57th World Communication Day: Journalism in time of misinformation
Are we speaking with the heart? As journalists, do we speak the truth in love? These are two relevant questions we need to ask ourselves, reflecting on the message of Pope Francis on 57th World Communication Day. With misinformation almost becoming synonymous to journalism, its credibility has hit an all-time low. Deliberate publication of misinformation by journalists is an aberration in journalism practice and a threat to the harmony of the society. This article does not intend to make an exhaustive study on this dangerous environment of falsehood. It rather tries to study the core principles of journalism to aid the journalists in general and church journalists in particular to fight misinformation and disinformation or fake news.
Disinformation is an old story fuelled by new technology
Mobilising and manipulating information was a feature of history long before modern journalism established standards which define news as a genre based on particular rules of integrity. An early record of fake news dates back to ancient Rome, when Antony met Cleopatra and his political enemy Octavian launched a smear campaign against him with short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets. But the 21st century has seen the weaponisation of information on an unprecedented scale. Powerful new technology makes the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, and social networks dramatically amplify falsehoods peddled by States, populist politicians, and dishonest corporate entities, as they are shared by uncritical publics.
What journalism needs to do
In this context, it is a time for news media to tack more closely to professional standards and ethics, to eschew the publishing of unchecked information, and to take a distance from information which may interest some of the public but which is not in the public interest. All news institutions, and journalists whatever their political leanings, should avoid inadvertently and uncritically spreading disinformation and misinformation. In much news media today, the elimination of positions providing internal fact checking has to an extent led to the function now being assumed by the “fifth estate” of bloggers and other external actors who call out mistakes made by journalists – though after they are already disseminated.
This emergent phenomenon can be welcomed by news media as reinforcing society’s interest in verifiable information. Journalists should bring the work of independent fact-checking groups to larger audiences. The media should be careful that external post-publication corrections do not become a substitute for internal processes of quality control. Journalists have to do better and “get it right” in the first place, or forfeit the possibility of a society to have believable media.
In sum, a game of catch-up corrections by external watchdogs is not one in which journalism is a winner. Journalists cannot leave it to fact-checking organisations to do the journalistic work of verifying questionable claims that are presented by sources. Journalism needs to proactively detect and uncover new cases and forms of disinformation. This is mission critical for the news media, and it represents an alternative to regulatory approaches to ‘fake news’.
Aided by process transparency and explicit application of ethical standards, journalism’s distinctive role today lies in its capacity to contribute clarity and build trust around verified content. The following seven principles, which are to varying extents about ethics, should aid the church journalists and also all journalists to fight misinformation in order to revive the dying credibility of journalism.
- Accuracy: Journalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’ but being accurate and getting the facts right remains a cardinal principle of journalism.
- Independence: Journalists must be independent voices. This means not acting, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests and declaring anything that might constitute a conflict of interest, in the interests of transparency.
- Fairness: Fair reporting of information, events, sources and their stories involves sifting, weighing and evaluating information open-mindedly and discerningly. Providing context and presenting a range of competing perspectives builds trust and confidence in reportage.
- Confidentiality: One of the foundational tenets of investigative journalism is the protection of confidential sources. This is essential for maintaining the trust of information sources including whistleblowers and, in some cases, ensuring the safety of those sources.
- Humanity: What journalists publish or broadcast can be necessarily hurtful, yet the impact of journalism on the lives of others must be considered. The public interest is the guiding principle here. Humanity also means consideration of problems faced by disadvantaged groups, even if not necessarily going as far, for example, as adopting a persistently social-justice oriented style of journalism.
- Accountability: It is a sure sign of professionalism and ethical journalism. Correcting errors promptly, prominently and sincerely can manifest the accountability of the journalist.
- Transparency: This in practice supports accountability and assists in the development and maintenance of trust in journalism. Participatory media, such as social media, is also important to ensure that the voices of under-represented or disadvantaged groups are not at the margins of news making.
Misinformation disseminated through mainstream media or the internet causes far reaching harm on the gullible public which is not able to differentiate the truth from falsehood. The controversy surrounding ‘The Wire’ and ‘Meta’ over an article claiming the ruling party had privileges on Instagram to censor posts is an example of how even credible news outlets can fall prey to the monster of misinformation. With advance manipulation in an atmosphere of hatred, polarisation and divisive politics and with elections around the corner, the reality of fake news is waiting to devour true journalism. In this context, it is important that the journalists apply the core principles to journalism to have ears to the ground to listen to the feeble voices and to speak with heart to be prophetic communicators, who participate in ‘the joys, fears, hopes and suffering of the women and men of our time.’