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Speak Out! Rebuilding Trust in Media and Democracy in the Era of “Fake News”


Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies – particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law – are under assault and in retreat globally – The Freedom House Freedom in the World Report 2018

Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 2.37.39 AMThis was the motto of the Conference Speak Out! Rebuilding Trust in Media and Democracy in Kingston, Jamaica on 13 August 2018, organized by the Public Media Alliance. The conference brought together thought leaders from around the world to discuss journalism and policy solutions to current information disorder of fake news, polarization, and distrust.

While many reports from around the world painted a picture of political turmoils and constant challenges to independent journalism, keynote experts presented an array of innovative strategies and tactics for rebuilding trust in media and democracy.

Minna Aslama Horowitz, a Fellow at the Institute and a chair of the conference, recounts some key takeaways:

From Entertainment to Support

The convener of the conference was the Public Media Alliance, a not-for-profit based at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, that provides advocacy, support, knowledge exchange, research and training opportunities for public media worldwide. Its CEO, Dr. Sally-Ann Wilson, noted how often the media are discussed in the context of profit-making and entertainment. Yet, as President Obama has noted, democracy depends on strong institutions. What is needed is the kind of media that people turn to in crisis, when they need to come together and receive trustworthy information.

Young Audiences Matter

Fran Unsworth, the Head of News at the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) elaborated on the question of trust by highlighting that regaining the public’s confidence in impartial and media is not only about the accuracy of information. Experimentation and innovation are key to sustainable, honest, and dependable media. And it all starts with professionals. Not everyone can be a journalist. News organizations will become irrelevant if they favor user-generated content (UGC) over professionals, At the same time, new, different ways to create trustworthy information are crucial. Some examples include the BBC Monitoring program that tracks news sources worldwide, from legacy and social media; various fact-checking projects; as well as rigorous monitoring of UGC.

However, perhaps the most urgent task is to educate future generations in digital literacy. The BBC creates workshops for schools in the UK, and is now taking that program to New Delhi and Nairobi. Young audiences are amongst the most significant, and challenging strategic groups for news organizations. Hence, the BBC is present all the platforms young people use; yet the question still is how to reach this audience segment with relevant content. The BBC is experimenting with a number of solutions. For instance, it has introduced the “Under 30s panel”, that is, focus groups that bring younger citizens views to news programming.  In essence, the news media need access and content that speak to young people, to ensure audiences and informed citizens for the future.

“ABCD” and Five Values for Rebuilding Trust in Media

Paul Thompson, the CEO of Radio New Zealand, shared his secret sauce for wide audience support RNZ has been able to accrue for quality media. At the core is the strategic “ABCD priority order” on how to make a difference in the multiplatform, global media landscape.

A is for Audiences’ needs first: every news and programming decision is based on that premise.

B, as in Brand, means the promise by a media organization to its audiences. In the case of RNZ those promises include, among others, assurances of quality and trust.

Only then comes C, the specific kind of Content.

The last order of strategy is D, the Delivery Platform. Not everything needs to be multiplatform; a great radio program alone can exemplify A-B-C.

Yet, strategic alphabets alone are not enough. Much depends on shared internal organizational and managerial values that are translated into content. First, a news or any media organization must be fiercely and openly independent. This is one of the key features in building trust. Second, the organization must assess what it is doing right now, the best way possible; while, at the same time, thinking about, the new, that is,  innovation for the future. It may be good to keep the two values separate, so that the present successes do not redefine future innovations, but the latter can emerge freely. Radical sharing is essential for trust, and this means all kinds of coalitions and collaborations, including those with audiences.

Finally, what is needed is courage: even if we live challenging times for democracy and trust we cannot give up but need to have courage to focus on the strategies and values needed to rebuild them.

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