Journalism anno 2010: it sure ain't what it used to be
Why on earth would young people want to become journalists?

Do you remember back when revealing an opinion could get you fired?

A decade or two from now I suspect people will look back with amusement and incredulity on how once upon a time revealing online that you had opinions or flaws could get you fired.

In a world where most everyone who is someone has said and done plenty of stupid things online, revealing their most awkward traits or most foolish decisions, it will be those who have no online history to speak of who will come across as suspicious.

While thinking about how social media has changed, some would say blurred, the lines between private and public, between work and play, for an op-ed published yesterday (in Norwegian) it struck me that what we're experiencing now is just growing pains, a temporary phase while we transition from old to new ways of thinking, or perhaps we could even speak of paradigms. And when I say temporary it may be that we're speaking of a generation or two, Roland Inglehart's Silent Revolution also springs to mind.

But already the two mindsets I'm thinking of, the old buttoned up professional aspiring to reveal as little as possible about him or herself, and the new, open culture of sharing, some would say oversharing, and transparency exist side by side.

As the op-ed was written just after the Octavia Nasr affair, I used hers and Dave Weigel's case to say that neither revealed something all that surprising: Nasr revealed she had sympathies and Weigel an arrogance which is far from uncommon among up and coming journalists who's had great success very quickly. In other words, they revealed themselves to be human. Their timing and sense of judgement may have been askew, but both explained the reasons for these lapses well, and the instant firing of the two seemed to me like knee-jerk reactions.

After I submitted my op-ed, I came across this brilliant piece by Thomas Friedman for New York Times (worth reading in full) on the Nasr-affair:

"What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone. In the age of Google, when everything you say is forever searchable, the future belongs to those who leave no footprints."

I agree with most of what Friedman has to say in this piece, except I don't believe the future belongs to those who leave no footprints - quite the contrary. Two other recent NYT-articles, both well worth the read, Bent Brantley's Whatever Happened to Mystery and Jeffrey Rosen on How the Web means the End of Forgetting, serve to illustrate how increasingly unrealistic leaving no footprints has become.

Friends and acquaintances who teach in junior and upper high school tell me that these days even some of their best and most ambitious students keep blogs where they frequently err on the side oversharing, divulging personal, sometimes very private, things which may come back to haunt them. But seeing how widespread this "oversharing" on blogs and social networks is, as more and more people steeped in this culture enter the job market and eventually gain power, I think this will soon start to be seen as quite normal.

That is not to say that I think we'll end up with an anything goes kind of mentality, or that good sense of judgement won't be recognised and awarded also in the future, but I think we'll learn to live with how much more of our personal histories are publicly available at the click of a button. And I do think the buttoned up journalist, clothed so as to reveal as little as possible of who he is, will come across as a stranger in a strange land in this type of environment. In fact, is already doing so when dealing with the social web and its inhabitants.

So I think we'll see the end of the cult of objectivity that media has worshipped for so long. That is not to say I think objectivity as such is unattainable, or that striving for impartiality necessarily is a bad thing, only that the idea that a journalist should be like a mirror, an inanimate object with no opinions or personal history, reflecting his or her surroundings objectively, is long overdue for a reality-check.

Journalists are not inanimate objects, we're human beings who, under constant deadline pressure, make, and are required by our employers to make, decisions about what to cover and not, and how to cover it, all the time based on editorial values - or sometimes on which glasses we see the world through. The only way we could just objectively mirror the world around us would be to set up a surveillance camera and stream the video from it online, and even then we would only be streaming a (geographical) selection of reality.

I'm not even so sure this whole idea of just mirroring the world is conducive from a journalistic point of view. Reuter's David Schlesinger has talked about how (financial) journalism at its best should be as a mirror (scroll down for English version). However, I think it's fair to say that as long as that mirror only was turned towards a bunch of experts who mostly said the same, there's no wonder financial journalists couldn't see the financial crisis of 2008 coming. Schlesinger called it unreasonable to expect journalists to predict the future, but I think, in this increasingly complex world of ours, spotting the connections and making sense of the world, is one of the most important ways the media can add value.

Also, the people we are supposed to serve, our readers, do not see us as objective or think we have no political or business ties. They're just not quite sure what those biases which they feel must be dictating the news agenda are, so we often find ourselves accused of being racists and cultural relativists, or socialists and conservatives in the comment section of the same article.

Even more frequently, commenters don't even see us as persons at all, but synonymous with the institution we represent, and will attack us in the comment sections based on this. Incidentally, that is often a rather difficult position from which to nurture a constructive and healthy online debate.

If we then compare and contrast the media's "objective approach to covering an issue to that of bloggers, we see something really interesting. Namely, that looking at successful niche or issue bloggers – such as e.g. Jeff Jarvis, Guido Fawkes, Karl Denninger, Mark Horvath – they gain credibility and influence by doing the exact opposite of what media always has held up as the key hallmark of credibility.

They gain credibility not by pretending they have no ties, as the media, but disclosing those ties openly; not by pretending they have no personal history, but by using their own personal histories in ways which make other people share their own stories - thereby creating a critical mass highlighting a particular issue.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that I think it's about time the media industry wake up to the fact that we live in a transparent society, and that insisting on staying fully dressed and buttoned up in this environment won't do us any favours.

I agree with David Weinberger that yes, transparency is the new objectivity – at least in the respect that transparency is the only way to make our journalism more credible in today's increasingly transparent society. That does not mean that, as was suggested on Twitter, I think media organisations have to become more like Fox News. I don't think journalism necessarily needs to become more opinionated – opinionated journalism has pros and cons depending on the editorial format – but it desperately needs to become more honest.

For the record I should perhaps say that I ruined my back on the way home from London late June and ended up confined to bed for a few weeks, which gave me a lot of time to think about the changing media landscape. I'm somewhat shocked at the verbosity of this post, but suspect I might be back with more on this and other related topics soon....

Comments

Agree with your points completely, Kristine. And wanted to promote another aspect:

Think of a dating situation: You chat with someone online over time, and you agree to meet. What's the most sinister? Being confronted with something the other one has dugg up on you? Or being able to find absolutely nothing on the other one? I have tried, and I know which one I prefer.

I have also written a bit on the subject on my own blog: https://www.vadnu.com/2010/07/27/is-it-better-to-forget-than-just-forgive/

"What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone."

No we're not. The signal we are sending young people is "think before you speak" and "think about other people as well as yourself".

Opinions matter far less than people think. And there's a big difference between intellectual creativity (which we don't have enough of) and irrational personal opinion (which we have rather too much of).

And there's a big difference between "political correctness" and "being polite and taking care to think about others".

That's a good point, Nick. I wrote the op-ed mentioned in this post before I read Friedman's piece on the Nasr-affair, and when writing my own piece I was thinking more about how attitudes towards publicness are changing and how we might consider these issues 10-20 years from now.

The web changes how we obtain information and gain credibility, and I see even in myself, as Mats touches on in his comment, that I easily get suspicious when I can't find any social media profiles or information as to who this person is when googling someone - when they don't have a "face" online.

That is not to say that this "face" has to be all that personal, but I'd like to get an idea of who this person is. For journalists it could e.g. be a Twitter profile, a personal profile on the site he or she is working for, a blog, or an open Facebook profle (depending on what best suits his or her personality and purpose).

More and more journalists do have at least one such profile, which I think is great. Even though I'm a journalits myself, I find that I'm more inclined to talk freely to a journalist whose online profile I can relate to. A lot of this, I think, comes down to trust.

As I touched on in the blog post, my point is not that we need a more opinionated journalism, but more transparent journalism - a journalism more suited to the digital age. Online, we get accustomed to being able to go straight to the sources most of the time, and most of our recommendations come from people we know and/or trust - so how can journalists best fit into, find a natural place, in this ecosystem?

For one, I'd like to be able to relate at some level to the journalists I deal with. Secondly, if they have ties to something they write about, I'd like to know about it. Also, I'd prefer to be able to see the sources for ther stories, when those are such that they can be linked to.

And I wonder, 10, 20, 30 years from now, when anybody entering the media industry, and probably quite a few of its executives as well, will have lived most all of their lives online, what will journalism and our notions of journalistic objectivity look like then?

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