Local papers' demise threatens democracy
Updated: Jun 15, 2018
BY BILL JENKINS
Is the slow demise of local newspapers something to be concerned about?
I think it is and more than something to be concerned about – something to be very worried about. Why? I think it impacts upon #localdemocracy. It is making our lives poorer - as we become less informed we become less interested in others. Our horizons shrink and we become absorbed with trivia and half-truths.
The role of newspapers and journalists
You think that’s a bit dramatic? A bit over the top? There was a time when local newspapers existed in abundance. Now less than half of our communities in the UK have their own local media. There was a time when #journalists kept their finger on the pulse of their community – their patch. They reported everything – what our local councillors were up to, who was up in the magistrates court and why, the views of the town’s opinion formers, who was raising money and for what good cause, who had applied for planning permission – and who had got it and who had not - the state of the local bus service, the condition of our schools, the planned closure of a local hospital.
No one is checking anymore.
It is the journalist's job to hold those in power to account. To get them to justify their actions and not let them get away with refusing to comment or shirking their responsibilities. Who does that now?
What about social media?
And if that sounds as though I reject the growth of social media you would be making a mistake. I see that social media could play a huge role in gathering information and making us all better aware. The problem is that in the main it doesn’t.
We can no longer readily determine from where our information comes and for what purpose. So-called facts are trickled out, parentless and with no sense of responsibility. Left to be picked up or discarded or worst still, twisted and corrupted, so we no longer know what is right or wrong, or possible or even preferable.
We become immersed in trivia – cheap entertainment. Social media could play a very valuable role and sometimes it does. It enables important news to be out there – fast. It has the ability to give power to weak voices, to represent the underdog, to promote good and worthy causes. But such is the prolific nature of this form of media it is almost impossible to distinguish what should be believed and what can be trusted.
Worse still, social media has shown how it gives voice to babble, to the insane, the criminally inclined, the unreasonable and the vindictive. And all those voices go unchecked, unchallenged – because the speed at which social media operates means one view is quickly swept aside by another. Disappearing over the horizon, before allowing more noise to take its place.
We have become obsessed with getting our news for “free”. Serious news websites struggle to pay their way and so often resort to a news agenda that is determined by the number of clicks a story will attract as opposed to whether it is newsworthy.
The truth is always in danger of being corrupted, and journalists and the traditional media are far from perfect. But when news gathering becomes the right of all, to do as they wish with the truth, without declaring ownership or accepting responsibility, we run the risk of damaging democracy.
For when truth withers so does freedom.
A 2016 study found UK towns whose #localnewspapers had closed suffered from a "democracy deficit", reducing community engagement and increasing distrust of public bodies.
Now the Government has announced a review into the future of the newspaper industry. It warns of the danger of fake news and of the risk to democracy.
Let’s all hope it is not too late to turn the tide.
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