Breaking Down Journalistic Barriers at #FNW19
Young journalists find strength in numbers at the Future News Worldwide conference, turning challenges into opportunities.
It’s an uphill battle for journalists breaking into the industry when obstacles faced by professionals are at an all-time high.
Despite this, 100 young people from 53 countries met at the Thomson Reuters Headquarters in Canary Wharf, London’s bustling financial district, to learn about the challenges faced by modern-day journalists. Passionate, eager and determined — the delegates were handpicked by the British Council from over 3000 applications to attend the Future News Worldwide 2019 conference.
On 14th July, I made my way to London as a Maltese representative to join the cohort. I had just closed off my fourth and final year as an undergraduate student two weeks earlier and found myself at a crossroads. Aware that choices made at this point in life will influence the course of my future, I clung to the belief that a few days away from home, meeting like-minded people from different cultures and backgrounds, would inspire me to emerge from my university shell. I was thankful that I had made time to submit my application five months back, in spite of my looming dissertation deadline and the undue pressure of a part-time job.
Two days of intensive training on the 16th and 17th of July were dedicated to navigating the biggest challenges in journalism — from the ebbing trust in the media to threatened media freedom, to a lack of diversity in the newsroom and the changing business model of news organisations instigated by new technologies.
Fake News and the Threat to Media Freedom
The opening speech by Thomson Reuters’ own Nick Tattersall, Managing Editor News for EMEA, set the tone for the conference. Breaking news is now measured in millionths of a second, increasing pressure to publish stories fast and first. But accuracy cannot be put on a back burner at a time when facts are paramount in the rebuilding of trust in the media. Citizen journalists cannot replace the “impartial boots on the ground reporting” of professional journalism, said Tattersall. Fake news was destined to be the word on everyone’s lips.
Sreenivasan Jain, Managing Editor of the New Delhi Television, the channel that “doesn’t fall in line”, spoke of the Kafkaesque situation in Northern India. The majority of locals turn a blind eye when governments systematically shut down channels that mention their prime minister. Instead, they watch what Jain calls “Fox News on steroids” spread propaganda in line with their own political views.
Media freedom doesn’t affect journalists alone. Sonny Swe from Frontier Myanmar has been in publishing for over two decades, has lived three lives and served eight years of a fourteen-year sentence behind bars. His first life ended and his second began when he was arrested and charged with censorship offences, a weapon used by the regime against publishers, in 2004.
“Mental strength is more important than physical strength,” said Swe, recalling the steps he took to avoid perishing in prison.
His second life consisted of conversations with spiders inhabiting his cell, repeating phone numbers and addresses to himself to train his mind, and acts of kindness to improve the daily lives of his prison mates. He moved prisons five times throughout his sentence, earning a solid reputation by volunteering, setting up libraries and teaching English and photography to other inmates. “I called myself a prison tourist,” he said.
After eight years, Swe embraced freedom and returned to the newsroom where he reunited with old colleagues. The social shift towards the digital world had gained traction during his imprisonment, and Swe felt disconnected, struggling to adjust to life outside.
“We need journalists because if we don’t have facts, how can we defend democracy?”, he asked.
Swe went on to found Frontier Myanmar magazine, marking the beginning of his third life.
Inspirational Women at #FNW19
Speaking at the conference, Christina Lamb, Foreign Correspondent at the Sunday Times, said:
“It makes me happy to see that people still want to be journalists because, as you know, the industry is under all sorts of pressure and there are people out there who call us ‘enemies of the people’.”
Lamb was introduced to journalism through an irresistible free-cheese-and-wine event organised by the Oxford University student newspaper, Cherwell. She landed a job at the paper, became the editor, and switched subjects from chemistry to the infamous politics, philosophy and economics course.
“It’s famously known as something which doesn’t require you to do much work,” she said, candidly pointing out that most of Britain’s Prime Ministers were PPE graduates.
By the age of 22, Lamb had secured formative links through internships and networking. In 1987, an invitation to a wedding in Karachi laid the foundations for her first venture into the male-dominated field of foreign correspondence. Unintimated by statistics, her 1988 dispatches from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation put her name on the map. She moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, a year later, and has reported on Afghanistan and Pakistan ever since. Lamb is currently finishing her latest book, titled ‘Our Bodies, Their Battlefields’.
Lamb’s story demonstrated the importance of on-the-ground reporting to bear witness to reality. It also highlighted the need for journalists to seize every opportunity, but Nadine White drove this point home by showing how Twitter helped her land her current position at HuffPost UK.
Growing up in south-west London in the 1990s as a black woman and aspiring journalist, White knew that the cards were stacked against her. Research conducted by City University in London in 2016 found that the British journalism industry is 94% white, 86% university-educated and 55% male.
By leaning into what made her different, however, White landed her first newspaper job at The Voice, Britain’s leading newspaper in the black community, based in her hometown, Brixton.
Her speech pivoted on crucial tips for young journalists, starting with “always remember your reason”. She urged the delegates to never cut corners and, when opportunities are lacking, to create them by sharing work on social media, Twitter in particular.
The Power of User-Generated Content
New media technologies can be detrimental to journalists as social media facilitates the production and dissemination of fake news. Simultaneously, journalists are maximising the potential of these tools to gather evidence, break stories and speak truth to power.
Aliaume Leroy and Ben Strick from BBC Africa Eye demonstrated a few of their latest projects involving open source technology and social media. They produce in-depth investigative videos that don’t just debunk lies, but also piece together the truth. Stories they’ve covered include the June 3rd Sudan Massacre in Khartoum, which was live-streamed by protestors taking part in a peaceful sit-in, before the Internet shutdown. Over 300 videos were gathered and cross-referenced to establish an eye-witness perspective of the violence that occurred that morning. The down-to-earth duo’s creativity was evident and the delegates were ready to pick their brains for tips.
“How can we be sure these videos are real? How can we be sure the incident took place?” said Strick, mimicking the delegates’ curiosity.
The answer lies in applying thorough verification techniques, something which requires creative thought and time, but always centres around data. Gathering information has become more complex due to the plethora of platforms from which user-generated content and data can be sourced. Verifying that information, then, requires a whole other set of tools. Workshops from Google News Initiative gave us insight into the many free tools available at our fingertips. A practical exercise in verifying video footage of an Eagle picking and dropping a child took us through the ABCs of video verification. The clip, of course, turned out to be nothing more than a computer-generated image produced for a student project.
Future News Worldwide is not just about meeting and learning from well-established journalists. It’s also about connections and eye-opening conversations with people who come from places you’ve never been. It’s about discovering similarities shared with people from across the globe and allowing other people’s successes to inspire your own journey. It’s about seizing the moment and stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s about the inspirational young people you meet — natural storytellers and ever curious — who are determined to create positive change for a better future.
A special thank you to the British Council Malta for giving me the invaluable opportunity to attend the Future News Worldwide conference, and to all those involved in making the event happen.