Blog: Quality journalism in the digital age: the truth is in our hands

Quality journalism in the digital age: the truth is in our hands

In the good old days, when there were only traditional media forms, our news came from trained fact-checking journalists, who we could hold accountable for inaccurate reports. In the new digital era anyone can be a news reporter and “fake news” seems to be taking over. While the new digital world is often criticized, we tend to forget how valuable a digital forum is, where everyone is able to participate in a public debate. Additionally, where news is published that would otherwise have remained unexposed. It may feel like as if we have been let loose in an open digital field, but as with every bird that has just been freed from its cage: all we need to be able to see the truth with our own eyes, is learn how to fly. Instead of letting misleading news discourage us to look for truths all together, we must teach news-receivers how to use the internet and we must regulate the internet, whilst keeping the power in the right hands without restricting the freedom of speech and the press.

In trying to save the future of quality journalism, the focus seems to be on getting rid of “fake news”. However, banning fake news is not in any way the correct solution, as fake news is in fact just a simplification of types of misleading news, that might actually not be as evil as it sounds. Think for example of satire, conspiracy theories or even a simple error. They may cause a lot of confusion, but are no reason for censorship. It has been suggested that people who create or share fake news should be penalized and the EU has come up with the idea of fake news lists. But putting penalties on fake news may scare people from contributing to the public debate, as it might have a chilling effect on free speech, and listing fake news might actually have the opposite effect of what we want to achieve. Madeleine De Cock Buning, chairman of the High-Level Group on Fake News warns against such lists, as governments should not be the ones to say what is true and what is not as they may misuse these lists for their own advantage. This could potentially lead to censorship and a threat to our freedom of speech and our right to information. What are we supposed to do then, when banning fake news only seems to bring us back to square one?

According to research, 1 in 3 people in Holland can’t distinguish fake news from real news and 82% thinks fake news is a threat to our democracy. Due to the information overload and our limited attention, high-quality and low-quality news becomes of equal weight to our brains and distinguishing the fake from the real may indeed become very difficult. To separate the wheat from the chaff, people must be educated in media literacy. Most people start their quest for truth at an advertiser funded search engine, that shows us exactly what its sponsors want to see us. Media literacy may help us understand how to do good research, think critically, recognize what is fake and it may also help us to create our own media messages.

One must stress it’s not only the people who must learn what and what not to believe, it is also the media actors themselves that must convince the people that they are to be trusted. To do so, there must come a universal code of conduct: ethical standards that traditional as well as community journalists should stick to. They are also  the ones designated to regulate all of this. Fact-checking over fast publishing, truth over sensation and quality over quantity. Media platforms must find a way to tackle misleading news, without the censorship of educational, humorous, or satirical content. Think green verified badges on twitter for trustworthy journalists, transparency when it comes to how algorithms work and changing the business model where platforms earn money from people sharing fake news.

Maybe advertiser funded platforms are not the right place for us to find trustworthy news anyway. A big part of the public debate takes place on Facebook, a platform that collects our information and uses commercial personal communication to show us directed content and makes money off of the advertisements that we click on. Instead of giving such platforms all this power, we should come up with alternative independent platforms based on donations and subscriptions. This in turn would produce an incentive of publishing content that isn’t just pleasing the advertisers, but creating quality journalism in this digital age.

Though it will require considerable effort, there is a way to uncover the truth in our public debate. Instead of letting the information overload cause us to become lazy, we must become active readers and writers. We are the ones that can decide what we believe in and what we don’t trust. We are also the ones that can decide what to share and what not to share. In this age, where we are heading closer and closer to true freedom of speech, where we can share opinions with people on the other side of the world, we don’t need censorship or penalties for the use of our speech. Instead, we need to cherish the fact that we have this freedom and join forces, because only then can we experience the full potential of this promising digital environment.

Geschreven door: Moo Miero van de Redactiecommissie

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