The far-reaching digitization of society means these are turbulent times for journalism. News is freely available online, resulting in decreasing newspaper sales, social media taking up all of our time, and algorithms dishing up news items that are right up our – prejudiced – alley. It is high time for journalism to radically change its course! Right? Well, journalism doesn’t change that quickly, says Frank Harbers, assistant professor of Media and Journalistic Culture at the Faculty of Arts. And actually, Dutch journalism is not in that bad a state at all.
Text: Marrit Wouda, Corporate Communication UG / Photos: Henk Veenstra
As a researcher, Harbers’ main focus is on journalistic innovation from a historical perspective. His research topics include new technologies, recent changes, and discussions about journalism against the backdrop of the profession’s developments through the centuries. Has there been a drastic change within journalism though? First and foremost: yes, the digital era has brought us new channels and technologies, and the news is easily and freely available on the internet. This influences the public’s news consumption and how the news media operate. It makes sense, Harbers thinks: ‘Journalism fulfils an important public function, but a lot of news media are, in fact, also just businesses.’ And when the public can no longer be reached and subscriptions or ads do not bring in enough money, media businesses have to think of a new strategy. The result is a complicated tug-of-war between pleasing the news consumer, fulfilling a societal function well, and still having some money left in the end. But hey, it is what it is, right? Actually: 'Just because things are the way they currently are doesn’t mean they have to be like this, of course. If we wanted, we could turn journalism as a whole into a public service, similar to our NPO (Dutch public television network)', Harbers thinks.
Journalistic innovation is actually not as radical as people sometimes think or wish. ‘Change is of all ages, but the emphasis on innovation and the call for the ‘reinvention’ of journalism has grown very strong since the rise of digitization. When a new technology is introduced, bombastic predictions are often made about how it is going to radically change journalism, as happened with artificial intelligence, for example. But when you zoom out, you can see that the revolution is a gradual process’, says Harbers. ‘Ten years ago, people said social media were going to radically change journalism. Various experiments were being done with news gathering through social media, interaction with the public, different narrative forms, revenue models. And social media have definitely changed journalism – but a lot has also stayed the same and too often this is overlooked.’ One reason for this gradual tempo is that journalism does not equal business life. Precisely because journalism has a public function, it cannot just decide to do things completely differently all of a sudden because that’s the way to make money. ‘The newspaper on paper still exists – even though it has been pronounced dead a zillion times. The course is not changed at once, we are slowly adjusting it – without knowing exactly in which direction we’re going.’
Harbers sounds hopeful, but is journalism capable of doing its job when news companies are continuously being accused on social media of spreading fake news and conspiracy theories reign supreme? We shouldn’t draw conclusions too quickly here either, says Harbers. ‘It’s important to remember that this concerns loud but small groups, which doesn't mean that we don’t have to worry about this, but we do need to look at it from a wider perspective. One in which a large silent majority also exists that has a more nuanced view. Harbers is aware of news media and journalists working hard to strengthen the credibility and reliability of journalism. ‘People don’t always have a good idea of how journalists work. Previously, the emphasis was on bringing the facts as objectively as possible: who, what, where, when’, he says. ‘But there’s no such thing as complete objectivity. Nowadays, I notice that journalists have started to describe the reporting process: who they have spoken to, how they ended up there, how they made certain decisions. To me, that’s a good development, because it offers more transparency and insight into the news. When people have a better understanding of how journalism works – media literacy – it could play an important part in winning back their confidence.’
Is there nothing to complain about then? It’s always good to be critical, Harbers thinks, and there have definitely been some developments he regrets. For one, he is often annoyed with talk shows: ‘You would see two guests there that have probably been selected because they are bound to clash. And that’s a pity, because I would prefer to see two well-informed parties go into an extensive debate instead of this yelling that is void of any facts. You are not fulfilling your journalistic duty this way, but people do tune in.’ This approach leaves no room for nuance. ‘We academics always add nuance in the extreme to everything’, laughs Harbers. ‘It is actually important, though, to look at the shades of grey. Viewers will be much better able to form a well-informed opinion then.’ We need to keep paying attention anyway, Harbers emphasizes. ‘We currently have a well-functioning, multiform media offering, but we have to make sure it stays that way.’
All in all, Harbers is hopeful. ‘During the pandemic, a lot of people started to realize how incredibly important good, reliable information is. Many of them then started reading more news from reliable media, he says. ‘Some really good items are being made. Nieuwsuur (Dutch current affairs tv programme), for example, informs their viewers with gripping and well-researched journalism.’ On the whole, Harbers sees that investigative journalism is more appreciated and more invested in than before. In addition, journalism branches out to new channels: with its Instagram channels NOS Stories and NOS op 3, the NOS (Dutch Broadcasting Foundation), has found a new target group that was previously very difficult to reach. De Correspondent and Follow the Money, two Dutch news websites, are directly financed by their members, and they write important articles. Various news media are now also making podcasts, and special projects are sometimes subsidized. Everything taken together, things are really not that bad.
Frank Harbers is one of the new members of the Young Academy Groningen. On 4 October, Harbers and the other new members will be installed.
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