It is easy to boldly claim that the World Wide Web is a boon for lovers of fast information. In growing millions, news consumers have come to rely on myriad electronic organisations for instant updates and analysis of world events at the tips of their fingers.
However, the boom of Web news is a worrisome development for some, who believe the instantaneity of the medium leaves no time to practice the careful craft of journalism – which has at its heart the principle of objectivity – before publishing information.
In fact, more than a few practitioners educated before the explosion of the Web are fearful the ‘new media’ movement will tear down objectivity and erect a chaotic subjectivity in its place, writes Sky News Australia‘s Director of Digital News, John Bergin.
Given his line of work, and his brush with a career in academia, it is little wonder that John delves frequently and deeply into the ways in which online environments interact with the rules and outcomes of reporting news.
Following on from John’s presentation at media140 Sydney in November 2009, his debut blog for media140 outlines his ideas on the way forward for the fourth estate in a real-time world.
Journalists are a much-maligned bunch. Since the advent of mass media, there has always been a bourgeois fascination, coupled with a sort of horror, at their ability to shape and influence public opinion.
Over the years, it has become popular to depict most as alarmist fault-finders, hostages to the commercial whims of press barons and broadcast monopolies, who catalogue society’s shortcomings and pander to lurid curiosity in pursuit of a goal no loftier than fast money.
The public sees only a small bastion of journalists as providers of ‘real news’ that enhances the public sphere.
These are reporters who are in the employ of stolid broadsheets and broadcasters, who diligently wear out shoe leather as they gather facts and frame issues, and who go about their work from the irreproachable vantage point of ‘professional distance’.
Good journalism, it is widely touted, requires adherence to a loose constellation of ideas that assemble under the collective banner of objectivity. However, even when journalists make it their primary aim to be objective, they can get it wrong and behave unethically.
Many practitioners mistake treating competing views fairly (in proportion to their intrinsic merit) with treating them equally. On television, in newspapers, on the radio and online the crime is committed daily. Thousands of intelligent and experienced journalists grant platforms to individuals who do not warrant it, in the name of – at least ostensible – neutrality.
The copious air-time granted by media around the world to climate change sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton is an example of a source of fallacious reasoning being presented with undue balance. Monckton’s outlandish assertions that global warming is a conspiracy aimed at catalysing the rise to power of a new world government have largely been given equal editorial weight against the competing claims of climate change scientists.
A scandal involving leaked emails, which came to be known as ‘Climategate’ – while it is a signifcant story – did not merit the sense of proportion it was ultimately given, which saw it as counterbalancing coverage of the Copenhagen summit.
The assertion that not all alternative viewpoints have a right to be heard may well smack of the smug self-assuredness of the intellectual elite, or even of the half-baked thinking of an authoritarian in the making. Either way, one might think, it is a gaucherie to suggest that journalists should curtail them for the public’s ‘own good’.
It goes without saying that freedom of speech is modern society’s motivating force. It has been variously described as essential to the pursuit of truth, a fundamental constituent of democracy, and a liberty crucial to human dignity and wellbeing. “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is oft quoted as French Enlightenment writer Voltaire’s view*.
I agree with all of these ideas, but in my opinion we have an equally great social responsibility to protect freedom of speech from abuse. I believe only the most stringent absolutist would deny this. A society that fails to understand the value of stringent journalistic judgment fosters a fourth estate that thrusts information and opinion into the public domain with little scrutiny, occasionally without even minimal evaluation of its inherent newsworthiness. Published claims invite the retorts of rival stakeholders and the critique of the commentariat – whose counter-claims and analysis are duly reported – and so the story moves on.
New York University journalism professor, Jay Rosen, has described this cycle as ‘he said/she said’ journalism. Others have defined it as a gaumless ‘journalism of assertion’. At its root is a poverty of introspection, of which few journalists – myself included – can claim to be guilt-free.
The underlying tension between ‘talking point’ reporting and its introspective, critical opposite smoulders away in every newsroom, but we bear witness to its material effects every day.
The press is keen to leave no controversy untold, but many public disputes would quickly be revealed as insignificant should journalists show a greater willingness to thoroughly examine and interpret them. However, gaining the depth of understanding required in order to filter out the ‘noise’ surrounding it takes journalists time, something which new media have stripped from the process of news publication.
Added to this, cable television, the Internet and now social media have incrementally compressed time and space to the point where near-instantaneous gratification is the norm. It is tempting to think of social media practitioners and the ‘new’ journalism of the Internet as an iconoclastic movement, determined to tear down objectivity and erect a chaotic subjectivity in its place. However, the wholesale application of the weight of convention to a new medium invites tumultuous consequences.
The departure from old methods of media consumption presents an opportunity to reconstitute prevailing attitudes towards the sum of journalism. For example, new social media channels like Twitter need not be seen as a threat to traditional journalists (many of whom are skilled generalists), but as tools that facilitate their interaction with a wider pool of informed specialists.
As a society, we are quick to affirm our right to freedom of expression, but slow to acknowledge our obligations and duties, and accept the fact that commitment to the truth prohibits apportion of equal authority to every voice. The question facing us is how best to interweave these principles with those of a democratic and pluralistic society, which has at its fingertips the means to publish or consume information instantly and at all times.
The task of re-imagining journalistic ethics for new media will be nothing short of enormous, for the simple reason that not all worthy ideals neatly coincide. Nevertheless, it is an exercise that promises to restore real meaning and muscle to the ethics our societies developed in past centuries, as we ride the crest of ever-advancing real-time technologies deeper into this one.
- *Voltaire did not write these exact words. They were a summary of his views penned by his biographer, S.G. Tallentyre, who wrote under the pseudonym Evelyn Beatrice Hall.