On this week’s episode we hear from Jane Ferguson, an Irish-British journalist covering war, politics and US foreign policy. She is currently a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour, contributor to The New Yorker, and a professor of journalism at Princeton University, as well as the inaugural winner of the Neal Conan Prize for Excellence in Journalism.

She tells us about how wars often bring the issues around modern journalism – mistrust, disinformation, lack of resources – into the starkest focus, and how the democratisation of tech is making the job of journalists covering war both easier and more difficult.

Ferguson says that younger audiences in particular are better at recognising that there is no such thing as an ‘unbiased’ news organisation, and at choosing to consumer news from individuals who are as transparent about their point of view as they are about their reporting practices:

“We’re all starting to have more honest conversations about ‘where do we come from? What are we bringing to these stories?’ Is it good or bad or inevitable that we all have opinions — which is different from an axe to grind, which is different from weaponizing your voice?’,” she observes. “So, it’s a very complicated conversation, and I don’t have a lot of the answers, but it’s certainly one that young people are way more attuned to.”

In the news roundup the team discusses the news that French authorities have levied a fine on Google for its unauthorised training of AI tools upon publisher content, and ask to what extent this is justified and its relationship to the ongoing acrimony between Google and publishers. Esther makes several excellent segues.

Some highlights from the interview, lightly edited for clarity:

The changing relationship between local journalists and the world press

[A change is] the concept that we necessarily need a foreigner to fly in. There’s always going to be a hunger for people who know their audience, come from the community to whom the story is being told, because there’s a storytelling element to that. But there’s so much value add to someone coming from that country.

In the past there was a concept, especially in TV, that accents are an issue, and the journalist has to look like the person that’s watching the story. I think that’s largely been debunked. So thankfully we’re starting to see more of a mix.

In other countries that I’ve been lucky enough to work in, we’ve seen this incredibly educated young population rise up. Many of them are ultra-connected to the world, many of them speak English, many of them want to be journalists. They’re starting to fill up bureaus, and get more of a chance to get on-air, and get their bylines out there. It’s really just starting to get to the levels that it needs to be at, but I think we’re seeing that a lot more.

Prioritising mental health and finding support

It depends on the news organisation, and depends on the kind of work that people are doing. Certainly the industry is vastly less macho about mental health than it used to be. There’s not so much ‘grin and bear it’ and ‘drink your way through’, and ‘stoicism alone is what you need’. There’s a sense also, now that we know more about it, we know about how it compounds; it really isn’t just one horrific incident.

I remember for the first time in my life being really shaken, really traumatised from a story when I got out of Syria, and I almost got caught. It took weeks for that to dissipate, maybe months even. I remember being very unsure of what I was experiencing, but turning to other journalists – and I think that’s really the key, we’re all much better at talking to one another and providing support to one another. So I would say in terms of classic PTSD, treatment is better. We’re way better at recognising it, and supporting one another.

I think one of the difficulties though, that is a more thorny issue that journalists don’t know what to do about, is actually the issue of moral injury, which is more complex. We’re still trying to understand it. PTSD is a fear that sticks in you, it’s like a high alert that won’t come down, and it’s treatable. Moral injury is more like a broken heart, and I think we don’t understand what to do about it. It tends to compound over many decades of reporting on human suffering and injustice.

The role of tech in telling stories directly

A huge amount of my work has been not travelling on the road with massive teams of people, but actually travelling very, very light, and then hiring and working with brilliant local journalists. Technology really empowers the storytellers beyond the behemoth news organisations. If we’re lucky, or if we do it right, then we can democratise news in ways that’s going to be pretty extraordinary.

Somewhere like Iran, where with female-led protests, trying to get hold of women, we’re reliant on them having a VPN, and that slows their internet down even more. A lot of the time, governments will just slow the internet, which is a pretty crude, blunt instrument. But it’s not that easy for governments really to prevent people talking now that we’ve got Signal. We’ve got, WhatsApp isn’t particularly secure, but things like Signal are incredibly helpful. And also everybody having a phone, it’s very, very hard to keep secrets.

Look at what’s going on in Gaza, international journalists banned from Gaza. Is there any shortage of footage? So I’m hopeful that it’s increasingly difficult for governments to block information. The difficulty is when they use technology to spy on reporters, and the harder part when it comes to our security, especially local journalists, that’s going to be front of mind for reporters going forward.

The news round-up

Google’s relationship with the media enters another complicated chapter after being hit with a $270 million fine in France.

  • France’s competition authority found Google used content from publishers and press agencies for training Bard (now called Gemini) “without notifying the copyright holders or the Authority”.
  • The Autorité also points out that Google failed to provide, until at least September 28, 2023, a technical solution to allow publishers and press agencies to opt out of their content being used to train Bard without such a decision affecting the display of their content on other Google services.
  • Google aren’t the only ones who have used publisher content to train their GenAI models, so will we see France coming for OpenAI, Microsoft et al? Or was this an opportunistic fine off the back of a more complex case?
  • Ricky Sutton, who we spoke to as part of our Big Noises series, thinks we should just “blow Google up and go after their ad gold.”

With all these questions around GenAI, search, and the future of publishing, where does the money fit in? It’s more of a symbiotic relationship than you might think.

  • It costs Google 10 times more to generate a list of summarised results than it does to return a typical, old-fashioned page of results with links. Google brought in US$31 billion in revenue in 2023 from its ad network on publishers’ websites.
  • Madhav Chinnappa said to us back in 2019 that the tech giant is “selfishly incentivized to want the news ecosystem to thrive, because if they thrive and they make more money, we end up making more money.”
  • But, if other search engines end up making it easier for people to…well…search without needing to scour publisher websites, and make better search products, Google’s market dominance will only last so long. It’s something the search giant is taking seriously if you look at their recent algorithm updates.


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