On Friday, 15 May, the Strengthening Reconciliation Processes in Sri Lanka (SRP Sri Lanka) featured an interesting discussion on journalism and reporting in unprecedented times, featuring award-winning journalist Smriti Daniel, with writer and post-grad researcher Amantha Perera, via Instagram LIVE.
Amantha, whose works have appeared in the Time magazine, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters, and The New Humanitarian, is currently carrying out his postgraduate research on online trauma threads and journalism. Speaking with Smriti who took the lead and conducted the discussion, Amantha shared that this present situation has found him at an interesting crossroads, as he is in fact conducting research on online behaviour, which has come into great focus considering the pandemic.
The duo focused the discussion around the observations in the past two months and on what to expect when moving on to the next stage of the pandemic and its effects; “the reality of the pandemic has settled in and people look at the long term”.
One primary point of conversation was of course the stability of occupation, particularly for those in the journalism career sector, Amantha said, sharing that traditional journalism has been at a crossroads with the pivot of online journalism, considering the power that online networks hold and various trends changing day by day has proven it difficult to survive. Therefore, now all that they feared in the industry has simply accelerated.
However, on the flip side, he shared that people have developed a hunger for authentic information, which only provides that journalists now have to discover new and interesting ways to deliver good quality journalism.
The past few months have proven that those who share information must express innovation in doing so. The question often asked was: “Is there room for stories about subjects other than Covid-19?” The short answer is yes. However, the fact is that you must be creative when telling that story. “The public is actually not interested in anything other than Covid now; it is so dominant, but journalists must find a way to show the impact of their story,” Amantha said.
He took for example the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) in Sri Lanka which released statistics on the prevailing weather patterns showing that the Western Province is at a high-flood risk, and said that considering the times we are in and where people’s interests lie, we should be able to see that if we combine this story with the fact that the Western Province is also where Covid-19 is most spread, then it could prove to be an interesting story.
Another concern that has arisen is how one gets hold of an audience, particularly since the competition is unprecedented, because now they are in competition with not just their fellow journalists, but also anyone who has a smartphone, he said.
However, one could easily overcome this by following good practices in doing the more difficult job of getting hold of sources. Particularly, when the audience can hold you accountable, be the arbiter of truth supported by factual evidence. Most importantly, express empathy. “You must report authentically and the age-old law of completely detached journalism is not going to work in the future,” he explained. You must build public trust, while showing authenticity and your own voice and you mustn’t communicate half-truths packaged to serve an agenda.
Also making a reference to social media influencers and their role in information sharing, which according to both Amanda and Smriti, boils down to the responsibility such individuals assume. However, when sharing information, everyone shares the burden of not spreading sensationalised content and must report to educate and not frighten or titillate. “The core is to share information that is valuable; information that will save lives; not just clickbait exaggerations and not just to get attention, later to be sold for ad revenue.”
A concern for the future that has arisen is not unique to these times of crisis, but more important than ever before is whether readers are finally willing to pay for journalism? Smriti and Amantha both agreed that it is going to be a cultural change; to change the mindset and behaviour of a digital audience from one that has been nurtured to get “free stuff” to one that must subscribe to the fact that if you want quality, then you have to pay for it.
On a closing note, Amantha shared that at the end of the day, it is all a lot of information and what you must keep in mind is to report what is valuable rather than what makes your audience happy. Report empathetically and truthfully and that is the best anyone can expect.