Post-Truth. Post-Facts. New challenges to journalism

I was honoured to attend and speak at ‘The Future of Journalism Conference: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era’ that took place from 14 to 15 September at the University of Cardiff. Most discussions and panels revolved around Fake News and the Post-Truth or Post-Facts era. The questions that academics attempted to answer were: How is journalism coping with the current post-truth era marked by a lot of fake news? Will journalism survive it or is this the end? Professor Silvio Waisbord (George Washington University) had a thought-provoking keynote fleshing out the meaning of the post-truth/post-fact era and of fake news. To sum up his thought, he said we have entered a new regime of truth, whereby requirements and conditions for statements and ideas to be true are no longer shared or are simply absent. As a consequence, he said, any statement on reality can potentially be deemed credible! Scary, isn’t it? As I was listening, John Locke popped up in my mind. The truth of words is moving far, far, far away from the truth of thoughts!


The Truth


The truth has been a problematic concept for centuries and no one single definition has emerged from the numerous, mostly but not exclusively, philosophical discussions around it. Back in the 17th century, English philosopher John Locke distinguished between two types of truth arguing that ‘To form a clear notion of truth, it is very necessary to consider truth of thought, and truth of words, distinctly one from another: but yet it is very difficult to treat of them asunder’. Journalists and certainly communication professionals strive to get these two types of truth as close to one another as possible. A news story is, or at least was until recently, supposed to genuinely convey a truthful interpretation of facts. The same is expected from media relations professionals, marketers, and other communication professionals who produce content for the public.


Fake News


Back to Cardiff. In another keynote, professor Guy Berger (UNESCO) posed an even tougher question: Does Journalism Have a Future? The simplest answer would be: Of course! A more thoughtful answer would be: Yes…., but… the kind of future it has can’t be predicted. Let’s take the notion of fake news that has become a key characteristic of the post-truth/post-fact era. I keep wondering whether what is fake news is always fake news. At some point, what is called fake news seems to be what one disagrees about. Any unpleasant criticism of powerful or authoritarian leaders is easily labelled “fake news”. For instance, anything from Russia’s media is easily labelled fake news in the West…. I am not saying that fake news is an invention, but I do think that there is a potential danger in over-using and over-publicizing that concept. There is a risk of having every thing sent automatically to the fake news trash bin. Dr. Claire Wardle (First Draft), who also delivered a video keynote, has taken an extreme position by refusing to pronounce the word. Instead, she referred to it as F*** News, just like we do for the other F-words. That way, she hopes to contribute to reducing the dangers that that phrase poses.

War Reporting: The Syrian Case


I was at the Cardiff conference primarily to present my paper on war reporting in Syria titled “Shooting Kids: Children in War Reporting by Russia Today and Al-Jazeera”. The rationale of the paper and the research as whole which I hope to turn into a book in a year or two, is as follows: There is one principle in journalism that all voices should be heard and included in reporting. In this respect, there is nothing wrong in having children interviewed as sources in a news report! This sounds very simple, but in my presentation I cautioned journalists against including children as sources in war/conflict situations.


Think of 8-year-old Mohamed interviewed in eastern Aleppo in October 2016 and who insulted president Assad and the Russians as murderers and all other names. The news clip is out there online (and now in my database) and can be accessed and viewed/downloaded by anyone. Now, Eastern Aleppo is back under government control and Mohamed is back to school. Business as usual! Really? What will happen when the clip in which he was interviewed surfaces on his Facebook timeline? What about the day he will have to apply for a government scholarship or for a job? EU citizens have the privilege of enjoying “the right to be forgotten” that they secured through the European Court of Justice. Thanks to this right, any EU citizen can force Google and other services to delete their unpleasant past online. But what about the quotes and images like the one I’ve just described, for which the journalist secured an “informed” consent from the child’s parents? By the time the child starts facing the adverse consequences of being part of the (post-truth) news, the journalist will have moved back home, far from thinking of the consequence of his/her work. The child will never successfully explain that what he said was just child talk.


Research in Progress


This is one aspect of my research into the ethics of war reporting to which three of my ICM Content Analysis students have contributed through coding. At the moment, I am looking into war reporting by RT [formerly knows as Russia Today] and Al Jazeera English, but I will include France 2 and NOS Journaal, which both slightly covered the battle of Aleppo (FR2: 63 news clips between August and December 2016; NOS journal: 58 clips). 64% of the 377 news clips I sampled (RT: 216 clips & AJE: 161 clips) in relation to the battle of Aleppo (Aug-Dec 2016) contain child images, including those showing children in military uniforms or carrying out military tasks. All that without necessarily blurring their faces. More unethical are those images of adults being interviewed with blurred faces, whereas the children they hold and expose innocently show their faces.


The colleagues on the same War and Terrorism panel talked about propaganda in war reporting in relation to Libya and Syria. They showed ways in which Western news media have engaged in massive propaganda-driven reporting in both countries, which generated some heated discussions during the Q&A session. I refrained from using “propaganda” and “fake news” in my presentation because I have come to believe that propaganda is often used in relation to the Other who is not on my side. Discussing RT and AJE and focusing on propaganda is attracting unnecessary criticism at this early stage of my research. I will certainly consider the propaganda aspect once I have included data about France 2 and NOS Journaal, the reporting of which was not really different from Al-Jazeera’s in many respects. For now, let’s think once again about whether or not we really need to know the opinion of a 5 or 8-year-old about president Assad being a good or bad guy, a legitimate leader or a dictator. To that question I answered: “We don’t”. If that means excluding children from news reporting, let it be so. At least children will be less exposed.