Photo by Eileen Barroso
When Emily Bell, a British-born professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and the founding director of its Tow Center for Digital Journalism, tells her students how she did her job as a young reporter at The Observer, they don’t believe her. No internet, no online databases, no email. Interviews conducted face-to-face or by phone.
“Every morning you would watch the BBC’s Today program in London, and it would set the news agenda for the day,” Bell said. “Now I get up and I scroll through Twitter, and the agenda is set by 1,000 different voices.”
Bell is now among the leading voices, particularly when it comes to digital practices and how they are changing journalism for better and, sometimes, for worse. She is the editor of a new book, Journalism After Snowden: The Future of the Free Press in the Surveillance State (Columbia University Press), that takes a hard look at the future of the industry.
Bell’s expertise, and her concerns about journalism, are just one facet of Columbia’s broad commitment to issues including free press, free expression and journalism in a world of political challenges and digital distribution.
To start with, University President Lee C. Bollinger is a noted First Amendment scholar who has emphasized Columbia’s commitment to press freedom. Last year, Bollinger announced the creation of the Knight First Amendment Institute, a partnership between the University and the Knight Foundation, whose aim is to help defend and promote free press and free expression in the digital age through research, education and, if need be, litigation. The dean of the journalism school is Steve Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on national security and financial regulations; he is also a staff writer for The New Yorker.
At Pulitzer Hall, where the Journalism School is housed, the Tow Center shares space with the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, which brings together journalism and engineering students to focus on how to tell important stories in a digital environment.
Q. What inspired you to write about Snowden?
A. The book is an outgrowth of a series of public discussions after the publication of classified national security material from Edward Snowden [the former National Security Administration employee who leaked classified information about the U.S. surveillance programs]. It includes essays from many of the people involved in the effort to get that information out, as well as other leading thinkers on the journalistic and legal implications of that release. The book also looks at the very challenging journalistic environment we are in
Q. How would you describe the current news environment?
A. The Snowden leaks highlighted something that we had suspected, which is that journalists are now often producing journalism in a digital environment which is under surveillance. That undermines the independent operation of the press, and it brings into question the complicity and compliance of technology companies when government overreaches the powers that it’s been given. And it begs other questions for journalists. Can you really protect a source in the 21st century? What is the legal status of journalists and sources today? And how do we deal with the fact that these information systems—whether they be vested in Google, in Verizon or another telephone company, or in Facebook—are available all the time to government agencies? This all contributes to a decline in trust with major institutions.
Q. What other challenges do journalists face?
A. When you go right back to the sequence of events with Snowden, he went to his superiors and said: “I think that what we’re being asked to do lies outside the purview of the law.” Nothing happens. He absconds with highly sensitive material, and the political narrative becomes that he is a traitor and has endangered national security, when the reality is that he acted in a way that is materially different from, say, WikiLeaks, which just published everything on the internet. We have to think hard about how we deal with people who are disclosing things of public value. In the past journalists have been able to break the law if we have a strong enough public interest.
Q. You are among those who say that journalism is now in an existential crisis. What do you mean by that?
A. The internet and the rise of the Facebooks and Googles and Twitters, which aggregate so much content, have undermined the business model of journalism. But they have also undermined the relevance and the influence model, which I think is almost more important. There are many alternative ways to get information today, and journalism is just one way. When I was a media reporter in London, The New York Times’ circulation was a million U.S. subscribers, focused in the New York area; today it has 1.6 million subscribers worldwide and it’s in everybody’s feed. So it has an amazing reach, but also a fragmented and diffuse impact because the public can turn to any number of other outlets.
Q. Why are some traditional and respected news outlets not considered trustworthy any longer?
A. Everybody is now a publisher. We always used to evaluate journalism on reach, revenue and impact; perhaps a better word might be “influence.” Do you have a large audience? Does it convert into money? Today, reach, influence and revenue are all dependent on third-party systems, like Google or Facebook. As we look at all institutions there is a crisis of trust in many of them because the systems that underpinned them are changing faster than we can understand and often in ways that we can’t see.
Q. Is the U.S. presidential election an example of journalism’s waning influence?
A. One thing creating anxiety for news organizations regarding the election is the way they are being told “You missed the story.” In fact, there was so much reporting on both candidates, on what was going on in different constituencies. But there wasn’t a cohesive influence of the narrative, because there’s no one in journalism like, say, Walter Cronkite [who anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 until his retirement in 1981], who essentially sets the agenda. Now you can pick from an infinite number of narratives. Snowden was a prism that showed the many ways in which a system has changed and how the stakes are different. The election is another illustration of how money and distribution have been shifting from the press to somewhere else, and now we can see that influence has also shifted.
Q. To what extent is influence fragmented now?
A. We’re not talking about one or two outlets, Fox News versus CNN, though they’re both very influential. Now we’re talking about a host of other endeavors that are moving the journalistic narrative, such as Buzzfeed, Vice, Breitbart, Vox. And you’re talking about your friends and your family and the people that you work with, who all have opinions and share things on their feeds which you might not have seen before. As people share these items they get the impression that that’s what the whole world is talking about, but it is not.
Q. So where does that leave us?
A. Our big research questions here at the Tow Center revolve around the idea that we have these new power systems, aggregational machines like Google and Facebook. They are attracting nearly all of the revenue that would at one time have gone to journalism.
Q. Should the platforms be sharing their revenue with the content providers?
A. There’s a good reason that they should, because they need reliably consistent information for their products to work. They need people who come back and connect through their products. Remember, influence has shifted, but that change is entirely driven by users. The platforms have said they don’t really want to take responsibility for having influence, in fact they want to pretend that they have no influence. But the fact is that they have it, and to do nothing is actually to exercise influence in an unhealthy and damaging way.
Q. Facebook says it has no editorial gatekeeper. Do you agree?
A. Oh, I think there is. It’s Mark Zuckerberg. He is the same as any proprietor and any news owner in the past. He sees himself as an engineer, but he has views about the outside world, he talks about them, and his business is in shaping a kind of public discourse. Just last week a Facebook executive came to speak to my class. That’s a first, to have someone like him engaged in thinking much more actively about journalism. I think it’s a good sign. The sooner Facebook and Google are fully transparent and culturally attuned to what supports and constitutes good journalism and what you need to protect it and make it sustainable, the better things will be. Not necessarily for everyone, though. And we will see a point where the gatekeepers are picking winners and losers.
Q. What do you say to people who claim that facts don’t matter anymore?
A. Journalism cannot give in to the idea that there are no facts and truth doesn’t matter. We know that that’s not true. There are certain things that happen and they need to be recorded. Journalists should never stop pursuing facts. Now, they may select which facts they’re going to pursue, and we all come from a personal context, which will inevitably inform the reporting. For instance, more American journalists really do believe that free speech is a good thing. But there are parts of the world where people operate under a different belief system. Journalism is culturally specific, but when someone says all of this is contestable, that is a propaganda technique for authoritarians.
Q. What gives you hope for the future?
A. I rewatched the film All the President’s Men over the weekend. It reminded me how Watergate was a high point for American journalism. When you go back and watch the film or read the book, you realize that exactly the same thing that happened to the Washington Post in the 1970s is happening to CNN and the “failing” New York Times right now. They were repeatedly called liars by the government. They had a source who had not said what they had thought he’d said. So you have to keep the faith; the reporters were right. People can fabricate or report alternative facts, but there is a difference between two sets of facts that compete and a set of facts and a set of nonsense. You can’t escape from that.
—By Bridget O'Brian