ONLINE ODYSSEY IN THE BALKANS
Change is coming, but credibility and support are urgently needed
For many years public trust in media across the Western Balkans has been in steady decline. When journalism is seen as a stepping stone to politics and when public media serve as the mouthpiece of governments across the region — the profession of journalism is reaching a moment of profound crisis.
And it is not just the journalism of traditional media where the threat lies. More recently, online media
and social networks appear to have particularly lost the trust of the public at large. According to the 2016 Eurobarometer on media use in the European Union, which also measures media use for Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (although not for Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina), trust in media institutions on the Internet and social networks has seen a decline from 2015 to 2016, a change from 2014-15 when it increased.
While there is a growing reliance on the internet as a source of information, this has not necessarily been accompanied by an increase in choices for better, improved professional standards or ethical practices.
On the contrary, an explosion in the number of “online portals” has been intrinsically linked to the unscrupulous political and economic environments within which they emerge and operate.
The so-called three-way “unholy alliance” of vested interests between media, politics and businesses that has largely been the model used to describe the ‘traditional media’ environment, is just as evident in the way online portals in the region function.
The reality is that in a region where an independent advertising industry is almost nonexistent, and where self-sustainable economic models prove elusive, even media interested in pursuing editorial independence and high newsroom standards are having to rely on some kind of support from power elites, such as advertising from government or businesses with close political affiliations.
As a result, editorial policies and the news agenda end up being driven in two predominant directions by the key centres of power:
- First, is the pressure of nance, commerce and markets which leads to a marginalization of social, political and critical public issues and instead a news media focus on the trivial and popular. This results in what we have been increasingly witnessing — patterns of short, fast, scandal-oriented, personality-based news, and the misleading information wrapped by sensationalism.
- Secondly, media are driven to serve the interests of the political elite through deliberate politically-driven attacks and defamation. This is most prevalent in Serbia, where investigative journalists and small independent media are constantly targeted by pro-government tabloids and political opposition are regularly the focus of personalized and vindictive media attacks.
In Kosovo, meanwhile, there has in particular been an increase in the number of online portals that emerge during election campaigns, disguised as “news portals,” which use social media to disseminate inaccurate and deliberately false information for the purposes of political smear campaigns.
Such media behavior damages the already fragile framework of professional standards and ethics, to the extent that fact-based, verified, contextualized information becomes the exception rather than the rule for everyday journalism. In this vein, tabloidization and politicization have emerged as the norm, rather than the exception.
It is a politically and financially toxic environment, made worse by the many violent or intimidating forms of political pressure and intimidation of journalists. The major questions for everyone in the media business
are how to make independent journalism truly flourish and prevail, and how to rebuild and reinvigorate public confidence and trust in the media?
What’s for sure is that there are no swift, magic wand solutions. While there is no shortage of civil society attention in this area (often supported by well-meaning donors and the international community), the overall climate has left many journalists doubtful as to whether substantial change within the media can truly happen without being led by equally significant change in the political environment.
At the moment, the possibilities in that direction are limited, but there are reasons for optimism. Even in the midst of the media crisis, it is important to recognize that sound, independent and professional media outlets do exist — even online. Although these are generally small in number, resources and outreach, they are pushing for, and insisting upon, ethically and socially grounded journalism.
Regrettably, such media tend to receive less attention or acknowledgment. But, it is important that they continue to be vocal and demand changes within the sector. They can be drivers for change, and need more support.
Other drivers for change are self-regulatory bodies. Despite financial struggles and resistance from within the media sector itself, they have nevertheless been accepted to varying degrees across the region; the only exception is in Albania, where a highly-polarized media sector has contributed to a lack of genuine interest in establishing such a body. However, even that may be changing with a new debate on the relaunching of the country’s ethical code for journalists.
Some changes elsewhere are evident, and are often being pushed by the more credible media outlets. For example, in 2015 — 10 years after its establishment — the Kosovo Press Council amended its statute in order to respond to a lack of transparency in media ownership and management. Now all members are required to publish an impressum (a legal statement of ownership) on their websites. In Macedonia, where the Council of Media Ethics was only established in 2014, it immediately included the impressum requirement for anyone aspiring to become a member.
While these are positive steps in the right direction, the self-regulatory nature of these press councils, which rely on the willingness of their members to implement and enforce guidelines, often means that established principles are not respected by all.
In Kosovo, two of the 28 members — both online media — to this day refuse to publish their ownership status in spite of the Press Council ruling. Moreover, the practices of unsigned articles across the regional online media sector have largely remained un-tackled.
But nonetheless, there is some positive momentum to build upon. While each body is dealing with its specific circumstances, what many of them have in common is that they have seen a rise of membership, and specifically from online media. In Kosovo, of the current 28 members, 20 are online media, 13 of which have joined since 2015; whereas in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2016, 25 online portals have joined its council. Meanwhile, in both these countries, as well as in Macedonia, the number of complaints led for unethical reporting in online media has made up more than half of the annual complaints in the past few years.
As this trend continues, it is likely that some press councils will before long comprise only online media,
and codes of ethics need to be constantly updated to dynamically respond to the changing nature of complaints.
Some steps to be taken include:
Clarifying where the complaint by a person or decision by the press council is published in relation to the original disputed story;
If articles are corrected following publication, then acknowledging that such edits have been made;
If a story has been published through social networks then ensuring that the decision or correction is added to the post;
Changing the URL of a story that has been reported inaccurately and subsequently xed.
Adapting media regulation to the realities of online and internet journalism is one of the major challenges of change for Balkan media regulators. But press councils should be more engaged in the online world themselves.
They need to be more vocal and have more profile in the public information space, showing the public what discussions are taking place among media practitioners, what ethical dilemmas are most prevalent, how such complaints are addressed, and what decisions are made.
If trust is to be built, the public needs to be better informed about the role played by engaged, ethical media outlets. There needs to be more focus on the work of media practitioners that are not only engaged in their daily jobs as journalists, but who are working actively towards improving the media environment and upholding higher standards.
If such actions do not come from within the media sector itself, then there is a risk that governments, in a climate of declining public trust and in the name of “addressing the media problem,” will intervene with excessive legislation, which could be used to curb media freedoms.
But media organisations can also take another, simple step to help repair public confidence.
Credible outlets should make a clearer distinction between their work and that of the seemingly in nite number of online portals. In fact, the concept of online portals itself needs to be challenged as there is currently a tendency to tar all media with the same discredited brush.
Online journalism is not just about “portals” but is increasingly the important and growing voice on the internet for newspapers, agencies, magazines, news sources. Media must do more to recognise and promote the power of the internet and online journalism and to use it effectively and confidently. Public confidence in the online capacity for ethical and trustworthy news and information is crucial to the future of journalism and provides an answer to the crisis of 21st century information overload.
In order for the public to filter through different formats of content, they have to be shown that online journalism is not restricted to narrow mainstream commercialism, or tendencies towards clickbait and political vili cation.
Ultimately, the greatest responsibility will fall on those credible media that might even be suffering from least nancial viability, or professional security. And that is why they urgently need more political and public support.
No change is too little, or unimportant but change is necessary and the sooner the better.