COLUMN - Journalism of the future should be less concerned with the present

Tue Jan 22, 2013 2:31pm EST

(John Lloyd is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By John Lloyd

Jan 22 (Reuters) - A constant and frequent complaint about journalism is that it concentrates almost exclusively on what is happening now, and not the future. Why didn't journalists see the financial crash coming? Why didn't they know there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Why didn't they warn about Enron's house of cards? Why didn't they do more, in advance, on the climate changes that helped cause Hurricane Sandy in the United States last October? Journalists sometimes join in on this to beat themselves up - especially on the Iraqi WMD issue - because they feel foolish about giving credence to claims that turned out to be wrong, or about not asking the right questions.

Besides, the trend in a lot of the media is toward more scandal, more controversy and more opining. There are publications and broadcasts and news agencies (such as this one) that are wedded to objective reporting, investigation and rational analysis, but they are in the minority, and a lot of them are finding it hard to make a living these days.

The Web allows news organizations to make much more multimedia and source material available to audiences that have swollen in size (though many visit websites only briefly). But most new media accentuate the trend of covering the here and now, since they allow reporting and publication in, or much closer to, real time.

Of course, that's in large part what the function of news. But journalists' own assessment of their mission is that it must hold power to account, inform the citizenry of all issues in the public interest and adequately cover the significant institutions and events of society and the world. You can say it has never adequately done so. Regardless, it has the tools to do better now.

Fulfilling that "Sunday best" definition of our job means, more than ever, looking into the future. Not to pronounce on things we can't know - whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq, just when the financial crash would come, etc. - but to focus on the long-term strategic issues that set the context within which politicians and institutions plan and which will be of enormous importance to us, and even more, our children. Understanding, describing and making intelligible these large questions is holding power to account, is informing the citizenry, is covering the significant.

Here's a short list of critical issues that journalists should be working on:

 Ecological dangers, especially global warming.

 Demographic issues - where some populations are shrinking and aging, others are growing fast.

 Weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical, biological - and the greater danger if they are possessed by rogue states or groups.

 Rapidly spreading pandemics for which there is no cure.

 Terrorism and how it is developing.

 Water, food and energy shortages.

 Crime - mafias, cybercrime, corruption - increasingly organized on a global basis.

 Armed conflict - over resources, land, religious and ideological quarrels, border disputes, ethnic hatred.

 U.S. global hegemony giving way to multi-polarity and the uncertainty as to what world system (if any) will succeed it.

 An emerging global "middle class" and its effect on economies, resources and ecology.

 Greater individual empowerment, which allows space for the exercise of greater initiative but also for less inhibited destructive behavior.

Burgeoning cities, with urbanized populations becoming the majority.

 Growing difficulties that governments at every level experience in providing authoritative leadership, especially in those areas where governments are not trusted.

 Accelerating speed of change and the problems administrations and institutions experience in adapting to it.

 Areas of great instability, within and between states, especially in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the former Soviet Union.

 The breakdown or degradation of health, education and social welfare systems.

 The breakdown or degradation of financial and banking systems.

 The increased pressure on rich countries because of immigrants from poor or war-torn countries and regions.

 A widespread outage of information-technology systems caused by an attack or other failure.

 The development of increasingly intelligent machines and of 3D printing, and their effects on employment.

Most of the elements of this incomplete list carry opportunities as well as risks. It's also possible to construct a uniformly benign list, in which applied science and greatly enhanced communication solve or ameliorate problems of food and water; the discovery of new energy resources and the development of alternative energy sources cancel or at least delay shortages; diplomatic breakthroughs reduce the threat of warfare  and so on. Bill Clinton, ever the sunny optimist, did just that recently.

Yet the long-term challenges of a rapidly globalizing world in which many of the pillars of the postwar system are now at least in question are greater than ever. The most popular media, though, do little to reflect them or promote knowledge of them. As you will see if you use the links in each of these categories and then expand your search, there's a very large amount of easily accessible material on them. But they tend to be written by and speak to circles of experts, policymakers and enthusiasts, and are frequently arcane for most readers.

We should find some way of making this stuff part of a real global conversation - one that is vivid, comprehensible and more democratic. Another self-made injunction to journalists is to make the significant interesting, and there's no dispute that most of what I've laid out above is significant. But interesting? That's first of all our job - and we owe it, if not to ourselves and our trade, to the kids. And then there's another responsibility that belongs to the public: to read and watch and understand it.

( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine. )

(John Lloyd)