Press Freedom Conference: Journalism has seen radical changes in recent months

Journalists, social advocates, academics and various other experts from around the globe discussed crucial challenges faced by the news media industry at this year’s World Press Freedom Conference. The annual event, which combines digital and in-person conversations took place at 9 and 10 December and focused on issues such as inclusiveness in media, local responses to the global pandemic as well as public trust in journalism.

“The needle is not moving as much as many of us would like,” said American broadcast journalist and executive producer Soledad O’Brien who led a debate on the importance of diversity in media companies. O’Brien’s panel agreed that homogeneity of the newsroom affects homogeneity of the message. If news outlets are not aware of their biases and don’t understand the impact of their reporting, they could easily contribute to the demonization or oppression of certain groups in society.

“Your job is not only to portray society but also to portray it in a fair way,” said journalist and social advocate Clarice Gargard. She highlighted the role of progressive journalism in times when the entire industry is trying to reshape itself. But in her eyes, the answer is not to simply hire a woman or a black reporter, or to be only positive towards one group or another. “This negates the purpose,” Gargard said.

Advertising companies are also facing diversity issues when promoting new products to their customers. According to Blake Harrop, managing director of Wieden & Kennedy, it’s important for brands to objectively portray life in the real world. By listening to their audiences, agencies can be more in tune with societal changes than most newsrooms. Despite the fundamental differences between advertising and journalism, these companies can sometimes lead the way in terms of representing truth and authenticity. 

In another session, journalists from eight countries shared how the global pandemic has affected the coverage, workflow and priorities of their news organizations. Outlets are responding in various ways to the challenges of COVID-19, which has put newsrooms in a difficult position but also reawakened society’s appreciation for good reporting.

“Information has almost become a weapon,” said Lifaqane Nare of Zimfact, an independent, non-partisan Zimbabwean online fact-checking platform. Zimfact is part of a network of African fact-checkers who examine viral claims in the digital space and debunk them after consulting with experts. Nare highlighted that fake news and propaganda have had a major impact on the battle against the virus throughout the year. In addition to fighting misinformation, some journalists have also tried to give hope to their audiences by illustrating how millions of people are coping with similar struggles.

“We didn’t want to compete with breaking news. So we decided to capture people’s stories,” said Carl Javier, COO of PumaPodcast, a pioneering podcast network in the Phillippines. By focusing on human-centered reporting, Javier’s team took an innovative approach to covering the impact of the coronavirus. PumaPodcast changed how they were using their manpower and relocated their resources. Despite the lack of opportunities for field reporting, they found ways to entertain and inspire their listeners during the lockdown.

On Thursday, the second and final day of the conference, panelists debated on the role of public media, combating online violence, preventing attacks against journalists and the future of the media industry.

This year has been unlike any other in recent memory. The global pandemic has transformed every aspect of social life while also reshaping the ways in which people keep up to date with current affairs. Professionals from around the globe discussed the radical changes, which journalism has seen in recent months. Many of them focused on the trend for more and more readers to choose social networks over mainstream outlets as their main source of information. With that in mind, panelists reflected on how journalism can be reimagined to respond to the challenges of the digital age and COVID-19.

“A lot of scientific research proves that in countries with strong public service the citizens are not only better educated, they are better informed,” said Cilla Benkö, Director General of Swedish Radio, who joined a large discussion on the importance of public broadcasters in times when the media space is becoming increasingly commercialized. “As a public service company, we should always work on behalf of the people. We should provide an open arena for discussion where thousands and thousands of voices can be heard and opinions can be shared.”

For many citizens, such an arena also comes in the shape of social media where billions of users interact on a daily basis. Journalists, however, are worried that these platforms have never been able to adequately serve the role of gatekeepers in order to protect audiences from fake news and propaganda. Due to the global health crisis and the U.S. presidential elections, Silicon Valley companies were led to taking editorial decisions on a scale like never before. “This is a huge responsibility for them. We cannot accept that companies with such power can take editorial decisions. It’s really dangerous,” said Christophe Deloire, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders.

For Marietje Schaake, International Policy Director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, it’s always difficult to assess hastily provided information such as hacks, leaks and alleged rumours, which often circulate online and go viral. And the fact that social media have become central to political debate worldwide puts pressure on their teams to be more open about how they handle content curation. “Going forward, I hope that some principles of protecting press freedom, the rule of law and democracy, public safety and public health will be leading in a way that will demand more transparency about how these platforms influence our behavior,” Schaake said.

Panelists agreed that there will be more pandemics and other crises in the future for which journalists need to be prepared. This also means ensuring better protection against censorship, personal attacks and government persecution. Another crucial condition for more transparent news media is allowing journalists access to cover events on the ground and obtain documents of public importance. This would help restore the citizens’ trust in good journalism, which remains the lifeblood of democracy.

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