Journalism, truth, and democracy are under attack across the world. Social media and the new digital landscape have facilitated the spread disinformation and even violence against journalists. To build audience trust, news brands must demonstrate to audiences how truth is core to their foundational missions and democracy itself, speakers told participants during the INMA Master Class on Newsroom Innovation in March.
A group of more than 80 press freedom groups around the world are using the hashtag #HoldTheLine to show support for Maria Ressa, CEO and founder of Rappler, and other independent media in the Philippines after continued attacks from the government and relentless online harassment.
“I feel very lucky, because I think the reason we are still alive and I am not in prison — and I hope not to be — is because we shine the light,” Ressa said.
Democracies around the world are being challenged by active mis- and disinformation campaigns. Ressa said people can be controlled if they are made to believe lies are facts, and Tim Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, said something similar when appeared on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah: “If you want to rip the heart out of a democracy directly, if you want to go right at it and kill it, what you do is you go after facts.”
How can news media combat these attacks on truth? How can they build trust and communicate with increasingly polarised communities? Ressa said Rappler’s strategy is built on three pillars: technology, journalism, and community.
News organisations cannot control whether the public trusts them or not, Ressa said. The solution to attacks on truth and addressing increasingly polarised communities lies in technology, because this is also the root of the problem. The methodology being used to undermine democracy lies in the power of social media because these information distribution platforms have become behaviour-modification systems. Ressa added that this is the reality we live in, and news organisations have to acknowledge and embrace this.
“We don’t have the power we’ve had in the past,” she said. “And while you still have your vestigial power, please collect truth tellers together. Create a new vocabulary and find ways to protect the facts. Because in the battle for facts, the battle for truth, journalism is activism.”
Lionel Barber, author of The Powerful and the Damned and former editor-in-chief at Financial Times, also believes that journalism, and the culture of the newsroom in particular, is even more important today in this time of stress for democracy.
“Even though we’re less powerful than we might have been and were, and even if we’re more often damned by people who have been elected, we’re still going to survive, and we’re going to thrive,” Barber said.
As the editor of Financial Times, Barber said he first noticed something “odd” happening around 2015. “I suddenly found the FT being attacked in a way it never had been before.”
When he took over as editor, he knew the company needed to strengthen its brand and explicitly say what it stood for. The motto of its journalism became, “without fear and without favour.”
He thought this would protect the organisation from criticism, proclaiming it to be free of any partisanship. Nevertheless, he found the company under attack during Brexit, which was a black-and-white, yes-or-no referendum.
“With this disagreement over Brexit we were put on the spot — because we believed in the European Union, we believed in supporting European Union membership. It was a struggle at times to make sure that our newsroom was not leaning one way.”
To maintain trust of readers in such a polarised environment, facts matter. The Brexit situation was a “wake-up” moment for the FT, Barber said. He realised that total objectivity was sometimes impossible to maintain if one was dedicated to truth and justice. Instead, fairness might be the better goal.
Folha de S.Paulo in Brazil has also positioned its brand to promote democracy as a fundamental value. The news media company uses its institutional memory to remind readers of what the country was like before democracy. Half of the current population was born into democracy, yet many of them voted for Bolsonaro, who campaigned under the idea of going back to the “good times of the military regime.”
Sérgio Dávila, editor-in-chief, said Folha de S.Paulo’s new slogan — “A newspaper in service of democracy” — will remain until the 2022 elections. It also created a free four-part online course in dictatorship and democracy, which has been widely viewed.
Like journalists in the Philippines, journalists in Brazil are also facing direct attacks from their government. Calling out lies has become a crucial tactic in the war on truth. This can include headlines that call out the president for lying. The company also suspends the paywall for stories that are fighting fake news. Dávila said this never would have been done five or 10 years ago, but it is invaluable today.
“We reinforce the value of good information in bad times,” Dávila said. “We are showing readers that good information is valuable.”
See INMA’s list of future Master Classes here.