The story of the 800 Isis fighters on a ship in St Paul’s Bay: The changed media landscape

It is the undying rigours of journalism that will enable us to make sense of information that comes our way and remain a beacon of certainty in a world that has grown increasingly cynical

This is part of a series of articles celebrating 20 years of MaltaToda

The Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli had just been attacked by terrorists as Islamic militants threatened to gain the upper hand in Libya.

There was a justified heightened sense of alarm in Malta, being the closest European country to Libya.

Journalists were asking the authorities whether there was any credible threat from Islamic State terrorists but nothing could have prepared us for the news that reached us on that February evening in 2015.

I had filed the stories for the day and was preparing to leave the newsroom when a friend of mine messaged to ask whether there was any truth in the news that “Isis fighters were going to invade Malta”.

The message made me laugh. But barely had 10 minutes passed that a colleague of mine in the newsroom received a phone call from a concerned relative on rumours that “a ship with Isis fighters was heading towards St Paul’s Bay” and the army was “put on full alert”.

The two messages that reached the newsroom came from different people with no connection whatsoever. For any journalist that would be two sources, but the information was wild and speculative.

Our reaction was to ignore it until another journalist in the newsroom received a phone call from a friend asking the same questions about “800 Isis fighters on a ship in St Paul’s Bay”.

At this point the multiple disconnected sources relaying the same information raised alarm bells.

After a couple of phone calls, it transpired that a primary source for the rumours was a Facebook post by a relative of a soldier, who was called in for duty despite being his off day. The information was compounded by the fact that the army had increased its level of preparedness as a precautionary measure after the Corinthia attack in Tripoli.

But there was nothing that lent credibility to the claim that terrorists were on a ship bound for Malta. It was complete fake news that had then national security minister Carmelo Abela publicly denying the rumours that were spreading like wildfire on social media.

It was one of those surreal moments in my journalistic career when a complete invention became a real event for so many people.

The frustration for a journalist was obvious. People were more inclined to believe the ‘news’ that reached them via their personal social media networks, than what journalists were reporting.

I like to recount this story because it represents the changed landscape in which media houses are functioning today.

Traditional media houses are not only competing for audiences between themselves but also with a no-holds barred social media platform that has democratised information sharing but also exposed people to the risk of fake news.

Navigating this complex scenario is a challenge for everyone, including journalists, who many times are left sifting between fact and fiction.

Unlike the scene from 20 years ago, journalists have lost their gatekeeping function. News is no longer filtered through the different newsroom sieves. Politicians, authorities, and civil society can now communicate directly with people without going  through the media.

And this is not a bad thing because it allows for a wider array of views to be aired in a pluralistic environment that is necessary for democracy to thrive.

But this also begs the question as to what role journalists can play in this landscape, where everyone with a smart phone can become a ‘journalist’.

This is where the Isis fighters come back into the picture. Left unchallenged, that story, which came from nowhere, had the potential of creating undue concern and panic at a time of anxiety.

It is the rigorous ethic of searching for the truth by asking questions, seeking multiple views, understanding the silence between lines, placing facts within a context, and doing so without fear or favour that distinguishes professional journalists from the rest.

This ethic is as important today as it was in the past when I first started out in journalism more than 20 years ago.

And at a time when organisations are struggling with tight budgets, and the difficulty to attract new talent enticed by higher paying sectors, it becomes all the more crucial for those of us in the profession not to lose sight of this ethic.

It is the undying rigours of journalism that will enable us to make sense of information that comes our way and remain a beacon of certainty in a world that has grown increasingly cynical.