A leading thinker and commentator on digital journalism, Emily Bell is the founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School. Also the Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism at the school, she currently teaches a class on “Information Warfare Reporting,” instructing students on how to identify mis- and dis-information and how to navigate the ever-evolving digital news landscape.
Before joining Columbia in 2010, Bell spent much of her career working at Guardian News and Media in London, including as editor in chief across the Guardian’s websites and director of the company’s digital content.
Bell — who, in February, testified at the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology’s hearing on disinformation and extremism in the media — spoke with Nieman Fellows in March about how we report on misinformation, the ethical implications involved in accepting money from platform companies, and more. Edited excerpts:
On how the mainstream media has failed at the community level, and how that drives issues of misinformation and polarization
Emily Bell: Anyone who regularly reads my colleagues, Margaret Sullivan, or the writings of Jay Rosen down at NYU, who focus very much on how the mainstream press of all across the spectrum covers the Trump presidency, we do see real failures.
This is something that Soledad O’Brien was focusing on in her testimony to the House Committee [on disinformation and extremism in the media, where I testified as well in February,] which is that the news business is reaping some of the issues of not changing quickly enough to reflect the communities and the country that it serves.
A lot of this is rooted in having fairly static, fairly un-diverse newsrooms that have not perhaps rung the alarm bell loud enough and early enough, who are still stuck to particular norms of practice in terms of thinking about how to frame things in a fair fashion, when really what we’ve experienced in America is no different to what’s been experienced in lots of other places in the world.
It’s no different to what they’re currently experiencing in India. It’s very close to what has been experienced in the Philippines, which has slightly more extreme version of it, what’s currently happening in Brazil with Bolsonaro.
To some extent, actually, in the U.K. — where I come from — with Brexit, this idea that you have populism and a particular type of xenophobic populism on the right on the rise is a real challenge for the American media, which feels as though, possibly incorrectly, it’s done a pretty good job over the last 50 years or so.
It’s certainly enjoyed great successes, but it didn’t adequately anticipate this happening. It didn’t do enough to identify what the issues were. It wasn’t wise enough to some of the disinformation campaigns, to put it bluntly, that were at play.
I don’t just mean from Russia, which is another place that’s been experiencing some of these effects, as well, but also within its own boundaries. White supremacy, the rise in white supremacists, and a particular brand of domestic terrorism, people are very queasy about calling that out.
Again, you see this in a real generational divide in newsrooms. This idea that we cannot continue to do what we have always done. We can’t continue to produce the same type of framing and stories and headlines when you’re encountering a really big and dangerous, I would say, anti‑democratic shift in the country more broadly.
It’s a lot of adaptation for the news media. Most organizations are pretty under pressure, at the moment, financially.
They haven’t been working together in newsrooms, most people, for a year, over a year in some places, due to the pandemic. All of that has exacerbated existing tensions and sped up this cycle of, “How do we change?” I don’t think there’s been a time at any point in the last 30 years, when I’ve been covering and looking at and researching this kind of material, where there’s such internal reflection and turmoil and tension, even within very successful newsrooms, even within places like The New York Times, like The Washington Post.
I think that’s actually a good thing, because we have to anticipate. We failed to anticipate this 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Draw your own time scale. Now that reckoning is here, and executives have to make sure that they are reflexive to it, that they’re ahead of it, and that they understand what the roots of it are. Otherwise, journalism is going to lose its relevance.
On the ethical issues related to the relationship between newsrooms, Google, and Facebook
The first thing to say is that there’s an awful lot of this [tech platform] money we don’t really know where it was spent or how it was spent. There’s no disclosure. There’s no traceability within the platform companies. It’s a lot of pressure on small newsrooms to keep accountability front and center.
A lot of places don’t disclose or never disclose whether they have any money from these funding sources. Weirdly, it’s created this strange asymmetry, where people, when newsrooms get non‑profit funding, are much more likely to disclose that they’ve had money from Google or money from Facebook.
When it then comes to asking their own communities for funding, this can sometimes actually create tension. It’s created some interesting, unexpected consequences in the market. What’s clear to us is that, first of all, the amounts of money are not big enough, and they are sprinkled around in a almost deliberately, widespread way, to not cause enough effect in the market.
On the one hand, you could say, “Well, that’s a good thing. We don’t want Google and Facebook deliberately picking winners in this market.” On the other hand, if you’re going to intervene in the market, do so in a way which is more meaningful, and not just a lobbying operation.
I have no doubt that newsrooms should take the money. When offered the money, take the money. Disclose the money. Do good journalism with it. I think it’s too much to turn down. I think that there are people operating in crisis at the moment, to whom these small grants are a lifeline.
Yet, [in February], the whole landscape changed again with this Australian news media bargaining code, which came into law, which actually is, in some ways, absolutely the worst of both worlds in that it’s trying to reach a better financial accommodation for publishers. It’s leaning on Google and Facebook to do that and those two platforms are caught by it.
It’s allowing for those organizations to bargain with newsrooms and create much closer ties, whilst also not really creating much more transparency into that relationship. For instance, News Corporation reached a deal. Don’t forget, Rupert Murdoch is an instrumental figure, not only in the government of this country, but also in the governments of the U.K. and Australia.
Rupert Murdoch leant very heavily on the right‑wing government in Australia to get this together. I think Google and Facebook resisted it, probably rightly, though in a slightly clumsy way. For people like me, who think we really need a transfer of wealth from the tech sector into, particularly, supporting local journalism, you should think, “You got what you wanted. What are you complaining about?”
I think it would be so much better if we had this on a much more transparent basis, where it’s properly contestable funding and properly transparent. We don’t know how much Google and News Corp agreed upon, but they did a worldwide deal. Effectively, you don’t have to have too much insight to say, “Why would Google reach a worldwide deal with News Corp when we’re only talking about Australia?”
If you can define Rupert Murdoch in every market in the world, then you resist that lobbying pressure in at least another dozen countries that you’re going to have pressure put on you to do different deals.
This is not an ideal situation. Google and Facebook, they are the sea that we swim in. We have to deal with them on a daily basis. They are aware of all of our audience are, accessing their news they are real lifeline in places that don’t have a free press or publishing infrastructure available to independent journalists.
Yet, they are also advertising companies that have incredible surveillance powers that have relationships with governments that are also extremely opaque that we don’t know very much about, they don’t necessarily act in a way which is positive for journalism.
It’s definitely the case that organizations that take money from Google and Facebook do not report on them or research them in quite the same way that organizations who don’t take their funding. Who knows what their influence at local level is going to be in the coming years? If they’re also a key provider of support, direct support for the local press that’s a problematic situation.
On professionalizing the industry of battling disinformation
It’s pretty inspiring, but also slightly alarming, how much time local newsrooms now have to spend just telling their readers this is not true and this is why it’s not true.
This idea of the role of journalists changing between not just presenting the things that you know about, but also explaining the things to their audiences that they think that might not be right and why they’re not right and recontextualize them.
Are we going to professionalize that more? It’s inevitable. Part of me is not thrilled about that.
There’s a Soviet-born British journalist, Peter Pomerantsev, whose book “This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality.” is a great piece of journalism. It’s also fantastically useful on disinformation and misinformation campaigns around the world.
One thing Peter says, which is absolutely true is, “To some extent, information warfare is the biggest risk that we all become focused on fighting misinformation.” We’re incentivized at the moment by platforms, by funders, by all sorts of things.
We forget that an antidote to misinformation is just creating communities around things that are true. They’re creating a culture of, ‘you don’t want to listen to that because it’s nonsense.’
I do think that every journalist in every sector is going to have to have this as a fundamental bit of their training to understand how these stories spread, where people get them from, to understand which ones to ignore. Some of this is completely harmless, doesn’t need chasing.
When I start to see the research that says, for example, covering QAnon precisely is not a bad thing — contextualizing it telling people what it’s about, has exactly the effect that you want, which demystifies it and puts it in the right context.
That’s why building resilience within journalism is the only way that we in the field can effectively fight misinformation. I don’t think it’s a magic bag of tricks. I certainly don’t think we should outsource it to all sorts of third parties who are solely focused on that. We could learn from them, but I don’t think it’s what our core mission is.
On re-thinking how we research and report on misinformation
There’s a queasiness that I find myself feeling on a weekly basis. That it’s about reframing [how we report on misinformation]. I would like to get rid of truth, disinformation, misinformation as being in the headlines.
In certain low‑information societies at certain points of time, particularly in places where journalism is distrusted, fact‑checking organizations are incredibly effective. If you go and talk to people who’ve run fact‑checking organizations at emergent points in post‑literate societies, it’s had such an effect.
It’s this idea that we can drag ourselves back to an agreed point. If you’re a person of color, or if you’re a woman, and you’ve experienced a lot of the commercialized press over the last 50 years, an awful lot of what you’ve read about yourself and your community is not true. It is misinformation.
There’s a lot of things that you recognize about yourself. To suddenly be told there’s a category of information that we’re going to be protected from …
This is why my approach is much more about understanding it as a system of power and doing what journalists have always done, which is explain the power, hold the power to account. Where’s it come from?
We’ve spent a year looking at this pop‑up pink slime network of local news, which has grown from 400 sites to have 1,500 to now 2,000 sites.
I don’t think they have a huge amount of effect in local markets, but they do point to a model which we’re going to see much more of, which is just people paying into systems of news to stage stories or get them higher up on the search engines.
Being able to explain that and say, “Here’s where it comes from, here’s where the money’s at, this is why you’re seeing it,” is much more powerful than saying, “We’re going to take all of this down, or you’re not going to pay attention to it or having a truth saw.”
It stopped us. I honestly think it stops us from having the real conversations about income inequality, about racism, about power, about all of the things that are actually the root causes here.
On collaborative solutions moving forward
Something that I’m slightly hopeful about is that the real pain and real damage that has been done to communities by the loss of, say, advertising dollars, and the necessity to look for new models — new revenue models, new support mechanisms, a reassessment of what role things like public radio, providing communities and whether or not that can be extended and, really thinking hard about what independence of journalism really looks like.
That’s one of the silver lining of this whole absolutely horrible situation, which is that I think the people who are now in journalism are in it for the long haul. None of us are here for the money. It’s hard work. None of us are here to necessarily be thought of as those favorite people that turn up at the town hall meetings. I think we’re all here now because — we see this in our students — it really matters.
That sort of gritty and difficult business of actually really holding power to account and accountability is at the core of all of this, which is holding us together now. In some ways, the bulk of the business model has cleared a little bit.
We really have to think about the things that we can do reporting. The amount of time we now spend talking about reporting, as opposed to talking about production, I feel very kind of heartened by that.
It’s not an easy problem. I do sometimes doom scrolling kind of wee small hours of the morning, think, we feel we’re in a very perilous position at the moment. The disappearance of Donald Trump has given us a new urgency because I think a lot of people — in the tech sector in particular — think that these problems have gone away, and have started to beat journalism slightly gently with a stick about, “Why do we even need you guys?”
Making a case for ourselves, and finding organizations that are about accountability and accountability in communities, and pairing up, and making that case, is really important.
We need people to start thinking about these solutions at community, local level. I would love to see public radio being a key part of that because they know this territory better than anybody. It’s not going to happen without quite a lot of change from within the field.