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REPORT - Co-creational Media: committing to truth and public participation

Jonathan Heawood discusses the ethical and practical implications of a new form of participatory journalism produced not only for, but with communities.

‘Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.’

So say Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, two of the gurus of journalism, in The Elements of Journalism, and who am I to argue with them?

There is certainly a proud tradition of professional journalists who see truth as their pole star. This sets them apart from other so-called journalists who don’t much care about truth, but are content to publish rumours, allegations and propaganda if it suits their political or commercial purposes.

It also sets professional news media apart from social media, which gives everyone a voice (in theory), but then sets them against each other, fighting over their beliefs in a battle where truth is often the first victim.

In a project with the leading political philosopher Fabienne Peter, I have been studying these different forms of media and thinking about their role in democracy. This prroject was funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration grant from the University of Warwick.

We are excited now to be able to share our report with the research findings.

The Co-Creational Model for the News Media Report
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Fabienne and I believe that democracy depends on two fundamental principles: a commitment to public participation and a commitment to truth. Unless the public can take part, democracy fails. But without truth, democracy also fails. We can’t have democratic public debates on the basis of lies and misinformation, and democratic governments can’t make decisions without knowing what’s really going on.

We’re not saying that our current democracy always satisfies these two principles, but we think they are important all the same. And we think that the media can play a vital role in facilitating both truth and public participation. However, we also think that different forms of media share these commitments to different degrees:

  • In the professional news media, journalists are committed to truth-seeking and truth-telling, as Kovach and Rosenstiel recommend, but they don’t normally allow much public participation. The public appear in professional journalism as sources or audiences, but not as participants.

  • In social media, everyone can take part, but few people take responsibility for sifting truth from lies. There is public participation on a scale never seen before in human history, but truth appears to have fallen by the wayside.

  • In the libertarian news media – so-called ‘fake news’ sites and some forms of tabloid journalism and cable news – there isn’t much respect for either truth or public participation. The purveyors of libertarian news media tell us what they think, but they don’t seem very interested in what we think.

So, the professional news media is committed to truth; social media is committed to public participation; and the libertarian news media is committed to neither truth nor public participation.

What if there was a fourth form of media which was equally committed to truth and public participation?

We have been working with a small group of media pioneers who, in different ways, are pushing into a new form of media that we call ‘co-creational’. Bellingcat, Black Ballad, the Bristol Cable, the Ferret and gal-dem– all, in their different ways, are finding ways to pursue the truth whilst simultaneously facilitating public participation.

They are not simply platforms on which anyone can say anything. They are professional outlets, with high standards of truth-seeking and truth-telling. But they do not simply publish journalism for the public; they create journalism with the public. Bellingcat is an innovator of open-source investigations. Black Ballad and gal-dem create journalism with communities that have historically been excluded from the professional media. And the Bristol Cable and the Ferret are co-operatives, with direct oversight from their readers.

What are the ethical and practical implications of this emerging model of co-creational media? How can news organisations in this space learn from each other? And does the co-creational model offer a way out of our current information crisis, where many social media platforms have become battlegrounds, but trust in the professional news media remains low?

Jonathan Heawood is Executive Director of PINF.


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