"Despite all the problems, I’m hopeful. Journalism will survive and prosper."

Interview with Aidan White, Founder and President of the Ethical Journalism Network, Honorary Advisor to the Fetisov Journalism Awards

Aidan White
Photo: Fetisov Journalism Awards

You have just finished editing the book based on the best stories of FJA 2020. Besides you wrote an essay about today's journalism, rather optimistic, where you emphasized the importance of ethical issues. What gives you grounds for that optimism?

The Fetisov Journalism Award celebrates terrific and stylish reporting and provides a positive platform for promoting respect for democracy, human rights and free speech.

The FJA also reminds us that co-operation is not some utopian ideal, it is a practical necessity if we are to resolve the great challenges facing humanity – such as the climate emergency or health pandemics.

Our global culture of communications has created opportunities for news media and journalists to work together, often across borders, to tell stories that are significant in all our lives.

Whether it is about migration, or health, or the environment, people from different cultures and backgrounds have common interests and good journalism provides reliable intelligence that is useful in people’s lives.

The FJA is a celebration of ethical truth-telling and is the best illustration of why journalism matters more than ever today. How could I not be optimistic?

What are the main challenges for ethical journalism today?

Of course, there are major challenges. The politics of opportunism, propaganda and hatred are on the march in many parts of the world and many political leaders use communication tools like social media and the internet to sow division and mistrust.

They can do so because of the way that the online world has been organized – not to serve the public interest in truth and facts, but to promote the profit-driven business models of high tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter who put clicks before concern over the welfare of the public.

The information and communications revolution has made our lives immensely better and given us the chance to stay connected – even during the pandemic, we have all kept in close touch.

But the dark side of the revolution has been abusive content, hate-speech and poisonous communications that have made people fearful and uncertain. Many people do not know what to believe on the Internet, and many people believe everything they read and see.

This confusion leads to more ignorance and prejudice.

There are four main ways to confront these challenges:

First, we have to condemn and expose the political forces that are trying to control information and are spreading fear and ignorance through propaganda. At all levels – from the United Nations down to local government – we need cleaner politics and more respect for free expression and other universal human rights.

Secondly, we also have to rein in the power of the big tech companies – to get them to promote reliable information like journalism and to eliminate the hate speech and abuse that proliferates across the internet. These companies are immensely rich and too powerful. They must be made accountable to the democracies they serve. And they should pay their taxes!

Thirdly, we have to find ways of restoring trust in information and one of the key elements is to provide more access to reliable and trustworthy journalism which respects the core values of the profession – accuracy, independence, impartial reporting, humanity and respect for others, and accountability. And that means we also have to clean up journalism where it fails to perform. Ethics are not a flexible theory of behaviour, they provide the road map to decency in public life and help us build confident and informed communities;

Finally, we need to promote more citizens’ engagement in the world of information and communication. Today people have access to the tech tools that mean they can have their say. They can play a role in building a trusted public information sphere.

The audience plays a role today in defining the news agenda and in spreading information. People don’t need “top-down” systems that dictate the information they are entitled to receive. We must develop new lines of communication that put people first and that are sensitive to the information that people need and what they want.

What was the main Covid-19 pandemic effect on journalism?

The response to the pandemic saw politicians and many media adopting a national focus and there were some attempts to use this nationalism to generate conflict – as the former US President Donald Trump did with his dangerous rhetoric about the “Chinese virus”.

But more importantly, the pandemic reminded us that facts, not prejudice, are what is needed to keep people safe. In most countries media played a great role in communicating the facts about Covid-19 and giving the public the information they needed to stay healthy.

Even though some opportunist politicians – in the US and Brazil, for example – tried to ignore the truth about the emergency, most in journalism saw the importance of keeping the public informed. In many ways, I think the pandemic was a demonstration of why we all need to support truth-telling and reliable journalism. In many ways our lives depend upon it.

You launched the Ethical Journalism Initiative more than 10 years ago, long before "fake news" and "post-truth" discussion. Could you remind us of the basic milestones towards the Ethical Journalism Initiative? What are today’s activities?

The Ethical Journalism Initiative I launched in 2008 became the Ethical Journalism Network in 2012, an international media support group dedicated to restoring trust in journalism by promoting ethical values inside news media.

I took this initiative after 20 years working in global journalism as General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists and because I was concerned that all around the world, the technological changes sweeping across media were creating a dangerous climate for communications.

Media were also facing a massive financials crisis, newsrooms were closing down and online information – which had no ethical base – was increasingly dominating the world of communications.

And political propaganda was on the rise. The malicious lies of politicians in Russia, China, the United States and elsewhere were getting more coverage and there was the growth of disinformation, disregard for the truth and the absurd notion of “alternative facts.”

Amazingly, I looked around and there was no international group dedicated to promoting the truth and ethical information. So the launch of the Ethical Journalism Initiative and then the Ethical Journalism Network was an obvious and necessary step.

What are the most important trends in media development today, when journalism is only a part of the general information landscape? What is the role of journalism and journalists? Involvement of the audience? Combination of forms?

The communications landscape today is amazingly changed – with far more information than people can handle. We truly suffer from information overload with many different platforms and thousands of outlets to choose from.

In this situation people rightly ask – what can I trust? How do I know that this information is reliable? Where can I find the truth?

To answer these questions, we need journalism – a reliable stream of information that is created through attachment to core values, respect for others and the truth.

But we also need to ensure that journalism lives up to its duty to be ethical which is why I have been supporting new efforts to create benchmarks for reliability that will point people towards information they can trust. The Journalism Trust Initiative, which I have been working with for the last three years and the International Media Democracy Commission on which I have served, are aiming to create a framework for journalism of the future.

These initiatives, which have already received support from the United Nations, are aiming to create a legal and professional system for the future of information that will eliminate fake news and malicious lies and will put the spotlight firmly on information that people can trust.

New trends in the media development. Cross-border, teamwork, investigative projects? What else?

 As the FJA has shown, journalists and news media are increasingly working together and across borders to tell their stories. In recent years a number of major global scoops – such as the Panama Papers in 2016 and Project Pegasus in 2021 -- have been made possible thanks to the use of technology and the partnerships of dozens of media and hundreds of journalists.

This development has become a “new norm” for public-interest journalism, and it relies upon good co-ordination and trusted teams of people who, even if they don’t share the same language and are separated by continents, do have a common commitment to journalism in the public interest.

This sort of collaboration will grow in the coming years. It means that the role of journalism in combatting corruption, particularly in global corporations or political networks, will get stronger.

Of course, this costs money and more resources will be needed to pay for such work. New ways of funding journalism – through charitable foundations and public subscription – will also be a feature of the new landscape. There will also be more focus on minority groups and people who are vulnerable to exploitation – the increase in the numbers of stories being submitted for the FJA in this area is yet more evidence of this trend.

You are honorary member of FJA team. Why did you decide to join FJA? What is the role of the international initiatives in support of ethical journalism today?

Joining the team at the FJA is a terrific opportunity for me to deploy the experience and knowledge I have been luck to acquire over the past 50 years in journalism and media support work.

I see the Awards as providing a great opportunity – and not just for the talented people who win the prizes. More importantly, the FJA are a showcase of what journalism can do and is doing to support the struggle for human rights and democracy.

The FJA is no just a prize initiative, it is also can be a platform for launching more media education and debate on journalism and its future. These are key elements in developing a strategy for the future of journalism.

For that reason I’m ending this interview as cheerfully optimistic as I began it. Despite all the problems, whether the horrors of physical attacks on journalists; or the shame and scandal of censorship and official neglect of media rights; or the voracious appetite for profits and shocking hypocrisy of big technology companies – I’m hopeful.

Journalism will survive and prosper. As the FJA shows, the profession is alive and well, and although democracy is getting a rough ride in some places, the people’s right to know about the world around them and their wish to live decent lives means journalism will continue to play an important part in their lives.