The digital revolution need not sound the death knell for good journalism

WHEN news of the earthquake in Haiti broke across the media outlets in the United Kingdom late in the evening on January 12, Emily Purser, a journalism student at City University, London, was heading into Sky News to begin a night shift placement.

Communication with the Caribbean island, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, was severely hampered, with the landline and mobile phones lines cut off. As part of the production team for the Sunrise programme at 6am fronted by Eamonn Holmes, since the regular means of contacting Haiti were disabled, Emily could have struggled to help gather news immediately from the ground.

But, she turned to the social networking and microblogging site Twitter. Monitoring the hashtags (topic trends) relating to Haiti, she followed the sources of some photographs posted there to Carel Pedre, a popular Haitian television and radio host. She spoke to him via Google Chat, and then used Skype (a computer application that allows users to speak over the internet) to put him on air.

As this case study shows, the transfer of newsgathering skills from traditional journalism methods to the internet is increasingly a feature of the newsroom. But how much trust can a viewer have in a television news report or a newspaper article which uses social media as its sources?

I concede that many criticisms levied against using social media as a newsgathering tool for journalists are legitimate concerns. Can you corroborate sources and confirm their accuracy? How do you assess the context? I do not accept, however, that consequently this need be to the detriment of quality journalism. Good journalism practice can and should still apply online.

The Hutton Inquiry highlighted many issues in journalism’s customs and practices. One question under examination in this case was: can you rely on a single source when making a serious allegation? Broadcaster Andrew Marr wrote: “Many of the reporters slouched at the back of the courtroom…wondered how their own practices would stand up to that kind of examination.” Even as the BBC’s political editor until 2005, he admitted he did it all the time.

Perhaps it should not be ‘new tool, familiar rules’. Newspapers and journalists repeatedly fail in surveys of trust to rank very highly in the public’s esteem. Hutton did nothing to help the cause. Are traditional journalism rules too familiar? Were these rules applied as prudently as was required during reporting?

It seems readers already think differently about online news. According to a TNS  ‘Digital World, Digital Life’ survey, almost twice as many respondents rated online news ‘highly trusted’ compared to newspapers.

Another survey conducted by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2008 found newspapers fare worse than TV news journalists. 46% trust in television news, while 36% and 10% trust broadsheet and tabloid journalists respectively.

The newspaper industry is suffering from the competition of the Web. Referring to the findings of a Government Communications Review Group setup by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, Charles Reiss, former political editor of the Evening Standard, said: “The fact that your readers don’t believe more than 1 word in 10 of what you write is hardly a circulation booster. We simply have to try as hard a possible to tell the truth. Truth breeds trust.”

I do not accept, however, using the internet as a scapegoat for the newspaper slump. They were declining long before online news took-off. In fact, I would say newspapers have to embrace what the internet offers. The level of activity in this area seems to be encouragingly high.

Cision, an American-based media intelligence company, surveyed over 12,000 journalists and editors in the US in March last year on their use of online sources. They found “more than 90 percent using it [the Web] as their primary tool overall in editing and reporting.”

Indeed, media organisations working in the UK are embracing the potential of social media. On January 1, Alex Gubbay became BBC News’s first social media editor, and the Associated Press revealed this month they have appointed Laura McCullough to be social networks and news engagement manager.

The rise of social networking sites, blogs, and chat rooms present exciting avenues for journalists to engage with their audience directly, and to an extent that they have not previously been able to.

Ian Hargreaves, Strategic Communications Director for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Professor of Journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism, said about news: “People will gather around, it’s an absolute fundamental to human society.”

Roy Greenslade wrote in the Guardian that those newspapers which will survive in the media age will have shifted from a host of professional journalists, to a newsroom which operates in collaboration with the amateur journalist. That could be the person who blogs about their locality, or an individual tweeting from a grief-stricken corner of the world. For media organisations to encourage their reporters to establish a conversation with their audience can only enhance their reputation for and ability to produce quality journalism.

The collaboration between old and new practices has the potential it would seem to improve trust in organised media. Tim Luckurst, a professor of journalism at the University of Kent, recently wrote: “The internet makes real the relationship of trust between reporter and consumer that was previously asserted but only occasionally tested. This is good for honest journalism.”

2009 was the year that Twitter bypassed puberty and grew up. The Iranian Elections, reaction to Michael Jackson’s death, and the violence in western China played out on Twitter. At times, Twitter became as familiar on the BBC news broadcasts as Fiona Bruce and Huw Edwards. In the case of Iran, it was an invaluable tool for reporters to discover what was happening on the ground, particularly after the Iranian Government had expelled the BBC’s Tehran correspondent Jon Leyne.

The BBC seems to be approaching the appointment with caution, since the post is initially only contracted for an initial 12 months. Indeed, Luckhurst warns that even as “consumers become comfortable with online technology…it will not automatically make journalism better.” He says the responsibility to ensure this depends on the successful adaptation of media models, and with it the survival and transfer of professional journalism values. This is key.

The same scrutiny and verification skills that reporters have traditionally practised (even if it is absent at times in Westminster reporting) must apply to online newsgathering . If not, public trust in online news could start to crumble too.

It is not surprising that behind the BBC and CNN, Google is the third most trusted news brand. Mark Byford, Deputy Director General and Head of BBC Journalism said: “it would be a major moment in the history of journalism if an aggregator was to become the most trusted news brand.” It would be momentous, be perhaps not necessarily a bad thing.

Peter Preston, former editor of the Guardian, said: “The future is misty and in some ways utterly miasmic.” The democratisation of news is undoubtedly changing the nature of journalism. Yes, there will still be the place for original investigation and reporting. And it may be journalism without newspapers as we know them today.

As Emily Purser proved, however, her resourcefulness and journalistic instinct not only got a scoop for Eamonn Holmes to deliver on the Sunrise programme, it demonstrated the digital revolution need not sound the death knell for good journalism.

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