Quality journalism key to fighting fake news

By Benjamin Nathaniel Bondoc

March 22, 2019, 8:29 am

FIGHTING FAKE NEWS WITH QUALITY JOURNALISM. Dr. James Gomez, chair of Board of Directors of Asia Centre, acts as moderator of the panel discussion on the role of journalists in the context of information disorder and digital literacy at the ASEAN Workshop for Addressing Fake News at the Amari Watergate Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand on Thursday (March 21, 2019). (PNA photo by Benjamin Bondoc)

BANGKOK -- Journalists must possess adequate skills and high standards of professionalism to curb the prevalence of fake news.

This was stressed by resource persons on the role of journalists in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in the context of information disorder and digital literacy, during the Workshop on Addressing Fake News, held at the Amari Watergate Hotel here Thursday.

Veteran Thai journalist, Kavi Chongkittavorn, said newsmen should avoid “adding color” and “dramatizing” the news and instead focus on improving their skills, particularly fact-checking.

“People often spread rumors. 'Mouthbook' (gossip) is faster than Facebook. They say, ‘This is just what I heard.’ Thus, we need to verify,” Chongkittavorn said.

Dr. Masato Kajimoto, assistant professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong, echoed the Thai media practitioner’s remarks, noting the need for journalists to think of the way they tell stories.

“If somebody says something to the public, we have to verify. Misinformation spreads far and wide. We must be able to differentiate opinions from facts,” Kajimoto said.

Among the components of quality journalism are verification, independence, accountability, and transparency.

Putting emphasis on verification, Kajimoto stressed the need for everyone to be able to do fact-checking.

For instance, he said the University of Hong Kong has a fact-checking course where students of various courses are enrolled, enabling them to determine the veracity of information concerning their fields.

He added that trust in a source of information should not be the sole factor in determining whether it is real or not.

“When your mother says the pizza is in the fridge, you believe it because you trust her. But do you actually check whether the pizza is really in it? It’s the same for news,” Kajimoto noted.

Meanwhile, Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist John Nery urged ASEAN journalists to look beyond the problem of disinformation on digital platforms and social media.

Citing the latest "We Are Social" report released in January, Nery said an estimated 30 million Filipinos are not connected in the Philippines, a figure that is equivalent to the total population of New Zealand and Australia.

“In many parts of Asia, lies and disinformation still travel the old routes. Allow me to give only one example. To focus only on the manipulation of digital and social media in the Philippines is to ignore the impact of other media, especially TV and radio, on a large number of Filipinos. I think the same can be said for other parts of our region,” he said.

What’s in a name?

The term “fake news” came into light during the 2016 presidential elections, where business tycoon Donald Trump beat former US first lady Hillary Clinton. It was used by Trump to describe stories critical of his administration.

This term, however, is seen as wrong by many as it misleads various stakeholders who stick to the idea that news, in the first place, must be factual.

A brief definition of fake news by Dr. James Gomez, chair of the Board of Directors of the Asia Centre. (PNA photo by Benjamin Bondoc)

Dr. James Gomez, chair of the Board of Directors of the Asia Centre based in Singapore, said fake news, as defined by Axel Gelbert, is a “deliberate presentation of false or misleading claims as news, where the claims are misleading by design.”

Gomez said fake news has three subsets: disinformation – information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country; misinformation – information that is false, but not created with the intention of causing harm; and malinformation – information that is based on reality and used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country.

Nery, meanwhile, gave his own definition of fake news based on three Ds -- deliberate, disguised and deceiving.

“It is a deliberate act of fabrication and manipulation; disguised to look, sound, feel like the news; (and) designed to deceive,” the veteran Filipino journalist said.

“(The) government derives its power from the consent of the governed. Our job as journalists is to inform this consent. Fake news poisons this relationship – it confuses the basis of consent that the governed are giving,” he added.

Regional context and efforts 

The ASEAN region is home to a vast population of Internet and social media users.

The Philippines tops among ASEAN member states in terms of average daily use of the Internet (10 hours and two minutes) and social media (four hours and 12 minutes), followed by Thailand and Indonesia. 

Internet and social media penetration statistics in ASEAN. (PNA photo by Benjamin Bondoc)

Gomez said with the increasing number of people in the region going online, ASEAN countries have stepped up measures to fight the spread of fake news.

On the legal aspect, governments convened public hearings, revised existing laws, proposed legislation particularly on cyber security and fake news, and imposed heavy penalties, such as one to 12 years jail time and fines ranging from USD62,000 to USD123,000.

Meanwhile, non-legal measures include the establishment of task forces or agencies to monitor online discourses, creation of fact-checking platforms, and the conduct of media literacy programs.

In the Philippines for example, the government through the Presidential Communications and Operations Office (PCOO) has several programs that educate people to discern and to counter the spread of fake news and disinformation.

Some of these programs include the Real Numbers, a campaign providing the real score and present accurate numbers of the anti-illegal drugs drive of the Duterte administration; the Provincial Communications Officers Network, a platform linking the national government to the local government units; and the Dismiss Disinformation, a campaign thwarting the spread of fake news and disinformation.

PCOO-attached agencies such as the Philippine News Agency (PNA), Radyo Pilipinas, People's Television Network, Philippine Information Agency, and their online platforms are used in the fight against fake news and disinformation.

The Philippine government has invested heavily in the modernization of media platforms and will soon use technology to bring information to the farthest places in the country via satellite.

However, Gomez said challenges such as “over criminalization” or excessive laws and regulations and vaguely-worded legislation result in legal battles between government officials and individuals or other stakeholders.

Organizations that act as fact checkers may also become unreliable due to their political bias and focus on checking opinions rather than verifying factual claims, he added.

Given these challenges, there is a need for ASEAN members to further strengthen cooperation among all stakeholders towards achieving regional stability and development, he said.

“We have to create a methodology or network to collaborate. If we are to create network, we can deal with fake news better. We want a platform where we can share, to be able to talk to all of you. This way, we can address fake news at the regional level,” said Peerapon Anutarasoat, a reporter of state-run Thai News Agency.

The workshop was organized by the Government Public Relations Department of Thailand and the Friedrich Neumann Foundation, an international foundation based in Germany that focuses on promoting freedom and dignity for all people in all areas of society.

Thailand chairs the ASEAN 2019, which carries the theme “Advancing Partnership for Sustainability”. (PNA)