The third of May is supposed to be a day to ‘’celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom.” Given some alarming global trends in media, however, it seems celebrations are far from in order – more must be done to simply protect freedom of the press.
Three recent reports have highlighted troubling media trends around the world. Freedom House, in its annual Freedom of the Press study, states that press freedom has “declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016”. Likewise, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) proclaims in its yearly report that “we have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies.” And, now, Index on Censorship has released a study on the state of media in the U.S. which found that “journalists have been on the receiving end of online and offline harassment, as well as being arrested and charged with criminal offenses just for doing their job.” All three organizations warn that many established democracies are degrading in freedom of the press, where attacks and threats on journalists are on the rise, and the information space is being increasingly distorted with fake news and manipulative content.
More must be done to support those brave journalists – citizen and professional alike – who risk their lives to provide people with the news, as well as increase digital literacy skills among their audiences such that they can better cope with this onslaught of propaganda and persuasion.
Supporting Journalists and Press Freedom
At the SecDev Foundation, we have been honoured to work with journalists and media activists around the world. In providing support and training on topics such as digital safety and verifying user generated content, we have gained an understanding for the challenges journalists face in a Digital Age. While this is particularly acute in places such as Syria, journalists around the world are facing growing risks as the media’s role in holding governments accountable clashes with increasing security measures affecting overall transparency.
While providing hands on support to journalists is best left to specialised organisations, you can still support the media in fairly simple and direct ways. With dwindling advertising revenues, media outlets are more dependent on subscriptions. If you value a media outlet’s coverage, show your support by signing up for a paid subscription. Just because content is available for free, doesn’t mean there isn’t a price to be paid – choosing to contribute helps foster stronger, more independent media.
Sharing the work of reliable journalists also helps. Always look for the original article to promote online, as opposed to sharing from news aggregators. If you are in doubt about the facts behind the piece, do a quick search to verify facts or check Snopes. One of the biggest assets journalists have is their audience, they now help spread the news and act as a support network for media professionals.
— Sameer Al-Doumy (@SameerAlDoumy) April 22, 2017
Where it is safe to do so, be vocal about your support for a free press. Your ability to do so will vary on your situation. If the Freedom House and RSF reports are any indication, never has vocalized support for media freedom been more necessary in many established liberal democracies. Write to your representative and express how important press freedom is – and let that also be reflected in your vote.
Become a More Discerning Audience
Beyond supporting journalism, individuals also have a personal responsibility to become more discerning consumers of content.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe fake news sows considerable confusion about basic facts in current affairs and events – and “23% say they have shared a made-up news story – either knowingly or not”. Revelations related to recent political campaigns and the use of fake news, botnets, and other deliberate manipulation of the online environment have done much to raise awareness of the threat of propaganda in a Digital Age, but more must be done to better prepare voters for coping with an onslaught of digital misinformation.
Most Digital Media Literacy programs tend to focus on youth education. However, in countries such as the U.K, U.S. and Canada, nearly half of the population graduated high school before the web was invented – yet 65% of American respondents, for example, indicated that they had learned about the 2016 elections from digital sources in the week leading up to a PEW survey on media sources. Given that adults make extremely important decisions – such as voting in elections or referenda – there is a clear need to better prepare them for decision-making in a Digital Age, particularly when faced with participatory propaganda.
Until more digital literacy programs for adults become available, it will come down to the individual to foster critical thinking skills befitting a Digital Age. We’ve prepared a reading list to help get your started:
- True Enough by Farhad Manjoo provides an excellent introduction to the challenges of a Digital Age, where fake news and alternative facts abound;
- Fake News: Read All About it is a compilation of New York Times articles on the subject of fake news;
- Both Contagious and Invisible Influence by Jonah Berger are great introductions into behavioural psychology and the many ways perception can be shaped; and
- The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality by Luciano Floridi highlights just how much our reality is changing in a Digital Age.
Photo Editorial Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock.com – A protester chaining hands during freedom of the press in Istanbul, Turkey, 4 March 2016