MDI at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia

By Anna Ambrochowicz

In December 2021 US President Joe Biden announced that the US will support the Independent Fund for Public Interest Media with up to US$30 million which would help free press globally. The future of independent media, the role of Public Interest Media in the future of journalism, its potential for inclusivity, and the ways in which traditional media can attract a new audience were the topics at the centre of Media Diversity Institute’s “Surviving the extinction: from post-truth and infodemic to public interest media” panel at this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. The panel consisted of Sharon Moshavi, President of the International Center for Journalists; Peter Pomerantsev, research fellow at Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University; and Jovanka Matic, media expert at the Institute for Social Sciences in Belgrade; and was moderated by our Executive Director Milica Pesic.  

Milica Pesic posed the question of whether this fund was going to give a voice to communities that are marginalized by traditional media and whether this will help to provide real diversity. 

Sharon Moshavi, noticed that trustworthiness is deeply connected to financial sustainability of media outlets. Currently  we are seeing a decline of trust in institutions globally. In the current state of political polarization, with state propaganda and disinformation, it is important to look at journalism from an ecosystem level, at every step of the news production cycle. It is important to reflect a range of communities and their stories in our reporting. Disinformation can be fought by focusing our stories on it and by using investigative journalism tools rather than only fact checking.  Trust in the media was central during the discussion. One of the most important trust indicators is conveying why a story matters and why a story is being covered. Research shows that a lot of old buzzwords like ‘’watchdog’’ and ‘’holding power to account’’ do not resonate with wider audience and journalists are seen as having a certain agenda. In addition, Moshavi stressed the role that social media and social media influencers can play in news distribution. 

Peter Pomerantsev, whose work focuses on Russian propaganda highlighted the increased  politicization of the media, especially when people trust only their own media. All the same, his research  shows that understanding audience attitudes is incredibly important in understanding the way they interact with the media. For example, in the case of Ukraine, to understand Ukrainian audiences one should stop dividing them into pro and anti-Soviet sides. He noted that the social constructs we are used to are sometimes the result of political propaganda. 

Another important problem is financial incentives for media outlets, as the fastest way to get profit is polarization.  

Jovanka Matic,  talked about the Western Balkans perspective. The main problem of media in this region is linked to the state of democracy. In addition to the strong polarization of audiences believing either state controlled or independent media, independent outlets are under constant pressure. The nature of that pressure is either financial which comes from the fact that they are independent   or comes from the government which accuses them of not being patriotic. What is evident is that public interest media have problems surviving without the donor system.  

In certain conditions, local media can be the solution to the lack of diversity and representation in the media. In many cases, local media outlets have a more humanizing approach to journalism and deconstruct the image audiences have that the sector is elitist.  

 It is very important to change the paradigm from public service to public interest media.  

Another important change is to involve audiences in the news process, taking them from being static consumers  to being involved in the news production. It is important to look into how nowadays people look for news as research shows that young people in the US for example watch clips from comedy shows on YouTube that comment on current affairs. Humor may be a good way to pierce through information bubbles. Comedy shows are popular in Serbia; however, they are not good source of calling audiences to action.  

Milica Pesic noticed that several years ago the European Union published a  study that presented a business case for diversity and highlighted good practices for the workplace. In the case of the media, would it be possible for the media to get profit by diversifying the news? Unfortunately, this has been left inconclusive.  

One of the main conclusions from our panel was that for media outlets to survive it is important to drop the old cliché way of thinking about their audience as a demographic or by dividing them into other groups. It is crucial to devote time to really get to know our audiences, and at the same time to abandon the elitist purist myth about the media being a marketplace of ideas with journalists speaking to faceless masses. The only way to regain our audience’s trust is by empowering them and making them active news consumers.