Is journalism being killed-off?

‘Washington Post’ columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October, but the profession itself is endangered by low pay, the internet, and ‘fake news’ jibes, says Alexandra Borchardt.

The brutal torture and murder of the US-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, has focused attention on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have ordered the killing. 

It also highlights the hazards of the news business.

Members of the Turkish-Arab journalist association hold posters with photos of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi during a protest on October 8. Pic: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

When the final numbers are tallied, 2018 could be the most dangerous year on record for journalists worldwide.

But while physical attacks on journalists have become frighteningly bold — and Khashoggi’s killing may be the most audacious yet — most dangers confronting the profession are more mundane. 

Five stand out.

First, the number of job opportunities is dwindling, and positions are characterised by low pay, perpetual job insecurity, and limited opportunities for advancement.

In the United States, for example, newsroom employment has dropped by a quarter in less than 10 years, while enrolment in top journalism schools has tapered off.

Second, ‘Big Tech’ is out-competing news organisations in the race to attract limited talent. 

Journalism needs people skilled in technology to lead investigative reporting projects and to manage the industry’s digital transition.

But most computer engineers see a brighter future with platform companies like Facebook and Google, which can offer higher pay, more job security, and better work-life balance than even the biggest media outlets.

Third, journalism is less glamorous than it once was. 

Years ago, weather-beaten foreign correspondents on television or the front pages of major newspapers lured young reporters to the craft. 

And, although most of us who took the bait never ventured farther than city hall, we were, nonetheless, driven by the noble mission of holding the powerful to account. 

But in today’s distributed, social-media environment, foreign correspondents are rare, and media ‘influencers’ are more likely to be pop stars than policy wonks.

Fourth, even as pay and prestige diminish, newsroom pressures are intensifying. 

When a ‘cub’ reporter joins a media organisation today, the ability to write great copy is no longer sufficient; young journalists must also possess audio and video skills, data-journalism capabilities, and be social-media savvy. 

These skills might lead to better news products, but nobody is good at everything. 

To demand that they are might encourage reporters to leave the profession.

Finally, the relentless rhetorical attacks on members of the mainstream media, by leaders like US President Donald Trump — whose ‘fake news’ narrative targets the credibility of the profession — is having an effect. 

Although confidence in the news media has been rising in recent surveys, the constant vilification of journalists’ integrity and intelligence threatens to erode the profession.

Together, these five challenges are taking a heavy toll on the news business, and this poses a risk to democracy. 

Without free and independent media, citizens cannot make informed decisions.

In fact, when professional journalism is absent, people can easily become lost in a maze of often-unreliable information, or even fall prey to self-proclaimed, interest-driven experts and propaganda. 

An attendee of Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center. Pic: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty

Journalism is democracy’s compass; we must find a way to recalibrate it.

First and foremost, journalists need protection. 

That means ensuring not only their safety, but also their ability to access information and report their findings without fear of reprisal.

At a minimum, attacks on journalists like Khashoggi must be fully investigated, and their perpetrators must be held to account and condemned by the international community.

And, yet, support for the media must go beyond punishing those with the audacity to kill a reporter. 

For example, more programmes are needed to help nurture young talent. 

Governments could offer subsidies, give tax breaks, and sponsor initiatives that offer training in journalism and new media. 

Future journalists need role models, but they also need the technical skills to become role models themselves.

Perhaps, most important, media advocates everywhere must work to increase the public’s media literacy. 

News consumers must understand how journalism works, how journalists do their jobs, and why professional media outlets are essential components of a well-functioning democracy.

Until the public values the output that professional journalists produce, a shortage of talent will be the next big challenge for journalism. 

It could turn out to be its biggest yet.

Alexandra Borchardt is director of leadership programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

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