John Bergin’s Media 140 Speech
It’s now possible for journalists to be inadvertent figures of public scrutiny as they expose the minutiae of their craft, and lay bare their predilections and aversions for those who care to look.
It humanises the journalist – but it also raises questions about what is appropriate to say and do online. The underlying concern seems to be that by exposing one’s idiosyncrasies it might renders one ineligible to cover certain aspect of the news.
I don’t want to make light of the situation, but I think it’s possible to safeguard against much of this through a combination of common sense and adequate media law training. There has been some talk lately about social media subverting that most precious of tenets: objectivity.
For what it’s worth, I do think journalists can express news commentary in some instances, so as to maximise the benefit of social media communities, but still use their skill to attend to a story with a spirit of robust inquiry and balance. The earth will keep on turning and the sun will rise the next day.
The way journalists engage with this space should be thought of as an extension of professional practice – and they should navigate around the same pitfalls journalism encounters offline. Don’t plagiarise, do disclose sources, tell the truth, says the Online Journalism Review. I agree. Respect privacy, respect the courts, don’t breach confidences, don’t commit defamation. I agree.
The black letter of the law is important – but I don’t want to use my time to dwell on it, partly because I’m not a lawyer, and but partly because the scramble to adapt codes of professional practice to social media sometimes distracts us from a broader ethical inspection of just what journalists should do with social media.
Qualifying how to authentically and responsibly engage online – within legal limits – and applying that in good faith, will be the most one of the most pertinent ethical concerns for an industry that will increasingly gather – and disseminate – news via something as polycentric and heterogeneous as the ‘net and social media.
I say this because passive media consumption is all but extinct. I think I’m a member of the last generation that will have a living memory of what it meant rely solely on the ritual of sitting down to watch the evening news, or buying the morning papers to be informed and entertained.
The conditions under which trust is warranted has been reconstituted in social media. It used to consist in accuracy and objectivity. Well, it still does – but we need to dovetail that with a real-time medium where information is conditional and provisional, and what is billed as ‘the truth’ is often situated and contextual.
Once, journalists alone had the privileged role of describing society to itself. It was quite a well-worn, but exclusive, thoroughfare. They would go out, gather the facts, and return home to construct the news behind the opaque mystique of the newsroom, and then release it to the public.
The world where the news producer and consumer is conflated has become much more complex and essentially contested terrain. A moral compass and candour is what will be required to navigate this environment. Journalists are still telling stories, but they’re no longer the sole conduit of information – they’re guides and curators, helping to collect and corroborate, reconciling the tension between the expectations that result from the hi-tech speed of the medium, and the human need for accuracy.
Transparency is vital. As I said, it’s a public space – there’s no “security through obscurity“, to borrow an engineering term. Accountability is a social good, and it needs to be seen to be done. If you’re wrong – admit it. Expect people to single you out and comment on your breach if you don’t. If you’re going to re-tweet something, you should do your very best to substantiate it, otherwise you’re just a vehicle for cumulative error.
We need to be wary of a sense of “technological predetermination” – this overweening confidence in some quarters that social media will conjure into being interaction and participation by sheer virtue of its existence.
Good journalists know the act of speaking should not be privileged over the act of listening. Just the same way social media is not an adjunct to newsgathering – something that’s ‘out there’ spatially and conceptually – listening is not something that should be discharged with perfunctory courtesy while journalists await their turn to talk, in a medium that consists in its interactivity.
When you engage in dialogue, accountability is no longer a pretence but material practice. When you engage in proper dialogue, you help ensure the medium, as an extension of the public sphere, is not co-opted by ‘the usual suspects’, or the loudest and the most opinionated.
I think these are the key ingredients of serving an audience well. The democratisation of media will have a profound effect on who we turn to and who we trust to provide us with news – and that will depend on the honesty, benevolence and re-invention of journalists, as much as it will on media law.