This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme ‘Information as a Public Good’ addresses the changed nature of information and communications worldwide and how it impacts on freedom of expression, human rights, democracies and sustainable development.
Across different forms of media, people are soaking up lies, disinformation and fake news every second of the day, including malicious allegations presented as facts. All this undermines true information and democracy because the majority of people worldwide are not schooled in distinguishing truth from lies in the news, and even educated, professional people repeat lies as facts.
Addressing this requires a reimagining of the media and media literacy, and we cannot be romantic about this. If you go into media sociology there are numerous examples locally and internationally, including apartheid South Africa, where constant disinformation and the telling of lies for political and economic agendas were the norm. The current era has many new forms of media, but the abuse of truth is not new.
Media and journalism needs to be healthy, robust, sufficiently resourced and free in every sense to pursue its role of providing reliable, real and important information to society. While we applaud the outstanding work that independent investigative journalism units are doing, we are highly concerned about the large-scale lapse in quality content.
Declining advertising revenues, coupled with competition from online sites and the explosion of social media, has resulted in a reduction of outlets for quality journalism. In the private sector we also see money taken out of media companies and paid as dividends but not reinvested into the growth of good journalism.
Funding from grants
Weakly resourced newsrooms in the public and private sector do not have the capacity to pursue good journalism. Content producers at all levels, including public broadcasters, media owners and advertisers, need to commit to increasing the professional level of media content across the board. It’s a prerequisite. In the absence of this, there will be a strengthening of fake news, a deterioration of society, a deterioration of business in society, and a flourishing of corruption. As we well know, this erodes the grounds for doing good business and investment, and ultimately everyone loses out.
A policy brief recently published by the Consortium to Promote Human Rights, Civic Freedoms and Media Development (CHARM) in Sub-Saharan Africa, titled ‘Towards Sustainable Journalism in sub-Saharan Africa’, advises that where media organisations require funding to nurture and enhance independent media and journalism in the region, they could include grants to increase their revenue stream: “There are sustainable journalism projects in Africa that have yielded good results with funding from grants. For example, the OpenSociety provided grants to some media institutions in Nigeria to do investigative stories on the Nigerian parliament and make them more accountable to the public,” the report states.
It adds that a media development organisation, New Narratives, provides funding for mentorship and for journalists to report on land-related issues, mining and war crimes. The report says: “This opportunity has allowed interested journalists to research, investigate and focus on particular issues over a period of time until lasting solutions are found. This endeavour could not have been possible without the grants and fellowships, as media organisations did not gain financially and could have thus abandoned such stories midway.”
Organisations like CHARM and many others strongly advocate that the reimagining of journalism requires a shift to sustainable journalism that focuses on the local and global sustainability crisis the world is facing, as expressed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). CHARM explains that sustainable journalism is all about the public good because it informs citizens and spurs public engagement about current and future economic, social, and environmental challenges, and addresses two intertwined challenges of our time:
- “The sustainability crisis of society, e.g. environmental crises, democratic crises, poverty, financial crises, armed conflicts, etc. Obviously, journalism has a crucial role to play here since it contributes greatly to the understanding, and hence the handling, of such challenges.
- The sustainability crisis of journalism itself.”
New forms of journalism should reflect on people’s personal experiences
In reimagining the media, the voices and personal experiences of citizens in our rural and urban areas need to be heard to portray what is happening throughout the country, and to reignite citizen interest in the media as it reflects their lives.
Social media will only get bigger, and so we have to find new forms of journalism that investigate and reflect on people’s personal experiences and feelings. People need to be given the space and air time to share their direct daily experience and what is working or not working where they are; instead they too frequently only get coverage when they are protesting or something horrific happens in their community.
All forms of journalism and content, current and future, are guided by the longstanding Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media (the Code) which is essential to maintain standards across all forms of media in our country. Prescribing to the Code is voluntary, which is good, as you don’t want government or partisan organisations using the Code to stifle freedom of expression.
The recent independent panel report on Media Ethics and Credibility commissioned by the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) recommends amending the Code “specifically, to require media houses to provide reasonable editorial staff, precisely to ensure that journalists and editors have the necessary verification, fact- and background checking and sub-editing resources necessary to provide the most accurate information possible to the public. In addition, SANEF would welcome media houses investigating partnerships with fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check.”
However, a major issue the media faces today is that perpetrators of substandard content and disinformation choose not to subscribe to it. It nonetheless remains important to encourage as many media producers and distributors as possible, hopefully including the global social media giants to do so and to provide citizens with as much good journalism as possible.
The Code requires constant updating to deal with the speed of information evolution and the associated content exploitation. One of many examples is clickbait. SANEF recommends that the Code should be amended “to refer specifically to online media practice of creating ‘clickbait’ headlines and to make it clear that the prohibition against misleading headlines in clause 10.1 of the Code prohibits the use of online clickbait.”
Guarding against fake news in the age of social media
In addition to a commitment to quality media, another imperative is the development of media and information literacy (MIL) programmes for citizens, schools and students in all higher education disciplines, to empower people to differentiate fake news from real news and recognise and value quality journalism in all its forms. This is especially required in the context of the social media empires for which Google and Facebook et al are the gatekeepers of what gets put out there, good and bad.
They are important sources of communication but, as stated in the SANEF report: “A handful of internet companies provide billions of users across the world with communications services, but are also criticised for enabling hate and disinformation rather than journalism, as well as for weak transparency and accountability on how they use their gatekeeping power.”
At the same time they are a force for good, as expressed in a report titled ‘The State of Press Freedom in Southern Africa’, published by MISA Zimbabwe: “The internet has also provided the platform for the exercise of freedom of association and the right to demonstrate as has been seen from several online campaigns… Exercise of digital rights is, therefore, centred by the capacity of individuals to exercise their human rights through technology and the internet, electronic devices and or communication networks.”
The SANEF report says: “What is needed is not more control by the state, or anyone else, of the media, but more media and more consumers. For this, there needs to be a media-literate audience…”
People need to start understanding how the media works to understand where things go wrong. People need to become discerning about what they read and believe; they need to understand that freedom of expression belongs to everyone as a fundamental human right, it does not belong to journalism and the media alone. People need to understand the damage that fake feeds cause; how they have contributed to panic and fuel the precarious political atmosphere. We are going to see a lot more of this in South Africa and globally. It undermines stability and society’s capacity to make informed decisions.
We need to develop and implement critical media literacy programmes to counteract misinformation and propaganda. It’s a major and essential undertaking. I strongly believe it needs to be included in the education curriculum, from the youngest school-going age all the way through tertiary institutions.
Higher education departments that teach critical media and critical journalism studies are more important than ever before. They need to develop programmes that can help society to critically engage with content. We have to deal with the issue of information as a public good as a national, social and political emergency, and the way to do this is by educating people.
Professor Tawana Kupe is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.
World Press Freedom Day is observed on 3 May annually.