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Report from UNESCO colloquium: news media challenged by new techologies

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Report from UNESCO colloquium: news media challenged by new techologies

These issues were discussed at the panel “Media challenged - business models and new technologies”, part of the UNESCO colloquium Journalism under fire: challenges of our times, which took place at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris last week. See the full programme of the colloquium here.

Moderator: Mr Vincent Peyrègne, Chairman, World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA)


  • Mr Ricardo Gandour, Journalism Director, CBN, Brazilian Radio Network, Brazil
  • Mr Vicente Jiménez, Director-General, Cadena SER, Spain
  • Ms Lina Chawaf, Founder, Rozana Radio, Syrian Arab Republic
  • Mr Andrius Tapinas, Founder and CEO, Liberty TV, Lithuania
  • Mr Giles Trendle, Director, Al Jazeera English, Qatar
  • Mr Carlos Dada, Editor-in-Chief, El Faro, El Salvador

The panelists concluded that new technology poses manifold challenges to the news industry: old revenue models are being eroded, with no reliable alternatives in sight, and social media and new platforms are a challenge for both ethical standards and journalism's basic identity that gives it credibility over most content online. Morever, there is growing concern that the news media is losing its established societal role in maintaining a functioning democracy.

A pillar of democracy

Vicente Jiménez, Director-General of Cadena SER, Spain’s premier radio network, argued that the latter problem is the more important – and more challenging – one. “Representative democracy is collapsing in many places, and many people have lost faith in democracy,” he said. Journalism used to be seen as one of the most important pillars of democracy in that it contributed to shaping public opinion, but this job is now in the hands of social media and other players, he argued.

“We journalists need to ask why we’re not the stars of the movie anymore. We have responsibility to shape public opinion, and we’ve lost it and need to try to get it back again.” In his view, a major factor behind this change has been online business models that depend on traffic, but drive down the quality of content and undermine credibility: “This model has poison in it.”

Crafting new business models

The challenge to business models may be the easier one to solve, as there are signs that audiences are increasingly willing to pay for news content also online. This has been the experience of Liberty TV, a Lithuanian TV station that broadcasts exclusively on YouTube. The company was launched six months ago, with a fully crowdfunded revenue model.

Andrius Tapinas, Founder and CEO of Liberty TV, said that not only is crowdfunding working for them financially, it helps establish a relationship with the audience that is based on trust. “The main thing is, you must be in sync with your audience on social media. Then it will be easier to get the attention and the trust of the public.”

The need to embrace social media is made even stronger by the fact that young generations of news consumers will be used to getting their news on YouTube and Facebook: “If you want to be heard, you can’t stick to traditional media only. New business models also need to be geared toward how future generations think. 

Maintaining ethics on new platforms

Social media platforms carry with them a new challenge, however, as they allow news organisations less control over the distribution of their content. “We are now being substituted by algorithms”, said Carlos Dada, Editor-in-Chief of El Faro, an online newspaper in El Salvador.

Concretely, this risks not giving more complex, structural issues the kind of attention they deserve. ”I can spend a year investigating a gang, for instance, but somebody can come up with a quick story about dancing cats. Then it’s up to algorithms to decide which story gets more visibility.”

Also Giles Trendle, Director of Al Jazeera English, underlined the necessity to engage digital platforms: “We have to be aware of where our audience wants us to be.” Consequently, Al Jazeera publishes content across a wide range of platforms, although Trendle admitted that it is challenging in terms of journalists’ workload and keeping up with the evolving trends.

Trendle underlined, however, that any expansion to new platforms must not take place at the expense of high standards of journalistic ethics: “We must adapt, but we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We have to stand firm for editorial practices and quality of journalism,” he said. “Holding on to journalism ethics is a business model in itself.”

Ricardo Gandour, Journalism Director of CBN, a Brazilian radio network, also emphasised the need to defend the journalistic method on all platforms. Moreover, the impact on media literacy shouldn’t be underestimated, as many audience members struggle with differentiating information from opinion.

But more broadly, what Gandour sees happening is a fragmentation of society, which risks a weakened understanding of a common public agenda: “What if we lose the minimum list of common priorities, and each group in society starts looking after their own particular priorities?” 

“This seems to be the trend, but it’s important to fight against this. You often hear that being resistant to change is a bad thing, but some things are worth resisting. 

Adapt but keep identity 

Division may be a growing threat in western societies, but the related challenges are at a wholly different level in Syria, as Lina Chawaf, Founder of Syrian Rozana Radio, could attest. “There is a real problem with diversity of opinion, especially in country that has been under dictatorship for almost 40 years.” 

According to Chawaf, many people in her country are not even willing to listen to differing opinions, which poses immense challenges for journalism: “As journalists, we have to encourage accepting diversity of opinion and listening to the other side.” 

In the Syrian context, the credibility of media is easily undermined when well-meaning witnesses send erroneous information from areas that are too dangerous for journalists to enter. “Witnesses may report an exaggerated number of victims, for instance, in the hope that the international community will react more strongly,” Chawaf. “We frequently raise the dialogue with our sources about journalistic standards, and that you risk losing credibility if you don’t follow them.”

Coming back to the topic algorithms, Jiménez pointed out that social media and algorithms are big drivers behind the phenomenon of spread of fake news. For instance, last year in Spain the three most commented stories in social media were fake. “My question is, what is more dangerous for journalism: a journalist killed in a war zone, or a country where the most read stories are false?”

More broadly, Jiménez raised the issue of a move towards a “disintermediated” society: “Many people dislike politicians and would rather vote directly on issues. Some think of journalism the same way: we don’t need journalists, as anyone can write stories. But 90% of what is published on social media is communication, not information nor journalism.”   

Dada offered a couple of key principles to hold on to when navigating the changing media scene. First of all, the news media needs to stand up to high standards of journalism also online, and not let online consumption habits drive down the quality of content: “You can’t subject yourself to the mercy of clicks.”

Second, despite the current feeling of a crisis, the news media must not lose sight of the fact that it has a social mission. “Don’t let the crisis confuse you. We should reach as many people as we can on the different platforms, but without losing our identity.”


Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson


2017-03-29 16:04

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