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The Conversation’s submission to the Senate inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism

This is the full text of The Conversation’s submission to the Senate inquiry into the future of public interest journalism. We’re keen to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section and will make every effort to respond to them all.

About

The Conversation is a global journalism project that pairs professional editors with academics to publish articles that share new research and explain issues in the news. All its content is free to reproduce and republish, with the aim of sharing trusted information with the widest possible audience.

Since it was founded in Melbourne in 2011, The Conversation has expanded to operate in the UK, US, France, Africa, Canada and Australia. It is read by more than 5.5 million users a month directly and more than 35 million via republication. In Australia, editors have collaborated with 11,662 academic authors. A unique Australian start-up, it is having a global impact by providing trusted information that is clearly marked, academically rigorous, and easily distinguished from fake news.

The Conversation has strict editorial standards around fact checking and requires all authors to complete a disclosure of funding and interests. Its peer-reviewed FactCheck was the first fact checking team in Australia and, until recently, one of only two worldwide accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. The only other fact checking team accredited under this process is the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

Misha Ketchell is The Conversation’s Editor and has been a journalist in Australia for more than 20 years. Previously he was founding editor of The Big Issue in Australia, editor of Crikey and editor of The Melbourne Weekly. He’s also worked at The Age and at the ABC on Media Watch, 7:30 and The Drum.

What is public interest journalism?

This submission is directed primarily at the appropriate definition of public interest journalism as it related to item (a) in the terms of reference, the state of public interest journalism in Australia and possible measures to reduce disinformation and provide the Australian public with information they can trust.

Discussion of public interest journalism tends to focus on the role of journalists in holding power to account. Big investigations likes Moonlight State or Watergate most readily spring to mind. This high-profile work is vital, but there is another role for quality journalism that is even more fundamental: journalists provide quality information that helps people understand the world around them and make informed decisions.

Reliable information is essential for healthy democracy but it does so much more than help us take part in public debate or decide how to vote. It also helps decide what to eat to stay healthy, or how to keep your children safe online, or how to avoid the risks of problem gambling. Public interest journalism can provide essential context to help people make sense of a complex and confusing barrage of information. Quality information makes markets more efficient. It provides essential insights that help us understand our environment, our culture, our history. It underpins the health and wellbeing of society.

For example, when it first became clear tobacco was a lethal product, it was public interest media that reported the dangers. Simultaneously, tobacco companies redirected massive budgets to spread doubt so people would keep smoking. Vested interests set out to present the clear science as subject to debate. They were able to delay policy responses and stop people quitting.

In the digital age, in which social media supports dissemination of content without any regard to its accuracy, the task of muddying the waters on matters of great public importance is simpler and cheaper than ever before. There is a deluge of information, but it is increasingly difficult for audiences to know what to trust. As other submissions have pointed out, the destruction of the business model that supports quality journalism has created a digital public sphere where there are more voices than ever before, but it is infected with disinformation.

This is why preserving and protecting the role of public interest journalism is vital. And to achieve this we need to define public interest journalism in a way that reflects the breadth of what public interest journalism really is: the independent dissemination of trustworthy information that has been filtered and assessed by journalism professionals. In our submission, any working definition of public interest journalism should reflect:

  1. A systemic publishing activity in institutional framework in which public good or serving the public is a stated priority.
  2. An organisation that is committed to factual accuracy, backed up by documented processes to ensure truth, accuracy, fact checking and reliability.
  3. A code of ethics and public commitment to accuracy.
  4. Systems of accountability and accreditation for contributors and journalists.
  5. Policies and procedures around correction of misinformation.
  6. Systems to ensure transparency of any conflicts of interest or vested interests.
  7. Systems for audience feedback.

The Conversation is one example of this type of journalism: a not-for-profit project that shares academic expertise to inform the public, rebuild trust in experts and provide free and reliable information.

There are many other media outlets that likewise contribute to quality journalism yet are not built around traditional reporting or investigative work. We need to define public interest journalism in a way that acknowledges and supports all this work.

How to support public interest journalism?

The committee has received many thoughtful and well-researched submissions on various funding models, and this is not an issue on which The Conversation is well placed to offer detailed additional input.

We are generally supportive of any proposals that efficiently direct resources to create institutionally strong public interest journalism projects, as defined above. The Conversation has previously received funding from The Commonwealth. It is currently receiving $1 million a year in direct funding from the Victorian Government, but this expires in 2018. There are limited prospects of renewal of this funding, which represents roughly a quarter of The Conversation’s annual costs. Our service will need to be curtailed unless alternative funding can be secured.

Short term funding horizons, and the need to continue to look for new funders, present serious challenges to media outlets which need to have the institutional strength to publish fearlessly.

Strict policies around editorial decision-making have protected The Conversation from the risk of undue influence that could potentially flow from Government funding. Indeed, Commonwealth and Victorian Government seed funding helped The Conversation attain critical mass while proving the model to universities. As a direct result today 38 of Australia’s 39 universities are current funding members of The Conversation. But government funding directed to media organisations is most effective at preserving independence when there are: 1) clear internal editorial policies to protect the independence of journalistic staff; 2) an arm’s length process of assessing and allocating funding support; and, 3) a longer term time horizon, so the media outlet is not constantly in financial jeopardy or engaged in negotiations about the next funding allocation.

The deductible gift recipient status granted to The Conversation by the ATO has been useful in enabling The Conversation raise much-needed funds from our audience. This is a particularly effective way of supporting public interest media because there is an accountability mechanism built in: success in raising donations depends, at least in part, on the media outlet’s ability to generate trust among readers.

The impact on public interest journalism of search engines and social media internet service providers circulating fake news

The Conversation recognises the efforts made by Google to tag “fact check” articles within Google News. We believe more initiatives like this are essential from social media providers to help audiences better identify or distinguish factual information online.

The Reuters Digital News report found less than a quarter (24%) of people it surveyed think social media does a good job separating fact from fiction. But around half use social media as a source of news, and 14% say social media is their main source of news.

The Conversation provides reliable information on social media by fact-checking contentious claims and avoiding clickbait or exaggeration. Public interest journalism that isn’t afraid to provide the full story is at a competitive disadvantage compared to publishers committed to attracting attention at any cost. But making a stream of trustworthy information available in newsfeeds disrupts the near monopoly of shrill opinion and “fake news”.

The future of public and community broadcasters is in delivering public interest journalism, particularly in underserved markets like regional Australia, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

All publishers are able to republish content from The Conversation at no cost, however the ABC has assigned a dedicated ABC staffer to curate content from The Conversation for ABC sites and audiences. Having an ABC journalist working from The Conversation’s head office in Melbourne enables the timely delivery of content via the public broadcaster from experts writing in their area of expertise.

The ABC has not been immune to cost pressures reducing its ability to fund journalism in specialist rounds, however collaborations with both commercial and not-for-profit media can help it expand the depth of its coverage without significant additional cost.

This type of collaboration is a good example of the role public broadcasters can play as leaders in the creation of a healthy public interest journalism ecosystem. The value of the ABC lies not just in the quality of its editorial output, but also in the influence it wields among its competitors and collaborators and the high professional standards it upholds.

Conclusion

We thank the committee for the opportunity to make this submission and for its work in considering this issue of vital public importance.