From Colombia to Hong Kong Trust is on the Media Agenda

World Editors Forum (WEF) president Marcelo Rech. (WAN-IFRA)Aidan White

Building trust in news media is a major challenge in an age of political propaganda, public relations and social media abuse, but editors, reporters and media scholars across the world are showing fresh enthusiasm for the craft of journalism.

This week the World Editors Forum (WEF) meeting at the World News Congress in Cartagena, endorsed five principles to help rebuild trust in professional journalism. Meanwhile, half a world away in Hong Kong, media academics and journalists from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Korea launched the East Asia Media Forum to counter the rise of hate-speech and propaganda in the region.

In Colombia, Marcelo Rech, the Brazilian President of the WEF, spelled out the challenge facing editors around the world.

“Given the current reality where false and distorted information is easily shared,” he warned, “we need to distinguish professional journalism and secure greater public recognition of its relevance.”

This is a challenge particularly felt in East Asia where political tensions and regional disputes are increasing pressure on journalism.

A group of media scholars and journalists from Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea met this week in Hong Kong to launch the East Asia Media Forum, in the first of a series of cross border dialogues. They arrived at the invitation of the Ethical Journalism Network and Hong Kong Baptist University, which hosts one of the largest journalism schools in Asia.

The meeting took place amidst growing concerns that journalists are being recruited as foot-soldiers in a war of words over political disputes now dominating the regional media landscape.

In Japan, for instance, rising nationalism and historical disputes with Korea over its wartime record as an occupying power – particularly the controversy over the use of “comfort women” as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers – is leading to more hate-speech and xenophobic journalism.

In China extensive state monitoring of free expression and editorial independence create a twilight zone of journalism, and the government plays cat-and-mouse with reporters over their right to report freely particularly on issues such as human rights and the ongoing territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.

Everywhere media succumb to self-censorship. This is particularly troubling in Hong Kong where the press has a tendency to dodge political controversy, to modify its editorial tone in line with Beijing’s policies and where “high-risk” contributors have been fired.

The meeting agreed on a comprehensive regional programme to strengthen the capacity of media and journalism to resist these pressures and to support actions that will reinforce values in journalism. This will involve training seminars, academic research and collaboration projects between media and journalists’ groups.

Two practical first steps were agreed:

·The publication of a report on the current state of journalism in the region and the threats facing independent media; and

·The preparation of a detailed glossary of abusive words, terms and media messages to avoid in the fight against hate speech and xenophobia.

This work builds on the call from the WEF for editors to strengthen public trust in journalism. The WEF’s five principles underscore the values of public interest journalism including credibility, independence, accuracy, professional ethics, transparency and pluralism. They also call for diligent questioning and verification of material circulating on social media.

Most significantly, they highlight the role of journalism as a leader in communications that goes beyond providing basic facts. The strength of journalism is found in its analysis, contextual and investigative reporting, and informed expression of opinion, “moving from the provision of news to knowledge that empowers.”

It’s this key role, says the WEF that requires “next-level journalism” to be driven by trust and guiding principles of social relevance, legitimate interest and truthfulness.

For the newly-launched East Asia Media Forum the pursuit and promotion of these values can frame a new narrative for professionalism and can open the door to dialogues to prevent media becoming tools for political propaganda.

The Hong Kong meeting noted how talks between media from different sides of a conflict sometimes begin only after the bullets start to fly – as in Ukraine and Russia where international organisations brought together journalists from both countries. But this is often too late to prevent the descent into misinformation and war-mongering.

The meeting unanimously concluded that collaboration and media dialogue is needed now before any conflict in East Asia develops. Next up will be a meeting in China. Given the pressure Beijing is exerting on independent journalism these days that will provide an early test of nerve for the embryonic East Asia Forum.

Photo: World Editors Forum