“When I started in Journalism, journalists were the first person at an event, the first to file, they’re not anymore,” says Richard Tait, Director of the Centre of Journalism Studies at Cardiff University. In the London bombings for example, user-generated content was used to tell the story not professional reporting.
New technology means journalists no longer have a monopoly of comment; anyone can now create online content. Ian Hargreaves, former editor of The Independent explains in Journalism Truth or Dare, “Journalism today is a two-way street, or rather a multidirectional process in a boundryless space, rather than a one-way street of a traditional newspaper or television news bulletin.”
Matt Drudge, the blogger who broke the story of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998 agrees, “The ‘net gives as much voice to a 13-year-old computer geek like me as to a CEO or speaker of the house. We all become equal.” This is fantastic for freedom of speech, but as traditional reporters are drowned out by the ever-growing online blogs and twitter feeds, this raises the question: if anyone can write and be heard, why should someone be paid to do it? In The National Review, screenwriter and producer Andrew Leigh writes that many successful bloggers believe that journalism isn’t rocket science and that anyone can do it. But many maintain there remain vital differences. Richard Tait points out crucial traits that distinguish journalism as a profession: accuracy and authenticity, in comparison Bloggers have no checklist to follow. Bill Press from MSNBC says, “Bloggers have no credentials, no sources, no rules, no editors, no accountability,” and this is the difference between the professionals and the everyday citizen.
Accuracy and authenticity are however difficult to maintain in the fast-paced twenty-four hour media world we now live in. Journalists are expected to produce a lot of content quickly and are expected to develop an array of new skills to keep up with the changing face of journalism. Charles Reiss, former Evening Standard political editor, advises journalists not to lose the all-important basics such as producing a well-written story in exchange for the new technical abilities they are acquiring. “The way we do things has changed enormously, but what we do has changed very little,” he reminds them. Indeed old practices remain very important, as a 2009 report by Skillset (a training and skills organization) shows, the findings revealed a critical skills gap in new journalism recruits. Skillset commented in The Media Guardian that traditional skills are even more valued today if brands are to encourage customers to pay for high quality content.
Key skills are not the only thing that sets journalism apart from general online content. Trust is another major distinction. What brands can offer the public is reliability, unfortunately tighter budgets and increased time pressures put journalists at risk from making mistakes and loosing this crucial trust. Serious errors made by journalists over the years have sunk well-established careers and threatened the reputations of respected brands. “The opportunity for reflection and depth is harder to find these days. There is more pace and more urgency,” says Ian Hargreaves.
Mark Byford, Deputy Director-General of the BBC, agrees that journalists must remember accuracy is paramount over speed. Being first to a story is “wonderful” if you are right he says, but to be first and wrong is an absolute disaster, especially for a respected brand like the BBC. A lesson learnt from the Hutton Inquiry, in which an exaggerated allegation made by Andrew Gilligan led to the resignation of the BBC’s Chairman and Director General and strong criticism of the BBC. What went wrong? Under pressure, Gilligan had over-cooked the story he had from his source David Kelly. Gilligan had not checked his facts with his lawyer or editor before he made a dangerous claim on The Today Programme that the government was lying. He had no evidence to back up the accusations he made. The Guardian’s Post Hutton Guidelines for Journalists remind journalists of the importance of producing straight stories over interesting and exciting ones, “Every time we flam a story up we disappoint somebody – usually a reader who thought The Guardian was different,” they say.
Mark Byford maintains that BBC journalism is also rooted in values: truth and accuracy. “Those values are the fundamentals of what makes this journalism tick,” he says. Twitter may often break a story, but the reader needs to turn to an established publication to verify the facts. If people lose faith in the brand, it will struggle to survive the competitive digital era.
Journalists need to be even more stringent and careful today as errors made are more likely to be picked up. Facts can be checked and tracked easily online, as illustrated by the fall of Dan Rather, an anchor of the CBS Evening News for 24 years who lost his job after running a story that was later found to be forged or doctored by bloggers. But surely this transparency can only be a good thing for the industry, as it will force journalists to be more accurate and reliable in their reporting?
The industry must accept and understand the new changes so they can firstly acknowledge the potential mistakes they could make, and secondly they must learn how new technology can work in their favor. Social networking should not be seen as a scary rival, pipping journalists to the post for news. It serves a different function, not as a definitive news source, but a way of showing how a story unravels in real time. Journalists can work this to their advantage, using it as a pool of potential leads and contacts. The opportunity to interact online allows the journalist to engage with readers, something that was never possible to achieve before. Enhanced interaction makes the news more real, encouraging journalists to stretch further than a dry press release. Citizen journalism provides a more real, but also more objective view of the world. Journalists need to accept that they can’t physically be at the wake of every natural disaster or plane crash. Technology allows a moment to be captured through the eyes of real people, such as the grainy but irreplaceable footage taken by the citizens in the London bombings.
Journalists need to accept that they’re not always the first to a story and that journalism isn’t just a one-way street anymore, they must learn citizen journalists and bloggers have something special to offer, and if used carefully it can really enhance and enrich their work. Throughout all this change however, accuracy and regulations remain vitally important. Richard Tait advises future journalists that, “Success for you is blending these new opportunities with very traditional editorial values.” This advice cannot be ignored, as values are what set the journalism profession apart from the bulging Internet blogosphere.