I can’t be at the Media 140 conference today, sadly, but apart from the coverage provided yesterday on this blog, I thought I would mention some personal high and low lights, as well as some thoughts that occurred to me through the day.
The low lights came from conceptual confusions, it seemed to me. Namely the several highly respected and competent journalists who, quite apart from being clearly terrified by the arrival of the audience in the news making process, also can’t tell the difference between:
- A platform, and a process. Twitter, which is undoubtedly in my mind the greatest single disruption to traditional news processes so far this decade, is a platform. It is not a journalistic process. Just as people can have inane or boring telephone conversations, so too they can have silly Tweets. But to say, as so many persist in saying, that bloggers don’t check facts, or that Twitter is unreliable, is as silly as saying that telephone conversations are unreliable. The fact is that some are, and some aren’t. When a blogger checks facts or reports with care and integrity, then they are engaged in a journalistic process. When a journalist regurgitates a media release, distorts or miquotes, they are not engaged in such a process.Journalism is the process. Many people can do it in many different places and using many different platforms. Twitter (and facebook, and blogs) are platforms.
- Objectivity and integrity. As I said in my presentation yesterday, the word objectivity is frequently deployed in these debates, but rarely examined. What do we mean by it? Sometimes it seems we mean balance. But what does that mean? Clearly it cannot only mean giving equal weight to two sides of a debate. In the 1970s would it have been right to give equal weight to what James Hardie says about asbestos, for example? Or the tobacco industry? And of course there are always many more than two sides. Journalists select which sides to represent all the time, and that involves a subjective (but not necessarily craven) act of judgement. How do we decide who to talk to and and who to report? Usually by who is available and who we have in our contact books. Certainly one of the virtues of the traditional newsroom (when it is working well) is to force journalists to go beyond their comfort zones and put aside personal prejudice when deciding who and how to report. But to equate a highly selective “take” with objectivity is deceptive. I think true objectivity lies in the process by which a journalist brings material to the public. It lies in having a hypothesis – even a point of view – and going out and seeking evidence, largely in an effort to test or disprove that hypothesis. It lies in going beyond personal prejudice and desire to seek out that evidence. Then it lies in the act of judgement involved in trying to convey the results of that process to the public with integrity and disinterest.
Once again, anyone can do these things, although there is no doubt in my mind that training and experience help enormously. Also no doubt in my mind that few people would consistently do the dirty work of cold calling, bastard questions and making people angry unless they were paid for it.
So what has changed? Social media and the ease of publication mean that whereas the process of objective reporting used to involve the reporter, their contacts and the subject matter, the audience is now part of the process. The comments, interactions, additions, clarifications and information provided by the audience both during the process of research and after publication are now potentially a means of adding to the kind of objectivity I am describing. At the very least it means many more people than those in the journo’s contact book can be heard.
Can the participation of the audience replace the traditional virtues of the newsroom (when it is working well)? I don’t know. But before we run scared from the audience, we should at least clarify our terms, in particular what we mean by objectivity. Because I agree that the idea of disinterested journalism of integrity is indeed one of the things that is important about what we do, and which we must do our best to both conserve and evolve as the world changes.
So, with that lengthy preamble, personal highlights. I thought that of the traditional journalists, the best presentation was from John Bergin (@theburgerman on Twitter) who is Digital Channel Manager at Sky News. You can read his presentation here. I liked what he said because, without fear or conceptual confusion, he spoke with bell like clarity about the process of journalism, and how to carry good process into social media.
And the last session yesterday, which featured Crikey commentator Stilgherrian, Social media consultant Laurel Papworth (@silkcharm on Twitter) and New media consultant Bronwen Clune was the one that I found most interesting and challenging, and really the only one that went beyond the highly predictable. Cop this outtake from Papworth:
Stop for a moment and think about your great great great great grandmother. Who was she? Do you have videos or even photos of her? Do you know what she did when she was 17 and half? Where she went on holiday at 33 years of age? What she wrote about at 64? Now move forward in time and consider what the next generation and the next generation and the one after will know about their great great great grandparents. For the first time in human evolution we are co-creating the Human Narrative, never again will our histories be held hostage to the victors, our stories forgotten, unwritten, unscribed.
It’s not YOUR content. It’s our content. Our stories. We didn’t give you the Human Story we loaned it to you, and now we’re taking it back. Feel free to retire your press card and pick up a keyboard – the sooner you become part of the Community and not outside of it, the more likely you will be to survive. Indeed, thrive.
And the last word from Clune. She took up Professor Jay Rosen’s frequently quoted words about “the people formerly known as the audience” and turned them on their head.
Journalists are the audience formerly known as the media.
*Declaration: Clune is a director of the Foundation for Public Interest Journalism, of which I am the chair.