Summarising the impact of digital technology on the role of journalists over the past twenty years.

To summarise the impact of digital technology on the role of the journalist across the last 20 years it is conducive to consider key developments within the digital age during this era. It is also useful to assess how generic modes of communication, including the internet and social media, have influenced changes within news reporting. This essay will explore and evaluate the transformation of the journalistic landscape by referring to positive and negative examples of reportage platforms, from the press and broadcasting, with a focus on citizen journalism. The progression of digital technology and the onset of drastically altering techniques have substantially increased the broad volume and speed at which news is delivered with the transition from print to digital news underpinned by developments in computers, smartphones and social media applications. This shift of formatting has yielded constructive outcomes such as greater accessibility and audience engagement allowing for more dynamic reporting. However, this does present negative aspects such as verification becoming increasingly difficult due to the amount of user generated content spawned across social media. It should also be considered that a constant need for information and enabling technology has affected the expectations placed on journalists with the profession now encompassing more than the role of a news writer or radio/television broadcaster.

Journalists not only have the option to become experienced with a variety of creative tools, including DSLR and HD video cameras alongside programs such as Adobe Photoshop, InDesign and Premiere Pro; but are expected to. A familiarity of these tools permits the modern-day journalist to diversify their practice by exploring a variety of mediums which were once responsibilities of specifically trained individuals across print and broadcasting editorial. In light of this, perhaps the ability to produce engaging copy is no longer enough to function as a journalist and the quality of writing may diminish due to foci placed on learning these other forms of news reporting. Another argument is that by imposing the job of a journalist, editor, videographer, photographer, art director et al onto one person it diminishes the need for those whom specialize in these fields. Therefore, the adoption of multifaceted roles affects employability throughout the entire field of journalism.

The multimedia opportunities of the internet allow journalists to present articles in more visually engaging ways than the static nature of print permits. An example is John Branch’s (2012) New York Times piece ‘Snow Fall – The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek’which received wide acclaim for interactive storytelling: combining video, image slideshows and infographics with long form journalism (Pulitzer, 2013). This could also be seen viewed as an example of one the largest effects of journalism’s progression into a predominantly digital field; the waning importance of newspapers toconvey information. Thenecessityof cross platform publishing,even on a simpler and less interactive level, can be seen with The Guardian which despite reporting itself as the largest loser of broadsheet newspaper sales from March 2014 to March 2015 (Jackson, 2015) also reached 120 million visits to ‘theguardian.com’ by January 2015 – a traffic rise of six million in less than six months (The Guardian, 2015).  The Guardianattributed high online engagement in part to their coverage of the Paris terror attacks with live blogs used as a key reporting technique (The Guardian, 2015).

Times of crisis prompt an outpouring of ‘citizen journalism’ characterized as ‘When the peopleformerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another’ (Rosen, 2008: online). In respect to this, a mobile phone could be considered amongst the most accessible of ‘press tools’ befitting to live blogging. The latest model of Apple’s iPhone is able to record and post images, video and speech to the internet from a remote location. Therefore, it can be suggested likely a bystander will disperse information via the internet or social media before a live reporter and camera crew have even arrived at the scene of a newsworthy event.  Broadcasters can harness these simplistic reporting methods in what has been termed ‘mojo’ journalism (Bradshaw & Rohumaa, 2013: 17) with a good case study presented through Nick Garnett’s coverage of the Manchester Riots. This was asituation too dangerous for a camera crew to access but the inconspicuous nature and inbuilt features of an iPhone which encompassed that of ‘a laptop computer, a blackberry, an audio recorder, a stills camera, a video camera, a television, a radio and indeed a radio car’ allowed Garnett to report in safety (Garnett, 2013: online).

Although newspapers utilized live blogging as early as 1999 (The Guardian, 1999: online), the 9/11 and 7/7 terror attacks could be attributed as the first widespread cases of live blogging, powered by citizen journalism, integrating into mainstream news. In the aftermath of 7/7, audiovisual media gathered from first-hand accounts became key for professional news organisations to provide a clearer picture of the catastrophe as ‘Newsrooms began actively soliciting the public’s pictures and eye-witness accounts, followed shortly after by the Metropolitan Police, which set up its own e-mail address for people to send pictures to’ (Douglas, 2006: online).  Over the following years Twitter has taken up a more prominent role in breaking the news of crisis and this was significantly sighted in retrospect of September 11th2001: ‘What was extraordinary that day has become thoroughly familiar. In 2011, when history happens, it is more often than not a non-journalist with a pocket camera, a blog or a Twitter account who files the initial dispatch’ (Friend, 2011: online). Further attribution of Twitter and social media becoming a breaking news source is supported by the early documentation of the 2009 Hudson River plane crash, which stemmed from user Janis Krums’ Tweet and image of the downed plane (Beaumont, 2009: online).

News outlets now regularly embrace citizen journalism by aggregating content released through social media, an act in which ‘Live Blogging combines conventional reporting with curation, where journalists sift out and prioritise information from secondary sources and present it to the audience in close to real time, often incorporating their own comments’(Guerrini, 2013: 14). It could also be observed that broadcast media is reliant on a healthy relationship with social media as to ensure longevity and relevance (Bakhurst, 2011: online). In May 2016, 62% of Americans surveyed revealed they acquire news from social media with Twitter representing 59% of that statistic and Facebook accounting for a further 66% (Gotfried & Shearer, 2016: online). A danger to consider here is that both Facebook and Twitter do not present information posted by other users in chronological order and instead utilize an algorithm designed to showcase ‘what is “best” for you by elevating tweets from accounts it knows you have interacted with most regularly’ (Biersdorfer, 2016: online). Through using these algorithms criticism arises that social media outlets are becoming echo chambers allowing for growth of confirmation bias. This is thought to be damaging to journalism which ‘has been on life support since the advent of social media but this past year we have witnessed the quick, painful death of truth, and it may be gone forever.Put a comfortable lie in an echo chamber, and nobody will challenge it. It will reverberate until it is accepted as actually true. Then, the willfully ignorant will shout it as loudly as they can. It may be their truth, but that does not make it true.’ (Palmer, 2016: online). Furthermore, 2016’sUS presidential election was filled with ‘Stories that would have killed any other politician—truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him—did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated’ (Glasser, 2016: online). If 2016 is considered the advent of post-truth (Oxford Dictionary, 2016: online) which is ‘a reliance on assertions that “feel true” but have no basis in fact’ (Economist, 2016: online) then it could be argued that the position of professional journalists as gatekeepers has become redundant.

Kurt Lewin introduced his communication model in the mid-twentieth century across the theory of Social Science, and developed ‘Channel Theory and Gatekeepers’ in his Resolving Social Conflicts and Field Theory in Social Science (1951). Gatekeeping, adapted into communication theory thereafter by David Manning White has since been considered ‘the nexus between two inarguable facts: events occur everywhere all of the time and the news media cannot cover all of them’ (Shoemaker, Vos: 2009). Twenty years ago the audience’saccess to news was dictated by journalists’ filtering of information and presented throughthe daily release of papers and radio or television broadcast timeslots. Today, those sources remain but are no longer the predominant means to gain knowledge because ‘The traditional role of the journalist as a gatekeeper is being undermined and challenged in the online world where anyone with an internet connection can publish to a global audience. As a consequence the role of the journalist is being constantly redefined as the ‘profession’ no longer hold exclusive rights to the dissemination of news to the masses’ (Canter, 2014: 1). As a computer or phone coupled with an internet connection provides the ability to access and disperse near-unlimited amounts of information essentially for free, the lack of monetized constraints are also worthy of consideration: ‘news editors – and in some cases, the governments that they observe – are no longer the gatekeepers to information because costs of distribution have almost completely disappeared’(Krotoski, 2011: online). Regarding this transition of audiences from an passive to active role, ‘We The Media’ highlights ‘The Former Audience’ an idea which provides a standpoint where citizen journalism can be considered as democratizing media through the outpour of voices not motivated by financial gain: ‘The coverage of important events by nonprofessional jour­nalists is only part of the story. What also matters is the fact that people are having their say. This is one of the healthiest media developments in a long time. We are hearing new voices—not necessarily the voices of people who want to make a living by speaking out, but who want to say what they think and be heard, even if only by relatively few people’ (Gillmor, 2004: 139).

Interrogation of the relationship between digital technology and the role of the journalist has sought to establish if technological mediation, and the mechanisms of this interface, distort or enhance journalistic of discourse. However, after considering the supporting evidence it could be perceived that verification, of legitimate sources, are vital in the delivery of journalism whether delivered at a professional standard or in citizen form. Valid observations can also be made regarding the reliance of both print and broadcast media to operate truthfully across a multiplatform arena, which incorporates social media channels, to provide authenticity and ensure fiction does not outweigh fact.


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Published by Farran Golding

Contact: farrangolding@hotmail.co.uk Instagram: @farrangolding Twitter: @Farran_Golding

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