What's the point of journalism?

Faced with record levels of mistrust, especially in the oldest democracies, journalists must succeed in convincing people of their social usefulness. What is the situation in countries that are less saturated with information? Why should journalism prove its usefulness? The question may seem incongruous, or controversial. An investigation by the Fondation Hirondelle (1).
L’access to information, but also research and the dissemination of information and ideas are, like access to health or education, recognized as inalienable and universal rights. This is the purpose of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the Member States of the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Yet this issue is more topical today than ever. Throughout the world, people's confidence in journalists and the media they work for is historically low: 43 % on average worldwide, with lows of 31 to 33 % in countries where the media sector is highly structured, such as Australia, Japan, France and the United Kingdom. The confusion between information, propaganda, rumour or opinion has never been so great, even in the richest countries with the most efficient education systems.
Social networks have given the illusion of free "information" that is accessible to all, without the need for professionals to produce and verify it. Conversely, many journalists question their responsibilities in this situation. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States or the election that led to the Brexit poll were detonators for them, examples of popular votes that are not informed by the knowledge of the facts they are supposed to report.
In this context, several reflections emerge to give back to journalism a legitimacy it would have lost with the general public: "constructive journalism" promoted by the Constructive Institute and the University of Aarhus (Denmark). (2) to the definition of a "mission for journalism in times of crisis" brandished by the British daily The Guardian, they are trying to revitalise the media by rethinking their ethics. Very much in vogue in the information-saturated countries of the North, can this reflection be confined to them? On the contrary, can it not benefit from the contribution of media experience in societies where factual and pluralist information remains a rare or even precious commodity, especially in countries in crisis or in democratic transition?

Manifesto for constructive journalism

Ulrik Haagerup, a former news director at Danish public television, founded the Constructive Institute in September 2017 to "combat the trivialisation and degradation of journalism". He gives his views on what needs to change in this profession today.
Ulrik Haagerup
Fondation Hirondelle: In September 2017, you founded the Constructive Institute (1) in Aarhus (Denmark) to promote "constructive journalism". How would you define it? What kind of problems does it intend to address?
Ulrik Haagerup Constructive journalism: Constructive journalism is a corrective to the dominant media culture, which mainly produces information about how bad things are, information that generates clicks, awards and recognition from other journalists. In recent decades, the media have focused mainly on covering conflicts and crises. Since there are "war entrepreneurs" who have a greater economic interest in prolonging conflicts than in winning them, there may also be a kind of "war journalism" that constantly responds to a public demand for impressive and easily marketable information. When I was news director at Danish public television (DR), many people asked me about the mode: "Why do you give such a negative image of the world? "At first I was surprised, because that was not our intention, so I started to analyse our news. In fact, I saw mostly train accidents, murders, weather disasters... We used to send teams to cover conflicts in Africa, for example, but rarely to cover the various aspects of the rapid improvement in living standards on that continent. Our stories were accurate but, one after another, they were depressing.
While most media do the same, this creates a growing gap between reality and public perception. Even though in many ways the world is getting better (average life expectancy has never been higher, fewer and fewer people are dying in conflicts, etc.), people no longer want to follow the news. They have the impression that the world is falling apart, that they should read something more comforting on social networks. This is a tragedy for democracy.
F H: The title of your book, Constructive Information: How to Save the Media and Democracy with Tomorrow's Journalism (Aarhus University Press, 2017), is ambitious. How can "constructive information" save democracy?
UH: When I was a young journalist some 30 years ago, frequent reading of the media was a mark of civilization. Today, people distrust the media: according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2018, only 43 % of the world's respondents trust the media. This figure is even lower in democracies: 42 % in the United States and Germany, 33 % in France, 32 % in the United Kingdom and Japan, 31 % in Australia... Similarly, only 43 % of respondents worldwide trust their government, while trust in business (52 %) or NGOs (53 %) is slightly higher. When such mistrust of democratic institutions spreads, people are ready for populism, as the election of Donald Trump or the vote on Brexit showed. Journalists cannot change institutions, but they can change themselves. It is time to listen a little more to people and restore their confidence, for example by finally covering how the problems we used to cover can be solved. That is what constructive journalism is all about. We intend to combat the trivialization and degradation of journalism by focusing on more accurate, balanced and solution-oriented reporting. We want to focus on the future and inspire society, which means establishing a feedback mechanism from society.
FH: For example, what actions has the Constructive Institute already taken?
UH Let's name two of them. Firstly, while mistrust of politicians and the media is also strong in Denmark, we have organised discussions between leaders of parties represented in parliament and media publishers. Both categories of actors expressed their frustration: politicians, to have access to the media to discuss their proposals only when they are controversial; the media, to deal mainly with communicative discourse with little political substance. So how do we get out of this situation? We decided to hold public meetings together to find ways to improve the media coverage of political life in Denmark. A second action focuses on post-conflict media coverage: after covering conflicts, how to maintain media attention on recovering societies, peace processes, strengthening security, improving care? This work is carried out by our international office in Geneva.
FH: Isn't there a risk that "constructive journalism" might be tempted to downplay the "bad" news?
UH Constructive journalism is not about giving "good" news: again, accuracy is one of our key principles. Furthermore, we are acutely aware that, to name but a few, climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, terrorist attacks are major issues facing the world today. But a lot of media attention is already being given to the attacks. If we give even more, won't that help fuel the sense of fear that terrorists want to spread? This is the kind of situation we are trying to assess.
FH: In your opinion, what is the main responsibility of a journalist today?
UH In a recent article entitled "A Mission for Journalism in Times of Crisis," Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the British daily The Guardian, calls on the media to "develop ideas that help make the world a better place" and to "use clarity and imagination to build hope. These principles, accuracy and the search for solutions, are good. On their basis it is possible, as The Guardian and other innovative European media are doing, to publish investigative articles that are read by a wide audience. This type of publication is good for business. It is good for journalism. And it is good for democracy.

The Guardian: "A mission for journalism in times of crisis" 
In her article "A Mission for Journalism in Times of Crisis," published in November 2017, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the British daily The Guardian, describes the main missions of journalism since the early 19th century in England. After twenty years of digital revolution, including ten years of social networks, she questions the media's ability to challenge the powers that be and regain the public's trust. "We have to constantly examine our assumptions, our prejudices, how the world is changing, what it means. To that end, we will follow five principles: we will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just criticize it; we will collaborate with readers and others to make a greater impact; we will diversify to get richer stories from a representative newsroom; we will put meaning into all our work; and, most of all, we will accurately investigate people and power and get the facts right. (...) This is a time of inquiry for editors, journalists, and citizens - but it is also a privilege to ask these questions, to be able to help transform this era for the better, as our founding manifesto sought to do. And to continue to do what The Guardian's mission has been since 1821: to use clarity and imagination to build hope.


Edelman Trust Barometer 2018: Focus on the media

Every year since 2000, the Chicago-based Edelman agency has published a barometer that assesses global trust in four types of institutions: governments, the media, businesses and NGOs. The 2018 survey was conducted in 28 countries among 1,150 people aged 18 or older. It looks at the media as a whole, including newspapers, broadcasting, websites and social networks. Globally, it concludes that trust in the media is historically low (43 %). 59 % of respondents believe that it is increasingly difficult to know whether information has been produced by a credible media source and nearly 70 % are concerned that false information can be used as a weapon. Trust in journalism (59 %) remains higher than trust in social networks (51 %). Note: trust in the media is particularly low (31-42 %) in most democracies, with the exception of the Netherlands (55 %). Conversely, it is higher in more authoritarian regimes such as China (71 %), the United Arab Emirates (56 %) or Singapore (52 %).

In a society in crisis, journalism can re-create connection / Experience

On the basis of 23 years of institutional experience, Caroline Vuillemin, Executive Director of Fondation Hirondelle, analyses the challenges of journalistic production in countries in conflict or crisis.
Caroline Vuillemin
For 23 years, Fondation Hirondelle has been providing information to populations facing crises. What do you see as the main challenges of information in these contexts?
Caroline Vuillemin What is most often missing in societies facing major crises is reliable information, i.e. information that can provide a benchmark for everyone to make decisions in their lives when all other institutions are failing or destroyed. It is therefore necessary to produce this reliable information, firstly because it rarely exists despite the increasing means of digital access to information, and secondly because it helps to rebuild the trust that these societies need. The media sector of societies in conflict or crisis is in their image: fragile, fragmented, polarized. In this context, we try to respond to information needs by being attentive to two constraints: the need to ensure the safety of journalists, sources and all stakeholders in our media programmes; and the need to ensure the journalistic and technical skills of the people we work with.
To meet these needs and challenges, what are the working principles of Fondation Hirondelle?
RESUME: For the sake of accessibility and balance, we ensure that we work in the languages of the country, with journalists from the country and representative of the diversity of the country where we operate. Beyond the factual treatment of the news, we produce debate programmes where the journalist is the facilitator of a live dialogue between different actors - government, opposition, NGOs, other stakeholders... - who otherwise have little opportunity to talk to each other in a framework of trust. To describe our approach, I would call it "responsible journalism". Our first concern remains the verification of information because in conflict zones, the issue of the reliability of information can be a matter of life and death. We are very attentive to the way we publish information about violence and armed conflict: rather than delivering it raw, we organize a dialogue around this information with a plurality of actors representing the social and political components of the country, which helps to alleviate the worrying or divisive effect that this information could have on listeners.
Do you think that "responsible journalism" should go beyond strict news coverage, helping individuals to take action to overcome the crises they face?
CV I am convinced that the role of journalism is not only to establish facts, but also to increase knowledge and the means of understanding, so that everyone can then act. This is not unique to countries in conflict or crisis. In these contexts, however, the journalism we practice accompanies listeners in the form of a reassuring human presence: "Radio Ndeke Luka is our friend", as we hear in the Central African Republic. We strive to give a voice to everyone, especially to the silent majorities often excluded from the circles of power (women, young people...) and to religious or ethnic minorities under-represented in the institutions. The project that we are inaugurating in the second half of 2018 in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh thus aims to accompany these traumatized and uprooted communities, providing them with both practical information to facilitate their daily lives and cultural programmes that enable them to alleviate their suffering and share their situation and their stories with other members of their community. Where a crisis has disunited a society, journalism can indeed help to recreate social bonds.

Media pluralism has brought Tunisians closer to politics / Testimony

Ouided Bouchamaoui is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2015 with the Quartet of National Dialogue in Tunisia, of which she was one of the leaders as president of the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts. Since November 2017, she has also been a member of the Board of Fondation Hirondelle. She gives her views on the role of the media in Tunisia's democratic transition.
What role did the media play during the revolution and democratic transition in Tunisia?
Ouided Bouchamaoui Three moments are worth reporting. First, the riots in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010. Before that date, information was controlled by the government, Tunisians did not dare to speak. Then the riots broke out, and social networks made it possible to spread the word. The Tunisians then regained the freedom to say what they thought and to take to the streets to demonstrate. At that time, social networks were a powerful unifying factor in Tunisia: they gave access to reality while other media were stifling the riots; they also made it possible to witness the development of the revolution in other parts of the country. One year later, the work of the Constituent Assembly elected in October 2011 was particularly followed by the media. Journalists, intellectuals, religious leaders, NGO leaders... All of them followed the work of the Constituent Assembly and intervened on the media to report on the day's debates, give their opinion, influence the public and the deputies. For there were many disagreements: the place of religion in the Constitution, the personal status of women, the right to vote for the military... so many subjects which, exposed and debated in the media, also allowed debates in cafés and with families, and finally brought Tunisians closer to politics, the law and institutions. Finally, following the assassinations of left-wing political leaders Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013, the media were able to report on a process of "National Dialogue" between political parties which was nevertheless held behind closed doors. The journalists' conversations with the negotiators made it possible to inform the population of the progress of the discussions, thus preventing political tensions from escalating in the streets.
Has the democratic transition been accompanied by a media transition?
OB : Certainly. Before 2011, the state media imposed an unambiguous treatment of information. Today, there is a plurality of media in Tunisia, especially on the radio and the Internet. All subjects are discussed, political opponents are regularly invited... Social networks also continue to function, for better or worse, with this freedom of expression which sometimes turns to insult, this freedom of communication which sometimes turns to proselytizing for extremist networks. But these abuses are now controlled by the government and the media regulatory authorities. This is the experience of democracy, which must come of age: it is better to be able to abuse the publication than to be deprived of it. In this flourishing and sometimes disorderly landscape, the role of the journalist is, in my opinion, to produce reliable information and to convey it to the public. Not to influence people, but to inform them so that they can construct their own vision of things and have the opportunity to make their own choices.
Source: Mediation / ©Hirondelle Foundation
(1) Fondation Hirondelle is a Swiss non-profit organisation that provides information to populations facing crises, to enable them to take action in their daily and civic life. Through our work, several million people in countries at war, in post-conflict or humanitarian crisis situations, and in societies in democratic transition have access every day to media that speak to them and listen to them.
(2) Founded in September 2017 by Ulrik Haagerup and Maarja Kadajane, the Constructive Institute ("Journalism for Tomorrow") is an independent training and research organisation based at the University of Aarhus (Denmark). It aims to help journalists and the media to implement "constructive reporting" by providing access to a portal of good practice, a scholarship programme, training and commissioning academic work on the subject.

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