, , , ,

Public Service Media and Information Disorder: A Report to the Council of Europe


Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 3.46.03 PMThe Institute Fellow Minna Aslama Horowitz, with the assistance of the Master’s students Helene Diyabanza Peterson and Julia Theilen, authored an Expert Report for the Council of Europe on the possibilities for public service media to counter disinformation  and propaganda.

The report was presented to the Council in Paris, France, on 25 May 2018.  Below is the transcript of the presentation.

[Image via www.vpnsrus.com]



Esteemed Members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media:

Our theme – public service media organizations and the condition of media systems called information disorder – is both broad and very specific; many-sided and focused. Broad, in that we are looking at a complex phenomenon sometimes labelled as “fake news”. Focused, in that we are looking at the role of a very specific type of organization, with specific characteristics, missions, and mandates. The Introductory Memorandum for this report highlights the issue:

Editorial and institutional independence remains the essential condition for public service media to effectively fulfill their mission. Without truly independent public service media, there is a risk of having State-owned media which would only broadcast information favorable to the government. Moreover, there are well-known cases where State-directed media have been turned into propaganda tools and misused to spread disinformation and fake news or incite xenophobic hatred against minorities and vulnerable groups.

The Introductory Memorandum points out the areas for good practice and potential collaboration for public service media:

  1. Attracting audience through quality and innovative practices;
  2. Developing specialised/targeted programmes containing counter discourse;
  3. Stimulating critical thinking; and
  4. Developing targeted on-line communication with young people.

The main objective of the background report was to highlight some core activities and novel “best practices”, by public service media organizations.

In this brief presentation, based on the report, I wish to address three issues:

  1. Context: A shift from addressing “Fake News” to “Information Disorder”; the variety of “public service” contexts.
  2. Contributions: Examples of diverse ways in which public service media already promotes awareness, education, quality content, and new ways of reaching citizens. (Note that I use the word citizens in purpose – not audiences or media consumers.) I am happy to note that those examples are plentiful, even in this brief background report. Today I wish to share with you one specific case. It is not the only exemplary one, but one that can illustrate the array of ways in which a public service media organization can, and is making, a true difference.
  3. Creations and Collaborations: I use these words to indicate recommendations, or, opportunities, many already being developed and implemented. Collaboration is naturally the specific purpose and expertise of the European Broadcasting Union. I will open that discussion by reflecting on selected practices of PSM organizations, research and policy reports, as well as the views of some two dozen experts interviewed for this report.



There are two distinct contextual factors to consider when discussing the phenomenon of “fake news”, or, as we should perhaps begin to say, “Information Disorder”.

The first is the definition of what we mean by the term. There are numerous reports and policy briefs that all have different emphases, but the consensus is that we should not use the concept “fake news”. Many experts are quick to point out that “news” is never fake; hence the term undermines the trustworthiness of real news. Others point out to the politicized use of the term. Other experts highlight the variety of content (from mistakes to parody to purposefully misleading propaganda) and the variety of actors creating and spreading content. Perhaps the best account is by the Council of Europe report from last Fall that highlights a comprehensive framework for Information Disorder; Information Disorder being a concept that describes the content, purpose, and dissemination of misleading content. When understood this way, it is perhaps clear why public service media would be considered as an antidote to these negative developments. Many research efforts show that in Europe, PSM organizations are, generally, greatly trusted as reliable sources of content.

The second contextual factor relates to what we mean by public service media. In theory, the definition seems clear. The European Broadcasting Union, the global advocacy organization for public media Public Media Alliance, as well as the Council of Europe and UNESCO all note the following:

  1. Public service broadcasting and public service media refer to broadcasting and related services made, financed and controlled by the public, for the public.
  2. They are neither commercial nor state-owned, free from political interference and pressure from commercial forces.
  3. Their output is designed to inform, educate and entertain all audiences.
  4. They have universality in terms of content and access;
  5. They maintain accuracy and high standards of journalism.
  6. They enhance social, political and cultural citizenship and promote diversity as well as social cohesion, and ultimately, support an informed democracy.
  7. In addition, the EBU lists as one of its core PSM values innovation, including creativity in terms of formats and technologies, as well as connectivity with audiences.

However, as we all know there are major differences between mature public service media countries, and those just emerging. There are differences in institutional configurations, mandates, funding, audience share. Information disorder may be both a national and international set of phenomena; public service media organizations are fundamentally national institutions. This may be a self-evident observation, but highlights the fact that no one model to counter information disorder fits all contexts.


The challenges of information disorder have been widely noted and addressed by news organizations, and public broadcasters in particular. Besides news reports, public service media organizations have countered disinformation and in several ways. According to the 2017 survey of 21 members of the European Broadcasting Union, all considered tackling “fake news” a high or medium priority; over half of them were planning activities, and half of them were taking part in a global or local fact-checking initiative partnership or were considering joining one. In addition, PSM organizations engage in other activities, ranging from creating quality content and offering critical approaches to information disorder, to reaching young audiences via variety of ways and platforms. The report depicts from examples from some 20 countries.

I wish to illustrate the variety of possible approaches with a brief case study of the Swedish public service media.

Sweden, as you know, is a mature public service media market. It hosts three public broadcasting companies: Sveriges Radio AB (SR), Sveriges Television AB (SVT) and Sveriges Utbildningsradio AB (UR; educational broadcaster broadcasting on SR and SVT). In terms of budget, public service is relatively well-resourced. SVT gets the largest TV audience share, and SR channels amount to approximately three quarters of the radio market. SVT and SR are on the top of the rankings regarding trust in media.

In terms of attracting audiences through quality and innovative practices, the Swedish public media organizations are early adopters of technological innovations, Sweden being one of the first countries to switch from analog to digital television. SVT and SR rank in the first, and third, place respectively in terms of the weekly use of news. They cover both regional and national news and utilize websites and apps as well as non-proprietary platforms in social media, for the widest possible access to their content. They have created numerous apps to engage entertainment audiences, and won prizes for technological innovations, such as NXG, a smart remote control that transports audio in standard networks by using only a smartphone or a tablet. The goal is to get closer to audiences by leaving the radio studio and broadcast from where the action is.

As for critical outlooks, SVT and SR have already since 2014 dedicated a number of current affairs and educational programs to informing audiences about the importance of source criticism, filter bubbles, disinformation, and the “post-truth” era. The Swedish PSM has been especially creative with targeted online communication with young people and created educational, interactive experiences during which young people learn reporting and fact-checking or investigate a story that came from a suspicious (fictional) organization known for spreading fake stories.

Finally, in terms of fact-checking and collaborations, Swedish Television and Swedish Radio as well as the two biggest daily newspapers Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet have started a project titled faktiskt.se where they collaborate on fact-checking. They have sought inspiration especially from a similar Norwegian collaboration project. Another model for them has been the multi-stakeholder collaboration First Draft.

– It should be noted that First Draft, hosted at Harvard University, Shorenstein Center, and founded by Claire Wardle who reported on informtion disorder for the Council is perhaps the best known multi-stakeholder initiative to counter fake news. First Draft has over 40 members including commercial as well as public service media around the world (e.g., BBC, France Télévisions, ZDF, Deutsche Welle, as well as Eurovision), not-for-profit journalism organizations such as Global Voices and ProPublica, and platforms from Facebook to Twitter. First Draft coordinated a special project during the French elections involving also audinece members.

Modeling these initiatives, SVT has recently founded a special editorial office with four journalists especially assigned to work solely on combating disinformation within the framework of faktiskt.se.

These examples are replicated in different forms by numerous other European PSM. As the case of Sweden shows, a public service media organization can work in multitude of fronts to provide quality, trusted, verified content to combat information disorder.


[Creations and Collaborations]

How to move forward? Public Service Media can have a great impact in numerous ways: as a “role model”, as an educator, as a national hub and convener, as a cross-border collaborator, and as a visionary. All of these roles intersect, but have distinct meanings.

  1. First – and this may be an obvious statement, yet important to state – a robust, independent national PSM can guarantee quality journalism and trustworthiness. It can act as a harbinger, a role model. Its stories are safe to share. It fact-checks news by others. It engages the audiences, it includes diversity of voices. It speaks to young audiences in new ways, about their concerns. In that way, as a journalist I interviewed put it: PSM earns its place in the eyes of the citizens.
  2. Second, PSM can further develop media education and critical literacy, perhaps even more in conjunction with its news and current affairs, and from children to audiences of all ages. This is in line with many a PSM mission, a natural connection.
  3. Third, PSM can have a natural role in national media landscapes also as the hub, the center of activities combating information disorder. The EU, based on the work of the High Level Expert Group, has focused on collaborative, multi-stakeholder “soft power” approach to engage with platforms, legacy media, policy-makers, and other actors in a joint combat against Information Disorder. The battle is both shared, and specific; be it in the context, say, of a specific election, or country, or region, or media market. Therefore EU has also recognized the need to know more and the need to establish national research centers (much what we know is still US-based research). PSM can also, in its part, participate in, and coordinate, fact-finding on information disorder. More broadly, in several Member States PSM organizations are partnering with other news organizations, but also with cultural creators and other stakeholders. This can be their natural role.
  4. Fourth, the projects by the EBU, as well as the First Draft fact-checking project show that public service media are important partners in cross-border projects and collaborations, bringing in PSM values and views; gaining knowledge and support internationally in this matter.
  5. And fifth, it can be the role of the PSM to envision new alternatives, new innovations to combat the Information Disorder. To do so PSM organizations need strong multi-stakeholder support. And to achieve that, they perhaps need to be much more vocal and communicate to policy-makers and audiences of all the things they do, and could do. To quote Emily Bell, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University, April 2018, in an interview for Nieman Lab:

Everyone in public service journalism comes to work every day with a mission to inform the citizens of their country, and to try and reach everybody. Even people who can’t pay, even people who don’t necessarily think they need the news, or people who are left out of decision-making because they don’t fit the socio-demographic profile that means they would normally be included.

To me, right now, there is almost nothing more important than having robust public service media available to citizens.

I think public service broadcasters can do anything because they have longevity and security of funding. But they’re not always as imaginative as we need them to be at this particular time.

Existing political systems and public service broadcasters need to be free to imagine the kinds of information ecosystems that they’d want at the nation/state level and then real freedom to experiment with and find new paths to deliver that.

And also to think about themselves oriented in a world where it could well be that large-scale technology platforms — designed, built, operated in America — will be taking over much of what your information ecosystem looks like over the next decade.


[In sum]

  • We are addressing “Information Disorder”, not “fake news”.
  • We are witnessing a global-local challenge, with specific manifestations. We know that there are significant commercial and political pressures that PSM faces in many parts in Europe. We know of the challenges of technology, and platforms.
  • Yet, the purpose of this report was to highlight the good practices by PSM. And, indeed, the background report has shown the great potential, and the essential role, of PSM in combating information disorder.
  • Today is the day of the launch of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. The New York Times hailed the effort as historic,  one that other countries will want to “copycat”. Let us make robust European PSM values and organizations one tool in the fight against information disorder that others will want to copycat, as well.


Thank you.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 3.43.45 PM




Leave a Reply