Thursday, September 14, 2006

Notes: a discussion on the quality of journalism

Organisational arrangements aside - the other panelists arrived late and the chair left early - the panel discussion on the Quality of Journalism at this year's Highway Africa conference was, well, a bit thin. Here are the comments I prepared:

Last week, Wired News published a story about wiki collaboration software which had been edited using, what else?, a wiki.

It started when the writer, Ryan Singel, filed a 1,059-word article. Rather than having his editor trim and shape it, they posted the story online on August 29th and challenged their users to edit it.

Singel even posted interview notes and conducted additional research in response to questions raised by the community.

Over the following week, the story went through more than 300 drafts, doubling in size as one reader conducted her own interview and added quotes, wiki vendors added references to their offerings and others contributed additional examples to support the premise.

Singel said the experiment has gone smoothly, devoid of the pranks and vandalism he had feared when Wired opened up the story to changes. With wikis, anyone may change, add or even delete passages, regardless of expertise.

Wired editors released the final version on Thursday [Sept 7th] after editors vetted the story for style and glaring errors.

Of course, though news organizations have tried collaborative articles before, [Esquire magazine ran a similar experiment on a story about the open encyclopedia Wikipedia. The Los Angeles Times also briefly opened its editorials to public editing, but suspended it after being flooded with bad language and even some porn.]

I think that this experiment flags some interesting questions for us as we contemplate the theme of this afternoon’s session: Quality in Journalism.

No, I don’t want to re-hash the debate about “Who is a journalist?’’ Instead, I want to think out loud with you about what the Internet revolution means for the quality of journalism?

You think calling it a ‘Revolution’ is overstating it? After all, Africans know a thing or two about revolutions.

Revolution, according to the Wikipedia (yes, there’s a theme here today):

Revolution is a drastic change that usually occurs relatively quickly. The word
revolution means "a turn around." This may be a change in the social or political institutions over a relatively short period of time, or a major change in its culture or economy. Some revolutions are led by the majority of the populace of a nation, others by a small band of revolutionaries, a so-called palace revolution only touches the ruling elite. Compare rebellion.

So, even if you agree that the advent of the Internet is bringing about a revolution in the mass media, we need to dig a little deeper to figure out: What is the precise nature of this revolution?

What is being “turned around”?

Well, a month past his 75th birthday, the courtly-mannered Australian-born American with the US $60 billion global media empire, Rupert Murdoch, gave Wired writers his take on the matter:

To find something comparable, you have to go back 500 years to the printing press, the birth of mass media – which, incidentally, is what really destroyed the old world of kings and aristocracies. Technology is shifting power away from the editors, the publishers, the establishment, the media elite. Now it’s thepeople who are taking control.

The people’s revolution? Doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound like, well, democracy?

But what does it mean to have a democratic media?
Does it mean that information is free and the audiences vote in the marketplace?
And, you might say, that may not be happening everywhere, but that idea could hardly be considered a 21st century revolution?

No, what Murdoch is referring to is the fundamental shift in the relationship between the professional media establishment and the media users.

THE OLD QUESTION: Where will the quality journalism come from?

REALLY ASKING: Do we really trust other citizens with journalism?

Of course, citizens have been questioning the bases for their trust in us – and, in many instances, they’ve come up empty handed – and moved off.

PERHAPS WE SHOULD ASK: How will a generation of talented storytellers use multiple Channels to engage in meaningful relationships with citizens so that they will trust us enough to work with us to create and share stories that are relevant?

What is conversation?
What is trust?

Trust, according to scholars such as Grunnig, Ledingham et al, can be defined as the level of confidence that both parties have in each other and their willingness to open themselves to the other party.

To me that sounds a lot like we’re talking about sharing, transparency?

And we need to take a candid look at the other elements of trust:

Dependability: the belief that an organisation will do what it says it will do.

What is it we as journalists say we will do? What is the ideology that unites this tribe across geographic and other borders?

Mark Deuze notes that the key elements of this ideology have been described by researchers (Golding and Elliott, 1979; Merritt, 1995; Kovach and Rosensthiel, 2001) as:

  • public service (watchdogs, news hounds, etc.)
  • objectivity (impartial, neutral, fair and, therefore, credible)
  • autonomy (free, independent);
  • immediacy (sense of actuality, speed inherent in the concept of ‘news’)
  • ethics (responsibility, validity, legitimacy).

I don’t need to dwell on how far we’ve fallen and how often we’ve failed. And, much like the Bafana Bafana and Springbok supporters, our users are fickle, remembering our defeats more vividly than our triumphs (except perhaps when we win the big ones).

The extent and the limits of what we say we can do and attempt to deliver needs to be open.

Integrity: the belief that an organisation is fair and just.

Deuze (2005) notes that considerations of objectivity and ethics as central elements of the ideology of journalism. These relate closely to the notion of integrity, a central element of trust.

To validate our claims of integrity, and so keep the public trust, we journalists have constructed professional codes of ethics and pursued objectivity. But this broad offering of trust by the public has pre-empted the practice of transparency by the journalist. Professional journalists have neither disclosed their sources or their methods as they have exercised their responsibility as trusted information providers to the public sphere.

Citizen publishers such as bloggers also value integrity; but they establish it from the opposite premise. Unencumbered by the requirements of the professional ideology, they tend to be transparent about their allegiances and perspective; and they urge their readers to seek other viewpoints.

As the public’s choice of information sources grows, the validity of this transparency-based model for establishing integrity is likely to increase, at the expense of the existing trust model that the professional seeks to work within. Trust is a critical element in relationships. Most scholars consider this dimension instrumental in an effective and mutually beneficial relationship. Journalists in the future may need to demonstrate increasing transparency, for example through linking to source documents or to transcripts of their interviews, if they are to maintain the public’s trust.

Competence: the belief that an organisation has the ability to do what it says it will do.

Much of twentieth century journalism was based on the premise that journalists needed ‘to know a little about a lot.’ Entrusted by citizens to be their window on the world, many journalists needed to turn their hand to any editorial area, be it news, foreign affairs, politics, economics, social issues, arts and culture, or other fields such as sport. Such versatility was applauded and seen as a mark of a journalist’s professionalism. It also became an increasing necessity as the number of correspondents and specialists was reduced.

Increasingly this professional requirement for journalists to spread their knowledge base thinly compares unfavourably with the range of information offered by the many citizen publishers who have a specific subject expertise or community knowledge (geographic or interest-based) that the journalist cannot match. As Gillmor states, “Journalists cannot hope to reflect the world as well as the world itself” (2006).

In time this is likely to erode trust based on the ‘know everything’ notion of a journalist’s competence.

They don’t necessarily need to know everything – or can’t – but they must have the capability – the ability and the willingness – to engage and build relationships with users.

How do we establish and maintains relationships. Through communication. Principally, convesation. And what is conversation?
Conversation is not me talking a lot. Conversation is not even me making eloquent and entertaining speeches.

Conversation is a two-way street. It’s dialogue. It means listening as least as much as you speak. Are we as journalists capable of that?

What is capability? Ability + Willingness. You can know how to ski, but that doesn’t mean you’ve got the gutzpa, the guts to tackle the high slopes.

For this new conversation we need to have the ability sure – the digital media tools and the skills to use them. We need to learn the digital language, if you will, and continue to develop our vocabulary. But we must also be willing to apply these new communication skills by meeting and engage with people in their space, on their terms. To treat them as equals – not haughtily, not aggressively, not simply as means to your economic or professional ends.

I don’t think that we need to belabour this point, but those organisations that don’t make significant investment in education and training part of their business plan, are likely to be in trouble.

So, to get back to the original theme for this discussion:

the quality of professional journalism in a digital age will depend on how effective we are at using technology as conversational tools to establish, build and maintain relationships with our users.

Oh, yes, Murdoch knows that, too.

That’s why he invested $580million in MySpace. To a meeting of the American Society of Editors in April 2005, he put it this way:

I come to this discussion not as an expert with all the answers, but as someone searching for answers to an emerging medium that is not my native language. Like many of you in this room, I’m a digital immigrant. I wasn’t weaned on the web, nor coddled on a computer. Instead, I grew up in a highly centralized world where news and information were tightly controlled by a few editors, who deemed to tell us what we could and should know. My two young daughters, on the other hand, will be digital natives. They’ll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access.

The peculiar challenge then, is for us digital immigrants – many of whom are in positions to determine how news is assembled and disseminated -- to apply a digital
mindset to a new set of challenges. We need to realize that the next generation of people accessing news and information, whether from newspapers or any other source, have a different set of expectations about the kind of news they will get, including when and how they will get it, where they will get it from, and who they will get it from.

And what is the biggest threat to the quality of mainstream journalism?
It’s the leadership. Leadership - and many of their minions - who won’t share power with citizens. Leaders of journalism who – 12 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa and 12 years after the first newspapers were put online (including SA’s Mail &Guardian) – aren’t aware of the revolution or, if they are, still hope that the it will pass them by.

I’ll leave it there. I look forward to hearing your views.

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