Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Una Mullally: The positive upside to media fragmentation

Important stories untouched by big organisations have been highlighted by smaller players

With apologies to other cities on the island of Ireland, including Dublin where I’m from, in my experience Belfast is the best place to talk. I was there last week participating in a panel discussion about state of journalism at the excellent Docs Ireland festival. When it comes to talking on a stage in Belfast about anything, audiences always seem to be that bit more attentive, the conversation on and off mic feels of a higher standard, the level of audience engagement feels elevated, and neither fools nor spoofers are suffered.

The panel included remarkable documentary makers: Trevor Birney, whose work includes No Stone Unturned, Mea Maxima Culpa, Bobby Sands: 66 Days and so much more; and Alison Millar who had just won the Tim Hetherington Award at Sheffield DocFest for her latest documentary, Lyra, about the journalist Lyra McKee, along with the brilliant journalist and novelist Gavin Esler, and moderator William Crawley, presenter of the BBC’s Talkback.

Among the many issues facing contemporary mainstream journalism — from resources and funding and the collapse of local newspapers, to the mental health challenges journalists face, and the difficulties in dealing with politicians in so many places who increasingly lie through their teeth — Esler made the point that there was never a golden age of journalism. And that is true.

Would a file have been sent to the Director of Public Prosecution on the matter of Leo Varadkar leaking details of a GP pay deal contract to a friend had The Village not followed the story?

Yet within the challenges mainstream journalism faces from the fragmentation of media and mainstream journalism’s often po-faced irritation with social media and the digital sphere in general, I began to think about how the fragmentation of media also throws up some positives.

Journalists in mainstream media often like to think of themselves as the good guys, yet we know that in the polarised societies of Britain and the US, for example, it’s mainstream journalism that preceded social media’s “post-truth” era, from the anti-EU propaganda campaign in sections of the British press that ran for years (and we all know how that turned out), to the outrageous lies spouted by Fox News (and we know how that turned out too.)

People have always gravitated towards outlets that either chime with or affirm their views, and that is of course happening increasingly as more independent media projects sprout, a lot of them partisan and opinion-driven, but many of them filling gaps that mainstream media left. There’s no overarching “good” or “bad” narrative to the outcome of media fragmentation. There was a time when mainstream national media and local media outlets had everything to themselves. The digital era of journalism has diversified, but perhaps not broken, that.

In Ireland, like everywhere, the role that smaller outlets play can be quite outsized. Would a file have been sent to the Director of Public Prosecution on the matter of Leo Varadkar leaking details of a GP pay deal contract to a friend had The Village not followed the story? Would the allegations swirling around An Bord Pleanála have come to light had The Ditch not followed the breadcrumbs left throughout that entity’s operations that many journalists simply didn’t have the time or inclination to pick up? And we all know there’s a long way to go with that one, including potentially serious political ramifications.

Do Fine Gael get it? Una Mullally debates with Neale Richmond

Listen | 00:00

Would we get the granular detail of Ken Foxe’s freedom of information requests over on The Story without his persistence? Would Dubliners be as au fait with the workings of Dublin City Council and the goings on at various council meetings without the Dublin Inquirer, which recently won a European Press Prize for its participation in a collaborative project examining the financialisation of housing?

Would academics have the space to share how their research connects with how we live without RTE’s Brainstorm? Would people be as up on breaking news in Ireland without The Journal? Would we truly understand the impact of the sexual abuse of Irish swimmers without the Mark Horgan’s Where Is George Gibney? podcast, one of the most remarkable pieces of Irish investigative journalism, ever, in my opinion.

And indeed, would sport in Ireland be as well covered without Second Captains? Recently, the Talking Bollox podcast was nominated for a Justice Media Award for an episode on Terence Wheelock. Personally, I’ve found myself increasingly informed on business and economics thanks to The Currency.

Where traditional broadcast media still leans into soundbites, conflict, vested interests as representatives of an issue, and brevity, listeners of novel broadcasting instead enjoy conversation, independent experts, lengthy listening, and specialism. It’s still astonishing to me that mainstream radio programmes often frame things in simplistic, broad ways when it’s very clear that the one thing listeners love is learning.

They like nerding up on things. The myth of what is “accessible” has been blown open by the fragmentation of media. Listeners like complexity. They enjoy great storytelling, even if it’s a single story over several hours.

Mainstream media is often just that, broad and general. And yet what audiences respond to often runs counter to what legacy organisations provide. The state of journalism is a large topic, but perhaps mainstream media could find inspiration in fragmentation which is often viewed as something that has scrambled the mainstream rather than added to a diversity of voices and perspectives.