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Grisha Balasanyan

The Computer Mouse Should be the 1st Weapon Against Unscrupulous News Sites

My neighbor, 75 year-old grandpa Sourik, is pretty active, politically.

He’s attended almost all of the opposition demonstrations and says he’s become aware of developments in the country by participating in various protests.

During the current relatively “peaceful period”, Sourik only source of news is Armenian TV. But he’s not satisfied with the limited programming it offers.

Every two days, grandpa Sourik would come to our home with the names of news sites written on a piece of paper. He wanted me to read him the opinions of the internet press.

But I stopped serving as the press spokesman for Sourik about one month ago. When he visited me the last time, with his piece of paper in hand, and asked that I open his favorite site, a semi-nude picture of Kim Kardashian popped out on the first page. On the next website, Sourik said he read news that wasn’t true; just a pack of malicious gossip.

“And here I was thinking that they operated normally. They are either in need of sex or either gossip like a group of old women. To be a journalist back in the Soviet era was an honor. Now, they have turned into naggers. Back then we would impatiently wait for the postman to arrive with the newspapers for us to read. I used to subscribe to five papers and magazines. The ones I didn’t subscribe to I would pick up from my neighbors. Nowadays, young kids just out of diapers claim to be reporters, running from interview to interview with tape recorders in hand,” Sourik exclaimed and left.

There are real reasons for Sourik to complain. It’s true, the internet press has benefitted the media field, ensuring greater diversity and serving as an alternative platform for speech and opinion, in contrast to the TV under state control and the newspapers with small print runs, which have little impact on public opinion.

However, the internet press has intensified the issue of media self-regulation. A number of ethical questions (the use of anonymous sources, disinformation, or the publication of unverified news and even outright lies) have been given much greater attention. Such methods have become the accepted work ethic at certain news sites.

These daily growing media outlets had a need for new staff and filled the void with young people who were untrained and unfamiliar with professional standards. As a result, serious analytical and investigative journalism almost disappeared. What rose instead was a demand for easily digestible news. On the other hand, cutthroat completion amongst internet media sources for a shrinking audience led to a serious fall in quality, a devaluation of professionalism.

Today, yellow journalism dominated the internet press. Almost every other site fills the need to lift Facebook posts of well-known individuals and reprint them on their sites, thus ensuring the desired number of “likes”. It was due to this race that, for example, that during the course of one minute on July 30 of this year, the internet was swamped with the false news that prominent humorist and broadcaster Mark Saghatelyan had died after being rushed to hospital in critical condition. Minutes later, the news had been removed from the news sites, but none felt the need to apologize to their readers for publishing the unverified and undignified report in the first place.

The devaluation of professionalism also benefits certain political circles that obtain or create news sites for propaganda purposes – by providing one-sided news and by stoking political intrigue. In the struggle against the political opposition or competition, we see the more frequent use of news websites. As a consequence, reporters have become tools to be exploited and the media community is being split apart. And this can only benefit the powers that be. The fact that oligarch/MP Samvel Aleksanyan recently expressed a desire to open a news site and strike back at his reporter naysayers, proves our point. It is difficult to imagine how many such “beaten” reporters would express a desire to work for Tsarukyan.

So the following questions remain:

How to regulate the media field in Armenia? How to raise the level of professional of internet reporters? How to spur journalism that adheres to ethical norms?

These questions are of concern not only to responsible reporters and editors, to media analysts and experts, but also to readers who have grown tired of low quality news reporting

How to overcome the problems now faced by the internet press in Armenia?

The principle of free speech in news reporting is gradually turning into a free for all, where concepts of responsibility, ethics and morality are being disfigured under the rubric of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”

In several precedent setting decisions, the European Court of Human Rights has often stated that freedom of expression is a pivotal pillar of a democratic society and that its advancement, as well as individual expression of all, a fundamental prerequisite. The right to freedom of expression not only guarantees the freedom of the press to inform the public, but also the right of the public to be informed in a responsible fashion.

Specialists say that it is easy today to create a news site. It’s not an expensive proposition. Naturally, this is the case if we are merely talking about having a website. It takes around $200 to open a site in Wordpress, $10 monthly for the hosting, and $10 annually for the domain name.

Neither is greeting content all that expensive. You can get two students to work for next to nothing if they agree to lifting Facebook and other social web posts of prominent individuals and copy pasting articles from other sites without due credit. Clearly, for serious news sites, creating a site is a serious problem as well as the financial challenges of getting and keeping a quality staff.

In an interview with Hetq, media analyst Samvel Martirosyan said that the issue of regulating the sector is complex as it demands solutions involving the engagement of the media community, educational institutions and the consumer.

  The public needs to be more demanding; otherwise it’s all being read. The public must be mature enough to remove any site that spreads disinformation from its reading list. The press community must go the route of self-regulation, a process that has started to some small degree. Yellow journalism must be separated from the responsible media. All must not be given the same credit rating,” says Martirosyan.

For example, he says that the Sun British tabloid isn’t rated equally with The Guardian.

Martirosyan notes that if we follow the instincts of the general public, then naturally, only sex and violence are needed in the press. But the problem is that the responsible press must address the public consciousness.

 “Since the field of competition has developed incorrectly in Armenia, the yellow and normal press has been sandwiched together with the same credit rating. Naturally, in order to compete successfully, the normal press becomes yellow as well. There must be a separation. Throughout the world, the yellow press is more popular. It’s just that it operates in another field,” he added.

The expert finds the competition to gather “likes” as normal, since it shapes an audience. The problem arises when “likes” are gathered by deceiving and disgusting readers.

Anna Israyelyan, the editor of the online Aravot news site, doesn’t agree with the claim that serious analytical and investigative journalism has almost disappeared and that a demand for easily digestible news has arisen.

She says that serious journalism has its readers and so too does the easy, syrupy stuff. The two don’t cross paths or get in the other’s way. It’s a whole other question that news sites seeking to disseminate serious news must slightly review the way they work. Such sites shouldn’t wait for advertisers to line up outside their door after publishing a good article.

Anna Israyelyan says that we have also have a lot of stuff to borrow from the websites providing the easily digestible news, in terms of integrating with social networks and disseminating original material.

“And I’m not even talking of the necessity to study the needs of the reader audience. Perhaps we must contact market analysts, in order to regulate the activities of sites in such a way to make it as easy as possible to work with search systems/ As regards the professionalism of internet reporters, I don’t think that the situation is all that different now than in the past.  There have always been more reporters who don’t spend much time and effort on an article than those that do. I mean the ones who always present a second opinion,” notes Israyelyan.

The Aravot editor believes that the only way to raise the professional level of inexperienced reporters is to fill in the gaps by sending them to on the job training courses and seminars. She confesses that in the competitive rush to publish breaking stories, quality and precision suffer as a result. Israyelyan notes that this is a worldwide problem not unique to Armenia.

“Regarding the resolution of plagiarism and other ethical issues, I have long ago given up any hope that the answer will come from self-regulation measures. They do not work and experience has shown they aren’t effective. The only solution is to financially penalize those who violate copyright laws. Luckily, such an opportunity now exists with the recent passage of a parliamentary bill,” Israyelyan added.

Media specialist Mesrop Harutyunyan proposes a different solution. Just like viewers use the remote control to change the TV channels of those broadcasting tasteless programming, so too must the computer mouse be the first weapon against unscrupulous internet news sites.

That’s to say that if readers don’t visit these sites they will wither and die off.

“It’s better to educate and reeducate new reporters; by constantly working with them and informing them regarding all possible manners of self-regulation. This starts with educating them as to the rules of ethics and explaining the need for reprimand and other means when these rules are violated,” added Harutyunyan.

Photo: A bundle of Soviet newspapers sent to Grandpa Sourik

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