The responsibilities of the journalist in the internet age.

This the text from my lecture to the undergrad and post grad journalism students for their Ethics module this week. It’s slightly amended to:

  1. make sense  
  2. stop me from getting punched in the face if I ever meet Joey Barton.
  3. to add some links, refs etc.

In writing this I wanted to be a little provocative to try and generate some discussion and add some stuff to the mix in the students seminars (hence the ref to their seminar reading). 

Oh and I posted a version of last years lecture, where I kicked around a few of the same ideas, which you can read and see if I manage to contradict myself. 

I want to start with a few examples. Let’s start by me borrowing from your seminar reading…

The Vanity Fair article – The Man who spilled the secrets  –  by Sarah Ellison looks at the story surrounding the iraq war/wikileaks/Guardian saga.  Nick Davies, having heard that wikileaks may have something really interesting pursued Assange to Brussels to get him onside:

Davies made the case to Assange that the documents would effectively evaporate if they were put up as raw data on the Web—no one could make sense of so much material.

The suggestion was that journalism would give a reliable mechanism both to get the content out to a broader audience and to keep it there. It underlines the importance of journalists in bringing context to huge amounts of data. In fact you could say that the wikileaks data (and MP’s expenses) where two of things that pushed data journalism in to the current journalistic conciseness. 

The use and role of social media was highlighted by the riots in the UK last year. It bought home (by proximity if nothing else) the sheer rate of flow of information that social media can generate. It also underlined the importance of trusted voices in an network; people who could become points of reference. These where often (but not exclusively) journalists.

On an international scale, the use of social media during the Arab spring gave us an almost constant stream of examples of the value of social networks . Tweets, youtube videos, facebook updates all provided journalists and audience alike with a steady flow of information when the sheer dynamic nature (and inherent danger) of the event as well as no small amount of (traditional) state censorship cut off traditional reporting.

Both of these events also highlighted the opportunity, inherent in social media, for individual journalist to harness new technology to report events.

It also showed how that combination of means and motive pushed a number of journalists in to the limelight. Working round practical (and political) limitations to report on events and taking to the streets as self-publishing ‘war/riot correspondents’. Capturing the action with mobile phones and ‘broadcasting’ across and to the social network.

The direct nature of the connections between journalist and audience, built up through events like the UK riots and the Arab spring, did a lot to enable as well as highlight the positive aspects of the changing relationship between journalist and audience. It was sometimes an uneasy relationship but an increasingly symbiotic (rather than the traditionally framed parasitic)one.

But this isn’t a lecture about what social networks can do. The question this lecture poses is what responsibility do journalists have in the internet age?

The simple answer could be none that they don’t have already.

Let’ me give you a simple example…

Late last year the Lord Chief Justice (Lord Judge!) made good on interim judgement allowing tweeting (and other electronic communication) from court. Not long after, but by no means the first trial to be covered, Guardian journalist Jamie Jackson allegedly commits two acts of contempt causing problems at Harry Redknapp’s trial

Was that because he was using twitter?

Contempt is one of those fundamentals in journalism law. One that you are constantly reminded to be wary of.  So maybe we can just say that regardless of the medium  ‘ it’s the responsibility of a journalist not to do things like that’. They know the rules and should stick to them. Many would agree. Especially those that bang on to me about the importance of core journalism skills.

But this is in danger of becoming a very short lecture!  and in many ways that’s a cheap shot; too simplistic. A mistake is a mistake regardless of medium.

Maybe I need to switch the question round a little a bit and ask who are journalists responsible to in the internet age? Let me try and explain.

In the first example one of the (many and complex) reasons that was cited for the breakdown in the relationship (or at least a consistent cause for concern) between The Guardian and Assange was his apparent unwillingness to commit to redacting information from the Iraq memos; names and other details of individuals who might be undeservingly harmed in someway by the release of the information.

The biggest gulf between WikiLeaks and the traditional news outlets lay in their approaches to editing. Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one. “Neither us nor Der Spiegel norThe New York Times was ever going to print names of people who were going to get reprisals, anymore than we would do on any other occasion,” says David Leigh. “We were starting from: ‘Here’s a document. How much of it shall we print?’ Whereas Julian’s ideology was: ‘I shall dump everything out and then you have to try and persuade me to cross a few things out.’ We were coming at it from opposite poles.” The redaction of the Afghanistan files was a point of contention within WikiLeaks as well. Associates say that Assange dismissed the need for editorial care, even as they urged him to take the task more seriously. Smári McCarthy, a former WikiLeaks volunteer, told The Independent in October that there were “serious disagreements over the decision not to redact the names of Afghan civilians.”

We could take a step back look at that in the context of a broader debate about the driving principles of each party. Frame it as web Vs traditional.

On one side, Assange. Trusting the idea of transparency and the power of the network to filter and discriminate (but not trusting much else). Building layers of protection and redundancy like a computer network.

On the other Davies and the Guardian offering the special protections journalists have to protect sources and their responsibilities to those involved. Lending a level of credibility and context to the data.

I covered that clash of approaches in a bit more detail in last years lecture.

But regardless of your view of Assange’s or The Guardians alleged position or the relative merits of transparency vs the more traditional model of institutional balance, in this case it’s clear that the Guardian (and the author of the piece) measured it’s responsibility to the professional standards of journalism and not to the demands of Assange.

The Guardian and Davies were responsible to no body other than good journalism.

The concept of “good journalism” as a constant – something apart – is one we could argue about all day, especially in the light of recent events in the industry and Leveson. So maybe I can suggest (with no value judgment or implied criticism of the wikipedia approach) that, in this instance, good journalism was a collective effort of individuals sticking to core principles -being consistent with the standard of a professional journalist.

One of the challenges in trying to define what a journalist is (and in this context how they should behave) is breaking the link between the individual and the organisation they work for. But the coverage of the riots through social media did a lot to make the idea of an individual, professional journalist that can exist outside of traditional media structures a reality

The personal nature social networks means that individuals can rise in prominence quickly and there is good evidence that journalists, with their professional practice, are better suited to benefit from that than most. In fact it wasn’t uncommon for people to suggest that twitter uses should actively seek out journalists (or those with a track record of acting journalistically) during events like the riots (although, to be fair, it was often journalists saying that!).

I’ve talked in other lectures about how understanding and cultivating these personal relationships is valuable.But in this context it’s not without it’s problems and those stem from that unpicking of individual identity from corporate identity.

Just last week,  a Sky News email about use of social media by journalists was leaked to the Guardian. The memo, as it has been reported, places strict limitations on what a journalist may or may not share on social networks.

“So, to reiterate, don’t tweet when it is not a story to which you have been assigned or a beat which you work.

“Where a story has been Tweeted by a Sky News journalist who is assigned to the story it is fine, desirable in fact, that it is retweeted by other Sky News staff.

“Do not retweet information posted by other journalists or people on Twitter. Such information could be wrong and has not been through the Sky News editorial process.”

The email said: “1. Don’t tweet when it’s someone else [sic] story. Stick to your own beat. 2. Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks.”

One reading of the reported elements of the memo, was that it was typical of a large media organisation that doesn’t get it. Sadly another, depressingly common and depressingly puerile reason, was this was somehow all evil Rupert Murdoch’s doing.

Sky justified the move citing accuracy:

“Sky News has the same editorial procedures across all their platforms including social media to ensure the news we report is accurate.”

Who would want to get caught out tweeting something that later turns out to be wrong?

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that social media makes mistakes more common but it certainly makes them more visible. If they understand nothing else about social media , media orgs have an understanding (borne from bitter experience) that social media will take a mistake and (with no small amount of glee by some) amplify it. (live by the sword and die, again and again by the sword). Even the response to the memo (a mistake in the view of some) shows that.

The Arab Spring really showed the value and bravery of individual journalists risking life and limb to get content out because it was the right (as well as journalistic) thing to do. But, taking the value judgment out of it, the events in the middle east (and others like the Mumbai bombing) show how trust (and the connected idea of editorial selectivity) become more important – when the flow of content turns in to a torrent, people trust mainstream media to collate and filter the ‘truth’ for them. It’s even more important to have the checks and balances in place to maintain that trust as well as have it tested.

I’ll make a distinction between trust and select. Just because they don’t select them it doesn’t mean they don’t trust them or have an expectation (even a demand) that they get it right.  So any media organisation, would worry that their reputation could be undermined by a simple mistake.

There is some evidence to support this concern about trust. We know that whilst people will trust individuals, it’s often a shallow transactional trust. A trust with little at risk. We know that the trust in media organisations is a deeper, more invested trust. Why? because allegedly there is more at risk….

I can trust someone on twitter to show me interesting things but if they don’t, well, I haven’t lost anything. But I have to trust the media because if I don’t, well, we lose a vital protection and connection to the democratic process.  Failure of trust in one means I might say ‘meh’ and log off.  The other means the death of democracy.

We have structures in newsrooms to maintain trust by maintaining accuracy. Those structures tend to work through hierarchy. Though all journalists are responsible for their work, the level of oversight depends on you place in the foodchain. So we see more senior members of a newsroom getting more autonomy – on screeners, columnists etc. – under the assumption that they have the experience not to make mistakes.Those down the food chain have to work their way up and learn the ropes like everyone else.

But this also puts boundaries between journalists and the audience. They deal with recognisable faces. I think that’s why broadcasters often rate higher in the trust ratings than print journalists – they are less anonymous.

Social media is does two things to upset that. It gives  the anonymous a name, a face and a way to interact and it flattens hierarchies.

When the details of the mail where posted on Twitter (in a splendid piece of social media trailing by Josh Halliday ) the twitter community interpreted the ‘rules’ as an attack on one of their own – singling out Neil Mann (@fieldproducer) as a possible casualty of the new rules.

Actually, just as aside, I wonder if the powers that be at sky had a look through Josh’s twitter feed to see which of his followers or followees worked at sky. But I digress.

In his official capacity Mann works for Sky News but, like many other journalists, tweets in a personal capacity.  He does it very well and has rightly been singled out for particular praise (by Sky as well as the broader journalism community) as an exemplar of social media use – He was actually named the most influential UK journalist on twitter).

I think we can also safely say that Twitter has made Mann, anonymous to most people outside the industry, more visible. I think a good part of his credibility online comes from the journalistic way he uses twitter. People follow him for what he does and how he does it, rather than who he works for.

But it’s clear that for Sky News (and they are not alone in this) the distinction between personal and professional is too subtle and the ‘this is my personal feed’ distinction is not enough.  If you are paid to be a Sky journalist then you can’t be a journalist for anyone else. Not twitter. Not even yourself. Personal or professional accounts are all the same to them

But is that really fair?

If a journalist is using twitter ‘unofficially’, as a punter, their feed is likely to be as full of the same collection of “the mundane, the fleeting, the inconsequential, or the just plain ridiculous.” as anyone else’s feed. What about when they aren’t being a journalist? Is it right to consider it all journalistic output and fair game to control?

That line about the mundane and the fleeting isn’t mine. It comes from a paper by Wendy Wyatt who identifies the two ways in which a journalist uses a social platform like Twitter – to distribute facts or to ruminate and ‘muse’.

She suggests that if a journalist uses Twitter as a tool for reporting news, that journalist’s followers will view the posts simply as an extension of the journalist’s news outlet; reading tweets is just another way to get news. On the other hand,she says,  expectations differ for journalists who use forums for ruminating, for sharing personal stories, and for simply relaying things that seem interesting or otherwise worthy of passing along.

Wyatt suggests that, because it is the journalist who creates these two contrasting purposes, they “are obligated to be clear about their purpose with their followers”.

She even goes a step further and suggests the development of a kind of tag that indicates that something a journalist is posting falls in to the ‘musing’ not reporting; something such as “UVBI.”- “unverified but interesting”

In developing the idea Wyatt is actually playing devils advocate. In reality, her gut reaction from a media ethics standpoint, is that:

“standards for social networking sites, for blogs, and for any other platform where journalists connect to audiences should be no different than standards for traditional reporting”

Maybe we are back to our ‘good journalism transcends the medium’ idea.

Of course that doesn’t really answer the question of who ultimately checks that the journalist is sticking to those standards. And as much as the journalist may try and separate their ‘normal’ activity from their journalism, in social media terms, perhaps that’s a wasted effort. It’s the audience who decides on which side you fall.

In that respect you could see any attempt by a large media organisation to control the way their journalist use social networks as a way of controlling access to the audience.

That’s what media wants –  an audience – and it’s OK that they have to fight competitors for that but they don’t expect one of those competitors to be you.

You could read that as a very old media, commercial way of looking at things (control the flow, control the audience). Social media savvy critics may say it’s a false economy. The company lose the ‘value’ and audience that individual journalists using social media interaction brings.

Right or wrong we live and work in an age of big brand journalism and when they spend their money they don’t do it to fund brand “you”.

It’s not as if individual journalists don’t benefit from being associated with large news organisations. In fact is not as if that association with a large media company is the way that professional journalists separate themselves from that mess of cit-journalism people online.

And isn’t it maybe also be a little dishonest to claim a distinction. If you happened to see a story of value in your ‘personal feed’ would you ignore it as as if you were ‘off duty’?

Being part of ‘the media’ gives you special rights, responsibilities and protections.  The powers may make for a really boring super-hero (and a pretty underwhelming costume) but they are powers none the less.

So what does  that tell us about what our responsibilities are, or who we are responsible too in the internet age.

Truth is that it’s complex.

We could take a purist approach, step back from the market forces and commercial issues, just like our predecessors who set up journalism codes and standards, and say have a responsibility to a higher ideal. An ideal that motivates (maybe compels) us, enabled by new platforms for conversation, to strengthen our responsibility to the audience (whatever platform they may be on) resisting all other pressures. Even if that is from our employers.

But we also have to be realistic about where the power inherent in that responsibility comes from. Large media organisations with their complex mix of commercial, editorial considerations, like it or not have their part to play and we can’t easily unhitch the journalist or the publics perception of what that means from that train. That’s where public trust lies.

You can see the frustration (and inherent contradictions) of trying to unpick that in the Leveson inquiry at the moment. Day after day we have journalists and editors trying to defend that mix in the face of dwindling trust – yes, we’ve bollocksed things up but don’t destroy the whole thing otherwise the whole fourth estate thing goes out the window and we’re all in trouble. That big risk I talked about.

It paints a grim (and opportune) picture for those who always believed the web was a threat.  Whilst government and vested interests are trying to kick the front door of journalism down, people are still leaving the back door wide open to the internet and all its challenges.

But we know that the insular approach can’t continue.  New media/the web/the internet, whatever you want to call it, is opening up what we do in journalism like it or not.

At the moment that’s a battle fought on the boundaries of an industry built on closed ethical principles. Maybe it’s trapped by them. Maybe it’s entrenched in them as they feel they are under threat. But I firmly believe that doing what we do as journalists online, under the scrutiny of (and working with) our audience will slowly build new levels of trust.

Ironic isn’t it that the idea of transparency, so doggedly pursued by someone like Assange and so at odds with traditional editorial values,  should be seen by so many as key to the survival of journalism.

There’s a risk though. Taking away the traditional structures and making it personal online means that professional identity is all we have to take with us and we should never lose sight of the broader responsibility to society and our audience that entails.

In the face of the fractured communities the web creates, it may seem old fashioned to talk about our responsibility within the public sphere – a homogenous thing. In fact academics now talk about public sphericles (Gitlin et al) – small communities and collectives of people – each with their own norms and ethical limits.  (try this for more)

It’s easy to see how that idea can work for things like social media (I’m being simplistic here, some understanding where the idea fits in to the concept of a fifth estate adds better context). Maybe twitter is a little public spherical, where rules and discourse are different. Where we can do things we can’t do ‘officially’ as journalists. Think about what the Guardian did busting the Trafigura super injunction.

The danger is that we fall in to the trap of being different within each of those spheres. We become inconsistent – we end up being a journalist on the page following all the rules and regulations and the something else on Twitter where the norm seems to be different, still claiming to be a journalist on both.

Or maybe you think that’s a load of public sphericles.

I think that if we believe that good journalism, practiced with an eye to a strong ethical framework is of value to society, even of we think that it’s only of self-serving value; If we want to be a journalist and work on the web, taking some of that power and status that being a journalist gives us across spheres. Maybe we don’t get to choose when we are journalist and when we are not.

Perhaps we need to accept that we can’t be like normal people on Facebook or Twitter because, well, we aren’t normal people.

We are journalists. The web is 24/7 365.

If we want people to put their trust in us as individuals, underwritten by the long standing tradition and ethics of professional journalism, then perhaps we have to a responsibility to be journalists 24/7 365.

Aftermatter: When I asked the class about what they saw as a professional journalist I got a surprising response. I say surprising because it was a very broad and fluid definition – they certainly saw the distinction between the act and the person and the organisation. That’s in contrast to last year who were pretty set on the idea that a professional journalist was one that got paid to do it (more often than not by a large org)

I appreciate that one of the holes in my argument is that I have assumed that definition but as I said, its meant to be argumentative in that respect and as I (hope) began to argue, whilst it may be shifting, for most people that is still the definition. 

Sky news beta – the shouty news online

I like Sky News. Everything is important. Even stuff that isnt. So I was keen to see the beta of their new news site and, thanks to Martin Stabe, here it is:

This is big bold stuff – shouting, thunderous music and serious suits stuff. I swear the screen of my laptop tipped back a little as this page loaded up.

Still design isn’t just graphics. So I’m going to have a pootle around and see what’s what.

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