9th November 2018
By Tom Law

Ethical Storytelling: A Media literacy toolkit for newsrooms  

Tom Law

Media literacy is widely touted as one of many ways to beat the growth of ‘fake news’ or, more accurately, disinformation.

It is the key to enable people to work out what and who they can trust online, and understand how their data is being used.

Unfortunately, the term ‘media literacy’ is off-putting for many people, and the language around it is often far too caught up in academic policy ‘wonkery’ and thus puts off many journalists (and teachers) from engaging with how to go about it and its benefits. It doesn’t have to be that way. But why should newsrooms care about media literacy?

Journalism — when understood as a public good essential, for democracy and an informed society — can play a vital role in fighting the mal/mis/disinformation crisis.

Indeed the Ethical Journalism Network at various international forums has long argued that the ethics of journalism can be an inspiration for media literacy and free expression to encourage more responsible communications.

EJN President, Aidan White, laid out these arguments for this in an article for UNESCO in 2016. The EJN believes that journalism is not unadulterated free speech; it is constrained expression that operates within a framework of values. In the words of the philosopher Onoro Oneil, it is “other regarding” and therefore, at its best, distinguishes itself from “self-regarding” forms of communication such as public relations, advertising and your Uncle ranting social media.

A media-literate public is arguably more likely to recognise more trustworthy sources of information, to spot propaganda, and not share hoaxes, for example.

This is good news for news media that base their brand and business models on being a reliable source, driving audience engagement and maybe even persuades people to pay for the journalism that they value.

Why are some journalists sceptical about media literacy?

However, before we move on, it is important to acknowledge that there are some within journalism who are sceptical of the notion of media literacy.

Some (old school) journalists feel nervous about anything that distracts from being an “honest witness”. Although a noble aim, this is, I think, a slightly outdated argument considering journalism’s vulnerable financial position, the news deserts created by local newspaper closures, low levels of trust, being labelled as “fake news” and “enemies the people” by the US president and other demagogues. I could go on.

In such an environment, surely, it is incumbent on journalists to proactively try to persuade people that what we do matters, we can be trusted and can have a positive impact on their lives and the health of society.

However, some types of news media, I suspect, are sceptical for reasons more related to self-preservation than a matter of principle. Take for example news media with a business model that is heavily reliant on programmatic advertising, invasive ad tracking and mass social reach.

Would they really benefit from a more media-literate audience who understands that by accepting the terms and conditions that pop up when they land on their website that they are agreeing to let advertisers track their activity across the web?

Would they benefit if their audiences better understand the financial imperatives that often lead to hyper-partisan, sensational content with many journalists stuck behind their desks relying on press releases and social media for their stories?

It is impossible to overemphasize the extent to which commercial interests are an obstacle to slowing the spread of sensationalism and clickbait, as well as the greater sins of hate and disinformation.

However, news organisations with a commitment to public interest journalism and a fact-based, accountable communication landscape have the potential to play a significant role in media literacy.

A Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms

These ideas emerged in a “masterclass” on media literacy I was asked to present as part of a meeting to kick off an initiative to create a Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms organised by the Global Editors Network and European Federation of Journalists at the Brussels Press Club.

Masterclass with @TomLawMedia. ‘Ethical journalism can be an inspiration for media literacy and free expression to encourage more responsible communications.’ CC @EJNetwork #GENMediaLit pic.twitter.com/s5ySsGgzB9

It was at a gathering known as an “unconference”, a meeting with a goal but no agenda. The attendees – 25 journalists, trainers and civil society representatives – created the agenda on the day and then broke out into working groups to discuss what a Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms should consist of. With the right people in the room, a relaxed environment and shared interests, this interactive approach proved very productive.

I began my presentation, the only one of the day, by giving a few definitions including the one from the European Commission – DG Connect Media Literacy Expert Group:

Media literacy; is an umbrella expression that includes all the technical, cognitive, social, civic and creative capacities that allow a citizen to access, have a critical understanding of the media and interact with it. These capacities allow the citizen to participate in the economic, social and cultural aspects of society as well as to play an active role in the democratic process. It refers to all kind of media (television, radio, press), through all kind of channels (traditional, internet, social media) and to all ages.

Bernd Schorb’s definition and its focus on ethics is also instructive:

“the skills to acquire media, to deal with them critically, enjoyably and reflexively, and to shape them according to one’s own content related and aesthetic ideas, in social responsibility and in creative and collective action on the basis of structured, concise knowledge and an ethically founded evaluation of media manifestations and contents; (cf. Schrob 2005).

The Ethical Architecture of News

How, I asked the group on Tuesday, can transparency about the process and ethics of journalism and its accountability mechanisms become a feature of its structure, design and storytelling techniques?

The Lloyds Building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris have made their infrastructure fundamental to their design by showing it to the world.

Are there ways that journalism can do the same in a way that that has real benefits for the news organisation?

It can be done without becoming too burdensome on already stretched newsrooms or compromising on core principles like protecting anonymous sources.

Journalism and Media Literacy

Many newsrooms are already engaging in media literacy, often without realising or viewing it in those terms.

There are five main 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 as a whole.
  • 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.

I have collated some of my favourite examples here.

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.

Download the full PDF here.

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.

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  1. Tackling disinformation in the global media environment – new Council of Europe report (2017)
  2. Journalism Ethics: An inspiration for free expression and media literacy (2016)

Further Resources:

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