Wednesday, December 1, 2010
The Write Stuff
What qualifies people to describe themselves as journalists? Two major stories in the past week - Wikileaks in the global context and the #twitdef saga here in Australia - have given new impetus to a question that is being asked increasingly in both the mainstream media and digital media space.
Broadly, there are two camps. Representing one view is ABC managing director Mark Scott, who in a recent speech observed that new digital tools allow anyone to perform the functions of a journalist - in sifting through multiple sources of information on matters of public interest and drawing their readers' attention to the salient points, while providing historical context and commentary.
"In this new world, there are two newsrooms - the traditional one that exists now, and the virtual one that has emerged as one of the most significant features of digital life," Scott said. "What interests me is how many people are willing to engage, to contribute, to be part of a media experience - and for whom the psychic payoff comes not from getting paid, but from taking part."
Representing the contrarian view is Caroline Overington, who in The Australian's Media Diary (the relevant version of which is no longer online) stated that the only people who can claim to be journalists are those who were trained as such and who now work in the newsrooms of the nation.
"It is actually offensive for Scott to argue that anyone can practise journalism," Overington said. "It's insulting to people actually trained to do it. Whatever Scott may think, journalism isn't easy."
And who said it was? Good journalism - writing a rough first draft of breaking news events that accurately informs people, while capturing nuance, keeping the reader's attention AND adding value through analysis and informed commentary - is exceedingly difficult.
But Overington's patronising caricature and blanket condemnation of content in the non-MSM as "absolute dross" speaks volumes for the protectionist, paranoid, clannish and closed shop mentality developing in some parts of the traditional media, most noticeably in an increasingly unhinged Murdoch empire.
There is dross and idiocy online, certainly. But there is just as much low-rent fodder in the mainstream media. The difference, of course, is that the bloggers and twitterati do it for nothing - happy just to take part in a conversation that sheds light on issues of public interest. They do not do it because they are climbing some political totem pole inside a viper-ridden news company. And they do not do it because they have some clubbish and vain assumptions that only THEY are qualified to call themselves writers.
Arguably, the most valuable journalists now are not those employed by corporate media who churn out predictable "he said-she said" cut-and-paste copy and whose primary role is serving the interests of advertisers or pushing the ideological agenda of their proprietors. The most valuable ones are those who work outside the MSM. Think of Nicholas Gruen and Ken Parish on Club Troppo who provide analysis of economic and policy issues from a centrist perspective. And think of Scott Steel, AKA blogger Possum Comitatus, who has completely lifted the lid on running stories story through old fashioned techniques like uncovering evidence and assembling data that challenge pre-fabricated media narratives. This type of journalism requires a level of expertise that is often lacking in newsrooms, which often struggle to meet the basic standards of numeracy (what's a spreadsheet?) and knowledge of history ("the perpetual present").
The more expert bloggers are journalists in my book because they sift through and point their readers to information that sheds light on issues of public interest, report accurately and supply context and meaning to those issues. Better still, they have no obvious axes to grind. And if they do, they will soon be found out and the marketplace will make its own judgement on their work. Whether they are paid as journalists or not, they are still "doing" journalism. And we are better for it.
In this light, perhaps it is time for the mainstream media critics - who often early in their careers trumpet the need for greater transparency and the challenging of authority - to drop their defensive attitude and embrace new media voices, recognise that journalism is changing and evolving and thank their stars for those who donate their own time and insights to improve our understanding of a complex world.
Posted by Mr D at 9:48 PM