New Horizons in Journalism 2024: the responsibilities and the challenges for the media in the year of multiple elections around the world

Daniel Penev, AEJ-Bulgaria

Journalists and researchers from Bulgaria, the USA, the UK, France, Hungary, Finland, Romania, and South Africa came together in Sofia on May 21, 2024, to share their views about the responsibilities and the challenges for free media in the context of high-stake elections. In 2024, more than half of the world’s population will vote. In addition to the European elections in June and the US presidential elections in November, elections are to take place in countries like India, Mexico, the UK, Romania, and Moldova, following the elections that already took place in Russia, Slovakia, Finland, and Pakistan, among other countries.

In the light of this global series of elections, the 4th international conference New Horizons in Journalism focused on the interplay between elections, democracy, and journalism. The event was organized by the World Press Institute (WPI) in partnership with the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) and the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria (AEJ-Bulgaria).

The thread connecting the presentations and the panel discussions during the conference was the way in which journalists’ work and the expectations towards them are changing as a result of the economic turbulence in recent years, the strong political and social polarization, the rise of political parties and leaders with radical views, the wars in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip, the development of more powerful models of artificial intelligence (AI), and the expanded access to tools for the dissemination of false and/or misleading information and propaganda.

Opening remarks

The conference started with opening remarks from Nancy Schiller, president and CEO of ABF, and David McDonald, executive chair of the WPI’s board of directors and former executive director of the institute. They pointed out that one Bulgarian journalist per year can participate in the WPI’s fellowship program and that the conference New Horizons in Journalism is one of the priorities for their respective organizations. 

Irina Nedeva, president of AEJ-Bulgaria and journalist at the Bulgarian National Radio (BNR), said the conference is an expression of AEJ-Bulgaria’s responsibility towards the journalistic community because the upcoming early parliamentary elections are a topic of major interest to Bulgarian voters. According to her, journalists are facing two main challenges – the rise of anti-democratic political groups that are waging a war on the European Union (EU)’s values and institutions, and the sowing of the seeds of division in the society through disinformation and hate speech. Bulgarian journalists also have to deal with the limitations set by the country’s Electoral Code in relation to political debates in the media in the pre-election period, Nedeva said. She concluded by noting that while politicians stay in power for a limited period of time, journalists remain in the long run, but this shouldn’t give us comfort because when democracy dies, dictatorship is born.

The challenges for free media amid elections and wars

The official part of the conference kicked off with a keynote speech by James Jordan, news director for Europe and Africa at the Associated Press (AP), where he oversees more than 30 bureaus and nearly 300 journalists.

Jordan has solid experience in public-interest storytelling. He’s covered the referendum for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, Elizabeth II’s death, and the terrorist attacks in Manchester in 2017 and in Paris in 2015. It was during the coverage of the terrorist attack in Paris that Jordan became fully aware of the potential of people-focused stories to change the world for the better. At the time, he was working at the British TV channel ITV News which, as part of its coverage of this tragedy, reported on the defiant and moving social media post by Antoine Leiris, who lost the mother of his 17-month-old son in the siege at the Bataclan music venue in the French capital. In his post, Leiris told the terrorists that they would ‘not have my hatred’.

Over the past two years, Jordan has mostly been focused on the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine. He has interviewed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky twice, most recently in November 2023 when he travelled to the city of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region together with the president. Jordan told the audience how an AP team of Ukrainian journalists were trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine and how they not only managed to get their footage documenting the atrocities being committed in the city out to the world but also to get out of the city alive. This footage was later used in the production of the documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, which won the 2024 Oscar for best documentary feature film. After he showed a trailer of the movie, Jordan explained that the siege of Mariupol is an example of a painful story that journalists have to tell so that people around the world can learn about the most important events and remember them.

In his keynote speech, Jordan described the AP’s approach to covering the elections around the world in 2024. In his opinion, these elections offer an opportunity for the media to regain the public’s trust by telling transparent and fact-based stories in various formats. He and his colleagues have focused on telling people-focused stories that the audience can associate with and presenting the most important information in an accessible manner – that is, with the right words and in an appropriate context. They also strive to connect the dots between the elections in different countries and explain how they are related to one another.

During the Q&A session, Jordan shed additional light on certain aspects of the AP journalists’ work that were of interest to the audience. He said that the agency uses public opinion polls but only after checking the methodology behind them and only as a complementary resource, rather than putting them in the center of the stories. To ensure transparency, the AP describes the circumstances in which it produced a specific news story about a sensitive topic – for example, when AP journalists have travelled to Russia-controlled areas in Ukraine, the agency clearly states this out because the audience has the right to know it. In response to a question inspired by the decision of prominent Bulgarian journalists to go into politics, Jordan explained that the AP’s journalists are not allowed to be affiliated with political parties and donate money to political causes, and if any of them decides to run for political office, they are obliged to leave the agency.

European elections: the big issues for voters in Finland, Hungary, and France

The participants in the first panel discussion explored the issues of greatest interest to voters in Finland, Hungary, and France on the eve of the European elections in June. The discussion was moderated by Yana Nikolova, international news editor at Nova Television (Bulgaria).

Pauliina Grym, journalist and host at Finnish broadcaster Yle, said that as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the Finns have become more concerned about their country’s security and defence. These concerns have largely arisen in response to the increase in the number of asylum applications in Finland. According to some people, this increase may be a product of intentional actions by Russia. Finland’s authorities closed the border with Russia in late 2023 and are considering passing legislation that will allow border security officials to send migrants back to Russia. These moves, which, according to some experts, go against the EU’s values, have triggered conflicting reactions in Finland, and this may have consequences for the European elections. Grym pointed out that public opinion polls may be misleading because respondents are not always willing to speak openly about their political-party preferences.

Hungarians have traditionally not been very interested in the European elections and Fidesz, the ruling party, usually wins the vote, but this time the situation is different, said Andras Petho, co-founder and executive director of Hungarian investigative reporting center Direkt36. On the one hand, Peter Magyar, the leader of the Respect and Freedom party, who was close to Fidesz in the past, is gaining more and more electoral support, becoming a major threat to the party of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. On the other hand, Fidesz left the Group of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament (EP) in 2021. Isolated at European level, Orban is currently leading an anti-EU campaign and presenting himself as the saviour of Hungary, whose survival is threatened by the actions of the ‘evil’ bureaucrats in Brussels and the Hungarian opposition ‘managed by them’. Orban has over the past few years found allies among politicians in EU Member States such as Poland and Slovakia, as well as the leaders of countries with little democratic experience like Russia and China. Petho said that Orban has consolidated his power since 2010 via the coordinated, multi-channel dissemination of the same political messages. An interesting detail about the European elections in Hungary on June 9 is that they are going to take place in conjunction with the local elections. 

Tarek Kai, a French-Lebanese reporter at France 24, made it clear that the European elections campaign in France partly resembles the campaigns in Finland and Hungary but the context differs in two ways. First, the French tend to see the European elections as preparation for the presidential elections in 2027. And secondly, French voters differ in their positions about the war in Gaza, which is understandable given the large Jewish and Muslim communities in the country. Jordan Bardella, the leader of the extreme right-wing party National Rally, which is projected to win the European elections in France, is one of the youngest French politicians, an EP member, and a potential prime-minister if Marine Le Pen becomes president in 2027. Kai explained that a European elections victory for the National Rally party would be a heavy blow to Renaissance, the party of French president Emmanuel Macron, and could lead to a turbulent period in French politics.

The discussion and the Q&A session brought to the surface two similarities in the conditions in Finland, Hungary, and France that are likely to affect the results of the European elections – the state of the economy, especially the people’s purchasing power, and the turnout among young voters. The panelists agreed that the mainstream political parties should make an effort to reach more young people because if they don’t do it, young voters may opt for politicians with more extreme views. Pauliina Grym gave an example of an initiative aimed at encouraging young people to be more active politically in the form of an online compass for the European elections in Finland that has been tailored precisely to this group’s characteristics.

A year of elections: the global outlook and the implications of the US elections for Europe

Thomas Hanson, a diplomat in residence at the Alworth Institute for International Affairs at the University of Minnesota – Duluth and a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, described the international political environment in 2024. In his speech, he focused on the elections around the world, the USA’s growing concerns about the changes in the international order as a result of the growing influence of China and the other countries in the Global South, especially in Asia and Africa, and the war in Ukraine.

Hanson said that the EU is threatened by both far-right and far-left parties. As to the USA, he cited a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)’s survey among foreign policy experts suggesting that the presidential elections and related phenomena are among the biggest threats to American interests this year. The US presidential elections create high levels of uncertainty for Europe as well.

The Global South is becoming an increasingly influential actor in international politics due to its demographic growth and close political and economic ties to China and Russia, Hanson said. This change is a precondition for calls for greater equality at the United Nations (UN). The US diplomat said that the Global South feels discriminated because of the much greater attention that the West is paying to the war in Ukraine in comparison to the conflicts in Africa. Developments in the Global South may lead to security troubles for the USA and Europe arising from wars and intensive migration. China is a major source of concern for the USA, especially with regards to the production of semiconductors, as this can change the balance of power in military terms.

On the topic of Ukraine, Hanson said that after Russia failed to achieve regime change in the country, it is now aspiring to reestablish ‘Novorossiya’. As the war continues, Ukraine is set to face bigger and bigger challenges due to its shrinking resources and insufficient number of soldiers. Hanson stressed that the most important question is how the West is going to act from now on: is it going to continue to support Ukraine by sending military equipment, or are some countries going to take action on the ground?

David Schultz, a professor in the Departments of Political Science, Environmental Studies, and Legal Studies at Hamline University, explained in a nutshell how the US electoral system works and outlined the factors that will largely determine the outcome of the presidential elections in November.

Specific elements of the US electoral system increase the electoral weight of the so-called swing voters, counties, and states, Schultz said. This means that the presidential race may be decided by a tiny percentage of all voters. This year’s elections are even harder to predict because almost 20% of the electorate is made up of new voters. While the generation of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) is shrinking, Generation Y (those born between 1981 and 1996) and Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) constitute an increasingly bigger part of the electorate. The generational transition brings changes to the American society’s agenda and expands the gap between younger and older citizens.

It is hard to forecast young voters’ behavior, Schultz said. Will they go to the polling station, or will they remain at home? If they go to the polling station, will they vote for ‘the lesser evil’, or will they support a third-party candidate instead of casting their vote for one of the candidates of the two mainstream parties? According to Schultz, if a popular personality like Taylor Swift publicly expresses her support for one of the candidates, this could influence her fans’ behavior and, thus, increase the respective candidate’s chances of success.

The growing percentage of young voters is not the only change in US politics with potential to tip the balance in favor of one of the presidential candidates. Another trend that should be taken into account is the strong social polarization in the USA and the Democrats’ and Republicans’ move away from the center towards the far left and far right of the political spectrum, Schultz said. Whereas the two parties used to be willing to seek consensus on the most important issues, they have been moving away from each other in recent years. This slows down or blocks the passing of legislative proposals and the implementation of reforms. 

Schultz also noted that this year’s presidential contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is very different from the 2020 race between them. Biden’s chances of success are decreasing due to the negative comments about his age, his poor approval ratings, and voters’ concerns about the economy. Trump’s chances of success, for their part, may suffer significantly depending on how the criminal case against him goes.

During the Q&A session, Hanson and Schultz agreed that even if Biden remains president, this does not guarantee that the USA will continue to support Ukraine as it has until now. The US position will depend on the US public opinion, including on the pressure for the country to step back from the international stage and deal with its domestic issues, and on the dynamics of the US relations with China. According to Hanson and Schultz, the world order is bound to evolve – they expect the Transatlantic order, which has dominated international relations for the past 300 or 400 years, to give way to a multipolar system, and globalization to give way to regionalization. Recent events implying such a transition include the accession of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Egypt, and Ethiopia to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South America) and the 2022 entering into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which brings together countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, forming the largest free-trade area in the world.

In addition, Hanson pointed out that the generational gap is further widening because younger voters get their news from different media than older voters. The emergence of new media platforms may deepen both the divisions in the American society and the problems related to disinformation. The reason: the lack of an ethical code of conduct regulating the operations of these media platforms similar to the ethical codes that professionally working traditional media are expected to follow.

Disinformation and polarization in high-stake elections

The second panel discussion during the conference was devoted to journalists’ evolving role in the context of the active dissemination of disinformation and strong social polarization. It was moderated by Camilla Bath, a journalism consultant and trainer from South Africa.

Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and low at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, said that traditional media find themselves in the unenviable position of having to look for ways to inform the public without alienating the members of certain social groups but also without forgetting that they are responsible for the protection of democratic values. Journalists cannot afford to remain neutral when politicians use the instruments of democracy to undermine the foundations of democracy, Kirtley said. She shared her strong conviction that the protection of democracy is journalists’ highest duty as guardians of the public interest because no free media can exist in a non-democratic country.

Patrik Szicherle, research fellow at GLOBESEC’s Center for Democracy and Resilience in Bratislava, Slovakia, said that new technologies enable more people to act as journalists but at the same time, the competition for clicks undermines the public’s trust in the media because of the prioritization of sensational content and the opportunities for exerting political influence over the news coverage. According to Szicherle, journalists should continue to act as mediators between those in power and the citizens but to be able to do that, they need to find new business models and sources of funding for the media.

The regulation of digital media and other sources of information, including social media, is not a solution by itself because the effectiveness of regulatory measures depends on how they are implemented, how many people use them, and how they use them, said Madalina Voinea, an analyst from Romania with expertise in digital monitoring, international relations, and political analysis. To illustrate her point, she mentioned the slow, difficult, and oftentimes fruitless communication between social media users and the companies that own these platforms, especially in the case of users from smaller countries and/or markets of secondary importance to these corporations. In her opinion, journalists should make an effort to communicate with local institutions and receive information of public interest through them.

Jane Kirtley admitted that she is sceptical not only about state regulations, but also about the potential involvement of technology companies in the search for solutions to journalistic/media problems because every business prioritizes its profits over the protection of the public interest by default. Instead, she sees scope for improvement in giving people access to quality education and technological tools so that they are able to distinguish between trustworthy and fake or misleading information. Patrik Szicherle also thinks that giving power to the people is the right step in combating disinformation and that AI can be a part of the solution rather than just a part of the problem. He stressed that we need to be proactive as citizens instead of simply responding to threats as they come up. In his opinion, the more educated a person is, the less likely it is for them to fall prey to disinformation campaigns because they are more knowledgeable and more capable of thinking critically and analytically. Madalina Voinea added that if media literacy education is to be effective, it has to be delivered as part of a broader civic education program.

How can journalists contribute to this process? By performing their duties in a professional and transparent manner, according to Jane Kirtley. Journalists don’t have to stay neutral, she said. Instead, they have to inform the audience about any political affiliations, conflicts of interest, and ethical dilemmas. Similarly, Madalina Voinea said that journalists have to take principled positions on key issues of public interest and counter disinformation in the public space. At the same time, however, journalists need support in the form of access to training programs because they themselves need to be able to use the new technological and media tools.

Journalistic workshops after the conference

WPI’s 4th international conference New Horizons in Journalism in Sofia was accompanied by three journalistic workshops. The topics of the workshops, which took place on the day after the conference, included:

  • How does modern propaganda work? A warning from Hungary – lecturer: Andras Petho (co-founder and executive director of Direkt36)
  • Navigating the new frontier of digital disinformation – lecturers: Camilla Bath (journalism consultant and trainer) and Fauziyya Tukur (investigative journalist, BBC)
  • EYES on the elections – lecturers: Mario Rusinov (co-founder of the Fair Election Coalition, Bulgaria) and Stoil Tzitzelkov (co-founder and former chairman of the Public Council at the Central Electoral Commission, Bulgaria)

Photographer: Anastas Tarpanov

Additional thematic resources

New Horizons in Journalism2023, 2022, 2021
Factcheck.bg – the only Bulgarian platform specialized solely in fact-checking
Best practices for engaging citizens with fact-checking (2023)

 

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