Conference asks: Can we trust our news?

Media experts were not in short supply in Dublin City University (DCU) on Monday, as they gathered to discuss the future of their industry and address the title question of the conference – ‘Can we trust our news?’. The DCU media conference was co-organised by the host university and Arizona State University (ASU) and featured big media names from Ireland, the UK and the US.

The Helix theatre in DCU hosted the conference. Photo by Cian Ginty

The Helix theatre in DCU hosted the conference. Photo by Cian Ginty

The first panel to address the crowd of hacks, PR professionals and academics was made up of Leonard Downie, Esra Dogramaci, Kevin Bakhurst and Stewart Purvis. Downie is a lecturer at ASU but is also VP at large of the Washington Post and has worked for the paper for 44 years. He had some interesting insights on where the industry is going and insisted that the Graham family had to sell the paper to Jeff Bezos as the Post can now afford to make a loss as it searches for new creative solutions. Dogramaci gave a colourful description of the media coverage of Turkey’s 2013 Gezi park demonstrations, ranging from the western media’s misguided portrayal of the protests as another ‘Arab Spring’ to Turkish televisions decision to ignore the events entirely and show a documentary about penguins instead.

Kevin Bakhurst delivered a frank review of his first year or so as head of news at RTE, claiming that Prime Time’s creche program restored the reputation of investigative journalism at the broadcaster following a number of recent controversies. Former regulator and news editor at ITN and Channel 4, Stewart Purvis wrapped up the session talking about the challenges facing the regulation of the industry. An astute member of the audience pointed out that TV may struggle to compete with the likes of Netfilx, currently producing only drama but could easily move into news, who are not governed by any regulation at all. Purvis managed to lift the spirits of the journalists in the room who may have been thinking about their own editors when he regaled them with an anecdote about impaling himself on a spike!

The finali panelists of the day (L-R) Andy Carvin of NPR, Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes, and DCU's Jane Suiter with moderator Sarah Carey

The finali panelists of the day (L-R) Andy Carvin of NPR, Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes, and DCU’s Jane Suiter with moderator Sarah Carey

A constant theme that came up throughout the day was the importance of trust. Most speakers suggested that the trust of the audience is the journalist’s most important asset but others insisted that audiences no longer care about trust and just want something interesting whether it’s founded in reality or not. In his keynote address, event co-organiser, ASU’s Dan Gillmor, suggested that we need a more educated audience who are more skeptical of everything they consume. David McRedmond, CEO of TV3, livened up proceedings during the next panel discussion about partisan news. Despite praising the work of his RTE colleagues he criticised the national broadcaster a number of times regarding allocation of funding and with regard to his own station’s coverage of the late Brian Lenihan’s cancer diagnosis at Christmas in 2009 said that instead of blaming TV3 for being insensitive people should have been asking why RTE didn’t cover the story.

After lunch Peter Horrocks, director of the BBC’s Global News division, gave the second keynote address of the day entitled ‘The battle for trust – the BBC experience’. Horrocks discussed how the organisation has battled to regain trust lost during the Jimmy Saville and BBC executives payoff scandals and how with such a massive worldwide audience it is difficult to retain everyone’s trust. He highlighted for example how during the Arab Spring Egyptians saw the BBC as a friend helping them to oust Mubarak but now as the country struggles for stability the locals are beginning to view the foreign press with growing cynicism. The final session of the day focussed on social media’s growing role in the industry. The changing nature of news was displayed perfecting during Andy Carvin’s speech. The NPR (National Public Radio) social strategist was explaining how his unique technique of using his dedicated twitter followers to tell and verify the news has seen him described as a one man newsroom and revolutionised the coverage of the Arab Spring when he was interrupted. Carvin stopped mid presentation to speak about the breaking story of the shooting at a Navy yard in Washington DC as it unfolded on his Twitter stream. After much fumbling at smart phones as the room came up to speed with the story Paul Staines a.k.a. Guido Fawkes described the emergence of his political blog and how social media and the Internet has utterly changed politician’s relationship with the press and the public.

Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU, closed the conference with a positive speech about the future of news and despite the problems facing the industry most of the speakers and delegates echoed his view all day. Everyone that I spoke to all day agreed that the industry faces huge financial problems but most believed that the current changes weren’t necessarily bad for journalism and that new business models will eventually be found, it may just take a little time to get there.

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