Digital Wars: Quality Journalism Faces Off With the Forces of Deception


ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan spoke at the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA)'s Annual Assembly in Mexico City on the topic of "The Press, Digital Revolution and Democracy." Her remarks:

"I once heard that it takes 40 years to understand the full impact of a new technology. If that’s the case, then we are still in the middle of a digital revolution that is disrupting every industry from retail to banking and the media. It also takes time to understand the negative impact of that technology. I do think we are far enough along in the development of the Internet to see how transformative digital technologies can be, but also how harmful.

At ICFJ we work at in the intersection of quality news and digital technology. We have learned a lot along the way. Being an optimist, I believe that for every negative force—and there are many—there is a countervailing positive one. The enemies of democratic societies have used the new technology in nefarious ways. It’s our role to make sure citizens are empowered through access to high quality news and information.

We all know that the digital revolution has not only disrupted the business model of the media industry, but also reshaped how we do our work and how we engage citizens. Many news organizations have gone under—and journalists lost their jobs. At the same time, many legacy newspapers have reinvented themselves and there is a proliferation of startups, not to mention social media giants, who are now key producers or distributors of news.

Many independent news sites are enhancing the field. They provide alternative voices to mainstream media, strengthening democracy by holding officials accountable. ICFJ’s Award Winner this year is Aristegui Noticias, run by Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui. She has more than six million Twitter followers. Her team has broken stories that others have not touched involving high-level corruption. And I believe she should be able to monetize her loyal audience.

Some new players are clearly dangerous. According to reliable sources in the Baltics, the Russians are pushing out stories with the sole purpose of confusing or misleading audiences. ISIS has a sophisticated social media team, which attracts support from all corners of the world. In the US, we saw how homegrown terrorists in San Bernardino and recently in New York and New Jersey were inspired to commit murder for this cause.

But keep in mind that 80 percent of ISIS propaganda is in Arabic—and its main message: that it has created a magnificent, Islamic Caliphate. The counterweight to this narrative is the media—particularly Arabic-language news outlets—telling the harsh realities on the ground. At a recent conference called Fueling Extremism in a Wired World, social media giants such as Facebook and Google spoke about how they are dealing “hate speech” and cyber-attacks on independent media.

In the U.S., we also have seen foreign powers, according to the U.S. government, who are trying to influence our presidential elections by hacking Democratic Party emails. We face issues of U.S. government surveillance. Getting the right mix of privacy vs. national security is a pressing topic. In some countries, journalists and news organizations are targets of digital surveillance by powerful drug lords and other crime syndicates.

Our ICFJ Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra has developed an app called Salama that helps journalists assess their risks and become more digitally secure. Through Salama, he also helps news organizations develop security policies. One example is El Universal de Mexico, which has recently adopted new security protocols across its newsroom thanks to Jorge Luis.

We see a proliferation of propaganda. Stories spread faster than ever—and it’s harder to sort out fact from fiction. The good news: the rise of a fact-checking network, which is monitoring everything from government officials to the media for accuracy. I’m happy to report that ICFJ has helped entrepreneurs in Latin America and Africa launch groups like Chequeado and AfricaCheck to help determine the truth.

At ICFJ, we believe that digital technology—despite all the negatives—can improve journalism and enhance democratic societies. We can now do better investigative work, as witnessed by the Panama Papers Project, thanks to technology. We can expand access to information through mobile phones to populations who never received the news before in their local language. And we can engage audiences in new ways that make stories more actionable and meaningful to them.

One way this is done is through data journalism. By fostering an Open Data movement involving governments and key institutions—and responsibly crunching and visualizing the data, we can have tremendous impact.

So what are the takeaways?

  • Experiment with new technologies. Make innovation a part of your DNA. Tech costs are dropping and groups like ICFJ are embedding tech experts in newsrooms and helping to build new business models. This will keep you on top of the trends, especially those involving younger audiences.

  • All reporters should be required to understand data journalism, enabling them to come up with stories, apps and interactive sites that can personalize reporting and activate citizens.

  • User engagement should be at the core of any news operation. To build audiences, you need to foster a deep sense of community.

  • Investigative reporting is worth the investment and there are ways to keep costs down by collaborating with one of the many nonprofit investigative groups. We can put Latin American news organizations in touch with our group, Connectas, based in Colombia.

  • In an era of intense hacking, put in place security protocols to protect your data and your reporters. Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra would be happy to help.

  • In a glut of information, accuracy and ethics matter more than ever. I would argue that speed is less important now than getting the story right.

  • Use the new tools for better storytelling because in the end, it’s all about great journalism."

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