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Democratic voice in a darkening world

The fates of journalism and democracy are intertwined, and both need strengthening, writes Steve Coll

The world is closing. For the first time since 2001, autocracies outnumber democracies, according to the V-Dem Institute, a Swedish research group. More than half of the planet’s population, in 92 countries, now live in autocracies.

Yet there is resistance: the number of countries with mass democracy protests has almost doubled over the past decade.

This is global journalism’s coming challenge — to cover a world that has become more unstable and more dangerous, even while journalism itself is destabilised by social media giants and shrinking revenues.

There is cause for confidence. For all their troubles, journalists have lately made a powerful case that healthy societies need a vigorous, independent press.

During the pandemic, journalists specialising in data and visualisation have outpaced governments in keeping the public speedily informed about outbreaks, shortages, frauds and failures of national leadership.

The #MeToo movement spread from America to France to Australia because reporters and editors took women and the abuse of power seriously when public institutions would not.

And the vitality of journalism’s function — its pursuit of transparency and accountability — even where ‘citizen journalists’ and other nonprofessionals play the part, as in the role cell phone-shot video has played in documenting police abuse.

A new era of collaboration

The field has also never been more collaborative. In the bygone days of fat newspaper profits, reporters competed ruthlessly for scoops and editors rose and fell on their record of vanquishing rivals.

Hard economic times have usefully schooled newsrooms on the power of working together; many of the major investigative series honoured with major prizes in the US these days are conducted by partnerships of nonprofits, local outlets, and major commercial news organisations.

The mass digital leaks and global investigative collaborations sparked by Wikileaks and the Panama Papers project initially shocked many traditional journalists.

Anonymous mass leaks do lay newsrooms open to manipulation by governments and raise novel ethical problems that journalists have yet to fully resolve.

But global leak investigations have also ushered in a welcome era of cross-border and open source journalism that mines social media and employs satellite photography to document genocide.

In a darkening world of dictatorship and antidemocratic populism, these innovative and sometimes offshore models will be vital to keeping journalism relevant in closing societies, like China’s, where independent field reporting is increasingly dangerous or impossible.

Regulation is key

How fully this potential is realised, whether in rich democracies or in emerging countries struggling against autocracy, will depend on how well governments regulate Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms that have decimated newspapers and commercial television newsrooms, while fostering an information sphere polluted by propaganda and shadowed by bullies and trolls.

Australia’s regulatory scheme is seen in many quarters of American journalism as the best, practical hope for stabilising the profession attempted in some years.

European antitrust and privacy regulation is curbing Silicon Valley’s power, too, but has so far done less to rebalance journalism funding in the public interest.

Perhaps it is too much to hope that governments fractured by polarisation will see the wisdom in strengthening independent reporting, especially since press watchdogs often bark at ministers’ doors.

Yet we know from history that the fates of journalism and democracy are intertwined.

In these darkening times, we need the one to fortify the other.


Steve Coll is Dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Staff Writer for The New Yorker and a member of JNI’s International Advisory Council.

This story was first published in The Changing Times, a newspaper celebrating JNI’s official building opening in May, 2021.