By Daniel Bennett
With each day of Leveson evidence new stones are overturned, exposing the wider systemic and cultural problems that contributed to the phone-hacking scandal.
The ‘post-Leveson’ question becomes ever more pressing, as identified at yesterday’s University of Westminster conference, attended by a range of international media researchers, as well as regulation and legal specialists.
But how will the national media report the outcome of the Inquiry?
The media’s record in self-reporting is shaky, shown by its reluctance to give any credence to the Guardian’s initial story in 2009 and indicating serious flaws in the media’s ability to self-regulate.
In an article for June’s issue of British Journalism Review, Judith Townend and I demonstrate how a combination of personal, professional, political and commercial dynamics led to a failure of the media’s role as an accountability mechanism in the public interest.
We believe a useful new accountability tool would be an annual audit of all UK news media content.
The lack of coverage of phone hacking
The failure of almost every other news organisation other than the Guardian to regard phone hacking as newsworthy during the scandal’s earlier stages has been well-rehearsed and we have previously shown that perceptions are backed up by the numbers.
But it’s not a lone example of an issue that perhaps should have received more media attention or scrutiny.
We could also look at the reporting of financial institutions prior to the crash in 2008 or the build up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003.
As we demonstrate with phone hacking, working out why journalists regard some stories and angles as newsworthy requires significant analysis. But we don’t even have a way of systematically understanding and monitoring what news stories are being published and how they are being covered.
This is beginning to seem a little strange in an era when we can collect and organise vast quantities of data from online news articles. There is no longer any reason why we could not monitor the news values of the media in a far more comprehensive manner for the benefit of the future of journalism.
Accessing article data
For the BJR essay, we were able to trace all news articles relating to phone hacking over a four year period. And academic research has benefited from resources such as the Nexis® UK database which allows searchable access to decades of news articles.
But research which considers all news topics is often limited to only a few media outlets for a very short period of time and Nexis® UK is only available through subscription.
In the past, it would have been exceptionally time-consuming, if not impossible to conduct an annual survey of every topic or subject that made the news. Today, nearly every news story that appears in print also appears online and news is relatively straightforward to archive.
Towards an annual audit
By harnessing the potential of “big data” and digital search tools, we should be able to design a sophisticated piece of software which could be used to provide the public with an annual audit of all UK media articles for an entire year.
Data from news stories could be accessed to produce a breakdown of what news subjects were reported, how they were reported, by which journalists, how often and with how much prominence.
This data might be analysed in conjunction with data provided by audiences from clicks on web links and the number of times articles have been shared by web users on other websites. Information that is already being collected internally by news organisations.
This annual review of news could and should go beyond “newspapers” – a category of increasingly dubious relevance in a convergent media world. It could document all major online news sources whether they’re newspapers, broadcasters, new media websites or influential bloggers.
Independent researchers could then analyse this data to write an accessible and publicly available online report on the nature of UK news content.
A report which would provide the public with a more detailed understanding of what was regarded as newsworthy and how news topics have been reported.
Learning from projects in the United States
An annual review of this nature is not only possible, it’s also already being done outside the UK. In the United States, the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media” report analysed 46,000 stories from 52 news outlets in 2011.
One section of the report offered a comprehensive understanding of which stories and topics were regarded as newsworthy by American journalists and included data for news being shared by bloggers and Twitter users.
There is also an interactive online feature on the Pew website which means the public can make their own comparisons between the coverage of news stories in different media outlets.
It would be useful to combine this approach with that of the Media Cloud project, run by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This project includes an open source online tool highlighting which key words were used in relation to major news topics on a weekly basis by individual news organisations.
In the UK, perhaps the closest we have to anything similar is Journalisted.com, run by the Media Standards Trust. This website monitors articles written by individual journalists as well as a weekly and yearly round up of which news topics are “covered lots” or “covered little”.
This represents a useful starting point, but the depth of data and analysis is limited compared with the projects in the United States.
The value of an annual audit
An annual audit of UK media content undertaken by an independent organisation would only be a small part of much more wide-ranging solution to the issues raised by the phone-hacking scandal.
It would not illuminate journalists’ decision-making, hold them to account prior to publication or tackle newsroom culture and practices.
But it is a practical step forward which would provide a comprehensive overview of what stories are making the news and trends in the way those news stories are reported.
It would be an accountability tool that could benefit both news organisations and the public.
For journalists and editors, it would be a useful resource helping them reflect on the shape of their coverage over the course of a year.
For the wider public, it would provide a much more informed starting point for a broad debate on the how the media reports the news.
We would welcome comments, criticisms and suggestions to help us take this idea forward.
Daniel Bennett recently completed his PhD at the War Studies Department, King’s College, London. His thesis considered the impact of blogging and ‘new’ media on the BBC’s coverage of war and terrorism. This post also appeared on his blog Mediating Conflict.