Every morning, over coffee, I check the news. I can’t say it’s exactly uplifting at the best of times, let alone in these dark days. But in my job, I can’t afford to stay blissfully ignorant about the world. I rely on good journalism to inform and enrich my work, just like millions of others around the globe.
But imagine if reliable news sources suddenly disappeared. Where could we turn for our information? Say a total news blackout happened right now, during the pandemic. Look at your social media feed. Who could you rely on to share reliable, potentially life-saving updates? I’m guessing the picture would get pretty murky, pretty fast.
This scenario is no exaggeration. It’s what awaits us if we don’t act. Few may realize it, but the pandemic is pushing public interest media to the edge of extinction. Journalism for the common good, the kind concerned with public well-being and safety, is in grave trouble almost everywhere in the world.
Ironically, this is happening at a time when we are hungrier than ever for accurate information. When crises hit, we turn on the news in record numbers. A survey by the Reuters Institute for Journalism found newsrooms saw traffic spike at the start of the pandemic as we all sought to learn about the new virus stalking our communities.
But in the internet age, bigger audiences often don’t translate into higher revenues for media outlets. In fact, these were plummeting long before the pandemic, even as audience engagement grew. But then the lockdowns hit, causing advertising deals to evaporate. In the same 2020 survey, newspapers said they were facing global losses of $30 billion.
This grim picture has prompted warnings that the pandemic is a media extinction event. In wealthy and low-income nations alike, newsrooms are closing, shedding jobs, and leaving behind news deserts in their wake. These growing gaps in news coverage create the perfect environment for lies, myths and disinformation to multiply and spread.
For those of us battling the ongoing infodemic, these warnings must be a wake-up call. Disinformation is jeopardizing the health of millions around the world, threatening not only the global COVID-19 vaccination effort, but also the battle to prevent catastrophic climate change. Public interest media is one of our best tools in this fight. We can’t afford to lose it.
After all, most journalists see debunking lies and myths as a central part of their work. Last year, more than 80% of media professionals surveyed by the International Center for Journalists said they encountered disinformation in their work at least once a week. One in four said it happened multiple times a day.
Yet good journalism goes further than fact-checking. It tells the human stories behind hard statistics and breaks down complex information into relatable narratives with the power to drown out dangerous lies and myths. This puts journalists on the front line of the fight against the infodemic, just as they are experiencing a spike in threats, violence and intimidation against them.
Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, I moderated a UN-led discussion on what global institutions can do to help public interest media survive this onslaught. Top of the agenda are plans for an International Fund for Public Interest Media, an annual $1 billion fund to shore up the industry.
The brainchild of philanthropic organisation Luminate, along with donors, civil society, and the private sector, the fund aims to provide sustainable, long-term investment to provide a future for public interest media outlets, particularly in low and middle-income countries.
Challenging times like these serve as a reminder that trustworthy news isn’t a luxury, but an essential public good. Those who serve it to us with our morning coffee need help to emerge stronger out of this horrendous pandemic. Whatever happens next, however bad the news gets, let’s value their service a little more.