Why public service media plays an essential role in the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By Sally-Ann Wilson, CEO, Public Media Alliance

Originally written for and published by the Ethical Journalism Network

“We want to help people better understand who’s behind the news….”, said Nathaniel Gleicher, in a recent blog. Gleicher is Head of Cybersecurity Policy for Facebook. In his blog he explained Facebook’s recent decision to label posts that come from state controlled media. I wouldn’t argue with the premise of his statement, understanding who’s behind the news is critical in terms of our media literacy. It’s essential to know who’s behind it, whether that’s a state controlled organisation or commercially funded media platform.

Facebook’s actions have brought the difference between public and state controlled media into sharp and topical focus. In an era of spin and misinformation, this debate also highlights why ethical journalism is one of the core principles and definers of public service media.

Public service media, widely referred to as ‘PSM’ or simply, ‘public media’, evolved worldwide from public service broadcasting or ‘PSB’. The key principles were set out in 1922 by Lord John Reith when he established the BBC; accountability, accuracy, independence, universality, impartiality, and high standards of journalism. The model was replicated worldwide. Today, more than 100 national media organisations self-define as ‘public media’. The evolution of PSB to PSM has been accompanied by an understanding that the principles of public media remain valid on any media platform. They are the principles of all good journalism and are not restricted to radio and television.

In the digital era, public media has too often been cast as ‘old’ media. Yet the popularity of public media in times of crisis and emergency has been demonstrated repeatedly; with the 2011 Tsunami in Japan; in Australia during the wildfires of 2009 and again 2019; and in New Zealand following the Christchurch terror attack. In terms of information, facts and accuracy save lives. The public recognise this.

In 1922 information was sparse. We now live under a daily barrage of ‘news’. But in a world dominated by the spread of populism and authoritarianism, where journalists are demonised and the truth is difficult to pin down, the role of good journalism in society must be restated. During the Covid-19 pandemic, citizens of all ages have turned to public media worldwide, driven by the recognition that the internet and social media platforms are awash with ‘mis’ and disinformation. Fact checking is a real strength of public media and accuracy has prevailed. Media can be powerful but that power rests on trust. Trust in turn depends on accuracy. At times like this it can mean the difference between life and death.

New media platforms are open to everyone to comment and contribute. Comment -and anonymity- prevail with few checks on credibility and little accountability. Accountability is also a core value of public media. It’s what makes a licence fee for public media so valuable. It means that the media organisation is directly accountable to the public that funds some, or part, of it. That accountability must be upheld and preserved. Public broadcasters were usually created as national media organisations. However robust the organisation’s funding and governance structure, maintaining a healthy distance from government can be challenging, especially at times of crisis when there can be additional pressure to ‘pull together’ and act in the national interest. It’s critical that editorial teams have the right checks in place to ensure they are taking an independent line in order to hold those in power to account.

And in terms of the editorial, there’s no shame in demonstrating that values are centred on independence. That independence must be clear and transparent, it’s what truly separates public media from state controlled media and is rooted in ethical journalism. Public media acts on behalf of the public, state media is de facto a mouthpiece for the government. Strong governments are able to withstand interrogation and informed critique, in fact they grow from it.

In recent years many public media organisations have become obsessed with balance. It’s been misunderstood. Balance does not mean giving climate change deniers the same amount of airtime as those explaining climate change. Ethical journalism means cutting through spin and counter claims and having a real understanding of the complexity of arguments. Coverage of Covid-19 has demonstrated the desperate need for more science based journalists. At least a basic grounding in science and data is necessary if we are to properly interrogate the way that this pandemic has been handled by governments. Balance means fairness and impartiality, the understanding that there is usually more than one point of view. An understanding of the fact that there is not one single ‘science’ for governments to follow.

Ethical journalism is rooted in humanity, for public media this means a clear understanding by all who represent the organisation, of the power their words have to do harm as well as good. The pen remains mightier than the sword. And it is certainly mightier than the tweet. Twitter, while used by most of us, lacks context and frequently attribution and accountability.

The public need to be at the heart of ‘public’ media and social media undeniably enables this. To support the use of all social media platforms according to ethical standards, PMA works -often in partnership with EJN- with journalists, including citizen journalists around the world.

As Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher noted, we do need to better understand who is behind the news. But For this to be the case, we need greater support for digital media literacy. And, in terms of public media, public trust dictates that it should be journalists, abiding by the principles of ethical journalism, to ensure that our news is accurate, independent, impartial, accountable and fully reflecting our diversity .

This article was originally written for and published by the Ethical Journalism Network. Sally-Ann Wilson is the CEO of the Public Media Alliance.

Header Image: Coronaviruses, virus that causes respiratory infections. Credit: Bertrand Blay/iStock