The Journalist is a groundbreaking media project providing history and context for key issues facing South African journalists.
What is to be done to restore public trust in journalists and journalism?
By Zubeida Jaffer
World Press Freedom Day 2022 (3 May https://www.thejournalist.org.za/spotlight/a-gift-to-the-world-from-african-journalists/) takes place at a time when the world is caught in an information war.
Not only does humanity teeter at the edge of a third world war, but it is also trapped in single stories about this conflict that are diametrically opposed to one another. The one story supports Ukraine and the Western World and the other Russia and its allies
The truth lies somewhere in between. It is the role of journalism to provide all the information that can help the public formulate a considered view of the present conflict. Instead, one gets a very different view depending which news channel you tune into.
This unnecessary and tragic war started soon after the tapering of the Covid-19 pandemic. For two years, tragic news about Covid deaths have hogged television screens and newspaper headlines. No sooner was this nearing an end when Russia attacked Ukraine and a fresh set of disturbing visuals and information were fed into already bludgeoned public minds.
Research is emerging that the coverage over the last few years have increasingly displayed negative news fatigue indicating an erosion of public trust in both the politicians and the news media. How politicians are going to navigate this challenge is up to them. The declining public trust in journalism however is something that journalists and the industry will have to interrogate and find a way forward to a healthier relationship with the public.
In May 2020, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University examined the “infodemically vulnerable” in Britain, those who chose to reduce consumption of COVID-19 related news. Writing about this in the Athens Journal of Mass Media and Communications (Volume 8, Issue 3, July 2022), Canadian academic, Neill Fitzpatrick recorded that more than one-fifth of those surveyed said they often or always actively try to avoid the news, with the majority citing the impact on their mood. (https://www.athensjournals.gr/media/2022-8-3-1-Fitzpatrick.pdf)
“While not a new phenomenon, the scepticism surrounding journalism was exacerbated during the pandemic as anti-vaccination advocates and conspiracy theorists questioned the validity and accuracy of the COVID-19 facts shared by news organizations, even governments,” he said. “While mental health concerns appear to be the primary reason behind the increase in avoidance, growing distrust in mainstream media is also cited.”
In May 2021, a Google search for the term COVID-19 news yielded more than 25.2 billion results. Fitzpatrick quoted researchers who found that the majority of these stories share common factors such as negative headlines and grim statistics about COVID-19‘s death toll, as well as its impact on families, businesses, and health care workers. Taken together with the extensive coverage of Trump and Brexit in the Western World, it was enough for news consumers to tune out, he said.
By 2019, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism‘s annual Digital News Report found 32% of those surveyed worldwide said they actively avoid the news, with avoidance highest in Croatia (56%), Turkey (55%), and Greece (54%). His paper does not factor in the war in Europe currently but cites research that the Trump, Brexit and Covid-19 news cycle left consumers feeling worse emotionally.
“It is clear both the consumers of news and those who produce it are frustrated with the current environment, but it is the journalists and news organizations that have the most to lose if nothing changes,” he said.
What is to be done?
Acutely aware of the challenges facing the profession, Rhodes Universities School of Journalism and Media Studies (JMS) has dedicated the month of May to interrogate the state of journalism in Africa. This is part of its year-long celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the school.(https://www.ru.ac.za/latestnews/fiftyalumnitobehonouredastheschoolofjournalismandmediastudiesmarks.html) It will kick off the discussions on May 5 when the school in partnership with the multimedia website, The Journalist and the South African weekly newspaper, the Mail and Guardian will host a panel discussion entitled “Reclaiming African Journalism in the Public Interest”.
The webinar takes place on the last day of UNESCO’s annual World Press Freedom Day Global Conference (https://events.unesco.org/event?id=36234750133).
The world event will take place from 2 to 5 May, 2022 in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It will focus on the digital era’s impact on freedom of expression, the safety of journalists, access to information and privacy and will develop concrete recommendations to address these challenges.
African diplomats lobbied the world to secure a global day for press freedom
On 3 May 2022, the world celebrates for the 29th consecutive time “World Press Freedom Day”, the principle of which was decided by consensus in December 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly. By choosing this date, the Assembly wished to pay tribute to the 60 or so African journalists who, meeting in the capital of Namibia on the initiative of UNESCO and the United Nations, adopted the “Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press” on 3 May 1991. This founding text, which defines the conditions necessary for the democratic functioning of the media, was the “mother” of four other regional Declarations that resulted from seminars similar to the one held in Namibia. The first one brought together media professionals from Asia (Alma Ata, Kazakhstan, 1992), the second from Latin America and the Caribbean (Santiago de Chile, 1994), the third from the Arab countries (Sana’a, Yemen, 1996) and the fourth from Europe and North America (Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997). The Windhoek Declaration as well as the four other regional Declarations, although openly denouncing the policies and practices of some States vis à vis the media of many countries (without naming them), were adopted, without any modification or opposition, by all UNESCO Member States who unanimously acknowledged that the Windhoek Seminar played a “catalytic role” in the democratization process that marked the international democratic landscape throughout the 1990s.
The lost illusions of the early 1990s
Given the current state of international relations, it is hard to believe that such unanimity was possible on a subject as sensitive as press freedom! Just for the record, the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 were a promising period for democracy and human rights. The multilateral system set up in the aftermath of the Second World War and rapidly undermined by the East/West rivalry had finally found its feet. More peaceful international relations then seemed possible and sustainable. The adoption of “World Press Freedom Day” is probably the most representative illustration of the prevailing optimism at that time. While the control of information had been one of the main issues of the Cold War for more than 40 years, the international community, by adopting the principle of this “World Day”, had managed to agree, and this without opposition, on the importance of a free, independent, and pluralistic press
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