OPINION | Lizette Rabe: We might not know it, but news equals empowerment

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Today, 28 September, is World News Day. Amid the digi-sphere's cacophony, news – real news – has become more important than ever, writes Lizette Rabe.

With the twitterati twittering, the instagrammers instagramming, the influencers influencing, the Youtubers youtubing and the facebookers facebooking (apparently this last group mostly already the older generation), who needs news?

Easy answer: All of us.

With the dissonance of social media out there, the need for professional, credible, verified, and independent news has become more important than ever. It's simple: Human beings need information like they need oxygen.

This comparison is not far-fetched. One cannot live without oxygen, and also not without information. If our ancient forebears could not "read" the wind to know where to hunt, or if one group did not share information with another of where the juiciest tsammas were to be found, one literally could not survive. Similarly, in our so-called late modern pluralistic societies, we need information – news – to survive.

Role of news in climate change 

This year sees the fourth World News Day, meant to celebrate "the power of journalism to effect change". It is hosted by the World Editors Forum and the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF). With more than 300 news organisations participating, this year's focus is the climate crisis, highlighting the critical role of fact-based journalism regarding – literally – the survival of not only homo sapiens, but every living organism on our planet. World News Day also falls for good reason on 28 September: It is UNESCO's International Day for Universal Access to Information – access to information being crucial in seeking solutions for the climate crisis.

ALSO READ: OPINION | Journalism: The 'best vaccine against disinformation'

The founder of World News Day, David Walmsley, past chair of the CJF and editor-in-chief of Canadian The Globe and Mail, says of this year's theme: "Covid-19 taught us that we are all connected and it has shown how focused journalism can make a difference."

While our ancient ancestors needed to "read" the wind to ensure survival, we now need quality journalism to ensure survival. And that is why World News Day is so important: For homo sapiens to understand that to be informed is to be empowered.

That is how we have survived up to this day, living through all the technological revolutions regarding the spreading of information. As British journalist Tom Standage wrote in his so readable Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years: From the first "tablets" in the Roman era when information was scratched on waxed tablets (yes, with a stylus, as we now do on tablets or smartphones), to papyrus sheets, to the breakthrough of the Gutenberg press, introducing the beginning of mass media when texts no longer had to be individually hand-copied.

Shrinking newsrooms 

Fast forward to our Information Age: With so much digital noise around us, how can we ensure we are informed to be able to make informed decisions? In South Africa, with the upcoming elections, "fake news" is a real concern. But, it is argued, we should not use the term "fake news" because it gives deliberately manufactured fake information an aura of news, also because it is so easy to imitate news websites. Rather, it is suggested, refer to it for what it is: mal-information, misinformation, or disinformation.

And of course, that is why journalism has become more important than ever, and why we need a World News Day to ensure professional journalism, to provide a professional news service in our so complex, so troubled world.

The pandemic has not been kind to an already struggling mainstream news media. The digital revolution, combined with the pandemic, were the last nails in the coffin. But while paper may be dead, journalism is not. And on whichever device you access information, be sure its credibility and independence are above suspicion.

ALSO READ: OPINION | Journalism is critical to our understanding of the world but is also under threat

Worldwide, the start of the pandemic last year meant a never foreseen shrinkage of newsrooms. Simultaneously, the need for quality information grew exponentially. On last year's World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the South African Editors' Forum (SANEF) "sounded the alarm", while simultaneously seeing, "... audiences soar as citizens seek information on health issues and the economy". SANEF said the news media have never been more important, and yet under such severe threat. Shrinking newsrooms is not a problem for the media sector, but society as a whole, as it impacts the quality of news and the free flow of information, crucial to a democracy and the economy.

Access to free education  

With the elections in about a month's time, it is important for citizens to make informed choices. As South Africans we might feel we are in a good space, ranking 32nd in the Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) list (the UK is in position 33 and the USA in 44). Still, we need to be vigilant as the elections are a huge opportunity to supply gullible citizens with misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information.

RSF estimates that nearly half of the world's population still lacks access to free information. This means they are deprived of knowledge that is, "... essential for managing their lives", even, "... denied their very existence", and prevented, "... from living in pluralist political systems in which factual truth serves as the basis for individual and collective choices".

Ultimately, World News Day celebrates the power of journalism, "... to effect change". To effect change, it should be free and accessible. But to ensure quality, it needs a business model that will guarantee information that is independent and credible. So, if you can, contribute your little bit to ensure journalism remains a "public good" and that quality information is accessible to all. And as RSF's slogan goes: "Don't wait to be deprived of news before defending it!"

- Professor Lizette Rabe is chair of Stellenbosch University's Department of Journalism.

Today is World News Day. To find out more and read about the important role of journalism in the fight against climate change, visit worldnewsday.org

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