A milk carton stands in front of me on the pine table in my mountain cabin. As is often the case, it is in my line of sight as I eat breakfast. In the late winter of 2019, the principal message conveyed by the carton is that its contents are no longer just “milk.” The word is surrounded by large text stating “fresh” and “from Swedish farms.”
It is interesting we are starting to communicate things that should appear to be obvious.
A week later, I am at the technology and digital conference South by Southwest in Texas. One of the discussion points draws parallels between quality journalism and food. The idea is to list the “nutritional content” of information, just as tables on food products provide a quick overview of their nutritional value and how healthy they are.
Another initiative seeking to facilitate the distinction between credible content and disinformation is the industry project Journalism Trust Initiative. Its overall objective is to reach a common standard defining quality journalism. Among other things, the project focuses on how media outlets can tell more about who they are, how they work, and what their values are.
None of the initiatives are uncomplicated. For example, how can it be determined what should be classified as quality journalism? Common among all of them is they highlight the major problem of fake news sweeping the globe. A relatively new and, for many, unknown phenomenon was in focus at the conference, taking the problem to another level: “deep fakes.”
The Swedish national daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet has reported on apps that, aided by Artificial Intelligence, make it possible to create video clips of famous politicians or others that look completely realistic but where both the sound and image have been manipulated.
To illustrate this phenomenon, video clips of Trump, Obama, and Putin, for example, have been produced. But the tools can just as easily be used to create more general, constructed news events that can inspire strong emotions.
How should we relate to this new “reality” — a reality where we cannot even believe what we see and hear? First and foremost, several experts underscore the importance of being aware that fak — but completely credible-looking — news clips can now appear. Other advice is to check the source yourself and be skeptical of everything.
Svenska Dagbladet Researcher Emma Frans likes to say we should relate to the world as if every day was April 1. She is right in many ways.
However, constantly questioning everything we read, see, and hear is demanding. This is where media working with quality journalism bear a responsibility. The industry has generally been very poor at explaining how the work of an editorial desk is conducted and how its approach can differ compared with others processing information in different ways.
Looking ahead, a key task will be maintaining trust in sources. It should be possible to rely on editorial teams to do the work of reviewing and evaluating sources, including using new tools being developed to reveal manipulations.
At Svenska Dagbladet, we have, for some years now, posted an information box alongside certain types of articles, explaining whether the content concerned is a comment or a debate article. To date, however, we have been thrifty when it comes to explaining what we view as editorial working methods: How we do not manipulate images. How we work to check sources on a daily basis. How texts undergo a process, in which at least one responsible editor reads through the article with critical eyes, frequently passing it back a couple of times before it progresses further in the system.
In the new media landscape — where false images and news have become increasingly commonplace — it is possible that we must also start communicating the seemingly obvious at the breakfast table.