World Press Freedom Day: Well-resourced newsrooms are vital in battle against fake news

Johannesburg – This year’s World Press Freedom Day theme “Information as a Public Good” deals with the changed nature of information and communications worldwide and how it impacts on freedom of expression, human rights, democracies and sustainable development.

Across different forms of media, people are soaking up lies, disinformation and fake news every second of the day, including malicious allegations presented as facts.

All this undermines true information and democracy because the majority of people worldwide are not schooled in distinguishing truth from lies in the news, and even educated, professional people repeat lies as facts.

Dealing with this requires a reimagining of the media and media literacy, and we cannot be romantic about this.

Media and journalism need to be healthy, robust, sufficiently resourced and free in every sense to pursue its role of providing reliable, real and important information to society. While we applaud the outstanding work that independent investigative journalism units are doing, we are highly concerned about the large-scale lapse in quality content.

Declining advertising revenues, coupled with competition from online sites and the explosion of social media, has resulted in a reduction of outlets for quality journalism. In the private sector, we also see money taken out of media companies and paid as dividends, but not reinvested into the growth of good journalism.

Weakly resourced newsrooms do not have the capacity to pursue good journalism. Content producers at all levels, including public broadcasters, media owners and advertisers, need to increase the professional level of media content across the board.

It’s a prerequisite. In the absence of this, there will be a strengthening of fake news, a deterioration of society, a deterioration of business in society, and a flourishing of corruption.

As we well know, this erodes the grounds for doing good business and investment, and ultimately everyone loses out. In reimagining the media, the voices and personal experiences of citizens in our rural and urban areas need to be heard to portray what is happening throughout the country, and to reignite citizen interest in the media as it reflects their lives.

Social media will only get bigger, and so we have to find new forms of journalism that investigate and reflect on people’s personal experiences and feelings. People need to be given the space and airtime to share their direct daily experience and what is working or not working where they are.

Instead they too frequently only get coverage when they are protesting or something horrific happens in their community. All forms of journalism and content are guided by the longstanding Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media (the Code), which is essential to maintain standards across all forms of media in our country. Prescribing to the Code is voluntary, which is good, as you don’t want government or partisan organisations using it to stifle freedom of expression.

The recent independent panel report on Media Ethics and Credibility commissioned by the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) recommends amending the Code “specifically to require media houses to provide reasonable editorial staff, precisely to ensure that journalists and editors have the necessary verification, fact-and background checking and sub-editing resources necessary to provide the most accurate information possible to the public”.

In addition, Sanef would welcome media houses investigating partnerships with fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check.

However, a major issue the media faces today is that perpetrators of substandard content and disinformation choose not to subscribe to it. One example is clickbait.

Sanef recommends that the Code should be amended “to refer specifically to online media practice of creating ‘clickbait’ headlines and to make it clear that the prohibition against misleading headlines in clause 10.1 of the Code prohibits the use of online clickbait”.

In addition to a commitment to quality media, another imperative is the development of media and information literacy programmes for citizens, schools and students in all higher education disciplines, to empower people to differentiate fake news from real news and recognise and value quality journalism in all its forms.

This is especially required in the context of the social media empires for which Google and Facebook et al are the gatekeepers of what gets put out there, good and bad.

The Sanef report says: “What is needed is not more control by the state, or anyone else, of the media, but more media and more consumers. For this, there needs to be a media-literate audience…”

• Professor Kupe is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria.

Tawana Kupe

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