The iconic image of the reporter- a young man draped in a trench-coat gallivanting off to some far away place with pen and paper in hand- has been swept into the dustbin of history. And the modern equivalent more closely resembles a small Chinese boy in glasses hunched over a laptop. Xu Lai, busily typing the next post on his critically acclaimed blog “ProState in Flames”, (or indeed his other blogs since Prostate was shut down by the Chinese government in November) is undoubtedly closer to the picture of what journalism is today.
One of the key features to emerge out of the growth of the web has been the creation of the blog as an alternative source for news and commentary. The ever-expanding online community of bloggers challenges the traditional role of the journalist as gate-keeper; no longer do professional reporters hold exclusive rights to news dissemination.
Blogs provide users with the ability to access news that may otherwise escape the attention of traditional networks. To cite one well known example, Salam Pax (alias Baghdad blogger) provided invaluable information about the Iraq war, as he resolutely blogged while bombs blasted through Baghdad. Pax offered an insider’s perspective of the war on the ground in a manner inaccessible to most reporters, and rarely featured in conventional news coverage.
But should blogs replace traditional news-gathering? Professionals in the industry point to the fact that blogs often fail to follow the journalistic code of systematic fact-checking, non-partisanship and narrative structure. As McGraw-Hill director of digital media Barb Palser writes, they are “unedited, unabashedly opinionated, sporadic and personal”. Given that anyone with access to the internet can blog irrespective of journalistic credentials, for many reporters it can often appear as if, in the words of journalist Matt Welch, “the hounds from a mediocre hell have been unleashed.”
Yet short of displacing journalism, blogs can be used to complement professional reporting by offering a form of participatory media, which media analyst Jane Singer explains, “can enhance the connections between journalists and the communities they serve.”
What makes blogging particularly significant to journalism is its unique communal orientation. Unlike the top-down model of old media in which the public’s sole purpose was to receive information, new media allows the public to respond and improve that information. Journalist bloggers are given the ability to interact with their audience through comments on posts and links to other blogs. This allows the audience to become both fact-checkers and contributors, often providing journalists with new insights and pushing them to cover stories more accurately.
As social media expert and former BBC producer Robin Hamman says, “now almost instantly when you publish an article you can find out what people thought about it, and see who’s linking to it and commenting on it.
“And if it’s popular, then you know potentially you’re doing good work…or not, I suppose,” he adds with a chuckle.
In a similar vein, Singer points out: “The blogging community is far from shy about going after journalists, shocking thin-skinned journalists unused to being scrutinized in the way they scrutinize others.”
As the web becomes more accessible to users it has also become an increasingly diverse platform, functioning as an all-encompassing tool that provides not only written content, but also audio, video and photojournalism. A whole host of services such as Youtube, Flickr, Qik, and countless others allow users to publish in every form of media available. This has had a significant impact on the expectations demanded of journalists.
As the popular web analyst Jeff Jarvis approvingly posted on his blog: “Now, every time a journalist goes out to cover news, she must be equipped and prepared to gather and share it in any and all media.”
Yet in many respects this can be a double-edged sword. While it allows greater access to information across all media platforms, it can also put such a heavy strain on journalists to be multi-skilled that they lose sight of the journalism itself.
According to journalism professor Michael Bromley, “multi-skilling contains the potential for the final fragmentation of journalism, enskilling some as ‘entrepreneurial editors’ but deskilling others to the status of machine hands and extensions of the computer.”
The associate editor of Wired, Ben Hammersley, was keen to admit that after covering the Turkey presidential elections using eight different forms of media, exploiting all platforms doesn’t always make for good journalism. He says: “The barrier to equipment is zero, but journalists can’t do all media at once. You can keep the pace up, but the quality drops drastically.”
This doesn’t mean that journalists should avoid adapting to the requirements of technological advancement. It simply means placing the journalism above the technology, and using one or two media that best express the story.
As Foreign editor of the Times, George Brock says: “the challenge is to try and keep hold of the basic values of what you want to do, while the technology changes around you. I think its quite possible to do it, but you need to be clear in your own head about what it is you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it.”
Only a tool
The features of Web 2.0 and beyond have significantly transformed the modern method of reporting. But as journalist Mark Briggs says, “we need to change our practices to adapt, but not our values.” The web is only a tool, and like other previous innovations from soap to electricity, it is there to make the function it is designed for easier. Ultimately, it is not the role of the reporter that has changed- only the reporter’s tool kit.