Calls-to-action: Why European newsrooms should focus on media literacy

As misinformation is spreading rapidly in the digital landscape, the winds blow hard on media publishers. With random actors, often disguised as traditional media, spreading wrongful information with the likes of deep fakes or through digital platforms such as social media or via message apps, lately a debate about how publishers are to regain the trust of their audience has arose. In order to help both journalists and their audience become more media literate, a change needs to take place, both in the newsrooms and elsewhere.

The debate surrounding media literacy is often too focused on the impact of social media platforms (namely Facebook and Twitter) on the one hand, and the ability and responsibility of citizens to evaluate whether to trust media content on the other. Meanwhile, disinformation is plaguing the news ecosystem, delegitimising journalists and newsrooms. If nothing is done, it will have serious implications on our representative democracies and our intermediary bodies.

How can newsrooms and journalists take ownership of promoting trust and transparency in their work? How can we reinforce the responsibility of journalists towards confronting falsehoods and engaging the public in identifying, and fighting disinformation? What role should platforms have in facing these challenges? What digital tools are the most effective for achieving these goals?

In a new programme by The Global Editors Network, supported by the European Commission, challenges such as these will be addressed. The goal? To provide future tools and best practices for newsrooms to implement; the European Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms.

Through three unconferences, and one hackaton, teams of journalists, developers, and designers from all around Europe will gather to discuss how newsrooms interact with media consumers, how they can help stop the spread and creation of misinformation, and what tools or services would help them.

This year long initiative will gather the knowledge of dozens of key players in the media literacy debate with the goal of creating a set of digital tools and best practices to facilitate understanding between journalists and citizens.

A presentation of the toolkit will be held at the GEN Summit 2019, the most attended conference by editors-in-chief from around the world (850+ participants over the three days). It will be the opportunity to discuss the impact of the toolkit between European, American, and Asian media experts.

What’s an unconference? — Brussels 6 November

The kick-off for the first unconference was held in Brussels in early November 2018. In partnership with the European Federation of Journalists, the Global Editors Network invited 25 industry professionals and media literacy experts from all around Europe. Their challenge was to identify the needs of newsrooms and find concrete calls-to-action, which will serve as a basis for the next unconferences.

An unconference is a participant driven meeting to avoid the aspects of a conventional conference. The meeting has a goal, but without a set agenda. This in order to let the participants be in charge. And though the format of an unconference is somewhat untraditional, focusing on creating an agenda after personal discussion, it is also helpful when one tries to find new solutions.

A ‘Human spectrogram’ exercise started off the day, and later the discussion topics were being decided.

Human spectrogram

With a statement that ‘False information is easy to remember because it’s simple. The truth is much more complex,’ the Global Editors Network’s programme manager Sarah Toporoff opened the day and introduced participants further to the topic of media literacy and the format of an unconference.

She ran a ‘Human Spectrogram’ excercise with focus on how different people from different backgrounds think.

With questions such as ‘Who has shared a link without clicking it before?’, the participants were made acquainted with not only the subjects that were to be discussed throughout the day, but also with each other. Seeing as they came from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, and countries, this exercise generated good debate even before the day had set about its deliberate aim.

Rebuilding trust through ethics

Together with Tom Law from the Ethical Journalism Network, a masterclass with the focus on ethical journalism then set the scene for the day and the conversations to come.

The main takeaway was that newsrooms will benefit from having a more media literate audience, for the public good, to rebuild trust and to improve the business models. ‘Ethical journalism can be an inspiration for media literacy and free expression to encourage more responsible communications,’ said Tom Law during the day in Brussels.

The Ethical Journalism Network later also shared a blog on the matter, stating that: ‘A media literate public is arguably more likely to recognise more trustworthy sources of information, to spot propaganda, and not share hoaxes.’

Calls-to-action: where to aim the focus

Following the masterclass, the participants started a discussion about the perception of ethics in different cultural contexts as well as about the importance of transparency when it comes to political opinions and independence. They stressed the need to reflect on challenges and practical solutions, such as training journalists on concrete cases. The group highlighted that when ethics is part of the brand of the media, there is a direct benefit in terms of reputation.

After the participants briefly shared their different projects and experiences. The starting question was: Is this a toolkit to help journalists to be media literate or for newsrooms to help their audiences become more media literate? Or both? The participants agreed on both.

Presenting the discussion results, and finding relevant calls-to-action.

From that point of view, six themes and working groups emerged from the brainstorming:

  • Reach, Viral, Impact: Looking for tools and ways (quizzes, games, social media influencers, video) to get media literacy to enhance its reach, go viral with sense of humour and have more impact on young people
  • Who pays? Should fact checks live behind paywalls? Who is paying for quality content (investigations, in-depth reports, data journalism)? How to make journalism sustainable and trust monetisable?
  • News process: “Trust me I’m a journalist” doesn’t work anymore, more transparency and more accountability are needed. Transparency about publishing and correcting mistakes is building trust between the newsrooms and the audience; interesting example from Norway (Faktisk).
  • Media Literacy for young people: Should journalists play a role in educating teachers and students about the media sector. Their key role will be fighting mis/disinformation. Journalists unions and teachers unions could develop teaching models for young people. How could journalism students be involved?
  • What can the European Union do in light of the European elections? What are the potential collaborations between European institutions and European news media?
  • Platforms: Enemies or allies?

After a full day’s discussions on all the matters, what was expressed to build further on throughout the coming year was six different calls-to-action.

  • Creating an e-learning platform on Media Literacy at EU level: Each member state shares the name of the initiatives supported at national level, the calendar of events, organise webinars between newsrooms and kids
  • Creating guidelines on how to engage with tech platforms, using the platforms as allies to promote media literacy and fight disinformation, ask for more transparency on algorithms
  • Producing short videos with influencers (YouTubers) for different age groups to make media literacy appealing to young audiences
  • Building a tool to monitor trending topics in the newsroom and to publish “how to” stories to inform the audience about editorial decision making process inside the newsroom (i.e. how an editor decided to cover a trending topic)
  • Building pedagogical tools between journalists and teachers and fostering collaboration between journalists’ unions and teachers’ unions
  • Diversifying the journalists’ fact-checking methods, make the tools more fun to use for younger audiences

This is now the ground we stand on when moving towards the second, out of three, unconference in Vienna on 23 January 2019.

‘When one person says it’s raining and the other says it’s not raining, the journalist role is not to report both point of views but to verify the information and report : look out of the window,’ Tom Law, EJN

To learn more about our calls-to-action for the European Media Literacy Toolkit for Newsrooms, visit our website. If you’re interested in participating, or know someone who has expertise on the matter, do not hesitate to contact us to get involved. Follow #GENMediaLit for an updated view on the programme over the year.

The next unconference will be held in Vienna, in partnership with the Forum for journalism and media (fjum), on 23 January. We will build from what was addressed in Brussels, and gather different types of audiences, including journalists and editors, media trainers, media practitioners, journalism students, and startups. If you are interested in participating, please email us and let us know.