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SNF Ithaca Student Leaders Reflect: incubator for Media Education and Development (iMEdD) International Journalism Week

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SNF Student Leaders Jenna DeMaio and Simon Brand tour the ruins of the ancient acropolis in Athens, Greece.

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Jenna DeMaio (right) and Simon Brand (left)

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incubator of Media Education and Development (iMEdD) International Journalism Forum building entrance with attendess lined up outside the entry way.

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​incubator of Media Education and Development (iMEdD) International Journalism Forum​

Article by Jenna DeMaio and Simon Brand

During the fall semester of 2023, we joined the UD Biden School’s Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) chair of civil discourse and SNF Ithaca director Timothy J. Shaffer, Ph.D. at the iMEdD International Journalism Forum in Athens, Greece.

The event brought together journalists and students worldwide to examine the impact of changing technologies, social views and pressing policy issues on the journalism industry. As the United States enters another unprecedented presidential election year, the media—now more than ever—plays a key role in shaping our democracy. As citizens, we need to be aware of this.

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​incubator of Media Education and Development (iMEdD) International Journalism Forum

​Reflecting on the amazing trip, we explore key takeaways from this international learning experience. These include recognizing the significance of utilizing media to encourage citizens to play an active civic role in their lives, understanding the impact of new technologies on the consumption of information, broadening perspectives to embrace a more global outlook and recognizing our next steps are shaped by the media world in which we live.​

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Citizens or Spectators?

SNF chair of civil discourse and SNF Ithaca director Timothy J. Shaffer, Ph.D. speaking onstage during the "SNF Dialogues: Spectators or Citizens?" panel discussion.

Timothy J. Shaffer

​On our first night in Athens, we attended the “SNF Dialogues: Spectators or Citizens?” event curated and moderated by the iMEdD co-founder and managing director Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou. Joining her were University of Minnesota professor of media and cultural studies Laurie Ouellette, Ph.D.; Bournemouth University professor of political communication Darren Lilleker, Ph.D.; and Timothy J. Shaffer, Ph.D. The discussion explored the dynamics between media and the idea of citizenship. One highlighted challenge is how our confirmation biases trap us in media echo chambers and preclude us from having a diverse body of information to form multifaceted opinions. ​​

The reality is that the media influences much of our lives and thinking. If we’re primarily accessing information that reinforces existing views, what happens to our ability to think critically about the issues we face individually and collectively?​

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​More than ever, new technologies and social media challenge people with the duality of being citizens and spectators. Social media was leveraged to create change with the Black Lives Matter and January 6, 2021, movements. Yet paradoxically, we also see that technology is forcing us into an increasingly mediated society. The constant onslaught of negative media can make citizens feel powerless to the point where many disengage entirely. ​

The new landscape of media, especially digital media, presents the opportunity for more opinions to be heard and movements to be mobilized. However, at the same time, news feeds are now curated for individual consumers in such a way that sensationalizes the news for optimal engagement rather than communicating information for viewers to make up their own minds. Media needs to be leveraged so that rather than polarizing people it motivates them to be thoughtful and engaged citizens, shaping their interactions with others both in person or online. ​

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"It's this confirmation bias that is so significant right now that it's very difficult to look at national broadcasts or even more localized information in a way that you don't have these preconceived notions. For us, as citizens, it's very difficult to move past that in any sort of productive way," says Shaffer.

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The Impact of New Technologies on Journalism

Slide from journalist Omer Benjakob’s presentation explaining the capabilities and campaigns of the “Team Jorge” organization he investigated.

​Slide from journalist Omer Benjakob’s presentation explaining the capabilities and campaigns of the “Team Jorge” organization he investigated. ​

New technologies are transforming the landscape of being a communicator and a news consumer. With the advent of vertical video platforms like TikTok, newsrooms have had to adapt to new constraints. In a panel titled “Storytelling in vertical video: How news can use TikTok,” three journalists who create TikTok content for traditional news outlets discussed how vertical video platforms have changed how they communicate with the public. Journalists are now required to condense large stories, that give the public critical information, into 60-second summaries while also being entertaining and engaging so that social media algorithms can pick them up.

The “Going undercover to uncover the dark world of disinformation-as-a-service” presentation highlighted the new threat of companies specializing in spreading disinformation. Journalist Omer Benjakob presented the findings of his investigation into one of these companies, “Team Jorge.” The Israel-based company maintains a large network of fake online avatars to spread disinformation when mobilized for a client. This showed us the growth of the disinformation industry since the unauthorized data collection and the targeted political advertising of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the danger that improper media literacy means for any democracy. These changes in the digital media landscape have the potential to reach more people than ever, and everyone needs to be aware of the power social media has over the flow of information to consumers.

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Global Perspectives on Journalism

During a session designed as an opportunity for students and professors attending the forum to connect both from the United States and the broader global community, we were asked, “What is one problem with journalism that you would change?” As policy students, we are not trained in journalism nor understand the media beyond what we read and see on the news. Hearing the various worldwide perspectives made us realize how sheltered we were as policy students and Americans. We aren’t sitting in classrooms discussing the future of journalism because we want to work in it, but we aspire to work in a world intimately shaped by access to information and investigative journalism, for example.

As Americans, we don’t typically question our position in the global order. Individuals often question how a story directly affects their lives, not how it impacts others in the national or global community. Stepping out of your localized viewpoint and questioning what you thought you knew is how to think critically about society and the world around you.

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Defending Freedom of the Press

​In the convention center's main hall was an installation by Reporters Without Borders displaying different countries' rankings on the World Press Freedom Index. Out of the entire European Union, the nation with the lowest ranking in this index was Greece. In America, it is often portrayed and perceived that the free press is constantly under attack. It was sobering to learn that Greek journalists are being physically silenced and are encountering systemic condemnation for attempting to keep those in power accountable. This was especially apparent during the “Investigating the murder of a journalist in Greece” panel, which consisted of lawyers from across Europe who studied the Greek government's conduct while investigating the 2021 murder of journalist Giorgios Karaivaz. In the scathing report, the lawyers concluded that the Greek government had mishandled the investigation into the murder of Karaivaz, showing a pattern of undermining the safety of all Greek journalists by giving relative impunity to those who physically silence journalists. The implications of restrictions on journalistic freedom threaten the foundation of democracy, and if we aren’t careful, the same things can happen to us. ​

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Seeking Solutions Beyond Reporting

​It is said that the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, but you rarely hear about the second step. Journalists and academics alike are known to be good at pointing out the problems, but rarely do they come up with solutions when real change demands action. Recently, publications like TIME Magazine have shifted toward “solutions journalism” that not only points at the problem but also tests and offers some solutions. This provides policymakers with a jumping-off point and legitimizes an issue or cause. However, as conduits of information, journalists can only get a cause so far; other actors must pick up the baton and finish the race. The public must demand change and policymakers must listen and take action for change to happen. ​

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Conclusion

Both journalists and policymakers shouldn’t fear changing technologies or the journalistic landscape. Just because disinformation exists doesn’t mean people should stop reading the news. It means that people must actively participate in the media they consume. Just because TikTok exists doesn’t mean it is the end of in-depth articles. It means that journalists now have another tool at their disposal to disseminate information. Just because journalists report on a problem doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and give up. It means that it is the beginning of change. We shouldn’t fear the future but rather keep an open mind while proceeding with caution.

Our democracy depends on it.

Interested in opportunities like this one?

Apply today for the 2024-25 SNF Ithaca Student Leader program cohort.​ 
Applications close Sunday, March 31, 2024.
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