Posted by: Ciaran | January 21, 2010

Will good journalism be the first casualty of the digital revolution in the media?

When pop superstar Michael Jackson died of a cardiac arrest on June 25 2009, the news was broken not by an agency, a newspaper, or a rolling news channel, but by celebrity gossip website TMZ.  Less than 20 minutes after Jackson was pronounced dead, the Los Angeles-based site published the first report that he had passed away.

It was immediately but cautiously taken up by 24-hour news channels on both sides of the Atlantic, who qualified their reports by citing TMZ as the only source of the information.  The internet, meanwhile, was ablaze; TMZ and Twitter crashed due to the weight of traffic, and Google believed it was under attack due to the number of users searching for “Michael Jackson”.

So is this online explosion an example of what we know as ‘journalism’?  TMZ calls itself an ‘entertainment news’ site yet, despite its reputation for being the first on many big celebrity gossip stories (it again led the pack recently with lurid revelations of Tiger Woods’s personal life), their ‘news’ is often treated with scepticism.

The site allegedly has hundreds of civilians on its payroll, particularly in the emergency services.  This would go some way to explaining the unprecedented access to information they seem to have, not to mention the speed with which they break stories.  The rise of user-generated content and so-called ‘citizen journalism’ means traditional journalists are no longer the first to uncover the big scoops.

Richard Tait, Director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University, says this reflects a change which he has seen during his journalistic career.  “When I started in journalism, a journalist was the first person at an event,” he said.  “Journalists were the first to file.  They’re not anymore.”

Ian Hargreaves, Director of Communications at the Foreign Office, says a more cavalier approach to telling the truth in journalism has coincided with an increasing infatuation with celebrity news.  In his book Journalism: Truth or Dare? he writes: ‘In the same period that journalism has learnt to make light of the boundary between fact and fiction, it has also become increasingly absorbed by the entertainment and sales potential of celebrity, with significant consequences for the way that journalism is practised.’

But the expansion of citizen journalism and the increasing use of established media outlets to crowdsource through social networks, particularly Twitter, carries an inherent danger.  The reliability of sources is one of the most important factors in responsible journalism, and is at the centre of the BBC’s ethos. 

After Lord Hutton’s inquiry into the Andrew Gilligan affair, where a BBC journalist’s story on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was found to be false, the Neil Review Team produced a report called The BBC’s Journalism After Hutton.  Its advice to staff when looking at the credibility of a source asks seven key questions: ‘What is their motive?  Is the person in a position to have the information provided?  Are they inflating the level of their knowledge?  Has the person an axe to grind, or personal benefit to gain from the publication of the story?  Do they have their own agenda?  Has this source been reliable in the past?  What level of verification and second sourcing is there?’

Yet it seems the number of potential sources and citizen journalists will only grow, and these questions will be asked increasingly often.  The process is happening organically; as more stories are started at user level, so more people see the opportunity to become part of the newsgathering operation.  Technology, coupled with widening access to data such as under the Freedom of Information Act 2000,  means today everyone can be a journalist whether they are accredited as one or not.  Those in the audience will only watch or read what they want, and if they cannot find it then they can uncover it for themselves: this can be seen through the growth of hyperlocal news blogs, like the Lichfield Blog, and collaborative investigation projects, such as Help Me Investigate.

If people will only stop to read what they are interested in, then the pressure is on journalists to produce reporting that is better than their competitors.  Charles Reiss, Political Editor of the London Evening Standard from 1985 to 2005, says journalists have always been under this pressure, even before the digital age.  “Reporters are storytellers in a marketplace, and what that means is that our story needs to be that little bit newer or that little bit more informative or that little bit more entertaining, otherwise the punters will move on to the next stall down the line.

“That I reckon has been true ever since the first word hit the printed page, if not before, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s print on a page or an old-fashioned movie camera or a tape recorder or the ’net; these are just the pipes down which we put our stuff.”  Setting this at the level of the individual reporter is what shows that good journalism will not be a casualty of the digital revolution in the media; it will, if anything, be enhanced by it.

Users can now compartmentalise their consumption of news because they no longer have to buy a complete package from one outlet.  Ian Hargreaves says that the notion of a ‘newspaper industry’ is a myth.  “The people whose business is newspapers need to understand that they’re not in the business of newspapers; they’re in the business of selling news, comment, and other information that people want or need to have,” he says.

This means that what Hargreaves calls the “commodity stuff” will be done by fewer journalists as different news organisations will no longer employ staff to do identical jobs.  As such, only the best journalism will survive the digital revolution.  Those who are entrepreneurial and can add value to their skillsets will be the journalists of the future because they will be the ones who the public will rely on; they will be the trusted vendors in the marketplace.

But they will do so whilst working alongside – not above – their audience.  As Richard Tait describes, consumers are now also contributors.  “The future of journalism has to be the journalism of verification; of accuracy and authenticity.  It has to be a journalism of compliance; you need to comply with the law and with the regulations that affect your particular branch of the profession.  You have to respect and take account of the feedback you’re going to get from citizen consumers and contributors; they’re going to send you video, they’re going to send you stories.”

But the ‘journalism of the future’ may still be some way off.  Traditional media outlets may be battling to remain in control, but if they can harness the contributions and listen to what their audiences want then it may be some time before the death knell sounds for media as we know it today.

As Peter Preston, a former Editor and Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian and now a media columnist for The Observer, says: “The future is misty and I think in some ways utterly miasmic, but the thought that you are moving from newsprint and newspapers and words on paper directly and in a straight line towards a new world where news is all online has taken a whole series of bashes and course directions over the last two or three years.”

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