Theorising the relationship between media literacy and the (un)safety of journalists


This paper argues that strategies to secure journalistic safety must recognise that the ability of journalism to serve society by providing trustworthy and accurate news depends upon an inextricable relationship with a media literate citizenry that is able to understand the consequences of attacks on journalists and journalism. An ability to distinguish professional journalistic sources from forms of mis- and disinformation is certainly key to such media literacy. However, we argue that media literacy rests upon an even more fundamental and largely un-recognised premise, namely that citizens understand both the societal relevance and the civil value of journalism. Understanding these is what endows citizens with the capacity to bestow trust in journalism, which in turn is the basis upon which the relationship between journalism and a well-informed public ultimately rests. We are however, witnessing how the relationship of trust between journalism and citizens has increasingly come under attack from forces that seek to discredit and reject the value of professional journalism. Indeed, accusations of ‘fake news’ directed at journalistic information deliberately target the very idea that journalism is something that societies should value, protect and trust. Attacks on journalism minimise the capacity of a civil society to be capable of reflection, adaptation and assimilation of others, limit the capacity of social criticism to be heard, frustrate democratic integration and pervert feelings of solidarity and hospitality (Harrison, 2019). These conditions leave journalism vulnerable to attack and produce conditions of un-safety for journalists and produce the conditions of civil diminishment (Harrison, 2019 and Torsner, 2019).

The paper develops a theoretical rationale to show how the societal relevance and civil value of journalism needs to be understood in relation to democratic associative and communicative collective life as a value-laden system with a strong ethos of political equality and tolerance’ which requires ‘a large reservoir of social capital among people’ (Strömbäck, 2005: 335-336). According to Harrison (2019, p. 34) such ‘civil power’ is exercised by journalism when it is oriented towards a set of basic normative ideals described as the ‘civil values of social criticism, democratic integration, civility, justice, reciprocity, and mutual respect’. Using Civil Sphere Theory (Alexander, 2006) this paper theorises the relationship between media literacy and the (un)safety of journalists and argues that a media literate society that understands the societal relevance and civil value of journalism is more likely to endow citizens with the capacity to trust journalism and to defend journalism and protect it against attack.