Lies, damned lies and media development

False facts are a problem everywhere; In developing countries, they’re devastating

Accusations of inaccuracies in the news media are nothing new. After all, American journalism went through its infamous “yellow” period at the end of the 19th century when invented stories helped drive the US to war with Spain.

But if you thought that the digital age had put an end to all of that, think again. The media world is being roiled by a new wave of misrepresentations that set new standards for perfidy.

The Economist - July 26th 2014In the last month alone, Russian President Vladimir Putin made the cover of The Economist with the headline “A Web of Lies,” one of many commentaries bemoaning the barefaced distortions and conspiracies that are being propagated in the Kremlin-controlled Russian media. Other false facts appeared prominently in the coverage of the Ferguson, MO, police killing of an unarmed teenager. Long-simmering factual controversies about the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) also continued, all while the conflict in Gaza generated its own errors, half-truths and worse.

The New York Times last year chronicled the explosion in fake or embellished stories running riot on the Internet, noting the diminished incentives for websites to correct anything that generates a lot of lucrative advertising dollars. That followed The Atlantic’s coverage of groups that created “brigades” of internet users with fake identities to bury comments that they didn’t like and to put forward alternative, and often fabricated, facts.

All of this is happening at a time when satirical news programs like the Daily Show or online sites and print publications like The Onion have managed to draw a younger audience into the news. These satirical initiatives can actually generate interest in current events (even if it sometimes confuses a few gullible people). Most people get the jokes and may actually become better informed as a result. The Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef was forced to cancel his daily show earlier this year after repeatedly angering authorities.

But misrepresentation with intent to deceive can have a much more nefarious impact.  Arch Puddington, vice-president of research at Freedom House, wrote this week that Russian propaganda has been successful in convincing a majority of Russians that Ukraine is guilty of “massive war crimes, including the crucifixion of small children and the downing of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet.”

Building cultures of truth in the developing world is all the more challenging in an era when fully developed countries are perfecting the art of selling lies.  While it has never been easier to expose an error, verify a fact or seek the expertise of multitudes through “crowdsourcing,” the Internet and social media has made it easier for rumors and lies to spread like wildfire until they can be debunked—often too late to undo all the damage.

culture of truth 2 (2)

The extent of false news is difficult to quantify. One tally by PunditFact (affiliated with the fact-checking organization  PolitiFact) of the statements by pundits on U.S. television stations yielded stunning levels of truth-parsing on the air. Fully 60 percent of the claims checked on Fox News were rated “mostly false,” “false,” or, their most damning rating, “pants on fire.” NBC and MSNBC weren’t far behind, with 46% of the claims rated as mostly false or worse. While the claims to be checked are selected by PunditFact and by no means cover all of the content on these channels, even the best rated networks suggest that people  need to have multiple sources of information and to treat so-called experts with a grain of salt.

As bad as all this is for citizens in the developed countries, nowhere is the impact of false facts more harmful than in developing countries. Countries with underdeveloped economies and weak democracies often lack the supporting institutions that can over time correct falsehoods in the media. This in turn undermines accountability, makes investors wary of investing, and allows corruption and misgovernance to flourish.

In Russia in the 1990s under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, for example, newly liberated media outlets uncovered many examples of corruption, abuses of power, and mismanagement. Yet the lack of an independent judiciary or other checks and balances in the governance system meant that many of these abuses went unchecked. Over time, Russians became cynical about press revelations and often blamed the media for scandal mongering, and the murders of journalists soared. When Putin came to power, it only took a few years for him to bring the country’s media outlets under nearly total control.

The Media Sustainability Index measures a number of dimensions of media performance that may suggest the scale of the problem for developing countries. In addition to free speech and access to information, the MSI measures journalistic quality (fair and objective reporting, ethical behaviors, and lack of corruption, for example) as well as diversity of news sources (reflecting a variety of viewpoints, citizen access to all domestic and international news sources, and independent news gathering and production). In its most recent 2013 report on Europe and Eurasia, for example, only six of the 21 countries surveyed reached a “near sustainability” score in professional journalism, with all 15 others falling in the two “unsustainable” categories.

Creating a culture of truth-telling and fact-based governance is complex and never finished exercise, even for the most advanced countries. And while a free and independent media plays a central role in creating such a culture, it requires an array of supporting laws, institutions, behaviors and practices that constantly need to be upgraded, revised and defended.

The international community should focus more attention on the problem of helping countries establish the incentives and intuitions for a culture of truth-telling. This means not only supporting media development efforts at the sector level to improve journalist practices and quality, but also linking this with broader institutional reforms. This will mean a constant effort to convince leaders and citizens of developing countries that the truth matters. And on this front, we in the West are hardly setting the best example.

 

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The Free Press—Prosperity Link: Time to Reexamine the Evidence

Guest post by Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project

One of the classic arguments for a free and independent press is the economic one:  where the press is free and independent, robust economies are likely to flourish; where the press is government owned and unfree, economic outcomes suffer.  One of the earliest proponents for the free press-economic vitality argument was the Nobel laureate in economics, Amartya Sen.  He famously pronounced that in modern times there has never existed a serious famine in a country with a moderately free press. When he was president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn further popularized the correlation argument, writing that a free press is not a luxury, it is at the core of equitable development.

Under Wolfensohn, the Bank undertook in the late 1990′s a 97-country survey testing the correlation.  The survey measured indexes of press freedom such as regulation of the media, and emphasizing the role of ownership of traditional media outlets.  Heavy state ownership, for instance, translated to less freedom.  The survey also measured, nation-by-nation, such indexes of economic outcomes as changes in gross domestic product, corruption, public health and education.

The Bank published its survey results in 2002 in its lengthy report, Building Institutions for Markets.  Chapter 10, The Media, made the statistical and anecdotal case that the correlation was alive and well.

The problems with this argument are: first, that the data supporting the claimed correlation are more than ten years old, and second, that the data are based only on the traditional media forms and do not reflect the impact of new media technologies.

Most critically, however, the principal studies that endorse the correlation argument fail to address the problem of China.  The spectacular economic success of China in the last three decades has coexisted with a media that is manifestly unfree to criticize the central government or the Communist Party.  China defies the correlation argument.  Since China’s population is about one-fifth of that of the world, the fact that the free press-prosperity correlation overlooks China altogether raises questions about the universality, and perhaps the reliability, of the argument.  Surprisingly, without citing the anomaly of China, the World Bank study concluded that the correlation exists.  If the correlation argument is to claim legitimacy today, a need exists for up-to-date surveys, more searching scholarship, attention to the impact of new media technologies, and, of course, consideration of the anomaly that China continues to represent.

In a word, the paradox of China’s booming economy in a no-man’s land of press freedom should energize a reexamination of the argument for a free-press-robust economy correlation.

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Report: Journalism Training in the Digital Era

Thoughts from leaders in media development

CIMA’s latest report, Journalism Training in the Digital Era: Views from the Field, remarks upon the digital revolution for media development. Practitioners are hard pressed to find a request for proposal that doesn’t incorporate some new media elements–and as author Bill Ristow reports, “media developers now need to think like new media entrepreneurs.”

But what does this mean for journalism training, ofttimes the staple of many media development interventions?

Bill Ristow at a journalism training.

Ristow, a journalism trainer himself, interviewed thirteen journalism trainers from across the media development field—academics, implementers, and journalists, each spreading that same message that context is key.

“The mix has to be there,” says Jerome Aumente, former professor at Rutgers University and a journalism trainer over the past two decades, interviewed for the report. “What you must do is line it up with the realities of the country you’re in and calibrate it to make it match up. There’s no point in teaching higher-end technology to a region that is still basically newspaper focused.”

Ultimately, Ristow’s recommendation is one that can be applied to the media development field as a whole: While we can’t discount the benefits brought on by technological development, we should be careful not to be swept up in them.

Read the full report and see the recommendations from the experts.

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Africa Summit 2014: Recommendations for the Media Sector

Yesterday, we offered a behind-the-scenes look at what representatives of the media sector in Africa saw as the greatest challenges facing the region’s media development. Today, that group met in Washington to make recommendations on how to combat these challenges.

The panel’s spokesperson, Henry Maina of Article 19, said that the rapid change in Africa’s media environment has left the region with a degree of inconsistency. While positive developments such as mobile telephony and the Internet have created “new avenues for civic engagement and citizen participation,” these are far from ubiquitous in the region. Where they exist at all, the implementation of media laws, such as access to information or freedom of expression, is spotty.

Far and away, solutions will call for a multi-faceted approach–meaning that not only African governments, but also foreign governments, development agencies, inter-governmental organizations, and especially media practitioners should be held to account for the success of the media sector.

Henry Maina and representatives of the media sector in Africa present recommendations for development.

Henry Maina and representatives of the media sector in Africa present recommendations for development.

You can watch the entire presentation here (the media panel starts at the 2:00:00 mark). Below are the panel’s recommendations as presented in Washington this afternoon, in full, based on a document obtained by CIMA.

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Recommendations:

The media must be central to all discussions on Post 2015 Sustainable development goals and the ongoing USA-Africa trade partnerships.

US Government

  • There is need for the USA government to deal with the incoherence that often times is witnessed between the rhetoric in Washington and the practice of respective USA missions in different countries;
  • The government must seek to develop clear media support programme within its USAID programme portfolios;
  • The must seek to balance its support of counter-terrorism processes and laws with clear protection of freedom of expression and media; and access to information.

Media Agencies

  • International media networks must endeavor to cover Africa differently, holistically, as opposed to the continued narrative of Africa being the hopeless continent of disease, death and desperation

Government

  • All governments must review and repeal all repressive laws that unduly restrict freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information. Some of such laws include but are not limited to criminal defamation, insult, sedition, publication of false news;
  • Using the ACHPR Model Law on Access to Information as a minimum benchmark, all governments must pass, review and implement comprehensive access to information laws;
  • All governments where there are pending cases of violations of media freedom cases must institute credible and independent investigation processes and bring to justice all those deemed to be culpable in those violations;
  • Establish independent media regulatory mechanisms with a view to ensure media pluralism, diversity and transparency in broadcasting and telecommunications frequency spectrum allocation and management;
  • Utilise the African Peer Review Mechanism, UN Universal Periodic Review processes and recommendations to improve on the situation and role of media in development;
  • Establish clear and transparent policies on proportionate state advertising that promotes independent media and is not used to stifle critical media organisations.

Inter-Governmental Organisations

  • All inter-governmental organisations must develop clear media support programmes and where possible designate specified quotas of their resources to media development work;
  • That the World Bank, African Development Bank and UN agencies  should offer leadership by promulgating access to information policies that enable African citizens to know their dealing with their respective governments but also develop clear programme support to the media;
  • The UN treaty bodies and special mandate holders must underscore the centrality of freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information as fundamental rights but also instrumental rights in protection of economic and social rights;
  • The African Union Commission must show leadership in assisting states to ratify and meet their obligations under the international and regional human rights treaties and support positive comparative learning across the continent;
  • The African Commission on Human and Peoples Right must be supported to undertake both monitoring and promotional work;
  • The African Union Commission under the legal directorate must review the African Convention on Cyber Security to ensure that it is an enabler of the efforts to make African economies knowledge and information based economies and in line with the 2063 developmental needs;
  • Support the raising of awareness and implementation of the UN Action Plan

Development Agencies and Civil Society Organisations

  • All development agencies must advocate for inclusion of media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information in the ongoing Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals
  • Set up clear programme to offer legal and other support to journalists in distress across the continent;
  • Civil society organisations must be develop clear programming to support media freedom and not just use media as a communication tool for their work.

Media practitioners and Media Owners

  • Media practitioners must organize themselves better at national and continental level and offer support and solidarity to their colleagues and peers in distress in specific countries;
  • Media houses must develop and implement comprehensive gender and sexual harassment policies;
  • Support women journalists through targeted mentorship programme(s) to enhance retention and career progression;
  • Support self-regulation initiatives and partner with universities (national, international) to develop professional training programmes that enhance professionalism and specialization in reporting on different developmental issues.

Private Sector

  • Encourage multinational corporations to advertise and invest in select media houses in different countries in Africa both in direct broadcasting stations and also in local production houses, distribution.
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Africa Summit 2014: Challenges to the Media Sector

In the midst of the US-Africa Summit taking place for the government leaders in Washington, DC this week, civil society and media groups met at the National Endowment for Democracy to create a specific set of recommendations and goals for the region’s development.

While broad facets of civil society were present at the NED’s conference on Tuesday, the media sector specifically had sixteen participants from all the five sub-regions of the continent. The media’s working group discussion was facilitated by CIMA’s senior director Mark Nelson.

What must African governments, the US, and civil society do to protect press freedom? What is the role of the media in promoting democracy? What is the role of new media?

To set the stage for discussion, participants largely agreed upon potential for growth: Africa has one of the largest markets of mobile phone use, and seven percent of global Internet users are African. However, though there have been positive developments for the media environment, according to Freedom House, only three percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s countries have a free press. There was broad consensus among participants about the challenges that face Africa’s media environment, and were identified as:

  1. Media has not been seen as a critical sector to the emerging democratic and developmental state in Africa;
  2. Africa is replete of cases of open violence, torture and intimidation of journalists and media workers. However, attempts to investigate them and bring to justice those deemed culpable for violations have been lackluster at best;
  3. Most states keep laws and regulatory practices that unduly limit freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information;
  4. Poor working conditions of journalists and media workers in most of the countries particularly women;
  5. Most countries, except Eritrea, have a form of liberalized media but a veneer of private media is not a guarantee of independence, pluralism and diversity;
  6. Low capacity within most media  across the continent to report effectively on developmental issues;
  7. There is under representation of women as managers, workers, sources of information in most traditional media (print and electronic media).
  8. ***The penetration of accessible and affordable internet and mobile telephony continues to be hampered because most states have left it into the hands of private actors and not developed as a public good.

The media group will continue to discuss these challenges and create a set of recommendations that will be addressed in a public panel discussion on August 6 in Washington on Wednesday. Though the day-long conference is sold out, each session will be livestreamed.

 

[***This was added on August 6.]

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