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Trust initiatives as the future of news media sustainability

At the Internet Governance Forum in Katowice, Poland GFMD’s Courtney Radsch chaired a discussion on the role of trust-building initiatives in fighting disinformation and strengthening media sustainability

Posted by: Communications Gfmd | 14. January 2022

The growing recognition of journalism’s fundamental role in ensuring accountability and transparency in all areas of society and that journalism’s independence and health is prerequisite for other areas of development, is – not before time – leading to the sustainability of journalism becoming a more central concern of the Internet governance policy agenda.

One of the drivers of this change in perspective is the Dynamic Coalition on the Sustainability of Journalism and News Media which hosted a panel discussion on 9 December at the 2021 Internet Governance Forum in Katowice, Poland. The “DC-Sustainability” – launched in 2019 – is an official dynamic coalition of the IGF and provides opportunities for coalition building around how to inform the broader debate over how to ensure news media sustainability in the digital age.

Chaired in-person by Dr Courtney Radsch, GFMD’s Tech Policy Advisor, and online by Daniel O’Maley of CIMA, the panel brought together members of the coalition to discuss the progress, effectiveness and interoperability of some of the leading journalism trust initiatives.

Ads for News

Jason Lambert, Senior Director of Media Business at Internews, explained that Ads for News was created in response to a crisis of trust between advertisers, news publishers and platforms.

“Back in 2017 many of the world’s largest brands pulled their advertising from the big platforms after finding their ads were being placed next to extremist content or web pages.”

This wake-up call for the news industry was the catalyst for the formation of the United for News Coalition that develops and maintains an inclusion list of 8,000 trusted news media in 30 countries that is available for free to media buyers.

Being trusted has become a major challenge for most media outlets. Being proactive and engaging in Ads for News and other similar initiatives, Lambert said, can help build trust not just with audiences and advertisers but also inside the media ecosystem, such as identifying who to collaborate with for cross border investigative stories.

Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI)

The Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) aims at a healthier information space. It is developing and implementing indicators for the trustworthiness of journalism and thus, promotes and rewards compliance with professional norms and ethics. The JTI was originally launched and is now operated by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The Head of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) Olaf Steenfadt, RSF explained that among the ingredients to make the Journalism Trust Initiative work Olaf Steenfadt are:

  • Scalability
  • Machine readability
  • Enabling environment of regulation and co-regulation

Steenfadt described JTI as an example of “Middleware” – a middle layer of different tools and instruments between big tech and consumers which offer a choice and empower the users – a term coined by Francis Fukuyama and others in a 2020 article for Foreign Affairs: How to Save Democracy From Technology.

Fukuyama and his co-authors postulated that if efforts to break up the monopolies of big tech, search and social media fail, an alternative could be to create a middle layer of different tools and instruments and plugins, between big tech and to the consumer. These tools, Steenfadt said, have the potential to create pluralism and empower users by offering choice even if we still have to live with monopolies in certain areas.

The other side of disinformation: the sociology of information consumption.

Platforms and algorithms are only the technological side of the problem, we also have to consider the human aspects of information consumption – how people consume information and why.

Claire Wardel, US Director of First Draft News, told even that “the real challenge that everybody is trying to solve here is this idea of heuristics”, a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently.

“When we’re scrolling everything online looks similar. So our brains are looking for these cues to try and make sense of it. So enabling people to understand through a visual cue that this is a trustworthy organisation is important”.

To understand the sociology behind disinformation, Wardel argued, it is also crucial to understand the participatory and dynamic nature of the information ecosystem where “consumers have choices and can “seek out and consume information that reinforces their worldview”.

Wardel challenged those that work countering disinformation to consider how we can “learn from the disinformation ecosystem where people feel heard and feel they have agency?”

“It doesn’t matter how many credibility indicators we have, if we don’t fundamentally understand that relationship that audiences want to have with their information providers.”

“Glocal” Trust: how can we create scalable solutions?

What about scalable solutions for developing countries? They are less connected, have fewer news sources and can’t compete in the engagement algorithms because their audiences sometimes are too small. And, last but not least, how does this work in other non-western character languages?

Speakers noted that it is crucial to decipher the markets and to understand the local context. Testing of instruments to implement could also be quite useful as it helps to detect flaws, address them, upskill the staff and come out of this process more experienced. The linguistic aspect is also related to our ability to listen to what’s going on in the field.

“Most trust initiatives have been built in US or Western Europe. We need more research, more understanding, more partnerships with people on the ground. Existence of different media ecosystems – not an easy way of describing them. Funding research to answer what does credibility look like in Thailand? What does it look like in Malawi?, because without that, without a true understanding, we’re not going to be able to scale at all, we’re going to scale with some really problematic unintended consequences that we’ve seen the platform’s do. So I think we have to learn from the mistakes they’ve made. We can’t scale similarly, unless we have a true understanding of what’s happening on the ground.” Claire Wardel, US Director, First Draft News.

Claire Wardel acknowledged the importance of an organisation like UNESCO which not only has a global view, but also the ability to connect with partners on the ground. For her, this “hybrid approach […] has to be the key to this to make it sustainable, and again, prevent the unintended consequences.”

Transparency of Internet companies

This year, information as a public good became the main topic of World Press Freedom Day.

“In the Windhoek+30 declaration that just two weeks ago was endorsed by all the 193 member states of UNESCO, the issue of media viability was at the very centre of this idea that information is a public good, but connected with another element that is very much related to the main topic of the session. We can’t move forward without more transparency of the internet companies, and particularly the social media companies”, said Guilherme Canela De Souza Godoi, Chief of Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists Section at UNESCO

According to him, currently, UNESCO is working on a broader strategy that started with the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC). IPDC handbook that is going to be launched next year in January will contain useful practices from various countries. It will also highlight some trends that are common for all those countries. For instance:

  • The way the algorithms of the major social media platforms are calibrated: they don’t help people find the news they want to find in local independent media, because their news feed receives specific indications that the algorithms want them to see.
  • It’s very difficult for small or medium-sized independent media to interact directly with the social media giants. So one of the things they are precisely asking is for more media alliances around those issues.

Where do we go from here and what’s next?

Dan O’Maley, Co-chair DC-Sustainability and Center for International Media Assistance concluded that the main common goal is democratic accountability, inclusivity and visibility of organisations.  “The other takeaway is figuring out how to make news information, ecosystems, financially viable is really about our societies, and what kind of societies we want to live in”, he summed up.

To stay up to date on the most relevant issues of the field sign up for the official mailing list for the Dynamic Coalition on the Sustainability of Journalism and News Media here.

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