Brunel Public Lecture Series 2012 – Hidden Truths

This is the rough text of my public lecture at Brunel University, Monday March 12, 2012 

Citizen journalists, content providers, bloggers: technology is transforming how we receive news, by whom it is produced and how it is gathered. The 18- to 35-year-old generation, who’ve grown up with the World Wide Web, expect to get their news for free these days. They get it from television, in their e-mail inboxes, on their phones – all at the click of a button. Many believe these changes have huge implications for the future of journalism, especially in terms of public trust and the standards of practice within the trade. As the craft is swept along at high speed on a journey for which it is not fully prepared, the future of journalism is in the here-and-now – multi-platform, multi-skilled and mired in doubt and controversy. But I think it is wrong to believe that the brave new e-world is bringing down journalism, as many within the industry have argued. Technology can all too easily be made the scapegoat for something more insidious and damaging lying at the real heart of doubts about the future of journalism in the digital age. Let’s start by looking at the fears. One school of thought believes the significant decline in newspaper sales since the 1970s means newspapers will soon go out of business; one commentator Philip Meyer predicts ominously that 2043 will be the year when newsprint dies , ‘as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the final crumpled edition’. The phonehacking scandal and the ensuing Leveson inquiry certainly make many of us fear journalism’s standards of accuracy and rigour are also suffering from a terminal illness. The emerging use of ‘content’ instead of ‘news’ or ‘journalism’ to describe material published, posted or broadcast suggests that journalists’ work is little more than ‘stuff’, filling a designated space, rather than the carefully-crafted result of quality reporting. Intrusion, dumbing down and ‘infotainment’ are but a few of the factors that have led to calls for the industry to be more open. One result has been a widening disconnection between the public and journalism, evident in the declining reputation of the journalist in opinion polls and in popular culture. Think how journalists were once portrayed in the cinema. From the wise-cracking Hildy in His Girl Friday to Clark Kent and Lois Lane in Superman.  Celluloid journalists were crusading public servants, working for the good of society. Today, the public has withdrawn its affection, lampooning the seemingly vacuous, image-obsessed nature of the corporate, professional self-seeking journalist, epitomised by Courtney Cox’s Gale Weathers in the Scream trilogy. Maintaining the public’s faith in journalism as a watchdog for democracy, rather than as entertainment, is vital. A university study last year after the phonehacking came to light ranked journalists only just above estate agents in the public trust – and below politicians despite newspapers exposing the MPs expenses scandal The dip in trust in journalism has been accompanied by the breakdown of another important relationship; one far more threatening to journalistic standards than technology. Media owners and journalists once worked in close union, with a common purpose of producing news that would attract as many readers, listeners and viewers as possible. Journalism, it was felt by both, was the lifeblood of the industry and to dilute the content would not only lose audiences but also the reputation of the industry as a whole. But, a noticeable distance has developed between media proprietors, journalists and audiences, coinciding with the shift from strong publishers and campaigning moguls to executive boards and shareholders. This breakdown of relationships seems to have occurred when small outlets, run by local owners, were sold to corporations. This brought newsrooms better facilities and slick offices and streamlined efficiency. But as years went by, Power once vested in editors and indeed readers became a need to maximise investors’ returns. Owners, even when they were chairing a board, were identifiable and personified the ideology of the operation. Today, with one or two notorious exceptions, the ownership of a corporation is anonymous and de-personified. Cost-cutting has reduced the number of correspondents stationed abroad, shrivelled or closed news bureaux and crippled local reporting staff who once kept an eye on governors, mayors, councillors, criminals and the justice system. It has shrunk the size of the typical newspaper page, cutting the cost of newsprint but reducing news content. That so many outlets are fighting for their survival suggests that free-market capitalism is not the ideal platform on which to base the journalism industry.Considering that the sales of the popular press are in greatest decline, despite the slight peak of interest in the Sun on Sunday, the message seems to be that news consumers are looking for a brand they can trust. More investment in innovation, quality and rigorous reporting might lure audiences back to journalism, which in turn may bring back the advertisers who are currently promoting themselves in non-journalistic outlets.

 

So Journalism faces many challenges – but I see the hidden truth is that these challenges have less to do with journalism, or even technology, than with the context within which journalism is produced. The economic basis of production has transformed both journalisms’ processes and its perception by the public and institutions. This, more than anything, needs to be tackled if journalism is to survive and revive.

Interactive media technologies actually present a golden opportunity for news-makers and news audiences to reflect on the present state of journalism. In the mid-1980s, when computers revolutionised journalistic practices and transformed the economics of production and distribution, technology posed no threat to news itself. Newspaper circulations had been in decline for the previous 30 years, ever since television had started to play a central role in daily life. But television did not dent the appeal of journalism itself.. If anything, it raised the media’s global profile. While television supplied visually-impressive footage, certain newspapers understood their role within the burgeoning journalism marketplace: the delivery of broad coverage, deep analysis and opinion. The digital revolution, offers a limitless increase in the amount of information. This is not such much a threat to journalism as a challenge.

So let us look at the Implications….The future’s ‘glocal’ – global and local. The Internet gives us access to content from newspapers, television channels, blogs and podcasts from around the world. We are no longer limited to our own national media to frame the news of the world; at the push of a button we can go directly to any corner of the globe and get their local perspective. in a war or uprising we are starting to see something interesting happening. Instead of there being two sides to a story, myriad accounts emerge and the challenge to a media used to binaries of good versus bad is how to adequately present that diversity.  And as well as its global ramifications, the internet enables a return to the hyper local. It’s nothing new but was abandoned in the 80s in favour of cutting newsroom budgets to boost profits.When I trained on a locally owned newspaper my editor didn’t like to see me in the office – I was out and about knocking on doors, looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary and reflecting a community through pages and pages of stories. Then I and my fellow reporters arrived at work one morning to find ourselves in a swish new carpeted office over the road, but with fewer staff and even fewer pages to fill. We were now owned by a leading conglomerate who despite cheaper production costs heralded by on-screen page make-up, decided to simultaneously reduce the number of local district pages and swell up the advertising. After that I barely left the office, spoke mainly to press officers and the tip offs from our readers dwindled. There we had the tools to make our job quicker and easier – the technology wasn’t at fault it was the profiteering of our owners that was wholly out of step with the communities they were meant to serve. So mass communication became more top-down’: a ‘few’ mediating to the ‘many’. In contrast, digital journalism means online news has the scope to be a two-way conversation between news producer and news receiver. Audiences can enter into dialogue with news providers, rather being passive. Greater interactivity means that online writing tends to be more personal, giving reporters, editors and news anchors the chance to be more human and connect with their audience in deeper ways than  the styles that were actually invented to relay dispatches over a very shaky transatlantic cable. This can be very challenging to traditionalists, but journalism isn’t fixed – it has to be dynamic. History shows that media organisations embrace technology to increase efficiency, reduce costs and maximise audiences but there is evidence that recent developments may – ironically – have the potential to wrest some of that power from the corporations. In the early twenty-first century, networked computers, digital cameras and mobile telephones with multiple functions are affordable by ordinary consumers. Digital content, capable of being used across media platforms, can be produced by ordinary citizens as well as professional news gatherers. This begs the question..”Would you trust a citizen brain surgeon?” This is a common refrain as the news industry grapples with the idea of a technologically empowered public. Audiences can take a very different and active role within the news-making process, seeking alternative news sources or actively providing content. This reconfigures the relationship between journalism and citizens and raises important questions about its role, status and function in society. You may have seen that the The Guardian, which is owned by a trust rather than a conglomerate, is promoting its open journalism, seeking to work interactively with readers and other partners in what is describes as an open Eco-structure of information. Editor Alan Rusbridger  sees the role of the paper as to aggregate, curate, and distribute rather than hiding behind pay walls. When covering the Arab Spring, for example, it used a lot more north African writers rather than only its star reporters and translated into Egyptian to widen access. Readers of interactive online news are free, within editorial constraints, to select the stories they wish to read, investigate them in how much depth they want and, potentially, respond to them. Increasingly – and most significantly – news receivers are being invited to share in producing the news content, taking on some of the functions of journalists by circulating information, images, video footage, audio clips and text. Look at recent examples: The 7/7 attacks on London, when the public took over reporting because of news blackouts. The riots, when news crews were forced out over fears they’d pass footage to police. Ok, coverage was shaky, exaggerated and fabricated in some instances but an accurate picture soon built up. While broadcasting Goliaths such as Sky News and ITN flew in big-name presenters to riot-stricken cities across England, a couple of Sikh men, calling themselves Sangat News, armed with a point-and-shoot camera  stole the headlines. New technology could revive investigative journalism. Increasing pressure on news outlets to be fast and first means that journalism which is both expensive to produce and time-consuming to gather has a much lower priority than entertainment. The Internet, and the closer rapport it engenders between journalists and their audiences, might serve to regenerate in-depth reporting. There have been experiments such as crowdsourcing’. For example, The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based organization  gave tools to citizen journalists so they could find out which members of US Congress employed their spouses. Although it is often viewed as a challenge to the traditional news media, the Internet might better be conceptualised as their complement – supplementing and interconnecting the work of professional journalists with that of citizens. Web-based citizen journalism has the potential to be, as one commentator described it, ‘People who are non-journalists committing random acts of journalism’. bringing us closer to a vision of the public in the interests of democracy. Not only does this offer a diverse array of viewpoints but it may also take the agenda-setting power out of the hands of a few and into those of the many. Interactivity will  compromise journalism’s impartiality severely, which has been the main argument used against it by mainstream news proprietors. When the public can easily access a wide range of views through the Internet, it is increasingly likely that they will turn away from outlets that fail to reflect their personal opinions. This has led senior broadcasters to propose, controversially, that the BBC embrace the idea of ‘radical impartiality’, in which public service broadcasters would accommodate the dissemination of a broader range of views. Surely the aim should be to encourage more and more feedback from and engagement with news audiences, who may shape the agenda and potentially provide an important ‘check and balance’ on the quality and truth of the news? This is less of a problem for newspapers and independent websites which are allowed to adopt editorial standpoints, which might open the way for newspapers to capitalise. Objectivity can be complemented by transparency. Before stepping down as prime minister, Tony Blair made a speech criticising the British media, during which he singled out the Independent newspaper as a ‘metaphor’ for what happened to the news during his tenure, saying it was ‘well-edited and lively’ but ‘avowedly a viewspaper not merely a newspaper’. The ‘red issue’ of May 2006, guest-edited by Bono from U2, was perhaps the most famous of the Independent’s front pages, and drew attention to what some see as the skewed news values of many media outlets. It combined the headline ‘No news today’ in yellow text on a red background with a much smaller subheading at the bottom of the page, which read, ‘Just 6,500 Africans died today as a result of preventable, treatable disease’. News outlets must ask themselves what they can provide that people are willing to pay for. Selecting and explaining key news items would appear to be a sensible shift for the industry -look at what the Guardian achieved over wiki leaks and phone hacking. Though it has to be said – those peaks in sales were short lived. And look: While Lord Justice Leveson  interrogates the practices of the tabloid press,  pornographer Richard Desmond is allowed to control channel 5 and uses print media to peddle the triviliased fayre of his television output. That’s what I mean by the impact of corporatised insidious profiteering.

We can only speculate what the future of journalism holds. But I think the e-generation and new technology aren’t the danger. Digital developments have arisen amid media consolidation and mergers and at a time when corporations allow a news-as-commodity approach to dominate production values and editorial strategies. The Internet and its associated journalisms are trying, albeit haphazardly, to fill a gaping news chasm which opened long before the first website was launched, the first podcast uploaded and the first blog posted. They are an important reminder that journalism has always been an annoyance, a scurrilous activity, operating on the borders of society, in dark recesses where ordinary people fear to delve. Its practitioners have never done the job to be liked or admired. The routine practices of news editors and reporters were not invented in one fell swoop. They arose and evolved from particular circumstances and philosophies. And they are still arising and evolving, thanks to the opportunities that technologies bring. Journalists themselves are understandably wary about the new online environment, but more due to the ever greater demands placed on them by managers rather than the technology itself. I have faith in journalists like the ones we train and educate at Brunel. In the future, as has been proven in the past, they will find a way to accommodate these changes for the benefit of the public interest.

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One thought on “Brunel Public Lecture Series 2012 – Hidden Truths

  1. Firstly, thanks for a really enjoyable lecture. Perhaps as well you started the series so that today’s news of arrests at News International didn’t overshadow your talk.

    I am really encouraged by your visions of glocal news gathering, radical impartiality of media outlets and a diversity of views being presented to the audience. Coupling these notions with the increasing pace of news, perhaps evidenced by the KONY2012 campaign which blew across the globe last week, chased within days by a serious questioning (e.g. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/unpacking-kony-2012).

    I would ask however, how long before the mainstream audience, who have for many decades been spoonfed their news in a pre-digested form accompanied by an interpretation from a consistent bias, mature to welcome this future. Are we to anticipate an increasing diversity in news production, catering for a wider spread of audiences with varying levels of maturity?

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