Journalists must be “activists for impartiality” to defend the news media in the face of distrust and disinformation, according to BBC director-general Tim Davie.
Davie (pictured), who made impartiality one of his four priorities for the BBC when he joined in September, said organisations like his need to be “more overt about our intent”.
“Impartiality is something we learn, it’s a skill, and we need to show people this is what we are in business to do,” he said on a panel about how to rebuild trust the media during Monday’s Reuters Next event.
“The other thing is I think we need to be confident and double down on our point of difference which is we are impartial, we do believe there is a truth and we know it’s a somewhat impossible task to get to perfection in the endeavours we make but that is what we’re going to do. I think we have to be really proactive.
“We are activists for impartiality weirdly in terms of what we need to do now. If we care, now’s our time.”
Despite an increase in demand for trusted journalism since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fears any increase in trust would prove “short-lived”.
Before the virus hit last spring, overall levels of trust in the news globally (across 40 countries) were at the lowest point since the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism began to track the data, with 38% saying they trusted news overall.
Davie pointed to the demand shown for BBC fact-checking service Reality Check’s content as he said “we’re seeing big responses to fact based journalism”.
He said an in-depth piece explaining the groups from QAnon to Proud Boys who broke into the Capitol topped the BBC News website’s trending list last week.
Davie also urged people to remember that “impartiality isn’t dull” or dry: “It is absolutely a real appetite for evidence, for truth, for testimony. It can be really good flavoursome reporting.
“I think it’s very important that those of us fighting for impartial media and for truth telling should absolutely not give way to ‘we have to do this in a way that gets the maximum clicks immediately’ but it also doesn’t give up on the theatre of it, the emotion of it, all the things we want to bring.”
Davie was joined by Reuters president Michael Friedenberg, who advocated letting readers see behind the curtain to “so people understand the basis by which we’re making our reporting” as facts are questioned more than ever before.
Friedenberg said: “As the world is becoming more polarised there’s this rich green field right in the middle [where] the world is looking for unbiased, objective and independent news to help them make the proper decisions.
“What we used to take for granted is we used to think that fact was fact and now even fact is being questioned so the reliance on data, the reliance on science, the reliance on factual information has never been more important.
“I think what we as media organisations now need to do is open up the curtain and let people in and understand the transparency by which we are reporting and creating this content because unfortunately we can’t just do what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years of just saying ‘trust us’.
“I think we now have to make sure that everybody’s part of that process and opening up that viewpoint so people understand the basis by which we’re making our reporting.”
Davie echoed the idea of a “green field” that is rich for unbiased reporting, even without asking people to turn to solely to wholly impartial sources like the BBC.
“I think people are smart,” he said. “They can go and read a bit of partial media, have a flavour over here but then a significant part of their time spent absorbing the news is ‘okay I need to go to a source I can trust, I need to go somewhere where I can set the story in perspective and get quality analysis’. That’s the green field Michael was talking about.”
Davie urged media organisations to be “very active” and work together to boost trust and tackle misinformation and disinformation: “It’s never going to be a perfect solution here. We know that.
“But it is really important we get on the front foot and we don’t assume this is the norm. I think there’s enough scale between us and there’s some quality organisations that could work together to have a material effect on this.”
"Murder the media" was carved into the U.S. Capitol today. There are no words to express how disturbing this is. A free press that's able to hold those in power accountable is what makes our democracy work. I'm proud to be a journalist & I'm thankful for my colleagues on the Hill pic.twitter.com/C3Xke1dEX6
— Samantha-Jo Roth (@SamanthaJoRoth) January 7, 2021
Both men raised concerns over anti-media abuse and threats, with “Murder the media” scratched into a door of the Capitol during the riot last week while Davie noted BBC journalists were among those being harassed as they tried to report from the scene.
Friedenberg said: “There’s great division right now, be it geopolitical, social, socioeconomic or quite frankly the digital divide, and I think our efforts to make sure that our reporters are safe both from a physical perspective and mental perspective will only allow them to feel comfortable reporting the truth and hopefully bring those divides further together rather than further apart.”
Davie added: “I’m worried about it. I think now’s the time when leaders like Michael and myself need to be very vocal and supportive of our journalists.”
Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire