By David Maas
Published last month by the Reuters Institute’s Journalism Innovation Project, “Lessons in Innovation: How International News Organisations Combat Disinformation through Mission-Driven Journalism” carried out case studies of three digital news outlets – Rappler in the Philippines, South Africa’s The Daily Maverick and India’s The Quint.
Researchers examined the ingenuity and innovation that each newsroom’s respective country contexts have inspired.
“The crises faced by these news organisations are existential – they are not just in the realm of business model upheaval, they go to the journalism mission at the core of their purpose,” lead author Julie Posetti told IJNet.
“In the developed West, we have only just woken up to the media freedom implications of viral disinformation, state trolling and the murder of journalists with impunity in our midst,” she noted.
“Unlike these countries, we don’t have a recent history of media activism focused on defending freedom of expression rights that support the practice of independent journalism,” she added.
In one example, in the wake of disinformation campaigns conducted by the Duterte government that targeted journalists and other critics of the administration, Rappler launched a new beat around verification and busting disinformation. The news outlet proceeded to map and store data about disinformation networks in the Philippines, efforts they have compiled into a database dubbed the “shark tank”.
“We’re the only country that has its own database that shows you how we went from a democracy to a near dictatorship. We can show you how they’ve done it,” Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa is quoted in the report as having said.
The initiative caught Facebook’s attention, and a fact-checking partnership was born through which the two organisations worked together to expose “troll networks” and remove “200 hundred pages, groups and accounts” from the social media giant’s platform, according to the report.
Journalists at the outlet have also used engaging graphics and new storytelling methods to help their readers better understand their reporting.
“We’ve embraced our identity as fact-checkers,” Rappler political reporter Pia Ranada said in the publication’s press release, adding: “We may be alienating people, but then we think that if we take a stand people will admire that and might side with us.”
In South Africa, The Daily Maverick has spearheaded collaborative fact-checking and verification efforts – both within the newsroom and with readers – to counter disinformation’s spread. These efforts have been most successful in slowing the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp.
This collaboration emerged in the aftermath of the Bell Pottinger public relations scandal during which journalists at the outlet were targets of online, and often gendered, harassment linked to disinformation.
The Quint meanwhile created WebQoof, an online platform dedicated to exposing mis- and disinformation, amid such campaigns in the country that have targeted critics of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi – or the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Through WebQoof, The Quint’s journalists have debunked false stories in engaging ways, efforts which have often been picked up by mainstream news outlets.
“Unfortunately, we are in a post-truth world. A substantial number of people are not comfortable enough to know what the facts are. They just want the narrative to be based on what they already believe in,” The Quint’s senior news editor, Jaskirat Singh Bawa, said in the press release.
“Do you take them head on? Do you tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong’,” he wondered, adding: “Or do you try and involve them in a dialogue, and try and make it more participative, and try to explain how damaging misinformation can be to the social fabric, to the welfare of society in general?”
For the report, Posetti, who is also a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute, embedded herself at each of the three newsrooms featured in the report over a month’s time early this year.
“It’s a case of mission-driven journalism, invested in preserving hard-won democracies, in a recognized fight against external threats,” Posetti said of the news outlets’ innovation against disinformation, noting further: “Western media should take note.”
“Western newsrooms can learn much from the innovative, creative approaches to combating disinformation and other media freedom threats practised by these news organisations,” she said.
The report ultimately identifies nine lessons surrounding journalism innovation other newsrooms should heed, including that a clear mission helps focus innovation, mission-driven journalism may divide audiences but is not the same as partisanship, and the ability to “pivot” in response to a crisis is an innovation marker.
Among the others are that audiences can be part of journalism innovation, reporting can fuel organisational innovation, innovation requires investment in new skills, tools, techniques and training (no matter how limited resources are), innovation can be based on core values but also requires constant re-examination of whether a more fundamental shift is necessary.
The rest are that innovations need to be shared across the whole news organisation to avoid siloing and that, with a clear mission, it is possible to do important, innovative journalism for a large audience even with limited resources.