Media pluralism is a cornerstone of democracy

Dr Jacek Wojsław. Photo by Alan Stocki/UG.

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz from the Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication at the University of Gdańsk talks about freedom and responsibility in the media with dr Jacek Wojsław.

- In 1991, on the initiative of Reporters Without Borders, April 20 was proclaimed International Free Press Day. Is this day worth celebrating? 

We are living in a turbulent period of war in Ukraine. In the context of this conflict, we can see the important role played by the media and the propaganda they produce. The power of the fourth estate is particularly evident today in Russia and Russian politics. Therefore, taking into account recent events, it is all the more worthwhile, not so much to celebrate, but to remind ourselves of the role and function of the media in a democratic world.

- What function should the media fulfil in a democracy?  

Informative and controlling. In my opinion, this is their fundamental role, which is linked to the ethics of the journalistic profession, reliability and openness to dialogue. For me, functioning in a democratic world is inseparably linked with free, pluralistic media. Particularly today, it is worth recalling this.

- It seems that the monitoring role of the media, the so-called watchdog, is being exhausted today. The media are involved in politics, electoral campaigns and the shaping of social attitudes and opinions.

The means of mass communication are changing very dynamically, especially in recent decades. Internet journalism has developed significantly, but, unfortunately, it is largely lacking a good technical basis, especially as regards the accuracy of the message. If we fail to restore the ethics of the journalistic profession, we will have a big problem maintaining the freedoms we won during the political transformation in Poland. This was quite recent, and I am of the generation for which it was very important. Today I see that it has not been given to us, or rather won, once and for all. Young people, our students, should be reminded that we still have to strive for freedom of speech. In this context, the role of journalists, the media, their owners and the highest possible political culture is important. It is a matter of trying to live in a free, pluralistic and human-friendly world, where there is room for respect for diversity and different types of minorities. And this applies both in the space of political and public communication and in business. The latter should also be conducted ethically, and its boundaries should be set by the principles of public relations.

- Exerting influence, manipulation, propaganda, public relations - we often confuse these terms. Is it possible to put them in order, to set boundaries?

Researchers often argue about where they lie. Some psychologists even claim that the borderline between persuasion and manipulation is in our heads, our attitudes towards the messages we receive. To the blurred boundaries between the understanding of manipulation, propaganda and persuasion, I would add political marketing, advertising and public relations. I must admit that, as a researcher in the field of propaganda, I have devoted some time to these issues and today I am somewhat more confident in my convictions as regards attempts to define the concepts mentioned. Ethical communication is on the side of public relations understood in a classical way, as communication "for the common good". About a hundred years ago, in the beginnings of PR, it was about finding a common space for honest, open communication with the public, as opposed to presenting the world and its problems in a dishonest, even deceitful way. Thus, on the one side - one could perversely say "on the bright side of the communication space" - we are dealing with communication-based on ethical principles, which are reflected in the communication related to PR, and on the other side - "the dark side" - with manipulative and propagandistic communication, the foundation of which is the pursuit of the interests of the sender of propaganda only, usually with the use of lies, bringing about, as a consequence, bad, sometimes dramatic and tragic events, due to wrong choices of its recipients. Honest and dishonest communication, however, use a number of the same tools, which include persuasion, marketing and advertising, and therefore we may often have problems deciphering the true intentions of the authors of the content addressed to us.

- Does a dishonest intention mean a hidden intention?

Of course, and we have many examples from history. Communism, fascism, the Third Reich, and now Putin's Russia are the clearest areas of socio-political life where methods and techniques of communication have been, and unfortunately still are, used dishonestly. Propaganda is characterised by the fact that we learn the intentions of the sender of the messages often only when it is already too late, and therefore when we see the bad consequences of the decisions/choices we make. A propaganda message is generally made up of lies. These may be the so-called big lies, that Hitler and Goebbels used and which, repeated many times, unfortunately, become effective. We are still dealing with such lies today in Russia when Putin says, and the Russian media repeat after him, that Ukraine must be 'denazified' and 'liberated'. The well-known American political scientist and historian Timothy Snyder says that the most dangerous thing is the so-called 'medium lie', that is, a propaganda message in which facts are mixed with obvious untruths or oversimplifications. The big lies are quite easy to expose and are intrusive, while the medium lies are deeply hidden and difficult to verify. Another important aspect of propaganda is manipulation. Another researcher, Jacek Warchała, described the difference between manipulation and persuasion quite suggestively: "Persuasion is a way of fulfilling set goals, while manipulation is the pursuit of goals at any cost." Manipulation is largely about evoking emotions, especially negative ones, for example by drawing a figure of the enemy, i.e. someone who threatens our lives and is the cause of our failures and misfortunes. The propaganda construction and subsequent implanting of the figure of the enemy in the minds of the masses are characteristic of totalitarian systems, but unfortunately, we also see it today in democratic systems. This leads to social polarization and may consequently prove to be an effective tool for gaining support - but at what price? If we cross a certain threshold of destructive emotions, we may wake up in an authoritarian state.

- The eternal figure of the enemy has always been the Jew. Is it the refugee today?

Often it is a refugee because it is easier to dehumanise and finally demonise a stranger. The figure of the enemy builds such a "non-human". This is what the Russians are doing today with the Ukrainians, among others. This dehumanisation of particular groups of people has always been present in the societies and politics of countries, but especially in the last hundred years, during the existence of mass media, it has taken on a dramatic scale.

- I recently spoke about propaganda with Professor Irena Ivanova, who managed to leave Kharkiv during the war. She told me that the worst effects of propaganda are changes in mentality, which in turn are the result of the daily and consistent injection of lies.

This is a principle that Hitler and Goebbels, among others, introduced with unwavering consistency. It is about simplifying the world, creating negative emotions and repeating false messages over and over again. With time, they begin to appear to us as truth, or at least as a probability. The most effective is indoctrination carried out consistently in the educational process. The most effective, because through systematicity, it becomes permanent. I am afraid that it will be very difficult to change the attitude of Russians towards the West - for them, it is this eternal enemy figure.

- Is media pluralism an antidote to propaganda?

Media pluralism is the foundation of democracy, but it will not protect us from propaganda and manipulation. Media education is also important. Especially in relation to mass media, and nowadays especially social media, and understanding the mechanisms of communication. For many years, media experts have been calling for media education to be introduced as early as primary school, but this has still not been successful. There are some elements of media education in various classes, but there is no separate subject that would organise knowledge about contemporary media and the phenomena associated with mass communication. The war in Ukraine has shown how important media education is so that we do not succumb to manipulation and propaganda.

- Today we are dealing with media concerns that are characterised by two phenomena - monopoly and concentration - and this is not conducive to media pluralism.

Pluralistic media draw the line between dictatorships and democratic systems. Without media pluralism, there is no freedom and no democracy. However, there is also a problem with approaching the media and their functioning in a mainly mercantile way, as if they were just another area of the capitalist world, which is supposed to bring profits to its owners and make money. Such an oversimplified business model destroys the fundamental informative role of the media, turning them solely into entertainment. We must fight for so-called quality media and ethical journalism. I see the antidote to propaganda in strengthening the media space in many areas, so as to improve the quality of the information provided. In the search for quality media, one can refer to the reports of the Media Monitoring Institute on the opinion-forming power of the media, which have been prepared for several years now. Of course, opinion-making is not the same as credibility, but there is nevertheless a correlation between the two. One can only hope that the content of media considered opinion-forming will be more reliable, and therefore also more objective, valuable and qualitative. I am not in favour of objectivity at all costs, because in the real world it is a rather unrealisable postulate, but if the media were less biased, it would be better.

- Is it enough to separate commentary from information?

A common tool of manipulation is to mix information with opinion and to try to equate the information value coming from the different mass media. Today we are almost 'flooded' with potential information, among which there is a great deal of opinions, which after verification may turn out to be false content. Media professionals are able to distinguish this, but a significant part of the audience does not do such intellectual work - often due to a lack of time, knowledge or appropriate preparation.

- I would add to this the equating of facts with emotions, that is the problem of post-truth in the media.

Appealing to emotions is a kind of 'super-assault' in contemporary communication. It is very effective, but when we are dealing with evoking negative emotions, which we have already talked about, it also becomes very dangerous. Emotions can be triggered for good reasons, for example, to trigger empathy, to trigger a desire to help. However, emotions can also be manipulated to create divisions in the interests of power. Then the common space in which we can find the values that unite us disappears.

- We cannot avoid the subject of the Polish public media. The Constitution of the Republic of Poland states clearly: 'Poland shall ensure freedom of the press and other means of social communication'. And already in the first article of the Press Law, we read: 'The press - in accordance with the Constitution - shall enjoy the freedom of expression and shall exercise the citizens' right to reliable information, the openness of public life and social control and criticism'. Since these provisions are part of the democratic system of government, why do we have a problem in Poland with the appropriation of public media? Is the British model unachievable for us?

The BBC and the British model of public media are connected with a strong democratic tradition that goes back many centuries. It seemed that after 1989 we were on the same path, but recent years have shown how easy it is in Poland to turn the public media into party media. The bigger public knowledge about the mechanisms governing the media and media phenomena is, the easier it will be to distinguish an honest message from propaganda and the more difficult it will be to 'sell' manipulative content to the audience. I will also remind you of the seven principles enshrined in the Media Ethics Charter, the application of which in journalistic work can ensure that audiences receive reliable coverage. But also as citizens, as a community, we must defend democratic rights, freedom, pluralism and the rule of law, and create a safe space for the media to function.

- What can we wish the media and journalists, but also the public, on Freedom of the Press Day?

To journalists, I wish freedom of expression, free from financial/business pressures and political pressure. For us, as recipients, I wish pluralism in the media and high quality of media coverage combined with respect for ethical principles.

- I would also like to add my wish for a sense of journalistic and civic responsibility.

This is indeed a full set of wishes, or rather our expectations from media studies to create a common and safe communication space.

- Thank you for the interview.

Interview by dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz, Research Promotion Specialist, Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication, University of Gdańsk.

EMW / Press Office UG