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Can Netflix Stop The Decline of the Free Press?

Traditionally, newspapers were the ones that funded journalism. Today, Netflix and the BBC are trying new ways to provide content in an entertaining way.

Table device showing the news, a newspaper ad a pair of folded reading glasses.

Can entertainment channels become trustworthy news outlets too?

Since the world has gone digital, one thing that has become quite noticeable is the declining quality of the news. Back in the day, great journalism was funded by newspapers with large budgets. This made sense; everyone paid about a pound a day to get the printed news (that’s 365 pounds a year!) and publications had to compete for an audience. This expectation resulted in excellent quality news pieces and exposés.

Journalism is an essential part of democracy. For one, it can check leaders' accountability. The recent Boris Johnson Partygate debacle wouldn't have taken journalists a year to uncover when we only had printed publications. People would have been looking for such news, intended to hold him accountable for his actions and at the same time sell newspapers. In a similar line, it's hard to imagine Putin would have been able to twist the Russian perception of the Ukraine war without having full control of the media. He calls it a "special operation to de-nazify the country," and sadly, the majority of Russians believe him because he directs the news.

Without free press, discourses like that of Putin (or Donald Trump, for that matter) will continue to thrive. In consequence, and as newspaper budgets continue to get cut, journalism is at risk of being killed in the democratic western world. Many publications today have to sadly rely on aggressive advertising or charity, like the case of The Guardian. But losing these outlets is not just sad; it's dangerous.

A New Journalistic Approach

There is, however, hope. The issue of the free press and the decline in journalistic quality coming from traditional newspapers have created several new opportunities for communicating global events. In recent years, the mantle has been picked up by a new and quite unexpected forms of media.

Netflix has recently presented outstanding examples of journalism. Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy, and What The Health are excellent examples of documentary films that are both fact-based and engaging. These award-winning shows (dealing with the impact of animal agriculture, the fishing industry and the link between diet and disease, respectively) make robust environmental cases while remaining humorous and ‘fun’ to watch. They have managed to highlight some of the world's injustices and explore the consequences of corruption at different levels.

Seaspiracy, for example, reports that 60% of our plastic waste comes from fishing nets - not plastic straws, as many of us are led to believe. Plastic straws contributing significantly to the problem is a ridiculous claim really when you think about it. The fishing industry has convinced people to cut back on them, knowing the measure would have little to no commercial (or, more importantly, environmental) impact. Plastic bottles would be a more significant concern but with the fishing industry financing and sponsoring many programs, nobody desires to address fishing nets. And this documentary is not the only one approaching difficult matters with unexpected journalistic integrity.

A Format That Works

The truth is Netflix is doing a great job at exposing these sorts of stories and presenting them in an entertaining and engaging way. The shows are not just well made; they are also incredibly popular. The BBC has also tried similar formats, although most of their productions tend to be more educational than political. Their Factual category, however, has over 300 shows available online and for free, and BBC One’s investigative documentary series Panorama which has been around since 1953 has now gained world renown.

Many of Netflix's most-watched documentaries are focused on true crime (Amanda Knox, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, Evil Genius, or The Sons of Sam) or the evasive yet incredibly attractive category of "scammers" (The Tinder Swindler, Fyre, or Made You Look). There are also great examples of what we could consider more traditional investigative journalism, such as Athlete A, Trial 4, Last Men in Aleppo, or The Great Hack.

Netflix shows with remote control

During the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people turned to their screens as they were forbidden from leaving their homes. In fact, the platform added about 32 million subscribers just in 2020, as more people switched away from traditional television. However, while retention and engagement remained quite healthy, acquisition growth has stalled. Netflix has recently reported that the platform expected to lose two million users over the next three months. Many place the blame on the "Disney effect" (or the more intense competition from Disney, HBO, Apple, and Amazon's own streaming services, among others) and investors are undeniably spooked. This, however, presents the platform with a challenge and a unique opportunity for growth.

A Chance to Step Up

I believe that the current crisis Netflix is going through is a perfect chance for the company to step up and fill in a gap that requires urgent care: That of an agent for free press and journalistic integrity. Investigative documentaries are an important part of our society, so it's time to reward those who are trying to create excellent content that is also entertaining and appeals to a larger audience.

Netflix could do regular updates presenting noteworthy events. Hasan Minhaj's Patriot Act made a good case for it, albeit in more of a talk show format. For six seasons, this original series offered weekly episodes and explored the modern cultural and political landscape with a comedic voice. The show was praised as genuinely innovative, and its cancellation after 40 episodes triggered a petition to be re-instated that gathered thousands of signatures. At the moment, no other popular show in Netflix's roster follows this genre - a staple of traditional broadcasters. We can't know for sure why Patriot Act was canceled (Netflix doesn't release viewing figures unless they are good), but some sources have stated that might have had to do with the working environment and not the show’s performance.

The BBC, in this case, seems to have an advantage over streaming platforms because of its proven history of being both an entertainment and news outlet. The question I want to bring to the table today is: Why can't Netflix become a news outlet too?

From The Responsibility of Social Media to The Social Responsibility of Media

Many theorists have discussed public interest as part of the media industry debate. Social media is being held increasingly accountable for social responsibility, but there doesn't seem to be a similar scenario for streaming and entertainment platforms. Of course, not all media companies should need to become new outlets. But we should expect them all to provide a high degree of credibility, usefulness, and fairness.

Many streaming services are receiving subscriptions and producing shows that endorse false narratives and create suspicion of democratic institutions. Conspiracy theories are appealing; they elicit intense emotions. They are also entertaining, attention-grabbing even. Several of these shows also sell adverts, not information. So when we wonder about the upcoming opportunities for platforms like Netflix and the BBC, whose shows have demonstrated an interest in journalistic integrity, we shouldn't exclude the responsibility of other companies that take people's money and offer nothing of quality in return.

The New Free Press

In 2018, Netflix announced they had spotted a hole in the market for a current affairs show. This weekly news magazine would encompass both sides of the political divide and engage audiences in new and engaging ways. The criticism quickly followed; the main one being that Netflix's catalog has a durability characteristic. You can watch most of its content months or years after its release.

The truth is, Netflix has tried talk shows (for example, David Letterman's and Norm MacDonald's) and doesn't seem to believe in their potential. Talk shows, however, are just one way of presenting news. Their successful documentaries have proven that more in-depth investigative formats can do really well. So why not explore this avenue further, and present the truth in ways that resemble those of Seaspiracy or Fyre?

Documentaries are a (relatively speaking) new type of journalism; most likely, however, they are the way in which journalism will be conducted in the coming years. As an audience, we need to be more open with these projects because they can provide excellent content on a global level. The risk, if we don't, is to see our democracy slowly eroded.


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