The crucial issues surrounding contemporary journalism

The concept of journalism has very much expanded since the arrival of the internet. The term ‘contemporary journalism’ encompasses the combination of the newer online and video media platforms with the more traditional print and radio formats since the creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. While journalism has developed over time, the ethical standards to which journalists are expected to adhere remain relatively unchanged. This is presenting as problematic in a world where the media is arguably becoming heavily influenced by those in positions of power and are considered by many to be tarnished with bias. The internet has unmistakably provided increased accountability for journalists however it also allows for the potential mass dissemination of untruths that can eventually become known as widely accepted truths. Another area of growing concern is the gradual progression towards entertainment as opposed to presenting news with the primary purpose of informing and educating the public. The public demand for news as it happens places journalists in the difficult position of determining what stories are important against stories that will increase ratings whilst under the pressure of performing efficiently under deadlines.

Although the internet has brought with it many benefits for the journalism profession, it does pose some dangers. The emergence of the online journalism sphere has “redefined many of the traditional roles we think of in journalism” (Anzur & Silvia 2011a, p. 3). Dr. Wilson Lowrey (2006) suggests that the “incorporation of blogs into professional journalism ‘repairs’ the perceived vulnerabilities of professional journalists” (Atton 2009, p. 272). It allows for more transparency between the journalist and their audience and with this comes a degree of accountability as facts are able to be more easily verified. Journalists also have more access to information when undertaking research through the internet and they are able to more easily reach contacts via email and professional networking sites. Computer-assisted reporting can however lead to inaccuracies in story as it is difficult to determine what is and is not a credible source. It can lead to the wide scale repetition of errors as seen when an American man posed online under the false identity of a gay girl from Damascus and it took some time before the blog was revealed to have been merely a hoax (Anderson 2012b). The idea of anonymity online contradicts the notions of transparency and truth that are imperative to the journalism profession. Journalist George Megalogenis stated that the internet has “complicated the market further…increasing the risk of dodgy data getting into the mainstream news media” (Dunlop 2010).

Whilst the internet allows citizens to express themselves via means such as blogging and social networking, often they are merely voicing their opinions with minimal evidence to support their views. Anzur & Silvia (2011a, p. 12) define a citizen journalist as “a person who uses all the tools of the multimedia journalist…to tell a story that might otherwise not receive coverage in traditional or mainstream media.” They argue that both journalists and citizen journalists share the common, overarching goal of reaching their respective audiences in the best possible way. However, the very way in which citizens are not as conversant with journalism ethics as those in the field may threaten the credibility of the real journalists who use methods of “cautious verification” (Ward, 2009, p.297). Furthermore, bloggers are “free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend” if they increase in popularity over the mainstream press (Posner 2005).

The internet can be dangerous as the published material can sit online forever. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), in the last 15 years over “800 journalists have been killed” and “about 100 cyber journalists have been imprisoned for what they publish online.” Reporters can find themselves reporting about sensitive issues and extremist groups are “keen to get rid of the inconvenient witnesses they consider journalists to be” (Anzur & Silvia 2011c, p. 228).

The net has also led to a rapid decline in consumption of news in the print form as online journalism constantly updates stories. Syracuse University associate professor Nancy Snow argues that “traditional media still shape public opinion and impact public policy direction to a much larger degree than social media” (Kamalipour 2012, p. 156) however this view is inconsistent with statistics. According to Pew Research Center For The People & The Press, from 2006 to 2010 newspaper readership decreased from 34 per cent to 21 per cent whilst online readership increased from 24 per cent to 34 per cent (Miller 2006, p. 92), therefore public opinion is being more heavily influenced by online media.

Concern for the protection of privacy has become quite prevalent in recent times. Former Federal Court judge Roy Finklestein’s Independent Media Inquiry into the proposed establishment of a News Media Council with the “power to order corrections and apologies” has caused much debate (Pearson, 2012). Some are sceptical as to whether regulation could undermine the independence of the media from the government. If not appropriately analysed and discussed, the government could potentially gain control over what is published in the press, destabilising the media’s role as the fourth estate; “one of the governing institutions of society” (Ward 2009, p. 297).

Journalists are generally not quick to admit to fault but accountability is necessary in order to ensure that the correct information is ultimately conveyed. According to a poll conducted by Annenberg Public Policy Centre, “65 per cent of the respondents thought that most news organizations, if they discover they’ve made a mistake, try to ignore it or cover it up” (Posner 2005). “Open justice is integral to accountability, a principle which in other contexts the media are rightly quick to defend” (Chadwick 1994, p. 179). A number of groups, such as the television show Media Watch and the blog NewsTrust, have taken it upon themselves to keep journalists in check and to act responsibly by publicly highlighting mistakes made by various media personnel.

Whilst many concerns have arisen as a result of the introduction of the internet, there has been a sense of unease over the concentration of media control. Particularly, it is feared that “Murdoch wields too much influence” (Holton 2012). News Limited, headed by Rupert Murdoch, owns “70 per cent of the newspapers in Australia” (Manne 2011, p. 112) and Gina Rinehart has acquired ownership of 12.8 per cent of Fairfax (Whalley 2012).  Concentration of ownership can arguably “reduce diversity, create unacceptable risks of abuse of power, worsen the tendency to self-censor, and narrow the range of alternative employers” (Chadwick 1994, p. 173). Rupert Murdoch has been accused of a “corrupting political influence” over his papers (Cathcart 2012). In light of the recent phone hacking scandal, Labor politician Chris Bryant said in a statement that – referring to Murdoch – “the media mogul had dominated the political landscape for decades” (Holton 2012). It was disclosed earlier this year that Murdoch held a “secret meeting with then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1981 to secure his acquisition of the Times of London” (Holton 2012). “Ever since the Sun claimed they won [the election] in 1992, there’s been an almost pathological fear of Murdoch’s ability to influence an electorate” and Liverpool University’s political professor Jonathan Tonge said that “it’s hugely unhealthy” for someone to yield so much power over a country (Holton 2012).

While it is considered a free press in Australia, “journalists’ efforts on the job are constrained by organizational and occupational demands” (Schudson 1996, p. 177). It “poses a real present danger to the health of Australian democracy” (Manne 2011, p. 112), especially since public relations is almost being used to shield or “disguise” the influence of those at the top of the newsroom hierarchy (Dinan & Miller 2009, p. 256). Journalists have the ethical obligation to be objective which involves the presentation of all facts and truths without bias (Posner 2005) and this is placed at risk whilst ownership is not more evenly spread.

Currently threatening the substance of media content is the gradual commercialisation of the news. “The news media have become more sensational, more prone to scandal and possibly less accurate,” especially due to the rushed, competitive nature of not only media organisations working against one another for better ratings, but competition amongst individual journalists themselves to be the first to publish a particular story (Posner 2005). The media has to fulfil conflicting roles; its role as a business and its role in society as the fourth estate. Television presenter David Koch expressed that some breakfast shows allow the “reporter [to] become the story” (Kalina 2011) by dramatizing the stories for entertainment purposes and in turn, to increase the show’s ratings.

Media organisations’ success as a business at times appears to come at the expense of the quality of news. It is the feeding and pitching of information on this almost superficial level that causes its very audience to grow familiar with it and “seek entertainment, confirmation, reinforcement [and] emotional satisfaction” from this kind of news (Posner 2005). It is also a method the media uses in order to “cater for the common denominator of mass taste” (Curran 2002, p. 93) rather than only reaching the interests of specific societal groups. It may be reasonable to conceive that media organisations must consider themselves as a business in order to remain profitable (McManus 2009, p. 218), however presenting consumers with what they desire could possibly be enough to stay afloat in the business world. Yet according to former executive vice-president of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, Leo Bogart, “entertainment increasingly overshadows information” (McManus 2009, p. 225).

Commercialisation has the potential to cause “hegemony” (McManus 2009, p. 218) in the media where the ideal of objectivity and the role of the press as a gate-way, is seriously threatened. While this unification of the presentation of news may serve to keep journalists honest, it could potentially eliminate the ideal of media organisations seeking alternate sources to verify facts which could lead to the risk of the repetition of errors and misinformation. Journalists may rather strive for other means of maintaining their audience’s attention. Perhaps journalists could make more use of narrative, building upon character to make a story more personal, whilst at the same time providing a wider context with the hope to engage the audience in an alternate way.

The ever imminent pressure of deadlines leaves journalists with a limited amount of time to perform accurately and efficiently. The internet has only worsened the situation as there are “more and shorter stories on timely events” (Schudson 1996, p. 183) and this has led to other consequences; a “deterioration in quality” (Posner 2005). A survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Centre found that the public’s confidence in the media from 1973 to 2002 declined from 85 per cent 59 per cent, with most of the decline occurring since 1991 (Posner 2005) which perhaps suggests that the online platform has played some part in these statistics.

Since journalists are so time poor, they are susceptible to merely turning over spin from media releases. Public relations “undermines the possibility of independent media” (Dina & Miller 2009, p. 252) as journalists appear to be often too hard pressed to fact check these press releases, and as such a constant stream of unchecked PR flows straight into the mainstream media.” (Wilkinson 2012).

While Murdoch owns such a high proportion of the media and journalists are constantly time poor, it is difficult for journalists to truly separate the values of those in power from the facts. It is important for both citizens and journalists to maintain a sense of what journalism is, or at least what individuals believe the profession stands for. Above all, it should be remembered that the fundamental purpose of journalism is to “illuminate what is real…[the] real existential truth” (Flanagan 2011).

 

References:

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About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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