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How journalism can win back public trust

In a new book, the former Guardian editor explains what journalists — and readers — need to do to fight fake news.

Alan Rusbridger’s new history of journalism over the past two and a half decades, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, is both affirming and enlightening.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In the past two decades, journalism has gone through an extraordinary period of upheaval. Recall that in the early aughts, fake news wasn’t a thing; nor was Facebook, Twitter, or the iPhone. Print publications, often sustained by advertising, were very recently alive and well.

Today, the national newsweekly I thought I’d spend my career at is — like many magazines, newspapers, and local news outlets — dying a slow death. Like many survivors of the news business, I work at a digital-only outlet that didn’t exist five years ago.

The media and methods we now use to tell stories (Netflix, podcast, video, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) and to communicate with audiences (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc.) are more diverse than I ever could have imagined, even five years ago. They change constantly. Many of us have no idea what our jobs or newsrooms will look like in five years, or even next year.

To say it’s been a head-spinning, tumultuous time for journalists, and everyone who consumes media, would be an understatement. And that’s why Alan Rusbridger’s new history of journalism over the past two and a half decades, Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, is both affirming and enlightening.

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger.
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Having recently recovered from a two-decade adrenaline rush as editor-in-chief of the Guardian newspaper, Rusbridger mustered the headspace to piece together an insider’s guide to what it felt like to live through the turmoil. And he brings a perspective many of us in the daily grind miss.

As editor between 1995 and 2015, he oversaw the paper’s transition from a local UK daily into a flourishing global online community — and one of the most-read serious English-language newspapers in the world. When Craigslist, Google, and Facebook began eating away at the lucrative business of print advertising and bloggers seemed to be taking the place of professional journalists, Rusbridger embraced the change. He helped the Guardian thrive by pushing the paper in new directions — liveblogs, crowdsourced news, podcasts, video, embracing “nontraditional” journalists.

The Guardian’s unique ownership model — it’s protected by a family trust — certainly supported the experimentation, but so did Rusbridger’s ability to see opportunity where others saw destruction. And he did all this while also shepherding the paper through some of the biggest and trickiest scoops of the past half-century: the WikiLeaks dump of US diplomatic cables and Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency files.

From his home in Oxford, England, where he’s now the principal of Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University, Rusbridger recently Skyped with me about the past and the future of news. He made a case for social media and shared what he’s learned about how to rebuild trust in journalism and fight fake news. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Julia Belluz

The problem of fake news gives your book a special urgency. When did you start to worry about it?

Alan Rusbridger

It’s become an acute problem since I stopped editing [in 2015]. The more I think about it, the problem of fake news is not mainly one you can level at journalists. [Fake news] is happening on a scale where it’s unreasonable to expect traditional news media to be the answer. We can’t give readers a free pass. If everybody who uses social media didn’t retweet or pass on things they don’t believe themselves to be true, [that would help].

But of course, journalists are not completely free of it — and Brexit comes to my mind as a bad example of media failing to rise to the challenge. Clearly [if the US has] got the kind of president it has at the moment, it’s an essential job of journalism to scrutinize everything he’s said and to be as definitive as you can in saying whether the thing is true, untrue, or partly true. That seems to be a fundamental job of journalism at the moment.

But that’s different from the problem of the quantity of fake news Facebook is responsible for.

Julia Belluz

At the end of the book, you point out there are still many questions about the future of media. Many news organizations are still struggling financially, and there’s the lingering problem of low trust in journalism. I’m wondering if, since finishing the book in January 2018, you’ve found any interesting answers.

Alan Rusbridger

My experience is that readers are surprised when journalists can say, “Can you help me? Here’s my article. Is it right? Could it be improved? What’s missing here? What should I write about next?” These are such collaborative and open questions.

Rare are the examples where journalists behave like that. But [when they do], readers fall over themselves to get involved, and that leads to trust. I think it leads to better reporting.

Andrew Sparrow, who covers Parliament in the Guardian, does it in blog form. He never writes stories now. He’s reporting on Parliament today. There are 14,000 comments on his piece. He pulls in multiple sources as he’s going. He’ll say, “There’s a very good account of this here. Here’s how this person is responding to that. The Telegraph [newspaper] is saying this.” It’s just a tour de force of reporting. And people love him. He’s one of the most — if not the most — tracked thing on the Guardian website today.

So he’s a reporter who never writes a story, provokes huge discussion around what he’s doing, and is incredibly trusted.

Julia Belluz

I also loved the anecdote in the book about Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story about how the US and British surveillance programs were spying on people through classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden. You write that the most exciting time for him was after he published a story or blog and would get emails or comments from readers who had points he missed or feedback that made his stories better. And he’d update and correct his stories after that — with the feeling he was making them better.

Alan Rusbridger

That has to be right. The moment you hit publish and people start reading, that’s the time you learn whether the article could have been better, could be improved, has got something wrong or needs a link. If you haven’t got an adversarial relationship with your readers but you actually respect them as people who can help you, my experience is they will.

Julia Belluz

Your success at the Guardian came, in part, from recognizing very early on, in the early 1990s, that journalism on the web would be something completely different from print journalism — that just putting articles online wasn’t going to cut it. Do you think there’s an opportunity with digital journalism today that journalists and editors aren’t seeing in the way so many of us failed to see the early opportunities the web offered?

Alan Rusbridger

I think it’s disappointing that people are so impatient. In the space of 10 years, which is roughly the life span of mainstream social media, people have gone from being very utopian about it to being very pessimistic about it. I sense an awful lot of journalists saying, “There’s a lot of social media we don’t like. We don’t like the big companies. We don’t like that they don’t pay [their fair share of] tax, and therefore, that was all terrible.”

That seems to me far too soon to be making those kinds of judgment. We’re only beginning to glimpse or understand what all this means. I don’t think people are thinking creatively enough about how people now get their knowledge, learn how to trust their knowledge, and who to trust and who not to trust. It seems a mistake to be so incurious.

Julia Belluz

What do you think people miss about social media?

Alan Rusbridger

[We had] an arrangement of society that seemed to be vertical, [and that transformed] into something where 4 billion people talk in a horizontal plane. We can’t begin to imagine what that means or how journalism reinserts itself and regains the trust of people who have given up on it.

Journalists are not curious enough about why people really like social media. Lots of people hate it. But there are 2 billion people on Facebook, and they must like something about what Facebook is doing.

If you look at the way people behave on social media, it tends to be much less declaratory than journalism. It’s more tentative, it’s more argumentative. ... people challenge better, people respond to challenge better. There’s a way in which people feel this is a more real way of establishing truth rather than being told to take it on trust by somebody who you may not want to take it on trust from.

Julia Belluz

Yes, you cite in the book numerous studies that show how — contrary to popular belief — people on Twitter are not stuck in filter bubbles but instead exposed to a wide variety of sources, points of view, and evidence to support those points of view.

Alan Rusbridger

My experiences on Twitter are diverse, educative, amusing … highly informative. I find expert voices there who speak in a completely different way from traditional journalism.

It’s incredible to me now, 15 years into this [digital media experiment], that so many journalists are so terrible with the idea of linking. I’m so frustrated when I read newspapers I really like where journalists just can’t be bothered to put the link into the source material. But that’s a given on Twitter: You say, “Here’s some fact, here’s the link and how I know it. I’m not asking you take this on trust because of who I am or who I work for. Here’s my evidence.” That’s a fundamental basic thing about the way the world now communicates and evidences material. A lot of mainstream journalists aren’t interested.

Julia Belluz

Facebook is a different beast. There was a study of fake news exposure during the 2016 election here in the US. The researchers looked at which sites people had visited before looking at fake news articles, and it was often Facebook.

Alan Rusbridger

It would have been an easier book to write — and probably more popular — if I had done the anti-social media book because god knows there’s enough to criticize, and Facebook has a terrible responsibility, which they’re not facing up to adequately, of the false information they are putting into the system.

But again, rather than saying, “You’ve got to solve this by next Monday,” I think it’s better to join them in a conversation about what is reasonable — and what would preserve what is valuable about Facebook without demanding regulatory or legal measures that, even if they were possible, could well destroy some of the things that are wonderful about Facebook. It’s not a very nuanced debate right now.

Julia Belluz

The Guardian has a unique business model — it’s owned by a trust whose raison d’être is protecting the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian, so it’s not as vulnerable to the forces of the market. I’m curious how much being shielded from a more market-driven model helped support your early digital experiments.

Alan Rusbridger

If you don’t have a proprietor, your only relationship is with readers — and you’re much more open to the idea of how they can be involved or what the relationship with them is if, for the first time in human history, you can talk to them. This gigantic metaphorical wall that existed between you and the readers is suddenly not there. You can meet them, talk to them, and why wouldn’t you want to? It seems like that’s a natural instinct to see where that goes.

Julia Belluz

What was the biggest surprise for you in stepping back to compile this recent history?

Alan Rusbridger

I found myself questioning almost anything I thought about journalism. The questions that kept troubling me [were ones like]: What is journalism? What is the public interest, and how do we define public interest journalism? And if we can’t agree on it, then why should anybody else value it?

It may be that the historical division between ads and news is going to melt, and that the traditional economic model for news is not going to be there. But I believe you still need people called journalists, people who look like journalists, who are going to help society decide what’s true and what’s not true. If society needs that but the market can’t pay for it, then what? And I think we do have to articulate a persuasive statement of the public interest, the public service that we are providing. The public really wants this. They’d be 100 percent behind journalists who can adequately and persuasively articulate what the public interest is.

Julia Belluz

But as you recount with the WikiLeaks and Snowden stories, it’s clear that there is surprisingly little agreement — among newsrooms, public officials, government, the public — on what the public interest is.

Alan Rusbridger

We are going to have to find a way to articulate that. But I don’t feel pessimistic. When I was in America recently, so many Americans I met said they only had the press to rely on now. We can’t count on the judges in a way that we could. Congress is not doing its job. The checks and balances we thought existed in society are not there, and it’s only the press we have now. And the public are so willing to support the work of journalists and acknowledge the importance of what we do — but we have to be as good as they want us to be.