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Identity in Communities and Networks

News in the digital age

The professional identity of the journalist depends on the maintenance of core news values, but the production and distribution of news through social media undermine the professional identity of the journalist.

Abstract

Humans crave news. There is an urge to know what is happening next door, down the street, throughout the suburb, throughout the country and the world. Journalism for centuries has been a core feature of the society; however, the rise of social media is threatening its essential role in the community. The purpose of journalists has adapted to the digital age, and fresh news values have been added to the already extensive list as a result. In contrast, the rise of citizen journalism is alarming and harmful to the integrity of those who studied journalism as there are no ethical guidelines for citizen journalists like there is for real journalists. Clickbait titles have emerged as a result of social media and are a cause for concern. Furthermore, social media makes readers more reluctant to pay for their news and even less likely to look at other news outlets that do go into more detail. They create a mostly under-informed population. The rise of the fake news meme and its ubiquity in the global debate is a reflection of a real increase in the quantity and quality of ‘news’ which is, in fact, false, and intentionally so. The digitised, networked, globalised public sphere has enabled state and nonstate actors all over the world to disseminate with relative ease and impunity information which presents as accurate, fact-based content but is invented and known to be created by those who originated or have spread. 

Full Text

In an ever-changing world, there are a few staples that remain constant. Contemporary society’s need to be informed regarding important events, situations and people remains constant. The way the news is delivered, however, has altered. Social media has changed the world, and the rapid and vast adoption of these platforms are changing aspects of human interaction and consumption. There are an estimated 8 billion people in the world, according to Our World Data, and an estimated 3.5 billion online users. Thus, one-in-three people can access and utilise social media platforms regularly. Social media has quickly become a fast and easy way to access news and therefore has changed the relationship between journalism and those who consume their work, but are these online platforms improving journalist’s ability to inform the public? The role of the journalist has not changed, but the way they carry out their duties has evolved to fit the current landscape. Traditional forms of news telling are now seen to be outdated or non-existent, but what happened to newspapers? Among the plethora of ways social media platforms have altered daily communication and tasks, how individuals’ access and consume news is among them. The professional identity of the journalist depends on the maintenance of core news values, but the production and distribution of news through social media undermine the professional identity of the journalist.

Identity helps people to make decisions and to know how to behave. As a society we are constantly faced with complex choices and circumstances, having a sense of what kind of person you are, make it much easier to decide how you should behave and to have confidence in your choice between options. So, how does one identify as a journalist? The answer ten years ago would have been straightforward: journalists made their living by producing editorial material (written or otherwise) which was then published or broadcast to an audience of readers, listeners or viewers, (Marsh, 2012). In the new digital age of the web and social media, things are more complicated. If someone tweeted from a significant news event – COVID 19 from China, say – is that journalism? If someone started their own political blog, does that make them a journalist? If someone is a teacher, say, but contributes stories to a newspaper, does that make them a “citizen journalist”? Does it make any difference whether people are paid, or not, for such work? Should bloggers, tweeters and “citizen journalists” be held to, and judged by, the same standards as people working in more traditional journalistic roles? These are not just arcane issues affecting the profession – the answers to such questions will change the way its media serve our society, and so touches everyone (Marsh, 2012). 

Humans crave news, there is an urge to know what is happening next door, down the street, throughout the suburb, throughout the country and throughout the world, (Lamble, 2013). Journalism has long and successfully claimed to be the primary sense-making practice of modernity (Peters & Broersma, 2016). While it has always been one sense-making practice among many interrelated professions, its value to society has been, and still is, widely acknowledged, by journalistic, academics and politicians. Journalism has carved out a specific place and function in a democratic society where it fulfils distinctive needs for citizens. It is a vibrant and rewarding profession that underpins how society functions, culturally, politically and socially, (Lamble, 2013). The work of journalists helps the community to understand the world. It is impossible to imagine how 21st-century society would function without journalism. In today’s 24/7 rolling news cycle, the news is regularly reported within a few minutes after it happens and even while it is still happening. Stories appear online or as a broadcast as soon as they are written. The simple question of ‘what is news’ remains the same as it always has and leaves journalists and contemporary society pondering what the future of journalism is in the digital age, (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). 

The rise of digital and online media demonstrates the role technology and audiences play in the decisions about what makes news, with user-generated content becoming more important in the news production, (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). Social media has impacted the traditional divisions between the roles of journalists as active gatekeepers, producers and selectors and the audiences as passive consumers and receivers, therefore affecting the professional identity of journalists. Although there are similarities between conventional forms of news telling, newspapers, and online means. Most traditional news stories aim to inform the public on events and situations they need to know, not to be confused with what they want to know. This means prioritising, for example, political stories over celebrity gossip as the political story gives the public information, they need to know to make informed and educated decisions about their every day lives. Another form of news is ‘bad news’. In layman’s terms, ‘bad news’ is any type of report which contains information of harm or negativity, or has an undesirable outcome. ‘Bad news’ is the most used type of story on both platforms. Social media seems to post reports with an entertainment aspect (Anderson and Caumont, 2014) majorly. This is due to the shareability component of entertainment. Shareability is vital to online news as it means more people are viewing the article and its message is spreading, which in turn means more people might go to the site it was originally published on. It has been found in numerous studies (Anderson and Caumont, 2014, Newman, 2011 and Olmstead, Mitchell and Rosenstiel 2011) that news shared on twitter and Facebook drives more traffic.

Online news presents journalists with instant feedback about their news selection decisions from a significant number of readers (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). There is often a fight to be the first to report something, and in turn, accuracy can sometimes be overlooked. Thus, challenging the role and identity of a journalist, as the gatekeepers of society. It is often ignored that people sharing links to news articles via social media are not usually readers of the news site itself. It is ubiquitous for users to share links in an attempt to express either their praise, agreement, disapproval or disagreement of the information given to their followers. Thus, story ideas become dominated by pre-emptive thoughts about what works for Facebook but in doing this, does it mean the news agenda becomes dominated by soft entertaining items. With every news platform fighting for a chance to be viewed online, a lot of information and content is being posted; this is referred to as news overload, (Lee, Lindsey & Kim, 2017). Daily social media news use is associated with the speed of journalism, as reporters are often expected to meet almost impossible and fast turning deadlines to keep up with the demand, which further leaves the professional identity of a journalist in question. 

The growth of social media has also influenced what news values are causing journalists to adapt to these changes (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). Traditional news values include: such as the power elite, stories regarding those in power positions, entertainment, celebrity gossip, surprise or out of the ordinary, bad news, good news or positive information and outcomes, magnitude and relevance and follow up pieces, (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). News has had to adapt to the new digital age, and therefore current news values have been created to befit the online platform. Exclusivity, controversy, audio-visuals, shareability and drama have all been subjectively added to the already extensive list of core news values, (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017). It can be argued the newer values accurately reflect news published via the online platform. Values of exclusivity, shareability and drama can take away from the purpose of sharing the news; they don’t help feed the community with knowledge which they need to know to enhances their daily lives, but instead gives society information, often of no substance, which they want to know. Thus, ultimately creating a generation of whom do not have the necessary knowledge to make educated decisions by themselves. Journalists professional identities directly correlate to contemporary society; however, if the standard and norm for professional journalism are deteriorating, is this identity also?

Citizen journalists disseminate information through various media, including online media that are easily accessed by the public. The contribution of citizen journalism through online media is experiencing rapid development. The press provides more space for the public to convey their information. Various problems and events become quickly published from anywhere as long as we have an internet network. Everyone can participate in producing online media content without a journalistic or educational background. Citizen journalism can be done by anyone, anytime, and anywhere, ranging from students, teachers, homemakers, employees, doctors, and other professions, (Agus, 2019). In the context of mainstream media, the expression of citizens’ freedom must follow media or journalistic rules. Currently, citizen journalists highlight many things, including issues that concern the public interest. Various public facilities that are not environmentally friendly or inadequate infrastructure are the objects of citizen journalism. It can be argued citizen journalists can contribute to public debate, but their reliability cannot always be established, (Agus, 2019). The blanket term frequently used to describe these changes, ‘citizen journalism”, is loaded with incorrect assumptions about the motivations and intentions of the people who use these tools. The term ‘citizen’ frames the producers of the image as political participants, implying political motives in what is often actually an apolitical act of using social media tools to communicate with acquaintances. The term ‘journalist”, meanwhile, means that the material was gathered or produced to report the news.

In fact, ‘citizen journalists’ often have neither political nor journalistic intentions. Dr Dave Otway won second place in Press Gazette’s 2006 Citizen Journalism Awards. An avid amateur photographer, Otway took his prize-winning aerial shots of the Buncefield fuel depot in Hemel Hempstead burning after a fuel tank exploded there. Dr Otway had been on an early morning Ryanair flight which flew directly over the bonfire on 11 December 2005 and had taken several pictures. Immediately after arriving to work that morning, Otway uploaded five of the images he had taken to the photo-sharing web site Flickr. His intention, he said in an interview, was to share the photos with others, not to report a breaking news story. By giving citizens the same platform as professional journalists, it is taking away from identity; a journalist has often worked hard to form.

Social media has birthed clickbait titles, and although such an opening statement does not make much sense read in isolation, journalists often write headlines like this on news websites, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). They use the forward-referring technique as a stylistic and narrative luring device trying to induce anticipation and curiosity, so the readers click (or tap on) the headline and read on, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). There is a stronger tendency in commercial and tabloid media for using forward referring headlines on news websites compared to non-commercial and non-tabloid media. If the readers click, it does the trick, seems to be the logic, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). Clickbait can be harmful in two ways, as readers think they are being informed, but in all likelihood, they are not. It could introduce someone to an issue but in doing so, create a false sense of knowledge, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). In turn, it makes readers more reluctant to pay for their news and are even less likely to look at other news outlets which may go into more detail, (Blom & Hansen, 2015). It creates a mostly under-informed population. Companies profit off work that is done for free and exploit their labour while hurting journalists who do this for a living. Journalism is already in decline with newsstand sales dropping, and the easy accessibility of these websites might prove even more damaging.

The rise of the fake news meme and its ubiquity in the global debate is, on the one hand, a reflection of a real increase in the quantity and quality of ‘news’ which is, in fact, false, and intentionally so. The digitised, networked, globalised public sphere has enabled state and nonstate actors all over the world to disseminate with relative ease and impunity information which presents as accurate, fact-based content but is invented and known to be created by those who originated or have spread, (McNair, 2017). ‘Fake news’ is not new in a sense, and the topic of journalistic fabrication has indeed been news on many occasions in many countries going back many decades. The crisis of trust in journalism has long been a favourite topic of academic researchers and cultural commentators, for good reasons. The fake news phenomenon reflects not least a transformed environment in which political actors are enabled by the existence of the internet and social media to weaponise information in new and potentially much more damaging ways than was the case for fakers in the past. 

Inconclusion much remains the same in the world of journalism, and social media yet much has changed. The primal role of the journalist has not and will most likely never change. They are the gatekeepers to society, and even if the community does not realise it, they help the community make educated decisions daily. The role of the journalist may not have changed, but the way they carry out their vocation has changed. News is primarily published online on social media; journalism needed to adapt to the digital age. The way it did this was revaluating the core news values and adding in new values that are important to the news telling in this day and age. These new core news values include exclusivity, conflict, audio-visuals, shareability and drama. Citizen journalism continues to exist and gives the average joe the ability to act as a journalist; this in itself is dangerous as social media is providing uninformed individuals with a platform to share their personal opinions—journalist pride in sharing information that is accurate and non-biased.

In contrast, citizen journalists don’t have this ethical guideline to help steer them in their information sharing and often leads to misleading or false information being shared. Clickbait and fake news have been given an even bigger platform to thrive with social media. These are harmful forms of reporting, and as there are no regulations in regards to social media, there are no repercussions for those who utilise these methods. Social media hasn’t killed journalism it has just made the journalist job harder as they need to find new and creative ways to give the community the information, they need to make decisions based on accurate and non-biased information. It is still possible to be an honest reporter during the digital age. However, we as a society need to remember how great this style of reporting is before it is too late.

bibliography

Agus, T. (2019).  Contribution of online media citizen journalism to create city images. Jurnal Ilmu Komunikasi,16(2):209-224. http://doi10.24002/jik.v16i2.1476

Blom, J., & Hansen, K. (2014). Click bait: Forward-reference as lure in online news headlines. Journal of Pragmatics (76). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.11.010

Click-bait news is ruining journalism, and the reasons why may surprise you. (2014). University Wire. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/1626409915?accountid=10382

Harcup, T., & O’Neill, D., 2017. What is news?. Journalism Studies, 18(12). http://10.1080/1471670X.2016.1150193

Lee, S., Lindsey, N., & Kim, K. (2017). The effects of news consumptions via social media and news information overload on perceptions of journalistic norms and practices. Computers in human behaviour, 75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.05.007

McNair, B. (2017). Fake news: Falsehood, Fabrication and Fantasy in Journalism (1st ed.).Routledge. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/detail.action?docID=5143567

Marsh, D. (2012, October 16). Digital age rewrites the role of journalism. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainability/sustainability-report-2012-people-nuj

Peters, C., & Broersma, M. (2016). Rethinking journalism again: Societal role and public relevance in a digital age (1st ed.). Routledge. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/curtin/detail.action?docID=4684052

3 replies on “News in the digital age”

Hi Jordan, I used to teach journalism many aeons ago and was pleased to find a paper that tackles the opposition between the professional journalist and the citizen journalist. I wonder though whether social media has also changed the definition of “authority” itself. Would you say that social media has enabled world leaders and influencers in various spheres to set themselves up as “authorities” in the field (alright, I’m thinking about Donald Trump). Have such platforms enabled individuals to redefine journalism and undermine responsible dissemination of information and news? I would love to hear what your thoughts are on this (or anyone else interested in digital journalism). Good luck with your conference experience!

Hi Deepti,

Thank you for your interest in my paper.

I do agree social media has changed the game for journalism and what is seen to be authoritative figures in this space. People, especially Donald Trump, use their power and social media to try and distract communities from what is happening. So in this sense, the lines are almost blurred between the journalist’s authority and leaders of the world.

Have such platforms enabled individuals to redefine journalism and undermine responsible dissemination of information and news? I also agree with this point. It is so much easier to access the news and choose what you want to know. This also the same with citizen journalism. This makes the journos job even harder when trying to ensure their audience is receiving and acknowledging excellent and accurate news.

Hi Jordan,
this was a well informed and well written paper. I like how you strongly support your argument about how citizen journalism poses as a threat to traditional journalism. However, we should acknowledge that journalism are sometimes controlled by higher authority which could lead to controlled sharing of information to the public, and in a way, restrict freedom of expression. There was a buzz recently about 2 Chinese citizen journalists disappearing after wanting to provide the “truth” about Covid-19, the same information that the government has censored. Don’t you think to some extent we need citizen journalists to be provided with uncensored, raw information as opposed to processed news report?

Although our topics are not similar, I’d appreciate your opinions on my paper which is about Instagram as a tool promoting self acceptance
https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/the-online-community-of-instagram-a-tool-promoting-self-acceptance-in-young-females/

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