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By Thomas Baekdal - June 2021

The future of health publishing. And please stop talking about newsroom neutrality

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to the Baekdal Plus newsletter. Today I have three things for you.

Health publishing is about to change in a very dramatic way

Health reporting is something that most publishers approach like any other story. You hold the doctors, the hospitals and the health authorities to account, and you report the occasional story of what people can do to stay healthy.

But this is the old way of reporting about health. In the future, health is moving into people's homes, and with that comes an entirely different form of journalism.

This new focus requires a very different form of media. One that is about providing health understanding to the public and one that adds as a companion to whatever health problem people face.

This is the same thing we have already seen in the world of fitness, or with NYT Cooking, or with other types of services where the public have a personal connection to the story.

In my latest Plus report, I talk about this trend and what it means for publishers. So take a look at: Health publishing is about to change in a very dramatic way. Here is how.

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021

Every year, Reuters Institute comes out with their much anticipated Digital News Report, and the latest one just came out.

I'm still working my way through it, but it is an excellent report that is well worth the read, and I have frequently referred to past reports in my work.

I have future Plus articles coming where I will go into the details of some of these trends, but until then, take a look at: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021.

Stop talking about newsroom neutrality

While, again, I absolutely love the Digital News Report 2021, there is one thing I want to point out that I absolutely hate. And it's this question: "Should news outlets be neutral?"

The obvious answer to this question is: No!!

News outlets should obviously not be neutral. We should instead be factual. I have talked about this so many times. The media industry is today killing itself because it keeps talking about news from a neutrality perspective. This should never be something we talk about because the act of journalism cannot be neutral.

The simplest way to explain this is with a quote that I have used many times in the past. It's simply this:

If one person says it's raining, and another person says it's not, our job as journalists isn't to cover what these people said, but to look out the window and see what is actually going on.

This is what journalism is about. If all you do is to report what 'both sides' said, then you have provided no value. The public have not been informed, and our role as the press is irrelevant.

This is the core value of the press. Its job is to inform the public by getting to understand what is factual and what is not. If we do not do this, then we have no reason for existing.

This reminds me of another study that recently came out in Denmark. It found that about 60% of the public, across all age groups, believes that the newspapers deliberately publish fake news (although, only 20% believed it for the newspaper they themselves read).

This is a scary number, and people in the media industry were quick to point fingers at others like it was because of new partisan publications that have come out in recent years. But as I tweeted the other day, the problem is more profound.

The main problem with fake news is that we in the press have not been consistent, clear, and transparent enough to prove that we can be trusted. And it's not surprising that so many people believe that we post fake news.

Every day I see 'both sides' articles where we in the press present two completely opposing things as equals. This is fake news because one of them has to be wrong, and they are not equals.

Look at COVID. A persistent focus of the press has been to find people with different views on this. For instance, when the lockdown hit last year, one of the largest newspapers in my country reported someone saying that this would increase the spread of the virus.

Or look at climate change. We spent a decade interviewing people who claimed climate change wasn't a thing. This journalistic focus was directly responsible for why it took us so long to finally do something about it.

Also, in recent years, all the major newspapers have massively focused on opinions, often giving them front-page focus and featuring them on their social channels ... and often those opinions contain misinformation.

So, as a media analyst, I'm not remotely surprised when we see a study that 60% of the public thinks that newspapers post fake news ... because we do!

'Both-sides journalism' is fake news. Just reporting what someone said is often fake news.

Here is an example:

Until we realize this, we will continue to have big problems around trust in the news, and it's the same about neutrality. As long as you do 'both-sides', you are telling the public that half of what you do is fake news ... but you are just not telling people which half it is.

But most of all, we need to get out of this mindset completely. Right now, the discussion is about this:

But this way of thinking of journalism is completely wrong. Because we should actually be thinking about it like this:

Notice that these two are not compatible. You cannot both be neutral and factual. If two sides are contradicting each other, with one person saying that crime is getting worse and the other that it is not, as a journalist you cannot be factual in reporting what the real numbers are and be neutral.

But here is the thing, you also cannot be partisan and factual. That also doesn't work because, again, it means picking a side that may or may not be based on facts.

So, the first graph is just plain wrong. You cannot be neutral (or partisan) as the press. You have to be factual at all times!

But right now, we see the media being undermined because of this line of thinking. The worst example I came across recently was shared by Wolfgang Blau. He tweeted:

Germany's BILD, the journalistic flagship of Axel-Springer (also Business Insider, Politico Europe etc.) frames the mentioning of climate change in TV weather reports as activism and as political campaigning in favour of the Green party.

In the article they make the claim that newspapers and TV stations are only supposed to predict the weather for the next few days and nothing else:

Actually, they are only supposed to predict the weather for the next few days. But for some time now, the weather presenters on television have been explaining the temperature curves of recent years and climate change in detail.
ZDF weatherman Özden Terli regularly includes statistics on the warming of recent years in the weather report. And weather presenter Karsten Schwanke likes to explain the causes of man-made climate change in detail on ARD.

They then go on to talk about why this should not be reported. As they say:

The fact is: "The more the population is aware of the issue of climate protection, the more likely the Greens will benefit from the expertise that is attributed to them here," says INSA boss Hermann Binkert.

This is utterly insane. They are arguing for neutral reporting by telling newspapers to not report on climate change because, by doing so, it would make people more informed, which might benefit one political party over another.

This is journalistic bankruptcy. Your job is to inform the public, but now, in order to stay neutral, you are saying that we shouldn't. We should instead just report the weather over the next few days and nothing else.

And it gets even worse. In the last part of the article, they attack the fact that many news sites have created dedicated sections for climate reporting.

They wrote:

ZDF director Thomas Bellut recently spoke out against political proselytizing on the subject of climate protection at the Medientage Mitteldeutschland. He advised against regularly broadcasting a program "Climate before eight" before the "Tagesschau". "I would not do it. Climate is important, but then comes the next topic.

What he is saying here is that climate change is just another news topic, and it should not get any special focus. We should write about it when there is a story about it that day, and then move on.

We have completely lost the concept of journalism. Now, according to them, journalists should not be allowed to report facts if that topic in any way could be seen as helping one political side over another. And journalists should not be allowed to focus on any topic that may be seen to inform the public towards anything.

This is madness. In fact, we have a word for this. It's called Greenwashing. As Wolfgang Blau puts it in another tweet:

For news organisations to produce climate journalism but then to never give breaking climate stories the top slots in their news agenda has a taste of 'greenwashing' a media brand: "We had it, we covered it! - we just didn't put our weight behind it because that was too risky.

As a media analyst, I'm deeply worried about this. Across the world, we are now seeing more and more newspapers getting so caught up in the concept of neutrality that we are losing our ability to be journalists.

Suddenly, we have to hide important facts from a story if it can in any way be seen as helping someone. We have to pretend things aren't a problem and just move on to the next story, and we have to bring in 'both sides' in every story so that we never directly tell the public which side is true and which isn't.

I will say this again. This is not journalism. And if that is what we are becoming, then we have no role in society.

As I tweeted the other day:

You don't win a Pulitzer Prize by being 'neutral'. You win one by being factual.

When I go to a newspaper, I want you to give me the facts. I want you to inform me about what is really happening. I want you to explain to me what causes it. I want to know the difference between true and false. And I want the press to hold those who mislead to account for their deceptions.

If we as the press won't do this under a misguided idea about neutrality, then we have no value. It's as simple as that.

So please stop this nonsense about neutrality (and about partisanship). It's killing us. Instead, ask the public. "Do you believe the newspapers should focus on finding the facts?"

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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