Importance of brands in journalism underlined

No longer a single economic model in journalism, conference told

At a time when news sources are as diverse as they are and more globally connected than ever before, how can we know who to believe, if anyone?

At a time when news sources are as diverse as they are and more globally connected than ever before, how can we know who to believe, if anyone?


At a time when news sources are as diverse as they are and more globally connected than ever before, how can we know who to believe, if anyone?

Leonard Downie jnr, vice-president of the Washington Post, believes contemporary journalism can be trusted if is “based on credible original reporting” which adapts to the digital age.

Speaking at Can We Trust our News?, a Dublin City University (DCU) conference today, he said social media, blogs and other new online platforms are “valuable”.

“Individual bloggers who are credible, original reporters are professional news organisations just as much the Washington Post is,” he said.

Comparing the journalism industry to an ecosystem - because it is “lively and changeable” - Mr Downie said there is no longer a single economic model to support it.

“Arguments over should there be a pay-wall or no pay-wall model are missing the point,” he said. “Because there are going to be different models and different solutions.”

Taking as an example his own newspaper, which now employs 50 people to produce TV content, he envisions that in the future newspaper organisations will become competitors with broadcasting groups.

He added that costly investigative reporting can now be supported through non-profit business models such as Propublica. com. However, he said these are “shaky” and their sustainability has yet to be confirmed.

Mr Downie, who is also the Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School, emphasised the importance of brands, noting some people thought they would become irrelevant as online journalism progressed.

“We find from traffic, and from links and from all the citations on sites everywhere, that brands do matter,” he said. “People come to the Washington Post for certain kinds of coverage, they go to the Guardian for certain kinds of coverage.

“The credibility of the brand is going to be very important in news,” he said.

Kevin Bakhurst, managing editor of news and current affairs at RTÉ, agreed there wasn’t one single answer for maintaining quality and public confidence.

“Of course there will be mistakes or misjudgments in any environment where human beings work,” he said. “All we can assure our audience is that we do our very best to get things right as far as we humanly can.”

He added that it was “vital” to admit mistakes and apologise where necessary.

“As Richard Nixon famously found out, it’s not always the mistakes...any sense of a cover-up will deliver the killer blow,” he said.

Mr Bakhurst said it was the calibre of the people that “cements the quality and trustworthiness of most newsrooms”.

In addition to high-quality staff, having correct guidelines, values and culture within a news organisation was essential to maintaining professional integrity.

“In my view the greatest mistakes happen when there is a culture where challenge is discouraged, frowned upon or even punished,” he said.

He added that resources remain a hugely important factor for a news organisation to maintain audience trust.

“First-hand reporting of major news stories will still define the very best journalism from simple aggregation of second-hand copy,” he said, adding that having enough people with the time to do good journalism is “critical”.

Having learned from two hugely significant mistakes - a documentary which broadcast defamatory allegations against an Irish priest (A Mission to Prey) and the tweetgate controversy of the Prime Time presidential debate - Mr Bakhurst conceded public trust in RTÉ’s credibility had “dipped”.

He said reaction to such journalistic mistakes was “rightly angry and outraged”.

However, he added that recent Prime Time documentaries - such as the investigation into Irish crèches - had done much to restore the broadcaster’s reputation.

Former chief executive at ITN and professor of TV journalism at City University in London, Stewart Purvis, said regulation can have a role in ensuring journalistic credibility - for example, by holding journalists to account at public hearings, such as what happened in the Leveson Inquiry in the UK.

However, he added: “At the end of the day it’s got to be the media organisations themselves that have to take responsibility if they want to win public trust, to gain public trust and to hold public trust,” he said.

Ethics and standards within the British newspaper industry exposed by the Leveson inquiry have damaged the BBC’s international reputation, according to the director of the broadcaster’s global news division, Peter Horrocks.

“When I travel further away than Dublin, the damage to the reputation of British journalism is significant and the BBC isn’t immune from that,” he told the conference.

When asked if he had enjoyed journalistic standards within certain newspapers in the UK being exposed Mr Horrocks responded that “he didn’t take any pleasure in that at all”.

“Journalists I speak to in Africa look to Britain, and they look to the United States as examples [of good journalism],” he said.

“When that is undermined by conduct, in whichever part of the media sector it is, that’s damaging for everyone”.

The British broadcaster has been heavily criticised for several recent mistakes, such as wrongly alleging that conservative politician Lord McAlpine had sexually abused Steve Messham, while the victim was a resident in North Wales.

The BBC subsequently apologised “unreservedly” for the error.

Culture within the organisation has also been questioned in light of sexual allegations made against the now deceased Jimmy Saville and other high profile presenters.

Mr Horrocks said that dealing with such issues has been “painful” and, in some cases, “embarrassing” for the organisation.

“It’s certainly quite distressing for individual members of staff who haven’t had responsibility for many of these things,” he said. “We hope that those things are being put behind us through answering tough questions that have been asked”.

He added there is “certainly evidence” that the BBC is retaining an underlying trust from its audience, in spite of recent dips.

“A poll in the UK last year showed that 60 per cent of the British public choose BBC news as the single source they return to for news that they trust,” he said. “That is more than 40 percentage points ahead of our closest rival”.

He also said that in times of crisis audiences around the world tune into the BBC.

“They may enjoy watching Al Jazeera some of the time but then because they are aware Al Jazeera has views which are closely associated with its funding Government...they have turned to the BBC in the last couple of years in very large numbers,” he said.

The Leveson inquiry was set up by British prime minister David Cameron to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the UK press.