Public Trust in the Digital Age: A Moment of Truth for Media and Journalism

Aidan White

This brief article has been submitted to the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union in advance of their conference in Hanoi next month where the EJN will make a keynote presentation:

The challenge for news media reporting the world has never been more difficult. In the age of globalisation, information is the lifeblood of democratic exchange but people struggle to understand what is going on amidst the explosive expansion of communication across the open information landscape.

Building trust has never been easy. There are always political and special interests groups — governments and corporations in particular — who try to manipulate media through government propaganda or corporate public relations. As a result, the public at large are routinely exposed to deceptive handling of the truth.

But in the digital age, the problem gets dramatically worse. Today we have access to more information but much of it is even more unreliable. Trivia abounds and the truth is elusive. There is more scope for hatred, lies and malicious communication.

This comes at a time when everyone should be enjoying the power to speak their minds, freely and without restraint. The power of social networks and online media has grown everywhere. The audience is now part of the journalism business, both in the gathering of information and in its dissemination. This should be good news for democracy and free expression.

But the reality is that many of these new players have little sense of values and humanity. Often the information they spread is unreliable and malicious. The information field is open for bigotry, hatred and division as much as it is for greater understanding, depth and solidarity. And despite all the promise of the open internet, vulnerable and marginalised minorities remain largely invisible and victims of discrimination.

In traditional journalism media professionals struggle to maintain professionalism and their ethical base — a respect for truth and accuracy, to do no harm, to be independent and to be accountable. But they do so in the face of turbulent change across the media industry which has led to a decline of investment in journalism and editorial work across the globe.

The result is falling standards, a loss of public trust and, in some corners, the growth of corrupt, partisan and unreliable journalism. Notions of public service value in journalism through public broadcasting have also come under sustained pressure.

All of this points to a moment of crisis for public interest journalism in which the major question is how to maintain ethical values and reliability and how to build public trust.

The Ethical Journalism Network is a new group aiming to find an answer by building partnership with the audience and by encouraging new levels of professional solidarity among media professionals themselves.

Media owners, editors, and journalists across all platforms of communications increasingly recognise they need to work together to tackle questions about regulation of media content and to promote responsibility in the use of information, not just inside journalism, but within the public at large.

Building partnership is about ending notions of media elitism and creating a new framework for solidarity that puts truth-telling, transparency and respect at the heart of media policy-making.

The need for such initiatives has never been greater. In recent days horrifying acts of terrorism and sectarian killings in Kenya, Pakistan, Iraq illustrate that people driven by ignorance, fear and irrational hatreds continue to pose threats to peace and democracy. Overcoming these threats will not be easy, but we make a good start when we restore public confidence in the craft of journalism and ethics in the use of information.

Photo source: CC Flickr SalFalko