By Alice Taylor for the Ethical Journalism Network.
In early 2020, Exit.al was approached to take part in the Journalism Trust Initiative. It was hot on the heels of the Albanian government passing the first draft of a law that would essentially bring all online media under the direct control and supervision of the state. This was due to Prime Minister Edi Rama’s belief that the majority of online media is unethical, slanderous, “trash”, and unprofessional.
The idea of conducting the audit seemed to be perfect timing.
In Albania, thereby the general population, and accusations about portals being “paid by the government” or “paid by the opposition” are thrown around constantly in an attempt to discredit critical voices. Journalists are smeared publicly, personally, and professionally and it can be hard to rise above the noise and to remain focussed on outputting quality, factual information.
The chance to pass through the audit was one that we could not pass up. Not only because it would help us reinforce our independence and professionalism, but also because it would give much-appreciated recognition to the journalistic team who work in the midst of a complex and high-pressure media environment.
I often think our jobs would be much easier and far more lucrative if we were corrupted and not independent, rather than principled and facing verbal attacks, trolls, and smears. Fortunately, ethics and integrity are something that the team prides itself on so this audit was a reaffirmation that we were on the right track.
But asides from these benefits, it was an opportunity for us to ‘get our house in order.’
Throughout the process, we all took a long, hard look at ourselves and asked ourselves not just ‘are we ethical?” But “why are we ethical?” We discussed all of the points of the questionnaire in detail via phone, zoom, email, chat, and in-person when the situation allowed. We debated best practices, argued at times, and compromised. We each gave our opinions and real-world experiences and analysed international best practices before considering their application in an Albanian context.
Furthermore, we conducted informal training sessions on everything the audit covered, ensuring that the what, why, and how of our work was fully understood by everyone.
This was perhaps one of the most valuable parts of the entire process; the way we were able to collaborate and learn from the process. Because this was not just an audit, it was an exercise in personal growth and evaluation.
It allowed us to consider Exit.al from the perspective of the reader and to identify and fix our weaknesses. As a part of the process, we conducted an anonymous survey of our readers, asking what they liked and didn’t like, whether they thought we were professional/ ethical/ trustworthy, and what we could do to improve.
The results were discussed internally and then published on our site. We have since implemented many of the recommendations and are in the process of implementing more. This combined with the audit, allowed us to better understand our weaknesses and face the reality of what we needed to work on.
We also took the decision to appoint an external ombudsman who would have the power to adjudicate any issues, complaints, or situations that arise from any of our content. We appointed the Albanian Media Council, an independent body of media and legal experts and we pledged that we would be bound by their decisions. We felt that empowering a respected and independent external body to decide on any ethical issues, further cemented our dedication to maintaining a high level of ethics and professionalism.
Having completed the first stage of the process, what I can say is that we all feel extremely proud. Not only that we have completed the first stage but that we have volunteered to open ourselves completely to external scrutiny from the public and international experts. We have nothing to hide and that sense of liberation and freedom allows us to continue our work with even greater enthusiasm.
But of course, we are not perfect and I am not saying that completing this audit makes us so. We still have work to do, and I envisage this process being something that we will continually evolve, develop, and work on as long as Exit.al functions.
We will always need to refresh and remind ourselves why we do this and there will always be the need to tighten our standards and respond to changing best practices. We also admit that we are human, and we may make mistakes from time to time, but the most important thing is that we will be accountable, transparent, and pledge to learn from any mistake we make.
This process has given us a renewed sense of pride in our work and in being ethical, independent, and professional. In a climate where it’s easier to be none of those things, projects like this are incredibly important to us as a team, as well as our readership.
Undertaking this initiative has also propelled us to advocate more and louder for self-regulation, ethics, and integrity. Since completing the audit, we have planned a number of events with foreign embassies, the EU, and other organisations, to impart what we have learned. We believe that what we gained from this should be shared with others and used to encourage other journalists and journalism students, in developing their own ethical guidelines.
The Journalism Trust Initiative is not just about getting a certificate and a badge on our website. It’s about bettering ourselves as professionals and providers of vital information to the public.
Alice Taylor is a British-born journalist working and living in Albania. She started her career in Malta were she wrote for a national newspaper, and then leading independent investigative platform The Shift News, before taking up the position of Co-Editor at Exit News, Albania’s leading English-language online portal. Asides from her journalistic work, she is a founding member and board member of the Ethical Media Alliance, Albania’s first self-regulatory platform and an advocate for media freedom and the safety of journalists. She lives in Tirana with her children and a pack of rescue animals.
The Ethical Journalism Network (EJN), in partnership with UNESCO and supported by the European Union (EU), has been implementing the Building Trust in Media in South East Europe (SEE) and Turkey since 2016. In the context of a rapid digital transformation followed by a decline in the commitment to journalistic professional standards and civil society’s trust in media, the second phase of the project was launched.
The role of the EJN in Phase 2 is to support the media outlets in South East Europe and Turkey to perform a self-assessment exercise of their commitment to good governance and ethical and professional standards – also called ethical audits.