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Over three billion people around the world with internet access can do more with media than ever before. What does this mean for professional media producers, for consumers, and not least, for society?

The media is changing and the transformation will not be stopped. To the lament of producers everywhere, traditional media like television, radio, newspapers and magazines are being put under continual and massive pressure by new forms of communication.

The privilege of opinion-making is no longer confined to a small group that decides when, where and how people read, listen or watch. Thanks to social media, anyone with internet access can publish their own content or opinions.

What they produce usually differs from what is published by traditional media—consisting mostly of personal viewpoints on social issues and self-produced blog entries, pictures, videos and conversations.

This content is also often considered more authentic, especially when it is produced by people who are closer to the issues than a professional journalist, who must first research and investigate before they can begin reporting.

Along with this user-generated content, the Internet is also flooded with official press releases, studies and notices. Simply everything can and will be published – directly and unfiltered.

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At first, this process seems to be more democratic than traditional media. Finally, everyone can participate and the self-appointed media elite lose their supposed authority. The tough barriers to access disappear and the distance between transmitter and receiver seems to shrink. The audience and readers become directors of their own media usage. And they can decide for themselves where to find the information they desire, choosing from a broad spectrum of information, opinions and content.

If everyone can make their own content available for millions of people on social media, then ostensibly, there is no longer any need for journalism. Not only individuals, but also politicians, parties, companies and interest groups can directly put their content online. It looks like the age of digital media has made journalism obsolete. We have entered the age of direct communication.

The illusion of variety

But direct communication also has a darker side. The spectrum of information and opinion is not always as broad as people think. Users often exist in bubbles and only take in content that fits their worldview.

This is primarily because social media and search engines use algorithms that tailor a tremendous amount of information to fit each user. These algorithms work by providing more of what a user has liked, clicked and shared in the past. Different or unfamiliar points of view don’t appear on the users’ horizon. The supposed pluralism of the new media world is therefore mired in contradiction.

Experience shows that those primarily using online media can lack the ability or willingness to develop different opinions. They stay in their own worlds, even if they are small bubbles, and don’t voluntarily seek out debate with people who think differently.

Many people look only at information and opinions that already fit their convictions, especially in tense political environments. Other opinions or facts either bounce off the bubble or are denigrated as “fake news.”

Many people are unaware of social media and the Internet’s effect on narrowing their perception of reality.  They believe the Internet provides them access to the entire world. They think that they can find things that aren’t available on traditional media, but actually, they are seeing only small part of reality through a looking glass.

User-loyalty is also eroding. Many people do not regularly turn to the same newspapers or websites, but get their news from a collection of Facebook streams, search engines or other aggregators. Often, people can lose sight of what is trustworthy and what isn’t.

A new age for quality journalism

This sheer mass of direct information is not valuable in itself. Only the manner in which information is examined and processed is useful for society. What is really important? Do statements match the facts? What has been left out? Who has made this information available?

This presents a big chance for the supposedly ‘superfluous’ journalist, who is responsible for the critical evaluation and expression of information—the core of good journalism.

Information must first be classified before it is evaluated. Classification means creating context, reexamining sources and estimating outcomes. Journalists can ask uncomfortable questions and give a voice to the other side of an argument. They can throw a wrench in the otherwise well-functioning machine of PR and propaganda.

But classification is not the same as opinion. Readers, viewers and listeners should create their own opinions and not receive them pre-packaged from the media.

The expression of opinions is admittedly an integral part of traditional media. However, opinion pieces must always be clearly marked as such. The audience is then free to decide if they agree or disagree. But the subtle insertion of opinion into news pieces, or attempts to create indirect influence, has badly hurt the image of traditional journalism.

All of this demonstrates why good journalism is more important than ever before. The new freedom and uncertainty presented by the digital age in processing and forming political and social opinion is a big challenge for the media and politicians alike.

Suddenly, there is an alternative to the well-rehearsed and sometimes dubious interplay of politics and journalism. Until now, politics and journalism needed each other. This is painfully true for the so-called ‘telecracy’—in which political debate doesn’t occur in parliament, but on televised talk shows and interviews.

Fighting fake news

Then there is the growing phenomenon of ‘fake news’ or the assumption from certain politicians that the media spread “fake news.” There have always been false or untrue news reports. And, correspondingly, it was always the highest duty of journalism to expose every lie in every story with facts and research.

This duty will only get more challenging if every internet user can post unverified content and reach an audience of millions without fearing any consequences—even when not using a pseudonym. In traditional media, the situation is very different. A single untrue story can destroy not only a reputation, but even bring down entire media institutions.

This is part of the reason why the accusations of producing ‘fake news’—coming from dissatisfied politicians or angry citizens—have hit the established media hard. It is quite easy to designate uncomfortable truths or opinions as lies in order to damage the reputation of a media outlet. It is much more difficult to defend the reputation of being a reliable source day after day.

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The good thing is that the current, massive emergence of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’ has made a large section of the public aware of how indispensable professional, independent journalism really is.

Journalists must now be very careful with this hard-won and fragile trust of the public. They should make decisions transparently and orient themselves around the needs of their audience. This is true for choosing topics, implementing information and especially in creating the product itself. Every medium has to define for itself how to prepare content it deems to be important for every format and then how to best reach consumers.

The core principles of new journalism

But consumer orientation doesn’t mean that traditional media should stray from the core of their journalistic principles in search of greater reach and income. If the traditional media neglects its core journalistic values, the public will not consider their work as valuable and necessary.

The media likes to see itself in a social corrective role, which denounces social aberrations—primarily in the interest of the public. The media needs to take on this role—because no one else can credibly perform this function responsibly and constructively.

However, if the media is reductive or tends towards aggravation, if scandal rather than problem-solving takes precedence, then many in the audience will react with discomfort and rejection.

Social media lives off emotion, but journalism lives off information. The necessity of information must not become the victim of emotion—even when feelings are better marketed than facts and reality.

Those in the media should remember that, contrary to politicians, they do not have any democratic legitimacy. The high standards that they hold for politicians, business leaders and cultural figures also must apply to themselves and the institutions they work for.

Anyone who wants to assert themselves in this changed media reality, needs to be convincing. The information available must be classified and examined, but more importantly, it must add value. And the biggest added value of professional journalism is solid research.

Thorough research can bring things to light that aren’t found on search engines or put online by someone. This can only be exposed through investigative journalism. The Panama and Paradise Papers come to mind as an example. We see the same thing with data journalism.  Individual content creators can be quickly overwhelmed by tricky facts or a flood of information. This is different from professional journalists or media organisations—especially if they work together in conducting research.

The modern transformation of media is therefore not a threat, but a huge opportunity for journalism. Modern journalism needs to emphasise its strengths and address the new demands of media consumers. It takes facts to combat fake news. Quality is an antidote to randomness. And careful research into important issues is the best justification as to why, despite social media, quality journalism is still absolutely necessary.

Alexander Freund is the head of DW’s Asia Programmes