The Journalism & Media Studies Centre (JMSC) held a talk titled “Why media ethics matter in the era of fake news” at the University of Hong Kong last Wednesday. Two senior members of the Agence France-Presse (AFP) management team discussed key aspects of their code of ethics.
Former editor-in-chief Eric Wishart and Asia Pacific regional director Philippe Massonnet talked about how to fight fake news in the era of social media. They talked about the importance of ethics, morality, accuracy, and objectivity. Common issues such as taking freebies, dealing with conflicts of interest and protecting victims’ rights were also discussed.
The AFP code of ethics was previously published in English, French, Spanish and also Arabic. Working in collaboration with the JMSC, the code was also published in Simplified Chinese in November last year.
“Chinese media is becoming more influential and powerful in the world,” said Massonnet. “Even foreigners consume Chinese news.”
Massonnet worked as a foreign correspondent for 14 years in Beijing. He said that in the past few decades, the way the Chinese people consume news has changed a lot. There are a large number of young people now who read news on their mobile phones, changing the way Chinese journalists produce news.
Even though fake news is becoming common due to social media, journalists are working with platforms like Google or Facebook to fight it.
While journalists should strive to give both sides of the argument, they should avoid what is known as “false balance”—giving a platform to discredited views in an attempt to appear unbiased, such as systematically quoting climate change deniers when covering global warming. This became an important issue in the US election, when CNN and other networks gave large amounts of air time to supporters of Donald Trump—know as “surrogates”—who defended factually inaccurate claims he made.
“The most important thing is always accuracy,” said Wishart. He learned this when drafting the AFP code of ethics and reviewing codes from other media organizations. “And also minimizing harm to people.” He continued to say that the code set a red line to inform journalists what they should and should not to do.
“We should not put everything on social media platforms as soon as we see it,” said Matthew Xia, a JMSC student who did a social media internship with Forbes in Hong Kong. “Check the source, find the original article and then post it.”
But Massonnet said fact checking is not enough to fight fake news. “If you’re producing news without quality, you would lose.”
Massonnet said that he expects the code to teach journalists how to survive in a world of fake news, social media and heavy communication, especially for Chinese journalists.
“It won’t change how the Chinese government limits freedom for Chinese journalists but if it can help them become better, as it has for French and American journalists, then I think it’s a good tool.”
“Go on the ground, go in the field, see with your own eyes,” said Massonnet when offering suggestions to young journalists.
“The purpose of a journalist is to find what’s happening, not to copy what others are doing.”
Tang Ziyi is a student in the Master of Journalism programme at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre.
Photography by Li Chen.