Sunday, 27 January 2008

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

Digital changes the playing field, but not the goal of good journalism

Back in 2003 Ian Hargreaves suggested in his book Journalism: Truth or Dare that it was not an exaggeration to say that there has been a ‘digital revolution’ in the media where ‘News is multimedia, instant, global and ubiquitous’. The impact of the digital revolution on journalism has been profound – some believe to the detriment of good journalism.

I see the digital revolution in the media as affecting journalism in two associated ways. Firstly, journalists have to work in more than one sole medium. For example newspaper journalists also write for online, blog, and make podcasts and video news packages - journalism is converging. Secondly, digital media has allowed the audience not only to interact with journalists via email and online comments pages, but also to be the creators of news content. The public has been empowered through digital technology to record material, so journalists are no longer the first to acquire the content of a story.

For example only a few weeks ago a single mother from Merseyside found, through a few simple searches in Google, a photo of John ‘missing canoe man’ Darwin and his wife in Panama. She beat the traditional media, not to mention the Cleveland Police, at their own game and passed the photo to the Daily Mirror. Not only do these citizen journalists now have the power through digital technology to send their user-generated content to a media organisation, but they can publish the material as blogs, podcasts or on purely user-generated news websites such as These websites and blogs conform to none of the editorial guidelines professional journalists have to abide by, yet are increasingly popular. According to the Deputy Director of BBC Worldwide, Nicholas Brett, thanks to blogs, “everyone’s now a journalist”.

But there remains one key difference between citizen journalists and professional journalists: the former do not have the same professional standards as the latter who have editorial guidelines to stick to if nothing else. Hence there is a place for courses in journalism which include the teaching of media law, ethics and safety.

The prize-winning David Leigh, Assistant Editor of the Guardian, blames the internet for “overloading us with instantaneous terrors” and degrading the valuable journalistic traditions of assessing the credibility of sources etc. He argues that “too much interactivity” reaffirms prejudice, that bloggers “enjoy the sound of their own voices and confirm their own prejudices”. According to Leigh, the authoritativeness of professional journalism has been unduly criticised. For the good of democracy he calls for greater respect for the reporter “as a patient assembler of facts, a skilled craftsman who is independent and professionally reputable”.

Journalistic standards are slipping according to Professor Justin Lewis
of Cardiff Journalism School. He quotes research from the Rowntree Foundation and The Guardian on British broadsheet newspapers, which found that while there are roughly the same numbers of journalists as two years ago, they are writing nearly three times as much material. This is due to having to write for online, blogging and making video news stories as well as their original job of writing for their newspaper. They have less time to devote to the traditional journalistic values of for example checking your sources and verifying the facts.

“The more journalists have to do, the less they know about the stories they’re covering” stated Channel Four News presenter and reporter Alex Thomson when I quizzed him about the impact of digital on journalism. In the digital world there is less time to consider editorial guidelines such as the BBC’s aim of being accurate, establishing the truth, being impartial and providing diversity of opinion.

The report of the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) Commission on Multi-Media Working found that while some journalists may extend their repertoires thanks to new media, they do so at the expense of time for reflection and investigation. The rush to new media tends to “gnaw away at the quality of journalism”. The commission’s survey found that half of the newspaper workplaces questioned said there had been redundancies since web operations had been introduced. The NUJ’s report clearly shows that good journalism has been compromised by the digital media revolution.

The Director of BBC News Helen Boaden is on the other hand confident that the digital revolution doesn’t mean poorer quality journalism at the BBC. Whilst there is a cut of hundreds of journalists at the BBC, good journalism will remain by minimising duplication through its journalists working together in the same newsroom. This means that, for example, instead of sending individual journalists to a story from Radio 4, 5 Live, BBC News 24 and the 6 O’clock news, and BBC online, fewer journalists would cover the story and provide material for more than one of the BBC’s platforms.

Helen Boaden argues that ‘citizen journalism’ is an inaccurate term and should be replaced by the term ‘citizen newsgathering’ because professional journalists are employed to ensure the work of citizen newsgatherers is impartial and accurate. While a user-generated content hub has been created at BBC News, it will never replace BBC Newsgathering where professional journalists work. Furthermore when the citizen newsgatherer submits material to the user-generated content hub, it is checked by professional journalists. She believes that journalism is still about accuracy and professional standards – “whilst embracing new media, ‘content is king’”.

Nicholas Brett agrees and points out that while citizen journalism expands, the values of good journalism – “such as great ideas, story telling, good writing, being obsessive about accuracy and most importantly understanding your audience – won’t change”. Likewise Alex Thomson argues that Channel Four News has survived through the digital revolution with an increasing audience because “there is a market for good quality journalism”.

As a trainee journalist, while I accept that the digital revolution has eroded journalistic values, it is vital to embrace digital media and recognise the role I could play in a converging, digital newsroom. As Roy Greenslade points out, “All of us must be multi-media journos from now on”. Perhaps the next step for journalism in the digital world will be media organisations providing journalism training for citizen journalists. Media blogger Jeff Jarvis wants media organisations to assign the public to report alongside professionals, “to gather more news than could ever be gathered before”. If this does ever happen, the role between the professional and citizen journalist will be further blurred. David Leigh isn’t confident about the future of journalism, believing the media will “fragment and splinter into a thousand weakly-financed websites and digital channels”. There will be a severe reduction in the power of individual media outlets and ”the reporter will struggle to be heard over the cacophony of a thousand other voices.” I may as well give up now!

Perhaps for my self-preservation, I prefer to follow the view of The Independent journalist Gavin O’Reilly: quality, distinctive journalism will stand the test of time and the “constant onslaught of technological innovation”. He thinks “quality, established and trustworthy journalism will become even more relevant” in the growing digital age.

As a trainee journalist my focus is on becoming a top quality journalist whilst embracing digital media. BBC Trustee Richard Tait argues, “Success in the world of journalism means blending new opportunities with old editorial values”. This is unquestionably the path I am going to pursue, on the turbulent, exciting career which lies ahead.

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