Will good journalism be the first casualty of the digital revolution in media?


The modern journalist?

The modern journalist?

This article was submitted as part of my broadcast journalism postgraduate diploma. It is written as a print article so does not contain hyper links. The speakers quoted participated in a series of lectures called Reporters and Reported, which looked at editorial descisions and theories within journalism.

On the 18th January 2010 the health section of the BBC website announced that blonde women have a competitive edge over other women in business. On the 19th January 2010 the story was amended; “This story has been revised after Dr Sell (the author of the research on which this story is based) made clear to the BBC that his research had set out to test the link between temperament and attractiveness, rather than hair colour”.I am not a journalist who covers a health patch, but after doing some basic checks I can see the methodology of this research is clearly flawed. While I would love to think that my blonde hair will make me a more competitive journalist, I don’t believe this story deserves space in the health section of the BBC website.

The story reads like a press release which a journalist has re-copied without reading the research or checking the facts. In 2009 the BBC website published stories which claimed that blonde women can improve Latvia’s economy, that spies are more likely to be blondes, and that more women are blondes because of the recession. None of these stories were published in the also in the news section of the website. I would relish the chance to be a spy, but what worries me is that trained journalists believe that these stories are of sufficient weight and merit to deserve a place on the BBC website. I think they are classic examples of the ‘churn it out’ culture, which has now been accepted as the norm. However I don’t believe that churnalism is something that has developed as a result of a digital revolution in the media.

Research by Cardiff University in 2006, showed that print journalists now produce an average of three times as much copy as they did twenty years ago. The research also noted an increasing dominance of wire stories and press releases with; “60% of press articles and 34% of broadcast stories coming wholly or mainly from these ‘pre-packed media’ sources.” Competition from user generated content and decreasing newspaper sales, has lead many industry insiders to blame the digital revolution for the destruction of good journalism. As Rob Andrew from Paid Content UK states; “good journalism is in danger of becoming a charity case… as proliferation of content and the open source ideas of the internet give media organisations big problems.” I disagree because I think that rather than being a casualty, media organisations and journalists are leaders of the digital revolution. Both continue to push the boundaries of technology to tell better stories and to engage with their audiences. The internet has created increased competition for traditional media and does raise significant questions about how we finance our future careers as journalists. But I don’t think it is to blame for the demise of good journalism, instead I think it highlights the bad practices which have developed in our industry.

The digital revolution in media does mean that incidents of bad journalism are far harder to hide. In an age where journalists are trying to fight off increasing competition from bloggers, the large number of poorly researched stories in newspapers, broadcasts and magazines continue to undermine public faith in our industry.  From Seesaw to Wagon Wheel: Safeguarding Impartiality in the 21st Century, by the BBC Trust reports; “just as powerful search engines prevent personal indiscretions or embarrassments sliding into oblivion, so the age of the podcast is ensuring that every impartiality decision taken in the heat of the daily broadcasting battle is preserved in the present tense- for ever.” Thanks to the digital revolution, the audience is now able to react and respond instantly to examples of poor quality journalism. Social networking websites, forums and comments allow journalists to engage with their audience on a very intimate level.

Every social media website has its own set of rules, which are developed by the community which uses them. Professor Ian Hargreaves the current Director of Communications at the Foreign Office says “the licence to operate in a community is defined by the community’s values” and that a good journalist understands the values and ideas of the community in which they are operating. Journalists who use social networking websites to engage with their audience, fail when they forget that their discussions are public and accountable to the rules of the community. The Deputy Managing Director of BBC Magazines Nicholas Brett believes that; “In the digital age we have given the audience the tools to destroy us… but we are still successful because we put the reader first and are very flexible.” When BBC Good Food Magazine made a mistake in its December 09 issue, the journalist who wrote the piece responded very defensively to feedback on Twitter and specialist food forums. This in turn created a negative perception of BBC Good Food Magazine, undermining the brand’s rhetoric that it wants to engage with its audience.

24 hour news is a good thing because it prevents governments from burying stories. The digital revolution in media allows a global audience to access British journalism. But British journalism only stays good, if journalists stick to their ethical responsibilities. I feel that the biggest percentage of poor quality journalism comes from a lack of specialist journalists, who can effectively evaluate science and health stories. The media coverage of the possible links between the MMR vaccine and autism, and newspaper reports that the CERN particle accelerator might lead to the end of the world, are two examples of journalists not accurately reporting facts.

Journalists are first and foremost story tellers, who write copy on the basis of their investigation and interpretation of facts. But with the pressures of the 24 news cycle, and the desire by media organisations to create multi-platform digital media without extra cost, journalists have to cut corners because they don’t have enough time. As the Chairman of the BBC Editorial Standards Committee Richard Tait puts it; “Strong stories are good stories, but accurate stories are even better”. The blondes are better than brunettes at business story, is an example of how damaging speed churnalism can be for a big international brand like the BBC. Audiences saw the original story for 24 hours and so the brand loses credibility when the story is changed.

According to Peter Preston, the Director of the Guardian Foundation; “interpreting, trusting and communicating the news is key, but what we will be doing, in what method, no one has any idea!” As the digital revolution in media increases the pressures on journalists to produce more stories in multimedia formats, the bad practices of not verifying information, of relying on press releases and agency copy, and of skipping editorial processes in the name of speed will only create more bad journalism. The creation of poor journalism continues to undermine the public’s faith in the media. Speed does increase pressure on governments, but with the rise of aggregating online news services like Google, it is important that the ethical standards of journalism are stuck to, or the quality of British journalism will suffer under the intense scrutiny of the online world.


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