International journalism conference: Media consumers today are more like sports fans
The modern hall of the library at the University of Warsaw is full; approximately 150 journalists from 28 countries are sitting here and their debate confirms that many of the problems both journalism and society are currently undergoing are similar whether one is the eastern or the western parts of Europe. The only Czech participant there is the HlídacíPes.org ("Watchdog") media outlet, a partner of the conference put together by the German organization "N-ost".
Because this year Poland is hosting the annual conference (which has already become a tradition), the political and societal developments there were understandably discussed in terms of their impact on independent journalism. The situation in the Czech Republic is very similar to that of Poland.
Not turning a blind eye
"We don't have readers and viewers, we have football fans. The media themselves are encouraging this. People want to amuse themselves, they don't want to be informed. It's almost impossible to convince the people from a particular media bubble to listen to something from outside that bubble. We are currently experiencing intellectual polarization on a grand scale," says Ludwika Wlodek, a commentator and sociologist who lectures at the University of Warsaw, in her opening remarks.
"There is a small group of people demanding high-quality journalism and sources of information from abroad. Most people just ask for entertainment. Criticism of journalists now is even more frequent than it has ever been," Wlodek says.
Stefan Niggemeier of the German news server Übermedien.de has as part of his job description taking a critical perspective (supported by facts) on journalists and the media. "My colleagues frequently reproach me for not 'having their backs' if we write critically about their work as journalists. That's absurd, though, journalists should criticize their fellow journalists and the work of the media," he explains.
"We keep reading the same news reports on different websites that are being pushed there in an attempt to give people something they will want to click on, but people are also interested in matters they may never click on. That kind of interest does not drive internet traffic, though," he says, describing a reality that does not just apply to Germany by any means.
"One of the reasons people are so confused is that there is too much news. Back in the day the news was read by one man in front of a camera and it was the case that what he said was probably true. Today it is much more difficult to reveal a lie than it is to spread it - but revealing untruths is our job, that's why we're here. It can also be done in a very entertaining way, like John Oliver does," he says, referencing a television program produced in the United States that is satirical and successful.
Politicians, Putin and journalists themselves
During the discussion the word "bubble" is frequently repeated from the audience and on the podium as an already-established indicator of how divided society is and how challenging it is to reach absolutely different points of the opinion spectrum. "Audience polarization is significant. It is difficult to reach people in their various bubbles, but at the same time it can be very easy to listen to those who disagree with us, who think differently. It's necessary to know how to distinguish between trolls and those who do not share our opinions," Niggemeier summarizes.
Russian journalist Andrej Soldatov from the website Agentura.ru has been living abroad for 10 years but still writes for a Russian audience. "Whom are we to blame for the decline in people's trust of journalists? The politicians, Putin, or ourselves? When I began as a journalist in 1996, people would take an interest in what I was working on. Today if I go somewhere to meet new people and I tell them I'm a journalist, they ask whether I will write about their firms and they offer to pay me to do that," he says.
"People frequently confuse blogs and personal websites with journalism. The awareness of what journalism is all about is being lost - that journalists are not meant to write up their impressions, but to ascertain facts and information," Soldatov says, before offering a way to reach audiences who are distant from us, whether in terms of geography or mentality.
"Sometimes very old-fashioned methods work. I would never have anticipated that books would function as well as they do in the 21st century, but take a look now at what Bob Woodward's book about Trump has done," Soldatov says.
"It's apparent that people are ignoring more and more information that does not confirm their world view and looking for the information that does conform to their perspective. There is a great deal of information available and you can find many pieces of information that reaffirm your feeling of being right about this or that. This is globally the case, it doesn't matter whether you are in the USA or Germany," says Emily Schultheis, who is an American freelance journalist living in Berlin.
Isolated and poor
Polish journalists said the turning point for their country's society was when opinions differed radically about the 2010 catastrophe in Smolensk [Translator's Note: a group of 96 dignitaries including the sitting President, the First Lady, the former President-in-exile, the chief of the Polish General Staff and others all died when their plane crashed on the way to Smolensk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre]. "We could speak for hours about the division of society. This is not a local matter specific to Poland, though, look at Germany, Britain, the USA, basically anywhere. This situation is nothing new, but it is deteriorating," says Agnieszka Lichnerowitz, a reporter for Tok FM radio in Poland, which has been called an "opposition" media outlet.
Lichnerowitz dislikes that label. "I do not believe there is such a thing as objectivity. What I do believe in are the rules of professionalism, neutrality, and a fair approach. We have a democratically-elected cabinet here, but they are breaking the rules of democracy. For that reason, journalists' roles as watchdogs are growing in importance," she summarizes.
"The media is changing into a show where two politicians with opinions that differ radically from one another are invited to come and air those controversial, radically different opinions. That is not what a debate is, though, that's a game, a show, and it decidedly has nothing to do with objectivity," Lichnerowitz says of an approach that is also well-known from many Czech media outlets.
Polish journalist Witold Jurasz from the online portal Onet.pl (part of the Ringier Axel Springer group) says many Polish journalists have decided to support the current system, frequently arguing that they must feed their families somehow. "If you will be in the opposition in Poland you risk being isolated and poor," Jurasz admits, then describes an advantage of the work being done by pro-government journalists.
"As far as competition on the market goes, it's basically good that 70 % of our colleagues are producing horrible stuff, that they write as they do. Under normal circumstances, which will probably be restored at some point, they will not be able to compete," he says, offering a positive perspective on the abysmal quality of much journalistic work.
This article was written for the Institute for Independent Journalism in the Czech Republic, an independent, nonprofit organization and registered institute involved in publishing information, journalism and news reporting. Its analyses, articles and data outputs are offered to all equally for use under certain conditions.
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