FACEBOOK STOUSH: The quality of Australian news stands to suffer if a suitable deal is not struck. Picture: Shutterstock

FACEBOOK STOUSH: The quality of Australian news stands to suffer if a suitable deal is not struck. Picture: Shutterstock

Threat to your news is real, and serious

Threat to your news is real, and serious

Connections
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Without sustainable funding for news, newspapers will continue to die, leaving communities with fewer local news options.

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It has been a tough year for local news with many regional and rural presses closing due to COVID-19 related cost-cutting. But Facebook's threat to ban news on its platform could make it harder yet.

Facebook's stance comes in response to the federal government's proposed law to force tech giants to pay for news stories shared on their platforms.

Meanwhile, Google is warning Australians that its free search engine and YouTube services are under threat if the law passes later this year.

The stoush between the tech giants and its opponents - the government, the ACCC (the architects of the law) and media companies - is just heating up. Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's response to the tech giants' threats was crisp: "We won't be responding to coercion."

It is anyone's guess how the brinkmanship will play out. What is clear is that the quality of news both online and offline will suffer if a deal is not struck. The losers will be everyday Australians.

What is clear is that the quality of news both online and offline will suffer if a deal is not struck. The losers will be everyday Australians.

This is because credible news is important in a democracy. It helps us consider diverse opinions and to make informed choices.

The news media also acts as a watchdog, to expose abuses of power.

Without sustainable funding for news, newspapers - particularly regional and rural papers - will continue to die, leaving communities with fewer local news options.

The Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI) has already tracked the loss of 21 mastheads due to the pandemic-related economic hardship.

As advertising revenues have migrated online bolstering tech giants' profits, traditional media have lost revenue, leading to newsroom cutbacks and closures.

The ACCC's 18-month inquiry into the power of digital platforms found media outlets cannot compete fairly against the global tech giants in the digital age.

While it seems just that digital platforms pay something for original news stories on their sites, the vexed question is: what is a fair price?

A key sticking point between the warring parties is the process to determine the price of news.

The draft laws force the companies to negotiate (for up to three months) or face an independent judge who must choose one party over the other, with no room for compromise.

Meanwhile, to the ire of some, rival social media like Twitter and TikTok, are exempt from the enforced bargaining process.

Likewise, the ABC and SBS are also excluded from getting payments from the tech giants. So too are small media outlets and start-ups with an annual turnover of less than $150,000.

So why should this battle matter to us? COVID-19 gives us good reason.

As the media landscape has expanded this century, how we get news has changed.

Studies show that while 52 per cent of Australians still turn to older forms of news - radio, television and print - almost half of Australians get their news online.

During the COVID-19 pandemic accurate information is critical to achieving public health outcomes.

Yet, our study found Australians are turning to social media more often to get COVID-19-related news.

Research by La Trobe University, the United States Studies Centre and University of Melbourne found of 1000 participants, 41 per cent of Australians were using Facebook more than they would outside the pandemic. Twitter and Instagram use was up too.

This reliance on social media for COVID-19 news shows how critical it is to have trustworthy information on Facebook.

Being able to find news articles written by journalists who are bound by professional standards helps guard against fake news that might contain harmful or even deathly advice.

If Facebook and Google make good with their threats and remove or change the way we see news online, Australians may be stripped of professional news on these platforms.

There will also be no funding deal. Traditional newsrooms will continue to struggle, with regional papers sure to be among the hardest hit.

Whether a compromise can be found, or another solution like the European-styled digital tax is considered, the warring parties need to recognise we all have a stake in the quality of news in the expanded media landscape. Without one, misinformation thrives.

Dr Andrea Carson is an Associate Professor of Journalism at La Trobe University. She is a member of PIJI's research panel and is currently researching online misinformation in the Asia Pacific through a Facebook grant.

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