Journalists must concentrate on verification to preserve trust in what they do

The Future of Journalism, Part 3: Scale of information and ability to share it means journalism must maintain readers’ trust

“The dreadful mistakes made by both social and established media in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing - when more than one entirely innocent young man was fingered as likely suspects - should stand as a warning that technology platforms are neutral pieces of machinery. It’s how they’re used that makes the difference.”  Above, an explosion erupts near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Photograph: Dan Lampariello/Reuters

“The dreadful mistakes made by both social and established media in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing - when more than one entirely innocent young man was fingered as likely suspects - should stand as a warning that technology platforms are neutral pieces of machinery. It’s how they’re used that makes the difference.” Above, an explosion erupts near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Photograph: Dan Lampariello/Reuters

Mon, Jun 23, 2014, 12:02

Journalists are supposed to be good at change: wired to the slightest inflections in what people do or think, quick to report that the wind has shifted in matters social, political or economic.

So it’s ironic that debates about the future of journalism have taken place in slow motion, slowed down by journalists’ dyslexic inability to read the writing on the wall. What is written there is not the death of journalism: quite the contrary.

But the message does say that journalism will change. Journalists have absorbed, and adapted to, this truth just as slowly as any other group of people forced to rethink from first principles what they do.

In the course of the past year much of the gloom and pessimism infecting discussion of journalism has dispersed. High-tech moguls such as Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Pierre Omidyar of eBay have bought or set up news media businesses. “Pure-play” online sites such as Buzzfeed and Vice in the United States and United Kingdom, and Mediapart in France, have published scoops showing that original reporting is not the exclusive preserve of print or network television.

The surprisingly persistent myth that digital technology would not really alter the landscape of news has been erased both by the steady adoption of smartphones, tablets and broadband and by the growing awareness that the internet is much more disruptive than merely being a shift to another, faster distribution system.

Journalists and others would have found it easier to see and hear the clues to the future if they had made better use of the past. Journalists must always adapt to the way information travels in a society. At its most basic, journalism is a way of selecting and structuring some of that information so as to make it useful to communities large and small. Journalism sits at the junction of democratic purposes (“You really need to know this now”) and the market, relying on financial self- sufficiency to guarantee autonomy.

That junction is an unstable place to be. The late 20th century was misleading and historically exceptional for the absence of disruption: both newspapers and television enjoyed advertising income that was kept high by the fact that there weren’t many ways to reach mass audiences. Digital technology, both in proliferating television channels and online, undermined the foundations of that world.

Two changes

So the search for clues about journalism’s future must start with its audience. We have new ways of learning about the world that you can’t see or hear with your eyes or ears. Two changes stand out: the simple scale of information to which most people now have access and the vastly enhanced ability to share it.

These transformations have two big impacts on journalism: the bundles into which journalism has been packaged may not hold together; and journalists are going to concentrate more and more on verification to preserve trust in what they do.

Journalism tries to find the truth of what has happened. Fast and cheap ways of capturing and sending information open new possibilities for journalists – but only if the important principles from the past are put to use in changed conditions. Scarcity of information has been replaced by glut.

The dreadful mistakes made by both social and established media in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing – when more than one entirely innocent young man were identified as likely suspects – should stand as a warning that technology platforms are neutral pieces of machinery. It’s how they’re used that makes the difference.

Media all over the world struggle most weeks with verification problems posed by videos sent out of the battered and broken cities of Syria. Are these pictures what they purport to be? Even if we’re confident when and where they were shot, do they represent a slanted selection designed to help a particular faction in that complex and vicious civil war? Many of the significant steps made towards solving these dilemmas have been made by Storyful, the platform founded by former RTÉ journalist Mark Little.

Printed newspapers bind into one package a host of different things for varied communities: sport, politics, horoscopes and advertisements. In its day that bundle of variety was economically viable and attractive. Once advertising began to move to the internet and to smartphones, the foundations on which that bundling was based crumbled. Each part of the package has to establish its value once again.

Journalists as brands

The digital era has generated experiment in thousands of different directions. One school of thought holds that the very idea of journalists banding together in newsrooms may not survive the unbundling of the newspaper package. Journalists, this argument says, will operate as they choose, publishing themselves and being known as individual “brands”.

We’re already seeing some of this in the US: a handful of prominent bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan are setting up as solo businesses, making income from varying combinations of subscriptions or advertising. Magazines such as Forbes are running large, loosely knit stables of poorly paid bloggers. Freelance Glenn Greenwald was approached by the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and, in his turn, struck deals with the Guardian and Washington Post.

I doubt that this networked model is going to be the dominant pattern of journalism’s future. Serious journalism relies on trust. That trust is earned and established over time: users, readers, viewers and listeners assess trustworthiness through many different signals. They listen to opinions of others; they compare news outlets (judgments made much easier by internet editions); they remember mistakes and successes of the past; and they may be interested in what rules govern how journalists operate.

If a newsroom operating on any platform wants its reporting to be believed, it needs not only to show the cleanest possible record but may need to show that it is accountable to its community for its editorial record.

That means even small startups, let alone larger news outfits, will impose some rules on how journalism is done and how their journalists do it. That collective self-discipline is one building block of trust.

That reliance on trust is something that has not changed and I don’t think it will. It matters to Vox and Vice just as much as it does to the Financial Times or The Irish Times.

George Brock is Professor and Head of Journalism at City University London. His book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age was published last year.

The series continues next Monday

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