Just give me the facts, ma’am

Australia’s Federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan, fresh from deregulating media ownership, delivered the annual Andrew Olle lecture last night in Sydney. According to the ABC, for which the late great Olle once worked:

Senator Coonan said the new digital age has left both journalists and politicians struggling to maintain the foothold into people’s homes and minds they once had.
Senator Coonan said she suspects the emergence of the Internet is the closest the media industry has come to its Armageddon, with many warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism.
But she said the Internet could end up being the best reporting medium ever invented and believes it will only enhance democracy…
Senator Coonan said the growth of blogs and online journalism could have enormous implications for the future of the craft.
“People are no longer just sounding the death knell for the newspaper, but warning of the dire consequences for traditional journalism,” she said.

Sure. Traditional print and radio media, in particular, are changing rapidly. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that the rise of blogging is an alternative to journalism.
These are some of the ways in which journalism is changing:

~ More people in more places can create news reports, especially sending digital photos, which enhances coverage.
~ Coverage is more immediate, especially in a global sense (although radio has always been capable of that)
~ Coverage is more specific; so that I can watch, say, the US mid-term elections tick over all afternoon sitting in an office in Auckland, instead of waiting for an update in news bulletins.

But journalism has been changing for a long time, and not necessarily in ways that make it more democratic. The steady rise of political interference from networks or proprietors, advertisers, governments, lobbyists and PR people has fundamentally affected the ways in which we see the world.
If anything, the big change wrought by the web is to the business model, not necessarily the craft, although the threat is undeniably there.
Web news outlets can act as a counterpoint to that outside influence, if they are done properly and … well, like journalism. They can, critically, provide alternative news sources from areas of the world in which media is strictly or covertly controlled.
But by and large the blogosphere is a flurry of electronic pamphlets, an opinion-based media not too much different to the world of Camille Desmoulins; or even the hysterical Puritan William Prynne, who had his ears chopped off by Charles I for expressing his admittedly vile opinions (he argued that theatre was the work of the Devil, complained about the morality of the Stuart court, was branded on the cheek with the letters S L – seditious libeller – and later opposed Cromwell’s readmission of the Jews to Britain).
The sorts of apocalyptic outpourings we hear about “traditional journalism” were voiced in Prynne’s day too, about the rising threat of the printing press and its democratic nature.
I’m all for the democracy of opinion, and there are a few online media outlets producing high-quality and important news in alternative ways. There are ways in which blogs and websites can and do generate fascinating debates and present a whole range of ideas and information to which we might otherwise never get access. I rejoice in that fact every day.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Most blogging is opinion. Some of it is propaganda. All well and good – but it’s no more objective journalism than a “Repent or die” pamphlet you find stuck under your windscreen wiper, or the op-ed pieces in the weekend papers. At least most newspapers make disclosures about the affiliations of their commentators. Bloggers don’t bother – in fact, many go to great lengths to hide their affiliations, and even their identities.
Many of the politically-influential bloggers are aligned with some faction or other, or are well-established “media commentators” from a lobby group or think tank. Right-wing “trolls” spend their lives searching (trolling) for blogs or websites which voice opinions with which they disagree and then pick fights in the comments section. Some of them are presumably paid to do so, especially in the US. (I’m sure left-wing groups do the same, albeit not on such an organised scale.)
Then the politicians pay attention to these people, just because the opinions are out in the public domain. It’s no more journalism – nor, for that matter, genuine public opinion – than shock-jock talkback radio, perhaps even less so, because there are no internal checks and balances like sub-editors, producers or editors making sure that the work is genuine and in line with the ethics of the trade.
But the facets of traditional journalism that matter have not changed:

~ Reporting truth and fact-checking
~ Objectivity
~ Disclosure of vested interest
~ Professional confidentiality of sources
~ Freedom from outside influence.

No matter how much governments may wish it, these elements of so-called traditional journalism, these fundamental freedoms of expression and of access to information, do not face oblivion.
They carry on in media of all varieties, across all platforms, no matter what.
It’s called integrity.

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