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Beata Biel, journalist and media training expert: „When it comes to fake news, there is this one very good tool for detecting them - our brain!”

15 June 2017
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Media Azi: Beata, as a trainer in media innovation, how do you see the evolution of this field, and what new technologies, applications must journalists know today?
Beata Biel: Journalism is changing really fast these days, which makes it a really interesting time both for journalists and the audience. When it comes to tools and platforms, what is trendy today, might not even exist next year. Business models are changing, too, as the markets force the media to do so. What’s not changing though, is the basic role of journalism, that is to inform, tell stories and be a watchdog. And when you think of innovation, that should only be supplementary to those priorities.

However, to be up to date with the audience and its needs, we should learn all the new tools and storytelling techniques, even if they are to disappear tomorrow. It’s good for journalists to know how to work with data, how to tell stories in a more visual and engaging way, how to shoot short videos and edit them on the go with their mobile phones only. It’s really important to move easily in social media, not just to share and promote stories, but also to read the people’s opinions, find sources in the crowd, etc. Not all journalists need to be on Snapchat, actually I’d even dare to say - most don’t need it, but it’s important for newsrooms to have at least one person that knows how to use it and how to engage audiences there. So I’d say innovation is important on the media outlet level, on the journalist’s level - ethics, good reporting and storytelling are the key, everything else is a helpful additive.
M. M.: An important challenge of the 21st century is disinformation and false news. Are there any applications that would help media consumers and journalists identify false information in images and texts? What are the most important, in your opinion?
B. B.: There is one very good tool that is very helpful and easy to use, but also the one that we most often forget about - our brain! I honestly think that many of the fake stories would never go viral if we would just turn our brains on, focus on what we read, analyze and doubt. But of course very often disinformation and misinformation is hard for a regular person to discover.

When it comes to photos, the best thing we can do is reverse image search. I either use Google Image Search for that, or a Chrome extension called RevEye. They’re super easy to use and can help you see if and when a photo was already online, are there any altered versions of it, and so on. It’s a bit more difficult with videos but Amnesty International’s Youtube DataViewer is a good recommendation. Text is most difficult to verify. Of course you should always check the source, author and date of publication, but if a story as such or part of it is fake, there are currently no free tools that could be of real help. Some newsrooms have dedicated tools e.g.  for comparing things with archive statements, but of course they’re only internal. Further development of AI solutions will bring new tools, I’m sure, but right now I’d say your brain and your doubts are the best friend here. That is also why all the fact-checking initiatives are so important to help the audience move safely in the news landscape.
M. M.: On your LinkedIn page you wrote that you are equally passionate about new media and traditional media and that you try to be active in both. How could the opportunities of new media be used to make traditional media more attractive, and vice versa?
B. B.: The funny thing with me is that although I’m still active in both of the fields, I rarely mix them! I always say that it would be hard for me to do video for online, although I know all the rules of it. As a TV reporter and documentary filmmaker of over 15 years, I have always worked at least with a cameraman, a soundman and an editor and I will never give up on that! And in the new media world, you very often have to be one man for all those jobs. But this is my very conscious decision. I’m good in 45-minute films, TV storytelling and I still want to do it in a rather classical way. But of course there are digital tools that are very helpful also for TV filmmaking, like Google Earth Pro or mobile phones and various apps - I sometimes use it for additional filming, when I need more amateur footage.  And of course new media are great for promoting your work and gaining additional audience, engaging the people more. This engagement factor is very important nowadays, and the online tools can help with that. You can also do great data visualizations on TV (just look how Hans Rosling was doing that!), you can do interviews with your mobile, not to mention research that is done so often primarily online. So anything that’s helpful, just use it.
M. M.: Previously, you worked at the Google News Lab, where you organized training events for journalists and media entrepreneurs. How should journalists be trained to be able to write materials accessible to any reader on the globe?
B. B.: I think that all journalists, and mainly - journalism schools, should realize that the traditional model of TV / printed press / radio / online journalists is over.  To survive on this challenging market, you should know how to be a TV journalist but also how to work online and so on. The media is changing rapidly and the journalists need to change as well, thus they also should be trained in „soft skills”, like flexibility. If you’re 50 and have worked all your life in a daily newspaper, you should get a training on how to work online, too. You might not need it, but you never know.

Some good skills these days are also thinking and doing stories in a more visual way,  using data (numbers, dates, names, etc.) for storytelling (not just for sharing pure numbers), and first of all - focusing on what’s important for the people. We live and work in bubbles and tend to forget that in the end, what we do, we do for the people so their voices and needs have to be heard. Go outside the big cities, show your country or the world as it really is, not just as you see it in your bubble. And if you can do it in a really interesting and engaging way, you’re the winner.
M. M.: How can we fight political influence on the media? What tools are available to the journalist in this respect?

B. B.: Tools? I don’t know if there are any other tools than national and international laws. But of course, sometimes they don’t work… because of that political influence. So how can we fight it? By never forgetting of professional standards, our watchdog role, and journalists’ solidarity to stand against political influence and professional misconduct of our colleagues. And if such a misconduct or influence happens, social media can be of great help to share the true stories, corrections, etc.