practices in a variety of ways 2. One might see citizen journalism as a competition or the opposition to mainstream media, as non-professionals point out regularly inaccurate reporting, close minded views or specific agendas of big news outlets. Maybe this ability comes due to its independence from these corporations. 

Professionals for the most part claim that what tells them apart from non-professionals are the filtering or gatekeeping, the editorial judgement and commitment to ethical codes and professional principles 3. However, the role or the definition of what makes someone a journalist seems to be at change. While newsrooms tended to be non-transparent, new branding strategies implement audiences into content creation and analysis. The internet provides additional interaction as well as more engaging news experiences 4. Still mainly hiring professionals, who completed their undergrads or masters at universities, many outlets also implement comments, guest contributions or even regular columns from citizens, that is, non-professionals. Journalistic content has become more diverse and alternative journalism certainly has made a big contribution in this development and seems to have a significant impact on public discourse. Studies have shown that the relationship between classic journalists and citizen journalism is evolving 5. The merging or cooperation of said could provide a new, effective way for the people to engage with the public sphere. 

This merging is already more common than one might expect, with direct reports from sources and witnesses that are shared online being implemented into news reporting without the necessity of a professional journalist on site. The advantage of this becomes especially obvious in crisis situations where citizens can contribute material informing and warning the public. Not only that, but there has been evidence that the there is a possibility to predict the amount of damage during a natural disaster based on tweets by affected individuals reporting on the events. 

The propaganda model

One tool to understand why one may consume or produce citizen journalism as well as an approach to understanding the political economy of the media industry itself is the ‘Propaganda Model’ by Herman and Chomsky. It states that there are systemic biases within the media industry. The model views private media as business, selling their audiences rather than providing information to said. The filters Herman and Chomsky claim to exist are Ownership of the medium, the medium’s funding sources, sourcing, flak and anti-communist ideology, with the first three being the most important. 

In the case of alternative journalism, there are no huge corporations standing behind the provided information with financial interests dictating a certain agenda in a profit-oriented market. The alleged bias of ownership is not relevant for this type of journalism and some might argue that therefore news from these outlets are able to be more objective, since they do not sacrifice said for the means of maximizing profit.  

Mainstream media outlets rely heavily on advertising revenue. The interests of advertisers or to word it differently, funders according to Herman and Chomsky comes before the reporting of news. News therefore would be nothing more than the filler to source readers to see advertisements. Again, citizen journalism does not rely on funding by advertisers and would therefore not be subject to this filter. While some alternative journalism sources like private investigative operations still rely on funding, they trust in their (potential) readership instead of advertisers. 

The third filter, sourcing, refers to continuous information flow that is necessary to meet the public’s demand for daily news. Herman and Chomsky argue that this demand can only be met by large media businesses and government sectors due to their access to the necessary resources. Through press conferences and statements, the theoretical relationship between the media and government bodies based on this would lead to an uncritical attitude. Since those who participate in citizen or alternative journalism do usually not rely on these official bodies to provide them with information and do not need to meet a demand for daily coverage, this filter has no influence on what can or would be published. 

Independent websites such as MediaLens adopt this propaganda model to analyse and critique media outlets. Established in 2001, MediaLens is questioning the coverage of events and issues by the mainstream media and shows its failure to report with honesty and accuracy. It is financed by donations made by its audience and praised by journalists. Similar outlets include the Free Press, the Independent Media Center or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting

It has to be mentioned here that the Propaganda model has been critiqued by a variety of experts. One argument that has come up explains that the media is not one single entity but a debate and competition between powerful institutions. Other points are made based on the fact that there are significant exposing articles regarding corporations and governments by mainstream media outlets that would not necessarily represent the agenda a profit maximizing business might have. 

Hands holding a mobile phone
Uploading and breaking stories is possible in no time thanks to mobile phones

Advantages and Disatvantages

Alternative journalism certainly has its positives but also a few features that present problems. The big factor that is business or capitalism usually influences news outlets all over the world in their selection of stories and sources. It could be argued that with alternative and especially citizen journalism, this capitalistic filter is non-existent and therefore provides a more open platform for voices, opinions, viewpoints and unrestrained reporting. While as mentioned, a professional journalist might still crowdfund for a specific investigation or an alternative news outlet relies on its subscribed readership to fund their quality long term investigations, the main focus here lies on reporting instead of profit. The new and maybe unique perspectives that are provided by non-professionals can certainly be seen as an advantage as well. However, the lack of professional education and therefore the lack of certain filters necessary to protect the public while informing it can present challenges that do not arise in a professional journalistic environment. While citizen journalists arguably have more autonomy than professionals, the lack of editorial control is obvious. There is a scientific reasoning behind existing codes of conduct and guidelines for reporting on events like suicide that a standard citizen would not be aware of. 

Citizen journalism as the potential of bringing events to the attention of mainstream media. The Oscar Grant shooting in 2009 was filmed by subway passengers on their cellphones. The reaction of the online audience to the unedited video of Frant’s death was huge. While the mainstream media initially passed on the story, they picked up on the event based on the popularity of the videos online 6. This act of active citizen journalism is poof of how significant the influence of this “new” type of journalism is in the public sphere. 

Conclusion 

Alternative journalism, referring to journalistic contributions by mainly non-processionals online could provide the public sphere with the means to monitor state as well as corporate authority through informed debate. It contributes significantly to public discussion of democracy through information, reporting or opinion, local or global. Citizen journalism at this point is found not only in private blogs and alternative news sites but finds its way in mainstream news and commercial outlets. 

This merging happens not only through interaction, through comments made into news stories, photos and videos taken by “the public” but also through features by non-professionals as well as the public funding of private investigations by professional journalists. 

Citizen Journalists on this point not only simply contribute as amateurs but develop a significant knowledge base, own press passes and become a crucial part of the news producing community 7. There is a potential of a certain interdependence 8 of big news outlets and citizen reporting that could be used to collectively work towards a functioning public sphere and the monitoring of government bodies. 

Citizen Journalism might have been born out of a trust crisis in the mainstream news media, however with the emergence of new technologies and the implementation of citizen journalism in its traditional counterpart, it is easy to see why one would have an optimistic vision of the future public sphere. 

Endnotes

1 Habermas, J. (1964). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. Sara Lennox, Frank Lennox. New German Critique, 3, pp. 49-55. Available at: https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/socio/files/2914/0533/6073/Habermas_1974.pdf 

2 Farooq A. Kperogi, F. A. (2011) ‘Cooperation with the corporation? CNN and the hegemonic cooptation of citizen journalism through iReport.com’, new media & society 13(2), pp. 314–329. doi: 10.1177/1461444810373530. 

3 Örnebring, H. (2013) ‘Anything you can do, I can do better? Professional journalists on citizen journalism in six European countries’, International Communication Gazette, 75(1), pp. 35–53. doi: 10.1177/1748048512461761. 

4 Nah, S., Yamamoto, M., Chung, D. S., Zuercher, R. (2015) ‘Modeling the Adoption and Use of Citizen Journalism by Online Newspapers’, Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 92(2), pp. 399-420. doi: 10.1177/1077699015574483. 

5 Canter, L. (2013) ‘The source, the resource and the collaborator: The role of citizen journalism in local UK newspapers’, Journalism, 14(8), pp. 1091–1109. doi: 10.1177/1464884912474203. 

6 Antony, M. G. and Thomas, R. J. (2010) ‘‘This is citizen journalism at its finest’: YouTube and the public sphere in the Oscar Grant shooting incident’, New Media & Society, 12(8), pp. 1280–1296. doi: 10.1177/1461444810362492. 

7 Robinson, S. and DeShano, C. (2011) ‘’Anyone can know’: Citizen journalism and the interpretive community of the mainstream press’, Journalism, 12(8), pp. 963–982. doi: 10.1177/1464884911415973. 

8 Palmer, L. (2013) ‘“iReporting” an Uprising: CNN and Citizen Journalism in Network Culture’, Television & New Media, 14(5), pp. 367–385. doi: 10.1177/1527476412446487. 

The concept of public sphere and modern mass media

The concept of the public sphere based on the theory by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas is a significant idea in democratic theorizing (Haas, 2004). With modern mass media playing a significant role in informing the public as well as influencing the publics opinion, the media seen by some as a type of public sphere, provides a crucial room for debate to all citizens (Gillwald, 1993). Because journalists, and by extension the media itself, are seen now as a representative of the public, questions arise over whether there’s a wide enough range of opinion to accurately represent the public’s interests (Media Studies, 2018, p.41). The original theory of the public sphere has been critiqued for a variety of reasons and been further developed by Habermas himself as well as other academics (Garnham, 2007, p.201).  

This Essay examines whether or not the concept of the public sphere, as originated by Jürgen Habermas and refined by Curran and Garnham, is useful in critically analysing and making suggestions to reform modern mass media. 

The concept of the Public sphere 

According to Habermas’s theory, the public sphere is “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” (Habermas, 1964, p.49). He states that it emerged as a neutral sphere for private individuals to come together and debate the needs of society in the 18th century. Habermas claims that with the guarantee of freedom of assembly as well as the freedom of expression, citizens will behave as a public body (p.49). Several aspects are seen by him as vital to the existence of a Public sphere: The accessibility to all citizens, said acting as private individuals arguing in matters of general interest instead of their private concerns and the sphere being established in every conversation by the public (Media Studies, 2018, p.42). According to his theory, the public sphere is separate from private interest since it is based in “rational discourse, political views and decisions being open, not to the play of power, but to that of argument based upon evidence” (Garnham, p.41) and the concern with the public good. The success of the public sphere does depend as mentioned previously on the citizens access to said, but its autonomy and the rule of law amongst other factors as well (Soules, 2007). Habermas states that the Public sphere requires “specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it” (Habermas, 1964, p.49). It depends therefore not only on the quality of discourse but also the number of participants in a debate.  

The idea of ‘the public’ involves people in general rather than referring to a particular group. It appears in concepts like public opinion or public education and stands in contrast to private health and private education amongst other things. The public sphere is supposed to provide a public opinion based on an informed debate. Important to note here is that according to Habermas, in order for a public opinion to be formed, the availability of a record of state-related and judicial activities to the public is crucial. 

According to Habermas, the conditions for liberal democracy were provided by the competitive market capitalism in Britain at that time. The political class the philosopher is referring to when speaking of the bourgeoise had as Habermas puts it “both the time and material resources” (p.40), to create institutions such as newspapers, universities and publishing enterprises. Within these institutions public opinion could be formed. However, citizen interacting in the newly created sphere were likely to be well educated, wealthy males, assuming their interest equivalate the public good (Meehan, 2019). This period in the eighteen-hundreds Habermas’s characterized as ‘the golden age of the Public sphere’ therefore had severe restrictions on who would be included the Public sphere.  The “bourgeois sphere” as it is referred to, accordingly was exclusionary, which goes against Habermas’s own requirement for the success of a Public sphere, which states that said has to be accessible to anyone. According to Nicolas Garnham, Professor at the University of Westminster, this exclusion could be viewed “as a case of the imposition of “ruling ideas” in favour of the interests of the ruling class” (Meehan, 2019). However, as James Curran, Professor of Communications at the Goldsmiths University of London explains, the “public sphere cannot be established (. . .) by enabling those who were formerly excluded (. . .)” (Curran, 1991, p.83-84) but has to be revaluated. The same goes for the role of the media has in relation to the Public sphere and contemporary society. 

Habermas’s liberal model of the public sphere is idealised. It is not reflected in the reality of international modern democracies (Media Studies, 2018, p.43). Instead, it is more of an ideal portrait for a modern democracy. According to Garnham the Public sphere should be seen not as a concrete space or a set of specific practices but a perspective on the modern world (Garnham, 2007, p.203). He states that the fact that according to Habermas’s definition, every participant in the public sphere would have to have access to all information and take part in every debate is unrealistic (Garnham, 1986, p.44). Nevertheless, Garnham points out that Habermas’s theory is valuable for a number of reasons: Among others, it underlines the importance of an independent sphere to democratic politics and emphasises the gravity of rationality and universality in democratic practice. The access to information is crucial for making polictical decisions (Mehann, 2019). 

Habermas’s original theory has been criticised, explored and reviewed since it was first published in 1964. The main points that have been discussed in relation to the original theory, are as mentioned his idealisation of the bourgeois Public sphere as well as the division separation of private and public and his concept of discourse ethics as a test for undistorted communication (Garnham, 2007, p.207). An additional argument that has been made is his claim of the existence of a singular public sphere instead of multiple ones which is seen as a utopian ideal (Grbeša, 2004, p.112). 

Shanto Iyengar, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and Curran argue, that while the theory of public sphere has provided a useful basis to critically analyse the media, it is vital to take the changes in society into account (Iyengar and Curran, 2009). One of their concerns is the commercialization of television in many countries as response to more channels and therefore greater competition, deregulation as well as a decline of public service broadcasting. According to Iyengar and Curran, this resulted in television being adapted to consumers’ needs rather than that of the citizen. The active citizen is turned into a passive spectator (Grbeša, 2003, p.112). 

Habermas acknowledged in his recent works the attempts to modernise the original idea according to today’s social circumstances (Garnham, 2007). The public sphere has to be seen in a national as well as international context based on globalisation and the rising connectiveness of individuals in general. 

According to Habermas himself, the capitalist competitive market which initially set out the conditions for the public sphere to form, is also contributor to the deuteriation of rational-critical discourse and the public sphere itself (Garnham on Habermas, 1986, p. 41). He claimed that the unbalanced distribution of wealth throughout society and the rising costs of entry into the Public sphere led to an unequal access to it (Garnham on Habermas, 1986, p. 41). However, the medias ability to initiate public debate has been recognized (Grbeša, 2003, p.110) and according to researchers like Garnham and Curran plays and an important role in sustaining said. 

Modern mass media and the concept of the Public sphere 

As mentioned, the media play a crucial role in maintaining and especially informing the public sphere. It is not only the media and society but the media in society that one has to consider when analysing the relevance of the theory of public sphere today. The media does not separate itself from society. However, some still argue that the media takes the role of the public sphere itself, since citizens reading the newspaper or watching the news on television would allow them to step into a public realm. However, the fundamental principles to the public sphere to be universally accessible and independent is not fulfilled in this case (Gillwald, 1993, pb .71) since the accessibility of newspapers and news programs are not universal in our current capitalistic competitive market system. The potential of mass media to contribute to the public sphere by informing or initiating is however significant (Grbeša, 2003, p.115), especially in the case of public service broadcasting and the Internet. Both are relatively easy to access with the later even more than the former. 

The role of Public Service Broadcasting 

While Habermas argues that the competitive market as well as broadcasting partially caused the decline of the public sphere, academics such as Garnham claim that public service broadcasting contributed substantially to its existence (Grbeša, 2003, p.116). However, he also explains that the commercialisation of public information has damaged the democratic function of the media (Gillwald, 1992, p. 72). According to Marijana Grbeša, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Science of Zagreb University, public service broadcasting the public had restricted access to information and the public sphere itself. Unlike the profit interest of commercial broadcasters, the focus of public service broadcasting lays in its universal availability to the public (Gillwald, 1992, p.116). 

There is an imbalance of access to information within the society (Garnham, 1986, p.38), which ideally could be solved through a major publicly-owned public service broadcasting network providing every citizen with mixed quality programs including well researched, balanced news under minimal regulations (Curran, et.al., 200). Curran along with other academics found in a study on public broadcasting and its influence on citizens knowledge of different news topics in the US, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Finland (Curran, J. et al., 2009) that Public service broadcasting provides a higher accessibility for the public to leading channels and through that promotes a higher engagement with and consumption of television news. Through doing so, it minimizes the knowledge gap between individuals that would, based on their socio-economic background, be information rich or information poor otherwise. Public service broadcasting therefore provides a basis for a more coequal society (Curran, et.al., 2009, p.22). 

As Garnham mentions, the increase in private ownership of the media as well as the style of consumption results in a deviance between information rich and information poor individuals. First are provided with high quality informative Journalism while the other is faced with mostly entertainment services (Garnham, 1986, p.38). Information in itself is increasingly handled as an item of value (Mehann, 2019) linked to significant profits. As Garnham argues, the public sphere is an integral part of a democratic society and to defend and expand said, it is necessary to re-evaluate the public service model (Garnham, 1986, p.53). Especially in correlation with Currans finding in the cross-nation study, to provide equal access to the Public sphere and close the mentioned knowledge gap a national and international publicly-owned service broadcasting network would significantly contribute to informed debates and the Public sphere itself. 

The potential of the World Wide Web in relation to the public sphere 

As Garnham explains, “public communication lies at the heart of the democratic process” and the equal access to vote is equally substantial as their access to information (Garnham, 1986, p.37). The free market according to Curran should promote a free-thinking democracy (1991, p.97). For said to be possible it is necessary that one can freely express what they think to whomever it may concern. The right to publish could be seen as a safeguard to this freedom of expression (Curran, 1991, p.97). The World Wide Web offers a variety of platforms to share and debate. The rapid growth of the internet and therefore the simpler access to information, has fuelled a significant amount of research on its hypothetical influence on democracy (Grbeša, 2003, p.118) and raised expectations on the possibility of reassessing public debates (Gerhards and Schäfer, 2010, p.155). It is not only an easily accessible medium but provides the infrastructure for debate as well as information seeking and therefore opens up options for the development of an international civil society and public sphere. However, it is relatively unstructured in comparison to mediums like newspapers and television in relation to public discourse. There is no central platform to host debates or distribute information. Websites such as OpenDemocracy (a United Kingdom-based political website, founded in 2001), which encourages democratic debates and is mainly funded by the FordFoundation (an American private foundation aiming to advance human welfare) demonstrate the opportunity the World Wide Web offers in organising a global civil society (Curran, 2005, p.144). An international version of this website published by national public service broadcasters could provide a unique channel for debate and discussion online. Through the funding of high-quality journalism, the hosting of discussing and the provision of access to its sources, such a platform could have a significant contribution to a global civil society (Curran, 2005, p.144) and the Public sphere. 

Conclusion 

While Habermas’s original theory of the Public sphere is too idealistic, through the inclusion of critical remarks by academics such as Curran and Garnham it ultimately provides a useful concept to deal with the possible contribution to the common good and democracy modern mass media could have in relation to the public sphere. Despite the problems raised with the original concept it is possible to consider and translate the theory into modern democratic society.  

Public service broadcasting offers the opportunity to close an existing knowledge gap between privileged and unprivileged individuals and can contribute significantly to informed debates in a discourse rather than class based Public sphere. The media in general provides a vital platform for public debate to private citizens and the possibility to formulate an informed public opinion (Curran, 1991, p.83). Society as a whole can “collectively determine through the processes of rational argument the way in which they want to see society develop, and this shapes in turn the conduct of government policy.” (Curran, 1991, p.83). As mentioned before, the access to information is crucial for making political decisions (Mehann, 2019). The media not only provides the platform for the Public sphere but also the information needed for a rational discourse and these informed decisions, crucial to our modern democracies. A diversity of perspectives and values in news coverage as well as entertainment can enable citizens to “reinterpret their social experience, and question the assumptions and ideas of the dominant culture.” (Curran, 1991, p.102-103).  

In conclusion, the concept of the Public sphere can certainly be useful to analyse and make suggestions to reform and develop modern mass media. One has to keep in mind however that the capitalistic competition-based market system influences the distribution of information in the Public sphere significantly. The ideal of the Public sphere has to be tempered with the realistic conditions of the free market. An independent Public sphere is how crucial importance for modern democratic societies. An interesting perspective on modern public sphere could be the rise of alternative journalism.

References

Curran, J. (1991). ‘Mass Media and Democracy: A Reappraisal’, In Curran, J and Gurevitch, M. (eds) Mass media & society. London, pp. 82-111. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314317/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Curran%20Garnham_Media_Democracy_Public_Sphere.pdf [Accessed 05.12.2019] 

Curran, J. (2005). ‘Mediations of Democracy’, In Curran, J and Gurevitch, M. (eds) Mass media & society, 4th ed, London, pp. 82-111. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314320/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Curran%20media%20democratic_society%20%28newer%20shorter%29.pdf [Accessed 09.12.2019] 

Curran, J. et al. (2009). Media System, Public Knowledge and Democracy: A Comparative Study. European Journal of Communications, 24(5), p.22. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314385/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Curran%20Lyengar%20Media%20Sys%20Public%20Knowledge%20%20Democracy.pdf [Accessed 09.12.2019] 

Garnham, N. (1986). The Media and the Public Sphere. Communicating Politics: mass communications and the political process, Peter Golding, Graham Murdock, Philip Schlesinger (eds), Leicester University Press. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314317/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Curran%20Garnham_Media_Democracy_Public_Sphere.pdf [Accessed 03.12.2019] 

Garnham, N. (2007). Habermas and the public sphere. Global Media and Communication, 3(2), pp. 201–214. Available at: doi: 10.1177/1742766507078417 [Accessed 03.12.2019] 

Gerhards, J. and Schäfer, M. S. (2010). Is the internet a better public sphere? Comparing old and new media in the USA and Germany. [online] New Media & Society, 12(1), pp. 143–160. Available at: doi: 10.1177/1461444809341444 [Accessed 11.12.2019] 

Gillwald, A. (1993). THE PUBLIC SPHERE, THE MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY. [online] Michigan State University. Available at: http://pdfproc.lib.msu.edu/?file=/DMC/African%20Journals/pdfs/transformation/tran021/tran021005.pdf [Accessed 05.12.2019] 

Grbeša, M. (2003). Why if at all is the Public Sphere a Useful Concept?. Politička misao, XL (5), pp. 110–12. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/510d/ad0b240224ec3bbd1bed501d8992ad4d263a.pdf [Accessed 11.12.2019] 

Haas, T. (2004). The Public Sphere as a Sphere of Publics: Rethinking Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere. Journal of Communication, 54 (1), pp. 178–184. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.2004.tb02621.x [Accessed 10.12.2019] 

Habermas, J. (1964). The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article. Sara Lennox, Frank Lennox. New German Critique, 3, pp. 49-55. Available at: https://www.unige.ch/sciences-societe/socio/files/2914/0533/6073/Habermas_1974.pdf [Accessed 03.12.2019] 

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Thomas Burger, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p. 30. Translation from the original German, published 1962. Available at: http://egalitarianism.no/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/The-Structural-Transformation-of-the-Public-Sphere..pdf [Accessed: 05.12.2019] 

Iyengar, S. and Curran, J. (2009). Media Systems, News Delivery and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current Affairs. [online] Stanford University and Goldsmiths, University of London. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314386/mod_resource/content/1/READING%20Curran%20Lyengar-Media%20Sys%20News%20Delivery%20CitizensKnowledge.pdf [Accessed 05.12.2019] 

Meehan, N. (2019). The theory of the public sphere. Dublin: Griffith college. Available at: https://moodle.griffith.ie/pluginfile.php/314312/mod_resource/content/1/NOTES%20Public%20Sphere%20Democracy%20in%20Media%20MedSoc%20SocMed%2018-19.pdf [Accessed 11.12.2019] 

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Note: This was originally published as an academic essay. References have remained in the text to ensure correct citing.

The difficulties of reporting reality

To make a competent decision, people must have access to reliable and accurate facts. Usually, it is the news media and therefore the journalists that take on offer these in modern democracies. Journalism is reporting the truth, not on a philosophical or scientific basis, but in a functional form. It is necessary to verify collected facts and disclose them in an understandable and fair way. Verifying information is what distinguishes journalism from propaganda, advertising or entertainment. Transparency is key, with sources as well as methods used, to give the readers the opportunity for a critical, informed discourse. A Journalist should value the public interest and the truth most and make it priority in their everyday work. 

Traditionally, the democratic role of the media is the one of a Watchdog of the state. Its task is to monitor said and expose the abuse of official authority without fear or holding back. It is important to take shareholders as well as other types of authority into account. The media acts as a check on “abuse of all sources of power in both the public and private realms (Curran and Gurevitch, 2005, p.124). As Cohen argued, mass media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (1963, p.13). Media plays a crucial role in engaging the public in the democracy it exists in. 

“Journalism is in essence (…) a struggle over what information becomes public and what remains in the private realm (…)” (Borersma, et al., p.388). While sources certainly provide the writer with a publishable story, the Journalist or their editor ultimately decides who will be given a stage in the news and how an event, a story and its developments are framed. The dependency of Journalists and sources on each other is an integral part of the profession (Borersma, et al., p.389). Investigative reporting can help to shape the public policy (Lanosga and Martin, 2018, p.1690). It is not easy however, as a journalist to be reporting on reality – in reality. 

Spotlight

One example for this is can be found in the movie ‘Spotlight’, directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer. It tells the story of the investigative reporting unit ‘Spotlight’ at the Boston Globe which uncovered a scandal back in 2002, involving widespread paedophilia by priests and its cover up by the church. McCarthy and Singer interviewed the members of the original Spotlight team at the Globe, as well as their editors and reviewed the articles that were written by the unit in efforts to highlight the importance of investigative reporting.  

The movie emphasizes how difficult uncovering and reporting a story as this abuse scandal can be. Not only do reporters work against those who want to keep the truth hidden from the public, but the process can demand a lot from the investigators – emotionally as well as mentally. As mentioned before however, it is a public service for Journalists to report and uncover the truth. ‘Spotlight’ shows that while reporting reality might not be glamorous, it is crucial for our society that Journalists work towards uncovering abuse of power. 

Martin Baron, former executive editor for the Boston Globe, played in the movie by Live Schreiber, mentioned a letter he received from Father Thomas P. Doyle during a speech in 2016. Father Doyle wrote that “This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for [him] and the Globe staff.” (quoted by Baron, 2016). Baron explains that the truth is not meant to be hidden, supressed or ignored. 

At a crucial point in the movie, a lawyer representing the victims explains: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” (Mitchell Garabedian in Spotlight, 2015, 00:57:40). The amount of people and power involved in stories like these, which need to be uncovered, is often very big. Working with a small team and in some cases even as a single person against a mainstream opinion, against people in power, can be very difficult. 

Kill the Messenger

An example on just how difficult and also dangerous this can be, is shown in the movie ‘Kill the Messenger’. It is based on a book by Nick Schou and ‘Dark Alliance’ by Gary Webb himself, which focuses on the CIA involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking in the US. Webb published a three-part series on said topic in 1996 and in response was heavily criticised by major news outlets like the New York Times. Not only based on the story itself and the sources. The series was one of the first to ‘go viral’ online, when the internet was still very young. It first was celebrated then condemned and criticised. Webb killed himself in 2004. 

Webb in the movie is being warned at multiple points throughout the movie, to consider the consequences of him continuing the investigation and ultimately publishing his findings. With investigations into corruption or drug trafficking and similar cases, Journalists may risk being kidnapped, jailed or even killed. Their families are exposed to dangers as well (Baron, 2016). 

The movie makes it very clear that it is not always obvious where the line between a theory and the truth lies (Dockterman, 2014) and shows just how difficult it is to gain the needed sources to back up a story sufficiently. When suggesting his informant, former CIA agent James Cullen to go on record, said replies “And end up dead? No.” (James Cullen, Kill the messenger, 01:23:01). Even when getting access to an important source, it is not a given that it can be used to its full potential. 

Abscence of Malice

The 1981 movie ‘Absence of Malice’ links to the ethical conflict and question of disclosing damaging personal information and the public’s right to know. The consequences of publishing a story and especially a source which might be crucial to back it up, can reach far. As mentioned before, the decision on what information is released to the public and what is kept in a private realm lies with the Journalist or their editor. The responsibility that comes with obtaining sensible information is something investigative journalists are faced with regularly. To summarize the problem, once a story is out, it can’t be taken back. Especially in the digital age, where stories can be published and stared in an instance. 

Discussion

Webb claimed in a speech in 1999, “You can’t believe the government. On anything.” and that “The media will believe the government before they believe anything.” (Our hidden history, 00:20:40, 2016^1). The fact that Governments now are more eager to pursue leaks as well as whistle-blowers (Lanosga and Martin, 2018, p.1691) can pose a serious problem to Journalists investigations. One of the biggest challenges in today’s media is that lies are recognized as truths. The almost unlimited amount of choices consumers has, leads to many confirming their pre-existing views instead of challenging them. Many media outlets and the journalistic profession are objects of suspension and those who are supposed to be checked by the media, politicians for instance, use this exact circumstance to their advantage (Baron, 2016). 

An additional problem for journalism in mainstream media is the constant seek for profit. The question of who breaks a story early is very significant. The Spotlight team for example was concerned that their competitors would run their story first. Mostly because that would influence the outcome and consequences their work could have when only being published after throughout investigation. However, in reality the profit and advertisement that comes with publishing a story first, may me placed above the duty of reporting the truth thoroughly and aiming to do the best for the public good. In retrospect, all big uncovered stories seem to be obvious. However, most of them start with a small hint, a coincidental finding of proof or one source stepping forward. The decision of following such a lead is not only depending on resources, often the potential profit but also the possible risks for the reporters themselves.

To summarize this essay, journalists are faced with a variety of challenges and risks linked to their profession. Their duty to report the truth, to report on reality and uncover abuse of power in private and public realms as well as the medias role as a check to those in power, holds a lot of responsibility. The mistrust of today’s society in the media as well as the attempt of politicians respectively to use the mistrust and the media in general to advertise themselves poses a serious problem. The role of journalism in democracy is crucial and despite everything more than worth of the risks and challenges. 

References

Baron, M. (2016) Speech by Martin Baron, editor to The Washington Post. 29.09.2016, The Times Centre, New York, Available at: https://premioggm.org/2017/03/speech-by-martin-baron-editor-to-the-washington-post/ 

Broersma, M., den Herder, B. & Schohaus, B. (2013). ‘A QUESTION OF POWER’, Journalism Practice, 7(4) [online], pp. 388-395. doi :10.1080/17512786.2013.802474. 

Cohen, B. C. (1963) ‘The press and foreign policy’, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.13. 

Curran, J., Gurevitch, M (eds). (2005) ‘Mediations of democracy’, Mass Media and Society 4th edition, Hodder Education, pp. 122-149. 

Dockterman, E. (2014), ‘This Is the Real Story Behind Kill The Messenger’ [online], in: Time, History. Available at: https://time.com/3482909/this-is-the-real-story-behind-kill-the-messenger/. 

Iyengar, S. and Curran, J. (2009), ‘Media Systems, News Delivery and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current Affairs’, Stanford University and Goldsmiths, University of London. 

Kill the messenger (2014), motion picture, directed by Michael Cuesta. United States: Bluegrass Films, The Combine, available at:https://drive.google.com/file/d/14j7Wzn_aYClANDDrn6ofwgQOVjAwMJ2s/view?usp=sharing 

Lanosga, G. and Martin, J. (2018) ‘Journalists, sources, and policy outcomes: Insights from three-plus decades of investigative reporting contest entries’, Journalism, 19(12) [online], pp. 1676–1693. doi: 10.1177/1464884916683555. 

Our hidden history (2016) Gary Webb: The CIA, the Contras, and Crack Cocaine. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YO6oMN8idUQ. 

Spotlight (2015), motion picture, directed by Tom McCarthy. United States: Participant Media; First Look media; Anonymous Content; Rocklin/Faust Productions; Spotlight Film, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QwcYWsdOeUXAoIe1BMHv1OtMQymQhTv6/view?usp=sharing 

Notes 

1) The interview in this video was recorded inp 1999 for Alternative Radio. Gary Webb spoke in Eugene, OR. 

This article was originally published as an academic essay. References have remained in the text to ensure correct citing.

How buying local supports your community and helps saving the environment

You might remember standing in your local supermarket thinking “This deal is too good to be true.” and it probably was. If you pay €2,50 for a kilo of meat, there is no way anyone involved gets a fair share, including you. 

For Ireland, the agricultural food sector is its most important native industry. Farmers, Fishermen and companies across the country produce high quality Irish food and we should do our best to support them. There are high international standards of quality and food safety Irish farmers and fishers commit to and the sector makes a crucial contribution to employment in Ireland. About 173.000 people work in the industry, representing 7.7% of total employment. 

Buying cheap from a big international retailer and food from other countries that could be produced here often comes with long shipping routes. Planes, cars, trains and ships create traffic and air pollution that seriously affect our environment. When you buy locally – and that includes online from Irish businesses – the overall shorter shipping or travelling distances and the reduced packaging lowers your carbon footprint. 2020 is the International Year of Plant Health and you buying locally makes a big contribution to supporting our environment. Rethinking your choices works towards a sustainable economy. And a big additionally benefit for your health: Food that travels shorter and is fresher often needs less preservatives too. 

But it’s not only about food. Buying from big retailers online sometimes feels like a serious gamble. Will you actually get what you ordered? The size or the colour might be off and sometimes you get a completely different product. Additionally, to the impact the shipping has on our environment, the return process can be really messy. Returning an item to an Irish online retailer or a local store is not only cheaper but also less of a headache. 

And that is the other thing: Buying locally means you know exactly what you get. You can see in store what you buy and maybe even try items before purchasing. The work and attention to detail a small business puts in their products often speaks for itself. No matter if it’s about clothing, Jewlery or food. 

But where do you start? Farmers markets are a great place to get locally produced food. And not only that. You are able to connect directly with the people behind the products. Additionally, to organic produce, you can find fresh baked bread, artesian cheeses and organic meat at many of them. 

If you can’t find a market around you, SuperValu has 75% in their stores sourced or produced in Ireland. They support over 1800 Irish supplies and are a great place to start if you have troubles finding local food stores and are a great place to start. 

One of the businesses they support is for example is Lispopple Apples. They have been growing and supplying fruit for almost 50 years. Maura Taylor-Buckley started with growing strawberries and raspberries in the 70s and had the first ‘pick and pay’ farm in North Country Dublin. When the current owner Denis took over, she added squash, pumpkins, apples and more. The family business puts quality and sustainability over everything.  

A huge amount of the Irish retail industry is made up of family owner, small companies. Supporting them means supporting our communities, especially among the big international retailers. When you buy locally, you support your local economy. And local businesses give communities their unique character. Cosy cafes with homemade cookies, unique pieces of clothing in small boutiques or hand crafted Jewlery pieces. Maybe your town had the best cheesecake in Ireland?  These one-of-a-kind businesses are part of our identity. 

All in all, buying local not only supports your community, family owned businesses and the character of your town but also has a big impact on the environment. It means supporting tradition and fair wages.