By Verghese V Joseph
The theme of SIGNIS Asia’s Journalism Fellowship Programme 2021 ‘Journalism in Fragmented World’ highlights the role of the media in today’s context.
Over thirty years ago, media critic Neil Postman argued in a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death that the nature of a medium determines the messages it carries. He was worried about the rise of television, which, he warned, would transform all public discourse into entertainment.
Cut to present, Social Media and today’s Big Data world, by their very nature, atomizes discussion. We share stories that signal and reinforce our tribal identities, not those that prompt us to think critically about them. We read what our friends share. We retweet what our favourite journalists tweet. Moreover, we seem to have no interest in seeking out alternative views. Artificial Intelligence seems to have the better of us.
As an American journalist Joshua Benton points out, a fake story claiming that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump was shared almost 900,000 times, while the article that debunked it got just 33,000 shares. Fact checkers are for the elites, not for the masses. We are tweeting, Facebooking, and snapchatting ourselves apart.
I don’t see this as a moral failing. It’s simply in our nature. We once had gatekeepers that fought against this tendency and grounded us in the same reality — the nightly network news, the major and minor newspapers, the news magazines. Nevertheless, in the age of social media they have lost all their power, sending us all spinning off on different orbits. Various fact-checkers have tried to step into the breach. However, they haven’t had much success replacing the gatekeepers of old.
In the background of this, SIGNIS Asia Journalism Desk organised a seven-week SIGNIS Asia Journalism Fellowship Programme for lay Catholic and like-minded journalists working in the secular media on the theme “Journalism in a Fragmented World.”
The programme, in collaboration with LICAS News Asia, ran through October 26 to December 7, 2021. Offered virtually, the seven-week webinar brought together 24 selected participants from 14 countries to build capacity and promote exchange among media professionals and journalists who want to use their platform for social change.
The objectives of the programme are to promote ethical professional journalism in the new multimedia era. The programme aims to build an Asian/global network for Catholic journalists working across various media in various regions; and to strengthen solidarity among Catholic journalists through regular sharing of stories and information besides supporting freedom of expression and the rights of journalists.
The programme began on a reflective note with SIGNIS World President Helen Osman setting the tone from the word go. In her inaugural address, she underscored the aspect of serving the truth and at the same time abiding by the standards and ethics of journalism.
Osman threw down a gauntlet in the form of a quote by Oscar Romero, the patron saint of SIGNIS, to the participants. She challenged them to amplify the “voice for the voiceless.”
Also for a good measure, she thoughtfully brought in a Reuters Institute published study of 2021 Digital News Report, where “most people agree that news organizations and journalists should reflect all sides of an issue and not push a particular agenda.”
The subsequent session topics and speakers were truly top notch. Going forward, I’m sure the session outcomes will have far reaching impact on the participants in their forthcoming reports.
Kavita Chandran’s session on Media as a Catalyst for Change highlighted the benefits of Solutions Journalism, that offers a positive impact on the story outcome. Jose Torres Jr. of LiCAS News shared his experience in covering social cause reports.
President of WeBien YOU Creative Communications and a member of the Board of Directors, SIGNIS Korea, Dr Anna Jihyun You felt that post COVID-19, there’s a paradigm shift in the way news is packaged and consumed and this has a direct bearing on the way forward for journalists.
Big Data and Storytelling session speaker Trinna Leong, Teaching Fellow, Google News Lab Southeast Asia highlighted the technology divide besides access to information.
Lee Long Hui, Assistant Editor, Kini News Lab, Malaysia dwelled on the ubiquitous AI, Big Data and Machine Learning technologies taking over a major chunk of editorial responsibilities.
Prof. Ricardus Eko Indrajit, Rector, Pradita University, Indonesia felt that if that were to happen, would we be missing out on the human element in discerning news value content? “The challenge of today’s journalism is how to win the battle of storytelling,” he observed.
In the Citizen Journalism session, it was indeed heartening to hear from speakers that in the age of YouTube, Tik Tok and Instagram, good old-fashioned journalism – which has investigation as its centrepiece – has its place even with young audiences. Carol Andrade – Dean of SPICE (St. Pauls Institute of Communication Education), Mumbai, India felt that adapting to these needs was crucial for the survival of the newsroom.
Dr. Mastura Mahamed, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication, University Putra Malaysia, wondered that with no mechanism to check the veracity of the information (especially online video on platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube and Spotify) being dished out in today’s world is there a danger of wrong content getting prominence?
Arul Prakkash, Senior Programme Manager, Asia & the Pacific, WITNESS.org felt that vernacular, voice and video would emerge as game-changers for the digital ecosystem over the next few years. However, the question remained – how do we ensure that the content is true, factual and ethical?
Ethics of Humanitarian Reporting called for preserving the dignity of the subject amidst seeking headlines.
A firm believer in respectful and inclusive storytelling, Jacqueline Fernandez – Communications Manager, ICRC Myanmar, laid emphasis on protecting community interests, thereby putting the ‘human’ into humanitarian storytelling.
Fr. Shay Cullen, Founder and President, Preda Foundation, Philippines, shared his experience in covering the plight of children many of whom were fathered by US sailors. His journalistic journey in protecting the dignity of every person and achieving social justice for human rights victims through peaceful, non-violent means speaks volumes of his invaluable contribution to humanitarian reporting.
Kalpana Sharma, independent journalist and author, urged media professionals to reflect the truth as they create awareness and call for action and at the same time being humane in their coverage.
With climate change negatively impacting livelihoods of people around the world, David Fogarty, Climate Change Editor at The Straits Times, spoke on how important it is for publications to look at Climate Change as an emerging branch of reporting.
Global Village Newsroom speakers Augustine Anthuvan – Communications Consultant, Moderator & Presenter, Former Executive Producer, Channel NewsAsia, Mediacorp, Singapore and Dr. Peter Rachada Monthienvichienchai – Executive Director/ Founding Member, LiCAS News, Thailand, came up with some great collaborative ideas for working across geographical boundaries.
The Pandora’s (Panama) Letters is a classic case of where a Global Newsroom with more than 600 journalists from 117 countries came together to create an impact investigative journalism on the monies being stashed abroad by the world’s rich and powerful.
The discussions during the breakout sessions hovered around some pertinent questions while reporting:
- Why is it important to look for flaws in your own reasoning?
- What is context, and where do you look for it?
- How do you engage productively with people who disagree with you?”
- With governments across the world moving in to regulate digital news media, wouldn’t these restrictions curtail digital journalists’ work environment?
- With the proliferation of new technology devices such as wearables and smart glasses, going forward how would content be delivered and consumed?
By bringing together 24 select participants from 14 countries to build capacity and promoting exchange among media professionals and journalists who want to use their platform as a medium for social change is indeed a noble initiative worth lauding. The ripples of such initiatives will be felt in the long run, and lasting too!
The above reflective article is produced under SIGNIS Asia Journalism Fellowship programme 2021.