Keeping young people well-informed in the era of misinformation and COVID19: The Austrian Youth Portal

As the world fights the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we also see another epidemic, a dangerous epidemic of misinformation.

The Austrian Youth Portal ( Österreichisches Jugendportal),hosted by the Austrian National Network of Youth Information Centres, is an online website created with the main goal of fighting untrue and misleading news. It selects only the most relevant and reliable information and makes it accessible to young people. The portal provides its audience of mainly young people between the age of 12 and 26, with free and up-to-date content on a vast number of topics, such as education and training, living, and mobility, community services and work.

Like almost all news platforms around the world, the Austrian Youth Portal has been completely reinvented amid the COVID-19 outbreak. When Austria enter a period of lockdown in March 2020, the chief editor of the project, Daniel Eberharter, and his team of around 50 young and engaged reporters from all over the country, started telecommuting like most other businesses all over the world. Before the lockdown even began, they set up a Coronavirus information section within the website and published the first COVID-19 story on 10 March.

Along with the information about the rules currently in place in Austria, the section includes breaking news and updates on how the pandemic has impacted many other sectors that could be relevant to their young audience, such as school and university, exchange programmes, travel, and also information on mental health and social issues, which are of increasing importance to young people.

According to Eberharter, the section aims to provide relevant and reliable facts regarding COVID-19 and adapt the language to the young audience. The most important journalistic principle that the editors follow is objectivity. "When it comes to factual news it is crucial to provide facts and facts only. We are especially committed to providing information in such a way that is not patronizing," says Eberharter. They also emphasize that young people should consult official sources of information such as the Austrian Government's website and the guidelines shared online by the World Health Organization (WHO).

On the Portal, a whole section, which was started well before the outbreak of the pandemic, is also dedicated to misinformation. "One of the main goals of the Youth Portal's team is to sensitize young people to this and empower them to get the tools they need to avoid misinformation," explains Eberharter. The Coronavirus crisis has motivated the team to expand their knowledge on this topic, to avoid the spreading of misinformation, which nowadays happens at lightning speed through social media. Eberharter think this will benefit their audience long after the pandemic is over: "The increased awareness-raising on misinformation and trust in the media will continue to matter in the future to a bigger extent than now." So, the more the topic is discussed among young people, the more difficult it will become to spread misinformation. In contemporary society, which is heavily impacted by clickbait news, it is crucial that young people can go to websites such as the Austrian Youth Portal which have true, objective facts and also provide the necessary tools to recognize what misinformation looks like.

Despite the unique situation, the team is still committed to cover other topics and to develop new projects not immediately related to the current crisis: "We are currently working on creating a new Youth Reporters team and we are planning to offer free journalism workshops and media-related training, which will take place in September and October, " says Eberharter. The call for applications will be online starting from mid-May.

Since its establishment in 2004, the Austrian National Network of Youth Information Centres ( Bundesnetzwerk Österreichische Jugendinfos ), commissioned and financed by the Federal Ministry of Labour, Family and Youth, represents young people nationwide through the various services offered by the 28 regional Youth Information Centres.

The Austrian Youth Portal is based on the principles of professional journalism free from political and commercial influence. Eberharter says they aim to set an example through their own work: "Check your facts, use multiple sources, and quote where you can, show different sides of a story and not just one viewpoint". Likewise, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, as long as these are "well-argued and thoroughly researched", he concludes.