Tanks, TikTok and Trust: Journalism in a time of turmoil - Reuters News Agency

Reuters Media Center

Tanks, TikTok and Trust: Journalism in a time of turmoil

Alessandra Galloni, the new editor-in-chief of Reuters News, poses for a photograph in Rome, Italy, May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

In March, Reuters Editor-in-Chief Alessandra Galloni delivered the 2022 Reuters Memorial Lecture at the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford. Here is the text of her speech:

When I sat down several days ago to commit my thoughts to paper for this audience, Russian military vehicles were amassing north of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

News organisations were also preparing. Reporters, photographers, video journalists, fixers, drivers and security on the ground, alongside editors, producers, designers, fact-checkers, commentators in newsrooms around the world. That is: the formidable, journalistic firepower of many of the publishers, broadcasters and agencies gathered here today.

Ukrainians were mobilising too, taking up arms to defend their country against Russian forces – and deploying their smart phones to chronicle the war, in real time, for the world. Videos of missiles over Kyiv; of tutorials on how to drive a tank; of citizens setting up home-made bomb shelters or crowding in underground stations have flooded the world’s social media feeds. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed directly to Russian TikTokers and bloggers, among others, to stand up and help in the war.

Social media platforms, sometimes referred to as the Fifth Estate, have for many years now democratised access to news and other information. They have allowed more, and more diverse, voices to emerge beyond those of authority, monied interests and traditional media companies. And they have provided global audiences a faster, better understanding of events such as wars, humanitarian disasters and historic political events as they unfold. Iran’s Green Movement, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War and the Russia-Crimea war were all captured live from the mobile phones of people on the ground. The proliferation of this citizen journalism has skyrocketed as more people join social media channels. Four and a half billion people are on social media globally, and that number is rising by one million people a day, according to UK-based information technology consultants Datapol.

In the United States, user-generated content now accounts for 39 percent of media hours vs 61 percent for traditional studio media, according to a recent report by the Consumer Technology Association and YouGov. Nearly 60 percent of Ukraine’s 44 million population was registered on social media channels last year, and they are now recording their lives under siege or bombardment – or their escape from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and other cities.

This war in Ukraine, which has already been dubbed the ‘TikTok war’, is again forcing us in the traditional media to ask ourselves: what is our role? How does a profession whose principles were largely formed in the eras of print, television and – for the millennial organisations among us, the worldwide web – remain relevant in an age of constantly evolving social media? What do we do when most people in most of the world can access – and create – news from anywhere through their phone? Does global reach still matter when technology has made the planet smaller and given consumers more news than ever?

Here’s the thing: More information and better access is not always more and better. Social media and citizen journalists can be brilliant at giving viewers a snapshot of what is happening, a visceral and often emotional taste of different aspects of what is going on. But they can’t necessarily provide a true reflection of  all the facts, or a clearer understanding of the big picture.

Verifying facts in the midst of a war

The digitisation of information has made it easier to get news from the other side of the world, but it has also made it easier to access unverifiable and distorted realities. As well as news, social media platforms can carry fabrications, conspiracy theories and propaganda.

The current conflict has been no different. Unverifiable images of alleged attacks; footage from old conflicts; statements without proof – have all circulated widely.  In fact, there is so much that is untrue out there that it’s hard to keep up. Consider a few headlines of items we have fact-checked ourselves:

  • Fact Check: No evidence Ukrainians are selling abandoned Russian tanks on eBay
  • Fact Check: Video of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers ‘face to face’ is from Crimea in 2014
  • Fact Check: Video shows wreckage from Beirut port blast, not Ukraine war

Sources – named and unnamed – can make unverifiable claims.

Just yesterday, we reported that Russian media had cited an unnamed Russian source saying that Ukraine was close to building a plutonium-based “dirty bomb” nuclear weapon. We noted – in the headline and the lede of the story – that neither the Russian media nor Russian officials had given any evidence of that.

Even assertions from named and official sources can be hard to verify. When news broke of a Russian attack on a nuclear power plant last Friday morning, Ukraine’s foreign minister tweeted news of the attack on the plant, Europe’s largest. If it blew up, he said, it would be “10 times larger than Chernobyl.” Although the person making the claim was the foreign minister, his information was difficult to fact-check and we, for example, disclosed that. In the end, the situation at the nuclear power plant ended up not being as dire as initially feared.

Even when fabrications are subsequently corrected, erasing misinformation is difficult, psychologists say, because the human mind creates formative thoughts that remain. Norbert Schwarz, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California, says:

“If we later hear a correction, it doesn’t invalidate our thoughts—and it’s our own thoughts that can maintain a bias, even when we accept that the original information was false.”

Or, as Sally memorably scolded Harry in the Rob Reiner Classic: “You can’t take it back… because it’s already out there”

So what are the coastal defences for this ocean of information that jumbles facts and falsehoods and washes up on our virtual beaches?

At its best, impartial journalism can give a clearer understanding of the big picture.

At its best, deeply-reported journalism can take multiple strands of information and synthesise them into a coherent narrative, with context, that acknowledges what is not yet known.

At its best, fact-based journalism can serve as an antidote to the disinformation that clogs up social media platforms more and more.

At Reuters, we work to pursue independent, fact-based, journalism that gives sound information to help people make decisions. And we believe that our global presence combined with a deep local footprint allows us to gather, verify and explain facts at the source, allowing us to get closer to the truth.

We are global, with 2,500 journalists based in more than 150 countries around the world. We are also deeply local. Our journalists come from 85 nations and we publish in 15 languages. I am Italian and started at Reuters in 1996 on the Italian language service in Rome.

This combination of worldwide presence and local knowledge – a portmanteau I use often is “Glocality” — has long allowed us to spring into action where and when news breaks; to deliver news from the ground with deep sourcing; and to provide the kind of context that you don’t get when you parachute in. When events happen, we were there before, we are there during and we remain long after most have left.

Covering war

When Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Donetsk city in the early hours of Tuesday 22 February, hours after president Putin officially recognised two breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, two Ukrainian journalists working for Reuters captured the first images of this momentous conflict.

Let me give you another example from our recent coverage on COVID-19 across Africa. Early in the pandemic, there were many fears and unknowns about how the COVID-19 virus would spread in that continent. That was in part because of the lack of documented information about medical services. Even the World Health Organization and the Africa Centres for Disease Control did not have clear purchase on the resources countries in Africa had to fight the pandemic, because they didn’t have adequate information from their members. We decided to provide it – from the source.

We sent questions to health ministries and public health authorities across the continent, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Some countries didn’t have the information themselves. Others did not want to share it with us, the WHO or anyone else.

So our local journalists took to the streets. They used their contacts to make multiple, often frustrating, visits to government offices, public events, hospitals, doctors, professional associations and other sources to extract the numbers and information we needed. In the end we compiled data for 48 out of Africa’s 54 countries, allowingus to provide the most detailed picture publicly available worldwide at the time on Africa’s readiness for the pandemic: this included the number of intensive care beds, ventilators, testing, critical care nurses and anaesthesiologists.

I want to say from the get-go that we are not the only news organisation that strives for impartiality and truth. You have heard from others on this stage who have the same public service mission. Most independent news organisations have their guiding principles, their stone tablets.

The Trust Principles

Our commitment to the truth is written into the way we operate. In 1941 – in the middle of World War Two – threats of propaganda and censorship pushed the then managers of Reuters to establish a guiding code that we call our Trust Principles. These principles – we include a link to them at the bottom of every story we publish on reuters.com – commit us to independence, integrity and freedom from bias. They are binding on all employees of our company, and a special board makes sure we uphold them.

Behind these principles are a series of basics we try to adhere to every day (many of you practice the same):

  • We want to be first, but we favor being right, and safe, over being first.
  • We verify facts, including when they come from the horse’s mouth (and sometimes, because they come from the horse’s mouth). 
  • We practice “no surprises” journalism, so that all subjects of our stories know what we are asserting about them before we publish – and we make real, not just perfunctory, effort to seek their view. 
  • We disclose key facts that are not known.
  • We aim for neutrality of style and substance (for those editors among you, have you noticed that when reporters agree with a source, it tends to be “explaining” but when they disagree it tends to be “insisting?)
  • And we correct mistakes comprehensively and as quickly as possible

But what happens when there is a relentless, often malicious campaign on the facts themselves – and against those impartial journalists who deliver them?

What happens when trust in the media is in the trough.

We all got a sobering lesson about the suppression of facts – and their consequence on humanity – during the pandemic.

Six million people have died as a result of the virus over the past two years. Yet according to a February survey by Statista, 30 percent of people in India, 23 percent in South Africa, 15 percent in Poland and 13 percent of Brazilians still believe COVID-19 is a myth. And despite the overwhelming evidence in favor of vaccines, in the United States, whose people have perhaps the highest access to information in the world, one third of the population is as yet unvaccinated.

In certain countries where Reuters operates – the U.S., Britain, China, Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Yemen – we have chronicled deliberate efforts by these governments to underplay or squelch news about the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. We systematically countered these official government narratives by gathering facts and statistics from non-official sources like hospital medics, coroners and undertakers. 

In some cases, our fact-based reporting triggered serious pushback. In 2020, for example, when we published an article saying that Iraq had thousands more confirmed COVID-19 cases than the 772 reported by the government, Iraq ordered Reuters to close our Baghdad bureau, apologise and pay a fine. We refused. Eventually, the government relented. But only after lengthy conversations with officials and a public shaming of Iraq’s then-president by Christiane Amanpour on CNN.

Reuters’ Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Danish Siddiqui was widely criticised in India when he chronicled how COVID-19 was ravaging his country, with images of hospitals, graveyards and crowded funeral pyres. On twitter, critics said the pictures were faked or against India’s national interest. Siddiqui went on to cover the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. During that assignment, he was killed by Taliban fighters while covering a battle between them and Afghan Special Forces about a month before the fall of Kabul. He was 38.

A dangerous moment

This is a dangerous time for journalists, especially relentless truth-tellers.

In 2018, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and prominent critic of Saudi Arabia by its government agents, shocked the world.

Journalists who deliver accurate information also face violence, legal constraints, harassment and other barriers to their work. The number of journalists jailed by their governments around the world set a record in 2021. In the past several years, more than a dozen countries have imposed criminal laws against so-called “fake news.” These laws purport to apply to deliberate disinformation by journalists, but in practice are often used to bury the unflattering, unwelcome news that governments don’t want published.   

China remains the biggest jailer for the third year in a row, with 50 journalists behind bars, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Last year, for the first time, Hong Kong journalists were also sent to prison, as China engaged in a brutal crackdown on press freedom, following the territory’s historic pro-democracy protests. Also in 2021, Myanmar became the second biggest jailer of journalists, after its military coup. Egypt, Vietnam and Belarus rounded out the top five. 

In 2017, my colleagues Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were framed, arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison because they accurately and fairly reported a horrific massacre of 10 Rohingya Muslim men by military and police forces in a Myanmar village called Inn Din.  Despite public and private efforts by world leaders and our own intensive legal and publicity campaign, the two reporters remained in prison for more than 500 days. When they won a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for their courageous coverage, they were still behind bars. They were released in May 2019.

In 2020, Reuters video journalist Kumerra Gemechu was arrested on Christmas Eve and detained in Addis Ababa by Ethiopian federal police. Though not charged, he was held in solitary confinement for 12 days. The police said they were investigating allegations that he disseminated fake news, assisted paramilitary groups and breached anti-terrorism laws. Police suddenly dropped their investigation, and Gemechu was freed in early January. Even now, we still don’t know why he was incarcerated in the first place. We have continued to cover the war in Ethiopia.

Brazilian reporter Patrícia Campos Mello delivered a harrowing speech last year about the aggression on journalists, in particular women journalists, in her country.

In the US, journalists have been under intensifying pressure since 2017, when President Trump branded us some of “the most dishonest people on earth” just 12 days into his presidency. From this stage a few years ago, former Washington Post Editor Marty Baron gave us a chilling look at the attacks of the US president on journalists.

Indeed, Trump’s demonisation of the media has continued to reverberate widely since the 6 January Capitol Hill riot, where journalists, like police officers, were attacked by diehard Trump supporters. The hatred of journalists also figures prominently on the online sites that operate outside the mainstream. Last year, two Reuters reporters faced death threats as they published a year-long investigative series about the campaign of violence and intimidation against state election officials and workers. This campaign of fear was orchestrated by Trump loyalists who refused to accept the outcome of the 2020 presidential vote.   

In November, as Reuters unmasked the individuals who had issued these extreme threats, our reporters also became victims of harrowing attacks via phone calls, voice mails, emails, texts and messages on social media. One man told them: “You are all done. You are all going to f***ing burn.” Our reporters are still digging.

In Russia, the media are facing a new challenge. On Friday night, Moscow introduced a law prohibiting the publication of “false information” regarding the Russian Armed Forces. Violations by news organisations are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, with those causing “grave consequences” carrying 15 years imprisonment.

Some media companies, including the BBC, Bloomberg and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp, have temporarily suspended their reporting on the ground. This law has yet to be applied, and are all still assessing the potential consequences of the measures.

We at Reuters remain determined to provide fact-based, trustworthy coverage of Russia, in accordance with our Trust Principles of integrity, independence and freedom from bias.

Audiences want impartial news

I take heart in the fact that the desire for fact-based, objective news continues to exist around the world, even though – or maybe because – it risks being drowned out by alternative realities or vitriol on social media. According to the Reuters Institute, trust in news grew by six points on average during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 44% of the sample saying they trust news most of the time. A recent study from the American Press Institute said that a majority of Americans supported only one of journalism’s five core values. But this particular value – that more facts lead to truth – is supported by fully 67% of Americans.  

One reason for the traditional media’s trust bump during COVID-19, several studies show, is that people consumed the news to make every-day personal decisions for themselves and their loved ones, about how to treat symptoms of COVID-19; whether it was safe to travel; or how to get vaccinations or deal with online learning.

I learned a lesson in the value of sound information early on when I started as a financial journalist: investors and traders need accurate information to make smart investment decisions. You make a mistake, they lose a lot of money – and they don’t trust you again. You tell the truth – and even if they lose a lot of money – they’ll come back to you.

Another explanation, suggested by the Reuters Institute researchers, is that, during the pandemic, journalists quoted more scientists and doctors, sources that are considered more reliable than politicians.

This taps into something broader: a growing need to rethink with whom we’re speaking as journalists if we want to get to the real story. As often noted, the press failed in reporting the depth of support for Brexit in 2016 and the real possibility that Donald Trump would become president. The reason is that we were not tapped in enough – or didn’t listen enough – to vast swathes of the population outside of our comfort zone.

One of the initiatives we have launched at Reuters over the past year is called “Back to the Source,” a newsroom-wide effort to replenish and expand the diversity of voices and perspectives that we seek. Whether it’s whom we talk to in the markets or whom we profile in a war zone, we’re being more thoughtful to make sure to capture the world as it is. It’s easier to do that, of course, if those perspectives are reflected in our own newsroom. As the first woman in this job, and a non Anglo-American leading a global news organisation, I want to open our eyes to what hasn’t been seen before.

We also aim to be a check on misinformation. Perhaps it is paradoxical, but even as news consumers are being bombarded with disinformation from all sides, a global army of fact-checkers is working overtime to separate fact from fiction. A June 2021 census by the Duke Reporter’s Lab counted 341 active fact-checking initiatives, operating in 102 countries. Facebook embarked on a program with independent fact-checking publishers in 2016, following widespread criticism of the way false information was allowed to circulate on its platform ahead of the 2016 US election. We are among these publishers, labelling content on Facebook and Instagram and publishing available fact checked articles in English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew on our website.

Around 2,400 years ago, Aristotle identified three ingredients needed to persuade an audience, and this “rhetorical triangle” still holds true today, it seems. “Pathos” speaks to the need of journalists to understand and deliver the information the audience thinks is important. The integrity of sourcing, the evidence behind the words – or his “logos” – also counts, whether it be a doctor, a data point or a verified picture from a war zone.

And that brings me to the third of Aristotle’s triangle: “ethos,” or the credibility, the integrity of the speaker or, in this case, the journalist. For the public to trust us, we need to be trustworthy.

Journalism under attack

When Donald Trump won the presidency in the United States, my predecessor Steve Adler issued a manifesto reminding us how we report in many countries where the media comes under attack: by doing our best to protect our journalists, by reporting fairly and honestly, by gathering hard-to-get information – and by remaining impartial. That includes putting our opinions aside so we can report without being suspected of an agenda. Here is how Steve put it in his memo “We operate with calm integrity not just because it’s in our rulebook but because – over 165 years – it has enabled us to do the best work and the most good.”

This is not easy, now, in Ukraine. It is hard not to have strong emotions at the images of buildings in flames; at civilians fleeing amid shelling; at refugee children on packed trains and pregnant mothers giving birth in bomb shelters. It is hard not to be angry at propaganda. It is hard not to be anxious when colleagues are on the streets of Irpin. It is hard to stay calm when friends fret they’ll be jailed for doing their job in Moscow.

I have been in my new role for nearly a year, but it feels more like a decade: the continuing pandemic; the death of our colleague Danish; the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban and now war in Ukraine. It is a time of turmoil: the myriad challenges facing our journalists, as well as the journalists at so many other remarkable, resilient news organisations, can sometimes feel overwhelming.

At the same time, as Europe faces its biggest crisis since World War Two, millions of citizens are relying on us as never before. For too many of them right now, the reliability of our news is existential – a matter of life and death.

For those of us chronicling the first draft of history, this represents a huge responsibility and a historic opportunity. I hope we can make it our common mission to restore the faith in our profession that has eroded so sharply in recent years. A mission to demonstrate why trustworthy journalism, pursued without fear or favor, remains such a powerful force for the global public good.

Media Contact:
Heather Carpenter
heather.carpenter @ tr.com

Article Tags
Sections: Inside the newsroom