Teofil2author: Teofil Blazevski

The fight against fake news requires unification of the media community

Joint action of media organizations and experts for short-term and long-term effects of the fight against fake news and other unethical public information is a necessity

When there were many victims in Skopje from the flood caused by the storm that hit four years ago, in 2016, the problem with fake news in the media was not very visible, neither quantitatively nor qualitatively. The problem had mostly appeared visibly in relation to political issues and the war between the government and the opposition at that time to get out of the severe political crisis, which practically started in December 2012.

However, even at that time, examples of fake or unethical news could be found, which violated the basic standards of the profession, and thus the Code of Journalists. This kind of news in conditions of a major natural disaster or crisis caused by it can further aggravate the situation by deceiving and misleading a large portion of the public. One such evident example, which, fortunately, did not spread in the media community, but was shared on the most popular social network Facebook, was the "news" of "Naroden Glas" - "The number of victims in Stajkovci and the surrounding area has risen above 50." 

The reminiscences of the flood and the fake news, however, could be seen much more a few months later in 2016, when Skopje was also affected by heavy rains and when there was news, even in reputable media, such as: "UPDATED: Stajkovci under water again, residents in panic! PHOTO", or “FEAR AGAIN: Residents of Stajkovci report flooded streets”, but also moderate and correct reporting with headlines such as “Streets in Stajkovci under water, but for now there is no water in basements and houses”, or, finally, an open" media denial" of incorrectly published news with exaggeration: “GALLERY: It is dry in Stajkovci - flood information is incorrect.”

Most of the examples are taken from the archived page of Time.mk and it can be noticed that the news, i.e. the links from the media that wanted to generate "clicks", are today non-functional, which means that such news are either deleted or moved to another archive. The Council of Media Ethics of Macedonia (CMEM) had complaints about such news, but the number is not nearly as big as the complaints it has today, related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Albania, earthquake, media

A similar situation could be registered in Albania in 2019 in terms of media coverage during the catastrophic earthquake that struck, above all, Durres and Tirana. Albanian authorities, at the initiative of Prime Minister Edi Rama, decided to take draconian measures to prevent the spread of fake news, so two journalists were detained who caused panic with their articles about the aftershocks of the main earthquake, which forced thousands Tirana residents to flee their homes. Hundreds of people moved their vehicles or went out on the highway or spent the night outside, because they expected an aftershock earthquake before midnight with a magnitude of 6 on the European scale.

All this, in turn, was a good occasion for the adoption of a new media law, which was much more restrictive, especially in terms of online media regulation and which caused great dissatisfaction and protests in the media community in Albania and beyond, because it was considered as being restrictive for the media freedom. Similar tendencies to restrict and detain journalists could be seen in Montenegro and Serbia in the early stages of the pandemic crisis.

The coronavirus crisis has exposed all the weaknesses of the media

The above examples of unethical reporting in times of natural disasters, however, cannot be compared to the damage done by fake news or other type of unethical news published in the country and abroad in relation to the coronavirus crisis.

ПThe President of the Press Complaints Commission, Mirce Adamcevski, at the recently held webinar focused at the media role during the coronavirus crisis, announced the following results: “until August 10th, the Press Complaints Commission received 106 press complaints on unprofessional and unethical reporting. Most of them (35 press complaints or 33 % of the cases) refer to the coverage of the pandemic. If we analyze these 35 press complaints, violation of article 1 of the Code of Journalists, which refers to publishing of accurate and verified information, has been identified in 46% of the cases or in 16 articles, while violation of article 8 of the Code, which refers to sensational reporting, has been identified in 11 articles or in 31% of the cases”.

Judging by the number of press complaints received, it is reasonable to assume that at least 350 unethical news and other information about all aspects of the coronavirus crisis were published in the media, because CMEM does not work on the principle of monitoring and detecting all such articles, but only after receiving complaints from members of the public. Of that number, by analogy, 46 percent or about 165 articles were not fact-checked. 

The problem is multiplied if we take into consideration the “copy-paste journalism”, knowing that the reach of such unethical information has increased by tens or even hundreds of thousands of views through social networks, especially Facebook, which is extremely popular in Northern Macedonia. Facebook is often used as the primary source of information for much of the population between the ages of 16 and 40.

If we add to this the new trends that lead to replacement of "fake news" by "deep-fake", for which a paper was recently published on the "Respublic" blog, rightly, all of us who are involved in the media world in the country need to be concerned and look for solutions.

Maximizing the positive effects of self-regulation

In conditions when the authorities in the country do not have a proper vision, but also a strong will to apply legal provisions against fake news during natural or health crises, self-regulation and the struggle within the media community are the only barrier to unethical reporting.

External conditions, such as a positive media atmosphere and environment, remain our constant concern in communicating with decision - makers. Assistance from institutions in times of natural disasters or health crises, such as the current one, has proved necessary, although until recently the prevailing view was that any financial interference in the media by the state was unacceptable, with few exceptions. But it also showed the need for precisely defined conditions for such assistance and the entities that should receive it, as well as oversight of how it would be used. On the other hand, the biggest external condition is full transparency of the key institutions of which the struggle for ethical media information is dependent.

Self-regulation has so far had visible effects in the media community, benefiting the whole society, although we can only talk about completely successful results after a long period of time and after locating new models to deal with unethical reporting, of which fake news and deep-fake are the most dangerous. Given the experience so far, a question arises: what can the media community do for the greater effect of self-regulation?

Only a few solutions to be considered will be mentioned here:

  • Extensive discussion led by us, the media organizations, together with all representatives of the relevant media, for the development of a new Media Code, which, of course, would incorporate the basic postulates of the existing Code of Journalists. If the International Federation of Journalists could have estimated that the media world needs a new Code and adopted it at the beginning of 2019, why do we think we do not need it?
  • Based on that new Code and based on the specifics of each of the media, we should seriously insist and raise awareness that each major media in the country should develop its own Code, the relevance of which will be guaranteed by the help from us (meaning from the relevant media organizations in the country). So far, we have only had one such positive example, the MRT/NRT Code of Ethics adopted two years ago.
  • Reform in the working principle of CMEM, to be able to assess extreme examples of unethical reporting at its own discretion and react in an appropriate manner.
  • Formalized cooperation with the media regulator, the Agency of Audio and Audiovisual Media Services, in partnership with the CMEM and other media organizations, to fight together against unethical reporting, primarily against fake news, as it proved that the biggest damage in this country can be caused if these news is covered through the electronic media. 
  • A more intensive cooperation among the CMEM, Association of Journalists, the Independent Union of Journalists of Macedonia, the Macedonian Institute for Media, the Center for Civic Communication and several other smaller or bigger media organizations and independent experts with three objectives: efficient struggle against fake news on short time, efficient struggle against fake news and other type of unethical reporting on a long term, primarily through a comprehensive implementation of efficient media literacy, as well as improving the conditions for work of journalists and media workers.  These organizations could formalize this kind of cooperation through some type of a media council, which in crisis conditions could act fast towards the media and decision - makers and could make decisions on long term; jointly request financial aid for accomplishment of the second and third goal – media literacy and improvement of standards and working conditions for media workers. 

The results are greater with joint action

There are certainly other models that can be reached through a joint dialogue. As it can be seen, most of the models of future action listed here imply unity and unification.

The positive experience of the media organizations when they acted together in the period of the last seven or eight years confirms the old union rule for unification. This was proved in the case of SSNM, which in a joint partnership with other organizations was better heard by the Government. 

The media community is strongest in achieving its goals only when it is united and that is why it is the right time for this step again.