The news media business model is ‘broken’ and with it our fundamental right to information is under threat, warns a new UNESCO report examining global trends in freedom of expression.
Over the past five years, news audiences and advertising revenue have shifted in large numbers to internet platforms, with just two companies – Google and Meta (formerly known as Facebook) – absorbing half of all global digital ad spend.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) analyzed media development trends from 2016 to 2021 and found that global newspaper advertising revenue halved during the period. of five years.
Social media feast, information famine
The report says media often struggle to get reader clicks that determine ad revenue, and many find themselves “crowded out” by the proliferation of new voices in the online space and the algorithms of digital intermediaries.
“The digital ecosystem has unleashed a flood of competing content and made big internet companies the new gatekeepers,” the study explains.
Additionally, with social media users nearly doubling from 2.3 billion in 2016 to 4.2 billion in 2021, there has been greater access to more content and more voices – but not necessarily with the distinctive added value of journalistic contentindicates the study.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the trend by exacerbating declining advertising revenue, job losses and newsroom closures, according to the report.
In a pandemic, journalism is a frontline service that saves lives. However, fake content related to COVID-19 has spread rapidly on social media, while job cuts among journalists have created a “significant void” in the news landscape, especially in countries with low and middle income.
“In September 2020, more than one million messages circulated on Twitter with inaccurate, unreliable or misleading information related to the pandemic, according to the COVID-19 Infodemic Observatory, an initiative of the Fondazione Bruno Kessler”, details UNESCO.
Journalists are still under attack
In addition to the economic barriers and misinformation/disinformation journalists face, over the past five years they have also continued to be targeted around the world.
From 2016 to the end of 2021, UNESCO recorded the murders of 455 journalists, who were targeted either because of their work or in the course of their work. Almost nine out of ten murders to stay unresolvedshedding light on widespread impunity for these crimes around the world.
According to the report, there have also been growing threats to the safety of journalists, not only from governments and criminal groups, but also from private lobbies and some members of the public who feel increasingly emboldened to launching insults and attacks online.
In fact, the upsurge in online violence against journalists is another new and evolving trend, which disproportionately affects women journalists around the world.
A 2021 UNESCO article found that more than seven in ten women journalists surveyed had experienced violence online and a fifth said they had experienced violence offline in connection with online threats.
Meanwhile, attacks on journalists covering protests, demonstrations and riots are “worryingly frequent” while the imprisonment of journalists has hit record highs.
In many countries, laws do not protect journalists against these threats, and in some, they actually increase the risk.
According to the report, since 2016, 44 countries have passed or amended new laws containing vague language or threatening disproportionate penalties for actions such as spreading so-called false news, alleged rumors or “cyber defamation”, leading to self-censorship.
Meanwhile, in 160 countries, defamation charges are still a criminal offence. Where defamation law is criminal rather than civil, it can be used as grounds for arrest or detention, muzzling journalists, warns UNESCO.
The report cites data from the Committee to Protect Journalists showing that 293 journalists were jailed in 2021, the highest annual total in three decades.
In light of these worrying trends, UNESCO has urged governments to take policy action in three key areas to protect the safety of independent media and journalists.
- Support the economic viability of independent news media while respecting the professional autonomy of journalists. Governments can, for example, provide tax benefits to independent media in a fair and transparent manner, and without compromising editorial independence.
- Develop media and information literacyto teach all citizens the difference between reliable and verified information and unverified information, and to encourage the public to obtain information from independent media.
- Adopt or reform the media law support the production of freely accessible and pluralistic information, in accordance with international standards on freedom of expression, in particular Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.