The 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), which is marked on May 4 each year, underscored the disastrous effects of news and misinformation arising from the effects of a globalised and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda.
Annually, the WPFI, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), assesses the state of journalism around the globe, and assesses the state of journalism and media in 180 countries and territories.
The new methodology used for the 2022 edition defines press freedom as “the effective possibility for journalists to select, produce and disseminate news and information in the public interest. This agenda-setting and gatekeeping of journalists and media should be independent of political, economic, legal and social interference, and without threats to their physical and mental safety”. In my opinion, this definition of press freedom must be situated within specific contexts.
Arguably, in Ghana journalists are free to select, produce and disseminate news; the issue, however, is that the news in many cases is skewed to achieve political, economic and commercial ends. The debates and counterclaims about the commercialisation of news are almost as old as the practice of marketing news. The commercialisation of news is simply described as any action that interferes with a journalist’s or news organisation’s effort to promote shared understanding of issues and events with the aim of making profit. Historically, concerns over commercialisation of news suggests that profit-seeking news media sometimes act against the public interest.
Lack of credibility
Furthermore, the danger of Ghana’s media lies in an increasing lack of credibility and continuous feeding of the public with biased news similar to the ‘Fox News-isation’ of news, as indicated in the WPFI. This situation can also be partly attributed to the convergence and consolidation of media by businessmen and politicians. Therefore, any discussion of press freedom must consider the economic angle; especially in the wake of technological advancement.
The 2022 edition makes a significant point: that “opinion media” is destroying journalistic credibility and standards across the world. In Ghana, journalism has assumed such alarming dimensions – with some journalists and media organisations aligning themselves with political and commercial causes. Recently, some broadcasters have been spewing venom against identifiable political opponents of their sponsors: to the point of urging the military to stage a coup. Perhaps this significant insight by WPFI should be a topic for future scholarly research.
According to the report, divisions are growing even among democratic states, due to the spread of opinion media following the ‘Fox TV News model’ and of disinformation circuits that are amplified by the way social media functions.
Besides, at the international level, democracies are being weakened by the asymmetry between open societies and despotic regimes that control their media and online platforms while waging propaganda wars against democracies. Polarisation on these two levels is fuelling increased tension among media practitioners, interest groups and the rulers.
‘Fox News-isation’ of the media is a term that has entered media and journalism lexicon, used to describe the rise of opinion journalism over credible, accurate and professional journalism. Fox TV is one of the USA’s major television news channels, which has declared an unwavering support for the Republican Party. Fox TV is conservative in nature and often goes to the extreme in supporting Republican Party policies even when they border on racism, xenophobia and human rights abuses.
This type of journalism has all but blurred the line between opinion and facts, with opinion virtually dominating the media work across all media platforms. WPFI describes the ‘Fox News-isation’ of media as “posing a fatal danger for democracies because it undermines the basis of civil harmony and tolerant public debate”.
The 2022 edition details the “disastrous effects of news and information chaos” – the product of “a globalised and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda”. Propaganda is described as news stories which are created by a political entity to influence public perceptions of past and present issues. The obvious purpose of propaganda is to benefit a public figure, organisation or government. Like advertising, propaganda is often based on facts but includes bias that promotes a particular side or perspective. Such blending of news and commentary, while common in journalism, hides behind the principle of objective news; however, the goal is often to persuade rather than to inform.
The report points out that ‘Media polarisation’ is feeding and reinforcing internal social divisions in democratic societies such as the United States (42nd). It notes that the increase in social and political tension is being fuelled by social media and new opinion media, especially in France (26th). Consequently, the suppression of independent media is contributing to a sharp polarisation in ‘illiberal democracies’ such as Poland (66th), where the authorities have consolidated their control over public broadcasting and their strategy of ‘re-Polonising’ privately-owned media.
In particular, the lack of press freedom in the Middle East continues to impact the conflict between Israel (86th), Palestine (170th) and the Arab states. In addition to suppressing their citizens’ right to information, “the creation of media weaponry in these authoritarian countries… is also linked to the rise in international tension”, which can lead to the worst kind of wars, the report warns.
Social media redefining news
One of the key phenomena reshaping the world is near-universal accessibility to the World Wide Web and social media. These new media formats take many forms; such as blogs, forums, business networks, photo-sharing platforms, social gaming, microblogs, chat applications and social networks.
Practically, social media enable users to create and share information, videos or photos through computers or smartphones. Not only are the new media reshaping mass communications, but they also offer cheap access to producing and sharing content. The ubiquity of social media raises several ethical and moral issues in the current media ecosystem.
Other features of social media are that their contents are not necessarily presented in strict professional journalism style; are largely uncontrolled; and potentially affect daily life. Social media contents are now produced and consumed by people who were former consumers of traditional media news. Now, with no journalism training, anyone with a smartphone can take and share photos across platforms.
Consequently, social media are now responsible for a dip in audience share of traditional news networks, such as weekly and daily newspapers, and the rising popularity of alternative news media sources such as websites, weblogs and citizen journalism. The controversy around what constitutes social media is based on the belief that only a trained journalist can understand and apply the ethics involved in reporting news.
While social media creates new opportunities for political participation and mobilisation, it also raises urgent questions about the impact and accuracy of viral information. Some critics argue that social media is crucial for free and fair elections, but there are equally genuine concerns about how it can be manipulated to undermine the integrity of elections and democracy.
Despite its ethical consequences, the notion is that the interactive power of social media promotes greater participation of the citizenry in the democratic process. It is probably realistic to take an optimistic view of social media as a public sphere in countries where other democratic spaces have been closed or minimised. Not only is social media changing news distribution it is also challenging traditional notions of news.
Social media and fake news
Statistics indicate that Facebook is increasingly becoming a mass-medium for audiences/participants to exchange information and news speedily. However, its popularity and wide adoption has added a new dimension to the construction of fake news, given that the power of fake news depends on how well it can penetrate social spheres. Increasingly, the established norms of traditional journalism are being violated – to the extent of perpetuating the culture of misinformation and disinformation.
The concept of ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon in political communications research. Researchers have provided evidence of fake news use in political communications over a century before its current widespread use. Fake news has been commonly described as news articles that are purposely and verifiably false, and have the tendency to mislead readers. While fake news is currently used to describe false stories spreading on social media, in some cases the phenomenon has also been used to discredit critical investigative news reporting.
Fake news’ impact on real news
Undoubtedly, the proliferation of fake news raises questions on how to conceptualise real news. News is often seen as an output of journalism – a profession expected to provide independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information. Since the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the necessary information to make informed decisions, journalism is expected to report the truth. A central element in the professional definition of journalism is adherence to codified standards; such as being objective, fair, truthful and accurate. Unfortunately, these normative standards of journalism have been sacrificed on the altar of partisanship and personal gain.
Another critical element of fake news is the manipulation of real images or videos to feed a false story. Thus, the manipulation of images has become frequent with the advent of digital photos, image manipulation software and other techniques to enhance images. Photo-effects may range from simple to complex. Simple adjustments can include increasing colour saturation and removing minor elements.
More serious effects may include removing or inserting a person into an image for a specific purpose. Regrettably, photo-manipulation is an emerging trend in Ghanaian journalism. A more recent case in Ghana is the manipulation of a photo of President Akufo-Addo and a certain lady to feed a false story that the president was having an amorous affair with her. If the publisher of this manipulated photo is arrested and prosecuted, will that amount to breaching press freedom?
A wider definition of fake news could include deliberate attempts at disinformation and distortion of news or using manipulated versions of original reports to sow discontent and create division. This development is also widely used in Ghana, mostly at the behest of politicians. UNESCO attributes the surge in misinformation and disinformation to the absence of reliable information, which creates a vacuum for potentially harmful content. However, this absence of reliable information is not often the impetus for misinformation and disinformation. Realistically, some media and journalists engage in it for profit or mischief.
COVID 19 and disinformation
A recent demonstration of the significance of reliable information emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, when there was a surge in misinformation and disinformation across the world. According to UNESCO, in times of crisis such as COVID-19 authentic information can be a matter of life or death.
Ghana had its fair share of fake news about COVID-19. While some fake news characterised COVID-19 as for the affluent, fake news prescription of various local remedies and false case-counts created confusion and undermined public education efforts.
Currently, what is unfolding on the media landscape across the world, including Ghana, raises several questions about the credibility of journalism. Historically, journalists have occupied an influential position in society and are expected to confer legitimacy to what they report. That is no longer the case in Ghana, as news has evolved into a hot commodity that goes to the highest political bidder.
Nevertheless, UNESCO notes that COVID-19 demonstrates that the output of independent news media (print, television, radio) remains a powerful source of information to a majority of the world’s population. In this way, professional journalists across the world contributed significantly to common understanding of the pandemic by simplifying complex information and scientific facts.