A question of trust

In Communicate, Digital, Dubai, Journalism, Media, Opinion on November 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm

With more sources of news, “Who do I believe?” is becoming “How much do I believe them?”

Originally published in Communicate, July 2010

What media can you trust? The question came up when Dubai’s Shelter hosted a round-table discussion entitled, “Journalism 2.0.” It marked the launch of SAE Institute’s diploma in digital journalism. The debate pitted old journalism against new journalism.

One of the panel, Mark Briggs, coined the title of the discussion when he wrote Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive in the Digital Age in 2007. He tells Communicate Journalism 2.0 is “a combination of old-school journalism and new-school tools.” Journalists need to work with mobile tools, and produce content for consumers who will be getting their news on the move, too. “The fundamentals don’t change,” he says. “The tools do.”

Pia Heikkila, described by SAE Institute as a “backpack journalist”, is a freelance writer, filmmaker, broadcaster, and general hack of all trades. She helped set up the digital journalism course. Although she epitomizes Journalism 2.0, Heikkila works exclusively for big-brand media.

On the other side of the panel sat Briggs. Before turning to consulting, he worked in the online sections of established US newspapers.

Briggs talked about “an explosion of personal journalism” through blogs, Twitter, and other social networks. He’s a big fan. “Technology makes journalism better,” he said.

Heikkila agreed with Briggs that anyone can be a journalist online, but said brands act as a filter so readers know the news they are getting is reliable.

This sparked debate over the differences between bloggers and journalists. A blog is just a platform, said Briggs. It’s the content that will dictate whether the author is a journalist.

Heikkila argued that the difference is one of fact over opinion, and Briggs retorted that “blog” does not necessarily mean “opinion.”

The question is one that every journalism student has to tackle: What makes a journalist?

Another thread of the debate was the play-off between immediacy and reliability. One of the audience, a news reporter for a local radio network, asked: “Will the immediacy of digital journalism always and forever haunt the medium?” Even if Twitter’s in meltdown, its newsroom will wait to see news on “a reputable medium” such as the BBC or CNN before reporting it.

Briggs said: “A lot of the news I find today comes through the people I follow on Twitter. So these are people I have chosen, have hand-selected, because I think they are smart people and they are going to make me smarter.”

The question of what constitutes journalism could become a moot point, at least for those plugged into the social Web. The question for consumers of news – just as much as for journalists themselves – used to be: Which sources can I trust?

Now, however, that question is shifting to become: How much can I trust each of many sources?

Twitter, for example, is an immediate medium, but needs to be taken with a pinch of salt; it’s often wrong. The BBC, on the other hand, is generally right. It will not publish stories until it has researched them in depth. But the cost of this is that it is often late with the news. And traditional news will never be as relevant to individuals as their personally picked Twitter feed. As Briggs said: “There is so much more serendipity online.”

Between these two extremes comes digital journalism (or “dijo,” as the panel called it). Sometimes it will be more Twitter, sometimes more BBC.

When Orson Welles broadcast his radio adaptation of War of the Worlds in 1938, almost a third of the show’s 6 million listeners believed aliens were invading. It had to be true; it was on the radio.

Today, however, the public simply needs to be informed enough to figure out what to believe and what to question. With so many sources out there, and with a growing familiarity with different media’s nuances, that decision is easier than ever.


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