Evolution or revolution? The struggles of contemporary journalism
The year is 2018. You are walking down a busy street of a European capital. The gothic architecture stands in contrast to modern buildings and investments built in the last few decades. Architecture is art, just like journalism. They both adapt to the current social and technological requirements of the age and respond with new genres.
The new journalistic and media styles keep appearing. The latest means of communication make their way into our lives, yet it does not have to imply that the old ones disappear. While the ‘traditional’ media, such as TV, radio, and printed press, are still a valid source of information with many titles maintaining their position. However, what happens more often nowadays is that you encounter breaking news as a social media post or even as a pop-up notification on your mobile. News had to adapt to the current demand, which happens to take place online. Therefore, journalism has changed its form dramatically, yet its predominant purpose remains untouched - to inform.
The first ten posts you see when you open your Facebook app represent the past few years of chaotic overuse of ‘Like’ and ‘Follow’ buttons, combined with decisions made by an algorithm created by a profit-driven company. The news about Meghan Markle, mixed with the newest interview with Greta Thunberg, blends in with a recent homicide of George Floyd in the US. With an excess of information input into your brain, the news loses its significance. We become apathetic, not because of our lack of interest but due to the normalisation of tragedies. They say it takes 66 days to create a habit. If you hear about one car accident every day for ten years, what are the odds that such information will trigger any (negative) emotion in your brain at all? Quite low, I’d argue. It prompts the media to spice up the news. Knowing that ‘plain’ information will not induce any emotional reaction from their audience, some outlets will strive to add personal details about victims, publish their last words, or inform them about their age or profession.
With the anti-vaccination and flat-Earth movements being on the rise, it became clear that anything can be featured as ‘news.’ An average reader is unaware of the methods of verifying what is fake and what is real. The actions have been taken to fact-check some of the content published online, yet, with virtual freedom, having loose limits, and knowing no geographical boundaries, we might stand on the edge of the new dark ages of intellectual journalism.
A century ago, a reader would have had access to a limited scope of media outlets. The power of a particular publisher was greater than ever. Simultaneously, one could buy two or three recognised newspapers. However, such a purchase was often limited by class status, so money and literacy. The introduction of radio, subsequently television, and most recently social media, did not only tackle issues of accessibility and inclusivity but was also accompanied by a relatively stable rise of the socio-economic standards. Even though most people can afford a print newspaper today, online sources of information do not only dominate but start to supersede the ‘traditional’ forms of information. And the tendency is going to prevail.
It is not simply the existence of social media that endangers the readers. Each form of a media outlet can be biased or spread false information if left on its own without regulatory bodies. The status of social media, such as Facebook, is unclear because it is not classified as a medium, in the sense that it does not hold a licence. Therefore, it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Office of Communications (Ofcom), nor its foreign counterparts. There is no ‘editor-in-chief’ of Facebook or Twitter who could be reprimanded for what’s published on either platform. In other words, any ‘news’ can be published by a non-media organisation profile, which, at worst, risks being barred from using the platform.
How can a writer distinguish what matters from what does not, when so much information can be accessed within a few seconds? The process of globalisation and technology development, translation tools included, revolutionised journalism. In the past, a journalist would spend hours - if not days - searching for valuable and relevant content. And so they do today. However, while in the past one would, at times, struggle to make something out of nothing, today they struggle to make something out of everything.
Imagine being tasked to write about a revolution. Today, you can do your research within a few minutes or hours, depending on the needs. There are more tools and technology to support journalists. There are social events created solely for networking, where writers can improve their networks of connections. Most of the public figures have their media officers who liaise with journalists. Moreover, press conferences are a common standard. At the same time, the rise in the number of publications does not mean that all information is easily accessible. Some information is classified by governments for a variety of reasons and some can only be accessed upon a fee.
While a need for print journalism diminishes, the writers can, after re-training, work as broadcast journalists for the new multimedia journalistic outlets. The rise of the so-called citizen journalism threatens not only full-time positions in the industry but also values and standards typical for journalism. Even though it helps to increase the availability of information and gives a chance to publicly report cases of injustice which would not necessarily gain the attention of mass media, it is highly problematic. Anyone can be an author and owner of their own micro-medium. All it often takes is a smartphone with a camera, and anyone can run a live transmission documenting a protest or abuses of power that then make their way to mainstream news.
The danger lies in your power. You have a chance to shed light - any kind of light - on anything, be it a picture or a transmission. You can broadcast a gathering and tag it as an anti-royalist protest, while in reality, it is a peaceful demonstration against education reform. Whereas, in the past, it was only a few who had tools and resources to manipulate the public, today everyone has such power. It is, therefore, a journalist’s responsibility to care for the quality of professional content. As a journalist, it is not only your hobby to inform, but also your job. And you are bound by a list of values and rules.
A modern journalist should be a person to be trusted by the public. Nevertheless, it is often the mass media to be accused of manipulation and disinformation. The capitalisation of media and various market-bound circumstances led to a journalistic version of a ‘race-to-bottom,’ where the bottom is an absolute lack of relevance between what is promised and what is delivered. Many media outlets, desperate to have as many as possible views of their articles, create ‘click-bait’ titles. The journalists are involved in that process of unethical deception, and their livelihoods are often dependent on it. In the past, when the press was valuable in monetary terms, the media could have afforded to be impartial and of high quality. Nowadays, only a few outlets are considered independent and rely purely on donations. It is no coincidence that those exact same ones are often referred to as the most trustworthy.
Journalism has changed, and it keeps on changing. While the industry aims to remain independent from outside influencers, many outlets struggle to avoid bankruptcy and consequently seek sponsors. The COVID-19 pandemic hindered the media's attempts to remain relevant. In the UK alone, once the pandemic erupted, the coverage of all other important information, such as updates on Brexit, suffered. Indeed, media outlets still fulfil their informative role, but they are often driven by commercial rather than social and noble goals. The examples from different countries show that even public broadcasters are not free from political influence [Read more in Margo Dmochowska’s article in the 7th issue]. There is truly no legal solution to this issue, and it is we, the media consumers, who should set up standards by which we want the media to operate.