Weekly Digest

The Fix Weekly Digest: Tighten the grip

Welcome to The Fix’s weekly news digest! Every Friday, we bring you five important news stories from the world of media — and try to put them in a wider context.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, a prominent US advocacy organisation, filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico government over “fake news” laws. The laws can allegedly be used to punish journalists under the guise of pandemic, particularly because they do not require prosecutors to prove that a person who published a piece of information knew it was false.

This week saw yet more examples of declining media freedom in different parts of the world, from Nigeria to Hong Kong.

According to Axios, this case is illustrative of the global “fake news” laws tied to the pandemic. Even though the decline of journalistic freedoms is a long-term trend, COVID-19 has allowed governments from Hungary to the Philippines to tighten their grip on independent media. 

This week’s clash between Twitter and Donald Trump has highlighted the contrast between Twitter and Facebook when it comes to freedom of speech. Twitter has marked two of Trump’s tweets as potentially misleading, supplementing them with a fact check label. (Trump, unsurprisingly, reacted in a Trumpian way.)

Commenting on his counterpart’s actions, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reinforced that their stance is different from that of Twitter. “Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said. Interestingly, Zuckerberg did so in an interview with Fox News, a conservative channel famously close to Trump.

In the meantime, The Wall Street Journal reports on problems in Facebook’s own backyard. According to the newspaper, Facebook’s top executives are perfectly aware of the platform’s role in enhancing political polarization, but have “largely shelved the research” as they faced tough choices on whether to move to reduce its divisiveness.

Good news for those lucky publishers who built a robust membership model. Not only did the pandemic help boost the number of subscribers, but the publications seem to succeed in keeping new subscribers even as initial interest in news and information is slowing down.

According to Digiday, “publishers including Bloomberg Media, The New York Times and The Guardian anecdotally say they are seeing signs of stronger retention rates from subscribers who have signed up since February and March”. It’s too early to be sure, but the signs are promising.

Conversely, this week brought yet more bad news for print newspapers. In Australia, one of the country’s largest media companies News Corp is not only cutting costs but closing down dozens of print newspapers — as many as 100 titles, according to The Guardian.

In the UK, the bad news concerns Daily Mail and General Trust, the company which owns The Daily Mail and several other publications. While its digital advertising fell by 16% in April and May, print advertising plunged by as much as 69%. As The Guardian’s Jim Waterson puts it, “DMGT is one of strongest media companies in country and even their ad sales are dire”.

Circulation has also fallen – despite small increases in April numbers have not fully recovered from the precipital March fall. Unlike digital, which saw considerable audience increases, the shuttering of daily habits, particularly of commutes, has hurt print newspapers the most.

Over the last weeks, we have seen several stories which highlight the challenges of covering the coronavirus.

The first example: the situation with Moderna, a drug company working on a COVID-19 vaccine. When it reported uplifting results of vaccine tests last week, it was widely reported as an important milestone by the media. The company’s stock value immediately soared. Shortly after that, new developments caused the shares to fall noticeably. According to Barron’s, “so far this year, the stock has moved more than 15% in a day nine separate times”. 

This situation highlights how the pandemic changed medical coverage, and what is the role of companies involved. Normally, respected publications would not have rushed to widely report on such preliminary information. But these are not normal times.

The second example: research on how the types of graphs used by journalists inform the public perception of the coronavirus. The media often reports on COVID-19 using more effective logarithmic graphs, not linear ones. Yet, logarithmic graphs might misinform people. A study shows those watching log graphs are less worried about the pandemic and less supportive of quarantine measures.

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