Case Study – Journalists Taking a Role in Fostering Media Literacy (Janis Siksnis)

We start the day by checking notifications for news articles on our smartphones or watching TV. The radio is turned on in the kitchen. We recognize our favourite journalists by voice and style, we agree with some of them and argue with others. Journalists are present everywhere – from plenary sessions of Parliament to trouble spots all over the world. Their product is out of date as soon as it is reported, but consumers never stop demanding new information.

The effort to define journalism goes in various directions – it is thought to be a profession, an industry, a phenomenon, a culture, even a frame of mind (Zelizer B. (2005) Definitions of Journalism). Still, journalism in its most basic sense is the process of reporting events that affect society in an accurate and balanced way so that some understanding of the world we live in can be gained (Fleming, Hemmingway, Moore, Welford, 2006).

Journalism changed with technology. The publication of the first newspaper, the launch of radio broadcasting, the invention of photography, the kinetoscope to view moving pictures and then broadcast television marked major paradigms shifts in what became mass-media (Macnamara J., 2010). Another significant change happened with the creation of the World Wide Web and the growth of the Internet. Still, there are some standards that remain unchanged for quality journalism no matter the medium.

 

The importance of being ethical

Journalism ethics is defined as a species of applied ethics that examines what journalists and news organisations should do, given their role in society. (Stephen J. A. Ward, 2009). 

The Ethical Journalism Network distinguishes 5 Core Values of Journalism:

  • Truth and Accuracy

    Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. Always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts and ensure that they have been checked. 

  • Independence

    Journalists must be independent voices; they should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. They do not declare to the editors or the audience any of their political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest.

  • Fairness and Impartiality

    Most stories have at least two sides. Whilst there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.

  • Humanity

    Journalists should do no harm. What they publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but they should be aware of the impact of the words and images on the lives of others.

  • Accountability

    A sure sign of professionalism and responsible journalism is the ability to hold oneself accountable. When journalists commit errors, they must correct them; they have to listen to the concerns of their audience.

This code of conduct sets professional standards and makes journalism distinct from free expression, where people say what they want without any restrictions. Journalists are responsible for inaccurate or offensive reporting. In most countries, codes of conducts are signed and approved by self-regulation bodies, like national journalists’ associations or press councils. Worldwide, these documents serve as a guide for quality journalism and may be invoked in the event of complaints from the public on manipulative reporting.

 

Public Watchdog

Besides a range of obligations, journalists are also given power over influential spheres of society. 

In the medieval era, reporters were deemed the fourth estate of the realm for their efficiency. This function has been maintained until today. Be it government or business, the watchdog role of the journalist allows them to monitor the exercise of power. Are governments competent, efficient and honest? Are they fulfilling their responsibilities to the people who elected them? Are their policies and programmes based on sound judgments and information and designed with the interests of society as a whole in mind? In its capacity as watchdog, political journalism oversees the activities of our governors on our behalf and with our permission (Brian McNair, 2009).

A journalist that is asked to provide something other than reliable and comprehensive information of public interests subverts democratic culture (B. Kovach, T. Rosentiel, 2001). Nevertheless, “clickbait” has become a dominant form of online media, with headlines designed to entice people to click becoming the norm (Munger, Luca, Nagler, Tucker, 2018). It started happening as the interest of the public switched to short, emotional, sensational and often misleading news about celebrities, the fashion industry or social media influencers. But is it in the public interest? Are these subjects truly relevant for the wellbeing of people? Today’s dilemma for journalists comes down to the choice between meaningful reports and the number of page views.

 

Connecting with the Audience

Meanwhile, the technique of gathering, reporting and spreading news has changed due to technological progress.

The emphasis in the 21st century is on immediacy, with live radio and television reports, Internet chats with world leaders and news flashes delivered to mobile phones. Technological changes have also required changes in the working practices of journalists who are now expected to be multiskilled (Fleming, Hemmingway, Moore, Welford, 2006).

Today, each of us has the power to gather and transmit news; there are fewer rules and fewer limits. Mobile journalism is a new form of journalism, which means that the transmission of news and events can come from anywhere and from anyone who has a small camera or a mobile phone (McAdams M., 2011). New traits, such as multimediality, interactivity and hyperlinking, the rise of user contents and the convergence of production, lead to online journalism which is characterised by personalization and a different news-story structure and which has been described as experiential (E. Siapera, A. Veglis).

The formerly passive audience needs to contribute actively to the news; on the other side, mass media have to accept the value of user-generated content (UGC) and learn to incorporate it in an effective way (N. Jurrat, 2011). Nowadays, journalists are finding new ways to share news by collaborating with their audiences and everyday participants in events.

The Covid-19 outbreak is one of the recent occasions when citizen journalists regularly make it into the news. Through live streams on their YouTube channels or tweets, people talk about the actual situation in the places where they live, namely about the real number of infected persons, human rights violations or the lack of proper equipment. In China, where freedom of expression is limited, the majority of citizen journalists have been detained by the police for “provoking quarrels and making trouble”

Even if anonymity, lack of responsibility and accountability remain the main gaps in citizen journalism, it is increasing on specific topics or at the hyperlocal level and merely complementing mainstream national and international news (N. Jurrat, 2011).

Constructive journalism is another emerging form of reporting. It does not evoke emotions like anxiety and hopelessness. Constructive news argues that good reporting can inspire solutions to the problems facing our society, giving way to a new and more meaningful role for journalism (Haagerup, U., 2014).

It can be useful for youth organisations, as it challenges the view that a good story has to be a bad one. Instead, youth workers can explain that stories on complex topics like climate change or migration can be positive and encourage cooperation and dialogue.

 

Useful links

Authors

Mila Corlateanu

Freelance journalist based in Chișinău and a strong believer in the power of informed societies where media and education both play a crucial role. Since 2016 she is DW Akademie coordinator of projects such as introduction of media literacy in school & university curricula as well as non-formal activities in this field in Moldova.