Journalism in the Digital Storm

Bianca Manelli, Chantal Cocherová, Georgios Evgenidis, Jiahuan He, Lara Corrado, Suhasni      Midha, Yuliia Hladka, Zeynep Atilgan Ozgenc

What is news? What makes somebody a journalist? In the era of social media and blogs, the answers to these questions are not as clear as they were 10 years ago. With professional journalism still struggling to work through the digitalization of media, the rise of citizen journalism challenges the definition of both news and journalist.

Citizen smartphone journalism

Smartphone and enthusiasm? ✓

Internet connection? ✓

Twitter account? ✓

1k+ followers? ✓

With these tools in their arsenal, if somebody tweets from a social movement, a demonstration or a fire, does information reported qualify as news? does this tweeting activity make them journalists?

According to the American Press Institute, journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. Following this general definition, anyone with a smartphone and social media account could technically do journalistic activities.

But is this definition sufficient to capture journalism? In practice, it is much more complicated. Journalism needs to be redefined in the digital era and, in order to do that, we first have to outline how the notion of both news and journalist have evolved in today’s context.

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“What is news?”

The world’s leading public service broadcaster, BBC, defines news as something new and current, reported accurately, that carries meaning to people, insofar it relates to what they want or need to know. So, if something with these characteristics is posted on social media, does it become news by default?

In the web and social media world where a single click allows access to multiple news sources, an innocent Facebook news feed scroll turns into a news reading session with headlines like ‘Woman killed partner, served him for tea’. Here, the distinguishing feature of professionally reported news is accuracy.

The BBC claims to receive up to 10,000 pieces of user-generated content as a daily average. Chris Hamilton, social media editor at BBC News, highlighted how user-generated content (UGC) lost its innocence, as hoaxes are becoming increasingly elaborate.

In September 2014, there was a burst of Twitter activity after hoaxers attempted to spread news of an imaginary Isis attack in Centerville, Louisiana. To execute this, several Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia accounts were created in the span of a month.

Google algorithms, too, are fallible. Upon typing “Syria hero boy” on Google search, the first results display the viral hoax ‘news’ of a boy saving a girl from gunfire, and those that follow it expose the falseness of the video which was in fact shot in Malta using professional actors.

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“Who can be called a journalist?”

Digitalization is not the first radical change journalism had to go through. The revolution of TV news altered the way journalists worked. The internet, though, is something else entirely. Users do not just passively consume what is being reported: they become news producers of their own, through personal blogging and social media. The audience has access to platforms where they can act as citizen journalists and have an opportunity to spread first-hand, though not always factually accurate, information.

Blogs of people living in war-affected areas, live streams of climate marches, eyewitness accounts of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement – the internet has it all. Entire apps are devoted to citizen journalists. For example, Google’s app ‘Google Bulletin’ provides citizens with a platform to share newsworthy images and stories. Nowadays, journalists do not compete only with theirs peers, as it was the case a few years ago, but also with citizen journalists.

The American Press Institute suggests that we have been asking the wrong question all along, since journalism can be produced by anyone, and that we should rather focus on the “distinction between the act of journalism and the end result.” In order to produce quality work, journalists prioritize the public good above all else and adopt specific methods, based on a discipline of verification, to gather and assess their findings.

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It would be an oversimplification to state that the social media is killing journalism, as some forecast. Regardless of the media environment’s new challenges, even if anyone can claim to be a journalist or an “opinion shaper”, journalists can still stand out by providing quality work. Breaking exclusive and factually checked information and offering more detailed insights, through analysis and investigative reporting, can be comparative advantages for journalists.

Citizen Journalism vs Quality Journalism

Journalists are not ubiquitous; they often arrive after the event has taken place. Additionally, in many instances, like for example during the Arab Spring, journalists can be censored or banned by individuals and regimes with vested interests in silencing impartial voices and whistle-blowers. In similar situations, citizen journalists with smartphones might be the sole source of information.

While there is no denying that posts by citizens often provide raw material to professional journalists through first-hand accounts, this comes with the disadvantage of the gate-keeping function being taken away from journalists. Anyone can post news, but the problems arise when ‘anyone’ posts news, including click baits and fake news, and spreads disinformation.

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Reddit’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated the possible consequences of opening up an unpolished platform to citizen journalists. The site’s Find Boston Bombers thread wrongly accused several people of being involved in the atrocity, interfering with the police investigation and leading to the harassment of their families. In today’s instant news cycle, where an unsubstantiated tweet can be front-page news in seconds, a real issue arises when potentially malicious or careless reports make it into the mainstream news.

A report conducted by Social Media Today found that almost half (49.1%) of online users have been tricked by false ‘breaking news’. This leads many to question the role of citizen journalism as a primary news source: it can lack credibility and reliability and, thus, should be approached with a good dose of skepticism. On the other hand, it is also possible that that such a negative perception of the audience’s gullibility is not justified.

According to the Trusting News Project Report 2017 conducted in association with the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the respondents seemed to be aware of the limited trustworthiness of ‘Social media’ and ‘Internet’ and ranked professional news sources such as BBC, Reuters and Public Television as the most trusted.

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Operation Quality Journalism in the Digital Storm

In the digital world, the transformation of consumers into producers through the acquisition of an audience of ‘followers’ creates a perfect platform for citizen journalism. The opportunities to spread information are unprecedented. It is, however, important to remember American Press Institute’ definition: “Journalism can be produced by anyone but there is a distinction between the act of journalism and the end result.” Here, the distinguishing factor is quality.

Citizen journalism can be perceived as a threat but journalists can counterstrike through quality work. According to “What is Quality Journalism: and how can it be saved”, a paper published by Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, there are 7 ways to save quality journalism under current circumstances:

  1. News organizations need to reinvent themselves and commit to high quality journalism.
  2. Content should come before business.
  3. The right medium should be chosen for the right audience.
  4. Journalism practice should be indispensable and relevant again.
  5. Journalists must specialize.
  6. It is necessary to invest upfront in quality.
  7. Journalists and news organizations should not be afraid of web but rather engage with it.

To achieve these goals, politicians, policy makers, and the media industry should engage in dialogue and cooperate to identify legislation and business models to support quality journalism. The social responsibility of delivering accuracy and quality should not only be placed on the professionals; users also need to become more skeptical of the news they consume and critically assess the source’s reliability. Just because a tweet is geotagged (with a place and date stamp), it does not mean the sender was on the spot or could be a credible witness.

Now the right question is: Will you also lend a hand to quality journalism in this digital storm?

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