Last month, along with my colleague Bryony Chinnery, I headed to Manchester for the ESOF conference. The conference is the biggest gathering of science policy makers, communicators and academics.
By far the most contentious and vocal of sessions was a panel on the future of news. Chaired by Fiona Fox from the Science Media Centre, the panel was made up of journalists from the likes of Buzzfeed and Mosaic, who certainly weren’t pulling any punches when it came to the fate of their profession. Here’s what I took away from the discussion.
Journalism has changed more in the last five years than in the last 500, with content consumption shifting online, and the omnipresence and accessibility of social media spawning a generation of citizen journalists.
28% of 18-to-24-year-olds now consider social media their primary news source. And tools like Buzzbot in Facebook Messenger are making it easier than ever for people to be amateur reporters. Now every person with a smartphone is transformed into a reporter, able to record and live stream events around them, and broadcast them freely for others to consume.
There are of course benefits to this so-called democratisation of news for the consumer: freeing us from the agendas of large media corporations, and distributing news more quickly. However, this ‘free and fast’ model is also damaging professional journalism. After all, how can a publication, with finite resource and fixed locations, possibly compete with the eyes and ears of a significant chunk of the world’s population? With rounds of journalist redundancies and falling profits at publications, it’s clear that social media journalism is eating into professional reporting.
The sad thing is that this is having an impact on the quality of news. Say what you will of media bias, but most journalists take their responsibility for informing the public very seriously, and always seek to uncover the truth. As representatives of organisations, they are also held to account much more than a normal citizen could ever be.
Things shared by ‘normal’ people can seem disarmingly candid, but we all see things through our own eyes, and reality is always skewed by our own views and opinions. In a world where everyone can stream or share what they want, who provides independence and scrutiny? Certainly not the platforms they are sharing on.
Social media sites are not public-good organisations. We have given them enormous power as the hosts of our conversations, and yet they are under no obligation to police our content for accuracy – often they can hardly be persuaded to remove genuinely offensive content.
As well as being the main distribution mode for citizen journalism, social media platforms are increasingly replacing publications’ main distribution methods too. This puts publications in a perilous position, as this New York Times article explores. Facebook is trying to position itself as an accurate news source, but came under fire recently for filtering the ‘trending news’ appearing on people’s homefeeds. As many media sites get a vast amount of their traffic from Facebook, these choices have the potential to have a huge impact on publication’s revenues, compounding an already increasing reliance on advertising for revenue. And that can’t be good for anyone.
With a 24/7 endless news cycle and the technology to spread stories like wildfire, it can seem that speed has become more important than accuracy. Consumers are confronted with an overwhelming amount of data – with little benchmark for what is accurate and what isn’t.
So, perhaps now, there is more emphasis on the consumers themselves to question the data they see, to find alternative sources. Can we work together? Can we be more responsible filters for our own content?
Or does the solution lie in a different model entirely? Rather than trying to compete with citizen journalism, many publications are now focusing on providing insight: reflecting on the significance of events in a wider context and analysing them in depth after the fact. Delayed Gratification, is just one example of this move towards ‘slow journalism’. And with the Guardian seemingly floating the idea of a paywall, like the Times and FT, we may see a strong future for accurate, quality journalism. We’ll just have to pay for it.
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