As the technological landscape evolves in an increasingly digitized world, so widens the wellspring of news and information: shaky cell phone footage, amateur photography, even hastily composed tweets and social media posts. Open Journalism is an appropriate catch-all for these new sources, and, in a sense, represents a return to an honest and transparent newswriting. There are no style guides to be read, no editors to be consulted, no rules to be followed.
In this vein, however, the greatest strength of Open Journalism is also its most glaring pitfall – the lack of regulation and professional standards. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media seeks to explore the many trappings of Open Journalism, since the practice of involving readers and civilians raises questions that are legal, ethical, and regulatory in nature. Issues that traditional journalists encounter are similarly present, such as protection of sources, access to information and editorial independence.
As such, in 2014 the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media will hold a series of meetings among experts, policymakers and regulators touching on the practice and terminology of Open Journalism, legal issues, accountability and regulatory challenges. The meetings will help increase our understanding of the issues involved, best practices and possible solutions to advance and strengthen free media (see www.osce.org/fom/open-journalism).
The first meeting was held on 5 May in Vienna (www.osce.org/node/116742). The second meeting will be held on September 19 and in the run up to event, a Tweetchat will be held on September 18 from 10 – 11 EST.
The Tweetchat will provide an online forum for members of the international media development community to come together and pose questions about Open Journalism. To ask a question, simply log on to Twitter and tweet your question using the hashtag #askrfom. Help us cross miles and time zones with technology and pose your question on Open Journalism on September 18!
As a close follower of international media issues and of Latin America, I expected to hear a good deal about the problems media are facing in some countries of the region at the conference on Latin America that the Development Bank of Latin America, the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Dialogue hold in Washington every September.
Nope. No discussion of the lack of free media in Cuba, the president of Ecuador’s war on the independent press and the OAS’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression, nor of the government takeover and closing of media outlets in Venezuela –other than former Mexican president Felipe Calderón sounding the alarm that freedom is disappearing in Venezuela.
Panels provided great information and high-level thinking on the economic situation of the region, political developments, and social issues such as income inequality and the treatment of women, but news media specifically was not mentioned.
However, one panel, entitled “Social Innovation in the Global South,” did offer some food for thought regarding media development.
Panelists described innovative ways to communicate, organize, and work for the social good, primarily through the establishment of B corporations, where “B” stands for “benefit.”
A traditional corporation has a fiduciary duty to its shareholders to maximize profits. A B corporation’s duty is to its stakeholders, which can be, in addition to shareholders, its workers, customers, community, or the society at large. A handful of U.S. states recognize this form of incorporation. It is a model that media companies struggling economically might want to consider. Several media-related organizations are already doing this and are among the more than 1,100 registered B corporations in more than 30 countries.
“Policy makers will look to the value those companies are bringing to society,” and create tax and other incentives for them, said Andrew Kassoy, founder of B Lab, an organization that certifies B corporations, much as other organizations certify products as “green” or “fair trade.”
The next generation wants to work in socially redeeming fields and enterprises, Kassoy said, and “being a B corporation helps companies attract and retain talent.”
In an interview after the conference, panelist Julián Ugarte, executive director of Socialab in Chile, pointed out several media or media-related organizations that are operating as B corporations: La Silla Vacía in Colombia, an investigative and political journalism website (which the National Endowment for Democracy supports); docs4change in Chile, which helps NGOs that have no media production skills produce videos and web content; and El Definido , also in Chile, which is an Internet news and information site.
Could B corporations provide media development organizations with another arrow in their quivers?
The Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program at the International Forum for Democratic Studies is currently seeking applications for its 2015-2016 fellowships. As you may know from previous posts on The Source, the Reagan-Fascell program offers five-month fellowships to leading democracy activists, journalists, and scholars from around the world. During their time in residence, our fellows reflect on their experiences and consider lessons learned, conduct independent research and writing, engage with colleagues and counterparts in the United States, and build ties with a global network of democracy advocates.
After learning more about the program and the application process, you may wonder where to begin. Don’t worry – we’re here to help! The ten helpful hints listed below are designed to walk you through the application process and give you a few tips we hope you find useful.
If you would like to learn more, find answers to some of our most frequently asked questions, or apply, please visit us at http://www.ned.org/fellowships or follow the Forum on Twitter and Facebook. You may also contact us at email@example.com.
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.
In 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.
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.