When anyone can be one, what are journalists for exactly?

I’ve been asking and trying to answer this question for some time, since it’s most basic and existential one posed by digital technology which puts the power to publish in the hands of anyone with a smartphone. If journalists can’t answer it, they’re unlikely to find their way out of the troubles generated by the disruption of their business models.

So I perked up when this question was put by Steve Buttry, who works for John Paton’s Digital First company. And I like the image of gatekeepers made redundant by the fact that the fence has been blown away.

Steve has a list of purposes. Journalists are storytellers, watchdogs, fact-checkers, aggregators or curators and they investigate. When I tried answering this question, my list (extended version of the argument here) had four items and overlaps with Steve’s. Distilling down, this is what journalists do:

  • Verification
  • Sense-making (analysis, interpretation, opinion)
  • Eye-witness (still crucial in less open and accountable societies)
  • Investigation

All those four activities can be done better by people with experience, practice and skill. And that remains true in a digital era.

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3 comments

  1. I’m increasing excited and disturbed – in equal parts – about the opportunities social media will bring. In terms of integrity of information, social media used by the person in the street will never replace the disciplined profession of journalism. I’d add one more point to your list George if I may – objectivity (though there are arguments that a journlaist can nenver be truly objective) – or at the very least a serious attempt to publish a balanced article.

    A worry I do have is that as social media becomes more widely used, will the general public be able recognise the distinction between journalism/reportage and spilling one’s guts…? And what will be the consequences of that?

  2. Re objectivity, I think one think that social media has done brilliantly, via the comment box, is shown up a widespread lack of media objectivity. Nowhere more so than in covering and policing their own industry. Remember when nobody, give or take the Guardian, wanted to cover the hacking story?

    Secondly I have just written a post about photography and Instagram on my own blog and, in passing, the increased number of people passing themselves off as photographers or using technology to vaguely attempt to do what people had previously learned as a trade.

    So as with photographers, journalists’ job now is to be better than the rest. If the self-trained, non-funded, working from home blogger can produce good work then the professional has to show they are capable of being even better.

    Another fantastic thing about social media is that it’s showed that we don’t need professionals to give us trashy tabloid news – but people will still pay for the good stuff.

    The other point is in their role of aggregators that social media facilitates, journalists have to demonstrate that objectivity. Lying journalists, like cheating MPs or tax dodging companies are going to be found out and challenged far more easily than ever before.

  3. Excellent points, George, and thanks for the mention and the link. This is exactly the kind of conversation I hoped to stimulate.

    I will add that some non-journalists are doing all four of those things pretty well (as they are doing the things on my list). We aren’t unique in doing them, but our commitment to them and our skill at them can create value.

    We can be and frequently are eyewitnesses to planned events, but frequently the eyewitnesses to breaking news are the people who happened to be there. Sometimes their tweets, Facebook updates and photos are great and sometimes they provide a partial or inaccurate picture. We need to bring our skills of investigation and verification into play when we are not the eyewitnesses, curating the public reports and adding (as you say) sense and context.