Why journalism is under fire

23 March 2017

As the media landscape continues to be shaken by technological change and political polarization, more than 200 media experts gathered at UNESCO Headquarters today, 23 March, to discuss shared challenges and identify ways forward.

The Colloquium Journalism under fire: challenges of our time, featured lively debates from leading social scientists, journalists, and representatives of social media companies and media development organizations through four roundtable discussions.

Topics ranged from rise of identity politics, to threats to business models, responses to the spread of “fake news”, the role of social media platforms, and the importance of journalism training and media and information literacy.

In her opening remarks, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova explained that the event comes within the spirit of the Organization’s mandates to promote freedom of expression and to “act as a laboratory of ideas”, providing “a forum for debate on difficult questions of the day.”

“Combined with the concept of ‘fake news’, we see the rise of new forms of manipulation, propaganda, disinformation, raising questions that go to the heart of free, independent and professional journalism today,” observed Director-General Bokova.

These issues were the subject of a recent Joint Declaration on ‘Fake News’, Disinformation and Propaganda issued by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression and his counter-parts at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

In the colloquium’s opening, the President of the World Editors Forum, Marcelo Rech, identified additional challenges to journalism, namely the lack of public trust in the institution of journalism, the development of echo chambers on social media, and challenges to economic models.

“In opposition to fake news and echo chambers, professional journalists have to become 24/7 certifiers of the reality around us,” Rech stated. “Truth is the scarcest good in this new and scary world. But truth is exactly the product good newsrooms manufacture.”

The complex relationship between traditional media and social platforms appeared throughout the day’s discussions.

In light of Facebook’s major role as a platform for content distribution, Norwegian newspaper editor Espen Egil Hansen called Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg “the world’s most powerful editor”, noting that the company had moved beyond a tech company to being a media company.

Yet Facebook “really [doesn’t] want to be the world editors,” responded the company’s Director of Policy for Europe, Richard Allan, adding that as a social media company, Facebook does not fit perfectly into traditional regulatory frameworks developed for telecommunications companies or the media industry.

Maria Ressa, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Filipino online news site Rappler, urged more cooperation between traditional media and social media companies, stating, “We must work more closely with the tech platforms.”

The day ended with a reminder of the importance of quality journalism and media and information literacy for preserving truth, authenticity and critical thinking.

“Truth is not the result of an algorithm,” said UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, Frank La Rue, in reference to the automated procedures that determine the rank order of social media newsfeeds and search engine results.  “Truth is something we build together through honest dialogue.”

The role of journalism in facilitating this space for dialogue will be at the heart of this year’s celebration of World Press Freedom Day, under the theme Critical Times for Critical Minds: Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.

Today’s colloquium on “Journalism under Fire” was organized by UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development with the support of the International Programme for the Development of Communication, the World Associations of Newspapers and News Editors (WAN-IFRA), and the Governments of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

It took place during La Presse en Liberté week, which includes an exhibition of first-edition newspapers and debates on press freedom organized at UNESCO by the Delegations of France and Switzerland to UNESCO.

A summary of the highlights of the colloquium will be published on the conference website in the coming weeks. This will in turn provide input to the 2017 edition of the UNESCO flagship series World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, to be published in November 2017.