A marine metaphor for pressures on journalism in the digital age

“Journalism is like good bacteria in the belly of a fish; and this fish in turn depends on the wider state of the ocean.”

This was the analogy proposed by UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, at the 12th International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy last week.

He was describing the relevance of UNESCO’s latest World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, which focuses on four areas which can be summarized in the acronym F.I.S.H.

As explained by graphics in the director’s presentation, the F designates media “Freedom”, which is a key consideration for journalism to thrive.

“I” points to “Independence” which highlights the need for professional standards that ensure autonomy from political or commercial erosion of the values of producing verifiable information in the public interest.

“S” is safety of journalists to work without fear; while “H” is a reference to “how much” pluralism and choice exists in society.

The trends in F.I.S.H are influenced by ongoing ‘sea-change’, Berger elaborated, adding: “All this impacts strongly on the state of journalism conceived as something good”.

The UNESCO director was speaking on a panel titled “Journalism's perfect storm? Confronting rising global threats from ‘f*ke news’ to censorship, surveillance, and the killing of journalists with impunity”.

The discussion was convened by Julie Posetti, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, UK.  Other speakers were Maria Ressa of (who is also chair of the jury for the UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize; Courtney Radsch of the Committee to Protect Journalists; and Jay Rosen, professor at the Arthur L Carter Journalism Institute of New York University, USA.

Berger used the occasion to introduce the audience to the mix of positive as well as negative trends over the past five years, in the realms of media freedom, independence, safety and pluralism. 

UNESCO’s director summed up his remarks: “To guide society through the perfect storm against journalism, the media could consider telling audiences about the UNESCO World Trends Report”.

Maria Ressa urged collaboration between actors to counter the pressures on journalism, highlighting the important role that Internet platforms could play.

Julie Posetti, Guy Berger and Maria Ressa. © Silvia Mazzocchin

Also during the International Journalism Festival, UNESCO also initiated two consultations around its project to develop indicators for Internet Universality.

A roundtable with journalism educators and scholars focused on the question whether specific and unique indicators were needed if the envisaged UNESCO research tool was to be useful at country level.

Speakers included: Dr Alexandra Borchardt (RISJ); Prof Jeff Jarvis (City University of New York);  Magda Abu-Fadil (consultant, Lebanon); Prof Chris Anderson (University of Leeds).

A suggested tweak of the draft indicators was that these could cover whether a country’s laws had “institutional carve-outs” for journalism in terms of matters like data protection and confidentiality of communications.

A second event with journalists signalled the relevance to their work and institutions of many issues within UNESCO’s “R.O.A.M” framework of human rights, openness, accessibility, and multistakeholder participation. 

Top journalists deliberate the UNESCO draft indicators. © Silvia Mazzocchin

Examples are policies by governments and companies on filtering, blocking and Internet shut-downs. The regulation of privacy, and the algorithmic curation of news feeds and search results, were additional cases.

Safety from intimidation or cyber-attacks on media are dependent on wider social policies and practices as regards the Internet.

Affordability of Internet access affects media in terms of audience size, and the use of ad-blocking software by people trying to reduce the high cost of data usage in developing countries.

Panellists included Rappler’s Maria Ressa, the CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, Raju Narisetti;  Executive Editor at CNN Digital International, Inga Thordar, and founder of Welad Elbalad Media Services, Fatemah Farag.  

Their comments included: the difficulty of trying to measure self-censorship; the need for indicators to assess the visibility of journalistic output on Internet platforms; and the need to go beyond the formal existence of laws and policies, and allow for assessment of actual implementation.