9th November 2018
By Tom Law

Ethical Storytelling: Journalism and Media Literacy

This is a summary of examples of news media engaging in media literacy activities presented by the EJN’s Director of Campaigns and Communications, Tom Law, at an event organised the Global Editors Network and European Federation of Journalists at the Brussels Press Club to kick off an initiative to create a Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms.

Read Tom’s blog about the event and his take on the relationship between media literacy and journalism here: Ethical Storytelling: A media literacy toolkit for newsrooms

The blog lays out the relationship between ethical journalism and media literacy, pointing out that many newsrooms are already engaging in media literacy, often without realising or viewing it in those terms.

The blog gives five ways that journalism is already playing a role in media literacy:

  • Education – Providing training to schools and other outreach initiatives.
  • Structure and Design of the newsroom and organisation.
  • Programming – Commissioning Programmes focused on media issues and investigating how big tech and other media operate.
  • Storytelling – Embedding journalistic practice into the story.
  • Sharing Verification & Fact Checking techniques and tools.

Below are the examples that Tom gave as apart of his presentation. It is far from an exhaustive list. Please scroll down for details about a survey on media literacy and how to submit your examples, projects and activities.


The BBC’s School Report is a quintessential media literacy programme where children are taught how to make news programmes in the classroom and via an app. Despite this particular model largely being the reserve of well-funded public service media, there are other examples of getting journalists into classrooms to talk about what they do such as lie-detectors.org who attended the event.

Design and Structure

*When coming across an unfamiliar website, here are some questions that you might ask when considering whether to trust it or not:

  • A mission and vision statement.
  • Their business model and funding sources.
  • Name of the publisher/owner/editor in chief.
  • A statement that describes editorial independence.
  • Where you can you complain or ask for a correction and the process by which this will be dealt with. Details of press regulator they are a member of or explanation of why they have opted out.
  • The website’s code of ethics or code of conduct.

These are some of the basic principles taken from the EJN Ethical Media Audit.

Design and Structure – Optimising for Trust

Jay Rosen put together a useful list of how news media can optimise for trust in a Medium post for De Correspondent, itself an exemplum of audience engagement as a fundamental part of their journalism.


Design and Structure – Self-regulation & Accountability Mechanisms

Recently the Guardian was polled as being the most trusted newspaper in the UK. Part of the reason for that could be attributed to the function of their readers’ editor, a role introduced in 1997.

Not only does the readers’ editor deal with corrections and complaints but they are also tasked with writing a weekly column/blog about an ethical issue. This is sometimes a reflection of how a complaint is addressed, or a wider issue facing the industry.

In the video above, Chris Elliott, the former Readers’ Editor of The Guardian and current Director of the EJN speaks on the important role the ombudsman play in the newsroom. Read the full EJN report on self-regulation – The Trust Factor.

Design and Structure – Editorial Code

BuzzFeed News recently updated its code of ethics. They didn’t do so quietly. They took the opportunity to explain what they had changed and why. Implicitly and explicitly telling their audience how seriously their newsroom takes ethics and standards. 

Programming – Feedback Programmes

BBC Radio and Television both have regular shows where feedback is sort from the audience and criticism put to BBC editors and management. A recent episode of Feedback on Radio 4 spent a large part of the programme shadowing the station’s flagship lunchtime news programme to understand how they decide what they cover, how they report on it and other insights on how the programme is produced.

Programming – Media Analysis and Reporting

On CNN, Reliable Sources has aired on Sunday mornings since 1992. Brian Stelter, the current host, has made media literacy a recurring topic of his show since the 2016 US Presidential Election as well as interviewing leading figures from the industry about the business and ethics of the profession.

This week the Press Gazette reported:

The BBC will “fight back” against disinformation globally with a special season of programming aiming to increase media literacy. The corporation will launch its Beyond Fake News project on Monday with a series of documentaries, special reports and features across its TV, radio and online networks in Europe, the Americas, Africa, India and Asia Pacific.

Storytelling – Showing your working

Remember how you are awarded marks for your showing your workings in a maths exam? Well, maybe journalists can be rewarded for showing more of their workings to their audience?

Storytelling – Pen, Paper and a Twitter Account

In 2017 Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his pioneering work investigating Donald Trump’s false claims about his philanthropy.

“Pioneering a new form of investigative reporting, Fahrenthold invited his Twitter followers to help him report these stories, asking for help in tracking down details of Trump’s past giving — or items that Trump had bought, improperly, with his charity’s money. He posted photographs of his reporter’s notebook on Twitter, signaling the lengths he’d gone to and asking readers to suggest more charities to call.” It is hard to imagine his crowdsourcing effort being so successful if he hadn’t been so transparent about his approach or shown his commitment to the story. Can others take inspiration from Fahrenthold’s example by sharing more of their background research and shoe-leather reporting on social media, a Google drives file or a dedicated section of the website that is linked to from the main article?

Storytelling – Investigation and Gamification

The Guardian’s Facebook Files from 2017 brings together two great, examples of journalism’s role in media literacy. Firstly by obtaining and analysing Facebook’s previously secret moderation guidelines, the reporting gave insight into how Facebook’s decides where it draws the line on hate speech, violence and other issues.

Secondly, they created a game “Ignore or delete: could you be a Facebook moderator?” using Facebook’s internal guidelines for moderators.

As the quiz explains:

“To help them learn the rules, it sets them quizzes. We compiled some of the images it has told moderators to ignore or delete – and put together a quiz of our own. Take the test and see if you could make it as a Facebook moderator”. I use this in almost every workshop or seminar I do on media literacy. You learn by doing. I hope that the European Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms will help more news organisations create this kind of content.

Storytelling – An ethical cliff-hanger

Slow Burn from Slate is a fine example of a podcast. It is storytelling audio at its best. But what really stands out to me is how the presenter, Leon Neyfakh, brings you into the ethical dilemmas he faced during his reporting and how he resolves them. In episode 5 he calls Linda Tripp, the woman famous for secretly recording Monica Lewinksy talking about her relationship with President Bill Clinton. When he gets Tripp on phone he starts recording but doesn’t tell her.

“What I was doing was legal,” he tells us. “But was it ethical?”

The tension created by this admission is the hook that pulls you into the episode and in the process, you, the listener, have a window into the ethical judgements made by reporters and how they treat their sources. No spoilers, I won’t tell you how this predicament gets resolved. But do listen and make your own judgement.

(As if that wasn’t enough, they provide an extensive bibliography of their sources under their podcast.)

Storytelling and Verification Techniques

BBC Africa Eye published an outstanding piece of journalism in September this year. Anatomy of a Killing brings together open-source verification software and crowdsourcing (not dissimilar to the Bellingcat model) to investigate the killing of two children and two women in Cameroon.


There is much to praise about this piece of journalism, but from a media literacy point of view I was particularly impressed by how the storytelling brings you on the same journey as the journalists as they piece together who was killed, why, where and by whom. It also demonstrates the power of verification tools to the wider public and the lengths they went to get the story.

You can listen to the journalist who led the investigation, Aliaume Leroy, speak about the investigation on the Radio 4 Media Show.

“How to spot fake…” guidelines

Liam Dutton of Channel 4 News with a great example of how news organisations can play a role in media literacy while simultaneously building trust in their own institution in his “How to spot fake weather stories” Youtube video.[/vc_column_text][vc_video link=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyKeAD9UWrs”][vc_column_text]

Journalism as Media Literacy

The point of all these examples is to show that news media are already media literacy actors and that embracing this could be a benefit to them and their readers.

The Ethical Journalism Network is looking forward to working with the Global Editors Network and other partners to create a media literacy tools and guidance for newsrooms on how they can play a vital role.

Find out more about the project and how you can get involved. 

European Media Literacy Survey

The Council of Europe’s Committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age is looking to identify, and analyse, existing projects which support the development of particular skills and knowledge related to media literacy that will help foster an environment favourable to quality journalism.

As part of the process, two of my colleagues on the committee, Markus Oermann and Martina Chapman developed a useful map of the knowledge, skills and goals associated with media literacy.

The activity might have been described as digital literacy, media information literacy or a digital citizenship project or activity, or it may not. As long as it addresses at least one of the skills identified in the cluster then it is likely that it fits the criteria for the survey.

For more information from the EJN please sign up to our newsletter.


Further Resources:

Main image: Photo: Media Literacy Toolkit For Newsroom Kick-Off Meeting 4 – Brussels (Global Editors Network)