To what extent do you think being a journalist in the 21st century will be different from in the 20th century?

Journalism, like many other industries is currently in a state of flux. The Internet is proving to be the most influential invention in recent history, as far as its revolutionary power for those at the bottom end of the economic food chain, since the birth of the Gutenberg printing press in 1811. The internet provides the global community the second revolution of information distribution, again granting a power shift from those who previously controlled media, to the people. What this means for journalists is a staggeringly complex shift in the way that we do our work, more questions are raised than there are answers for them. Some view this as a period of excitement, with many opportunities soon to rise which journalists have never had before, whilst others see the internet as the death of the industry as we know it. The topics I will cover in this essay will be the rise of information over news, the level of interaction that journalists have with their audience, and the pros and cons of such a form of communication.

Before tackling these issues however it is important to recognise that the role of the internet has not fully been actualised. The manner by which the internet is controlled may end up being completely different in nature to the way it is now at the beginning of the century. Much of what I have to say is written from an optimistic view of the future, which is that on a whole the internet is not controlled nor censored by any government or corporation. It is written from a perspective that the internet stays as the people’s tool of communication, and not from the alternative possibility, in which the power of the internet is subdued by heavy censorship/legislation by government/corporation for their own interests. Which is another possibility, one which I will acknowledge but not discuss in this paper.

Previously in the 20th century, journalists worked in a top-down manner of presenting news to the public. Media had a lot of power in the manner by which it controlled the consumption of news. To see the bulletin, one must have turned on the television in the evenings. It was only played once. Should that bulletin be missed, one missed the news. Further, for press Journalists, there was time to spend, in that one would have an entire day to research and hand in a story for printing. This meant that news would often reach the people one day late, however presumably of good investigative quality granted its privilege of time.

What this meant for journalists in comparison to what journalists from today face is very vast in its implications. To begin with, there is the fact that all news was essentially privatised and came from industry giants whose founding concern was profit. Whether working for a television broadcaster, a radio station or a news paper, all news popular with the people came from industry giants.

What this meant for consumers was that the power of information was all held by those in power of the media. The fact that consumers did not have a choice meant that the work of journalists was easier by virtue of more routine publications. The audience without the freedom of choice of time were complacent in news reaching them with some delay. The advent of 24/7 news by television networks such as ABC, through the internet and cable television meant that this power shifted hands, from the producers of news to that of the people (such as the community driven Unedited News). With 24/7 access the public now had the power to consume information when they chose, when it was convenient for them. Missing the six o’clock bulletin on television simply meant that one could later search those very same stories online, or on a 24/7 news network.

The implications of this for journalists is vast. Firstly the race was on for industry people to break the news first. No longer are journalists afforded the time of an entire day to research and write a story. The press them became the slowest outlet for news since television networks and radio stations could publish stories as they happened. This led news papers online, to have a platform to publish news at a competitive rate, so that readers would not skim past their stories of the same subject as that of television networks.

This when combined with social media has lead to a rise of information over news. In the 21st century where public figures, corporations and people are all online through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, the spread of information came no longer from just news agencies. Politicians regularly tweet their opinion on the happenings of the senate, corporations advertise online, and people film and upload footage of the happenings around them. Blogging is another social phenomenon which may constitute as civilian journalism.

This is an influx of information, but not necessarily news. There is no context given in a tweet. What this means is that those constantly in the know are able to disseminate the meaning of short messages and facts, but those who do not participate in the community through such a manner would struggle to make sense of this.

What this means for journalists, now that there is a greater amount of information than there is news, is that they have an easier platform from which to gather information, digest and then publish stories which would makes sense to the public. It is conceivable that a journalist may indeed not have to leave his desk throughout the day to write a story. A Tweet can count as a quote, and all the context for the story may already be online. This is how the rise of information over news has affected the trade of journalism in the 21st century as opposed to the way it was in the 20th.

This new form of information gathering for today’s journalists compared to those of the 20th century presents opportunity as well as pitfalls for both consumers of the news as well as those presenting it. The line between journalist and not becomes more and more blurred the more the internet and new media continue to change the industry.

Some of the opportunities presented are that of greater transparency. With the internet, as discussed before, the sources of these facts become incredibly numerous. Meaning that unlike mainstream media, the consumer has much more choice and variety of sources than ever before. Many of these sources are individual citizens, or radical anti-establishment individuals with particular agenda. As Tim Dunlop put it on ABC News program The Drum (2010) regarding the mainstream media’s coverage of the Iraq war “While the mainstream dutifully reported whatever spin the governments spouted, it was the citizens of the blogosphere who were pointing out the Emperor had no clothes” shows how new media is facilitating greater transparency through its own independent investigation, and communication of the information it held.

This form of news reporting through social media also grants the audience and journalist one extra advantage which has never been quite as prominent in previous media, the ability to interact between audience and journalist. Social media such blogs present a place where discussion between consumers and the reporter can occur. They are literally forums by which the power to inform is shared not only by reporter, but by the audience as well. This sharing of information equalising power distribution amongst the people, where once, the power to inform en masse was previously only held by those at the top of the information sharing pyramid (the media).

Examples of this kind of interaction abound the internet. With blogs such as A Tunisian Girl being the perfect example of an independent blog, where by the audience of the producer can comment, and interact with the producer directly. This kind of interaction is double when one considers the power which YouTube celebrities hold.

YouTube user Phillip Defranco (sxephil on YouTube) has 2,053,153 subscribers to his internet show, and his videos are consistently viewed over a million times each week. The reach of such an individual is extraordinary. Phillip Defranco calls his show a news show, and often highlights recent events concerning quirky news stories, celebrity gossip (often featuring celebrity women) and often political commentary and humanitarian stories. By nature he is syndicating news and references all his sources.

The power of this type of news sharing comes from the fact that his videos can often accrue over 40 000 comments from his viewers discussing the topics covered in the show, as well as numerous video responses to his show. This presents a type of communication where by journalists and their audiences can interact together in a manner never before possible through the use of letters to the editor.

The dangers of this new form of media should be evident. The legitimacy and levels of trust one can place on an online source aren’t very inspiring. Much of what is on the internet is unfounded, unsourced, opinion pieces and sometimes even fabricated. Two examples of this are Tommaso de Benedetti, a man who is well known for the prank deaths of the Pope and Fidel Castro on twitter, and online blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, an online blog about a lesbian woman living in Syria, which turned out to be an elaborate Hoax.

In the case of de Benedetti, he is quoted as saying (2012) “Social media is the most unverifiable information source in the world but the news media believes it because of its need for speed”. In this quote he succinctly outlines the problems that arise with social media as serious source for news. Consumer of such information need to be savvy, and like a journalist themselves, need to visit multiple sources to properly get a grasp of what a story is at times.

Jessica hill a prominent online Twitter journalist who is bet knows for her work covering the Arab Spring however takes the opposite opinion on Social Media (2011)”In a way, the conversation about verification and social media is upside down. Social media is perhaps the best verification tool journalists have ever had. The number of sources that you can access in any given area, that may not be directly connected, enables you to triangulate in ways you can’t do on the ground. On Twitter you can do it. This blows the source field wide open.”

The debate over the reliability of online media is set to continue for quite some time, with good arguments from both side of the issue. The truth of the matter is that as it is currently we do not know how the internet’s power will pan out. As Julian Assange is quoted as saying during an interview at a prestigious TED conference as saying “I am not sure which way it is going to go, I mean there are enormous pressures to harmonise Freedom of Speech legislation and transparency legislation around the world, within the EU, between China, United States, which was is it going to go? It’s hard to see. That is why it is a very interesting time to be in, because with just a little bit of effort, we can shift it, one way or the other” when asked what he thought of the future for the internet as either Big Brother watching the people, or the people watching Big Brother. The nature of the internet now may not continue to evolve down this path of grass roots journalism. It may well end up being controlled by higher powers, rendering much of what is currently happening and may happen, null.

It is important to remember where all these new happenings came from. In the 20th century, journalists worked in a top down method of communication, with media corporations having the power of routine and reach to tell the news. With the advent of the internet, the number of sources has risen dramatically, and now the power of routine is gone, as consumers have access to the news 24/7 and the power of reach being shared by online bloggers and independent citizen journalists. This has presented the issue of information being more prevalent than news, which has led to a need for pioneering a new way to communicate with the audience. The pros of these developments has meant there is more power in the hands of individuals who are willing to look at many sources, as information is becoming more freely available, with the cons being the unverifiable nature of sources and even hoaxes. All in all, the industry is in a period of change, with shifts in power happening between corporations and the people, the answers of which way this will all go are yet to be known.

Bibliography

The Western Herald, Ashley Wioskowski, Journalism in a state of flux from print to internet, 7 September, 2009

http://www.westernherald.com/news/journalism-in-a-state-of-flux-from-print-to-internet/

Tim Dunlop, A brief history of how new media is transforming old media, ABC 10 December 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/42018.html

A Tunisian Girl

http://atunisiangirl.blogspot.com.au/

YouTube User sxephil

http://www.youtube.com/user/sxephil?feature=results_main

The Guardian, Tom Kington, Twitter hoaxer comes clean and says: I did it to expose weak media, 30 March, 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/mar/30/twitter-hoaxer-tommaso-de-benedetti

The Guardian, Esther Addley Gay Girl in Damascus hoaxer acted out of ‘vanity’, 13 June, 2011
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/13/gay-girl-damascus-tom-macmaster

Online Journalism, Alan Knight, How to tweet the news, 30 November, 2011

http://alanknight.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/how-to-tweet-the-news/#more-1598

TEDtalksDirector, Julian Assange: Why the world needs WikiLeaks, 19 July, 2010

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNOnvp5t7Do

ABC News 24

http://www.abc.net.au/news/abcnews24/

Unedited News
http://www.uneditednews.org/

Senator Bob Brown Twitter
http://twitter.com/#!/SenatorBobBrown

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About Saúl A. Zavarce

Venezuelan-Australian journalist and international relations academic.

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