Archive for December, 2009
When Dan Gillmor suggested that we’re all journalists now, back in 2004, he was talking more about our newfound opportunity to publish journalism rather than a newfound aptitude to practice journalism.
Gillmor rightly pointed out that, once we had internet access, we could all publish what we saw, heard and did. And boy did we. Today more than 225,000 blogposts are published on WordPress. 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. More than 300 million people are now on Facebook – many providing regular ‘news updates’.
But publishing what you’ve seen, heard or done is different from journalism. Much of the new ‘reporting’ – whether by amateur bloggers and micro-bloggers, or by professional communicators in government, commercial organizations or NGOs – is not necessarily informed by the principles of journalism. By this I mean the principles of verification, of objectivity (in process rather than product), of independence (from commercial or government), of accountability, and of public interest. (nb. see George Snell on ‘reporting is now a commodity’ HT @Greenslade).
“Why should what we publish be informed by the principles of journalism?”, you ask. Well, certainly a lot of new content neither aspires to be or wants to be considered ‘journalism’.
But, if you ask a different question – do I want this content to be trusted? Then you have part of your answer.
The principles of journalism developed partly out of an aspiration to inspire trust. The principles are a journalists way of saying: I’ve checked this so you don’t have to; I’ve contacted people with differing views in order to best represent a range of perspectives; I’m not doing this to promote a product or service; I have written and published this in the public – rather than private – interest.
Clearly some people who have embraced the opportunities of new media do this already – and more so. In terms of transparency, bloggers have shown mainstream media best practice rather than vice versa.
But masses of self-published content is not informed by these principles. In many cases because they’re not relevant (like Facebook updates). But with others, it’s not because the content does not seek to be balanced, or fair, or trustworthy, but because those publishing it are not familiar with the principles or have not thought it necessary to make them explicit.
Which is why the launch of the BBC’s college of journalism site this week is so important. This is one of the most substantial online journalism resources in the world. There are many other important sites – the Poynter Institute, the Columbia Journalism Review, Project for Excellence in Journalism, journalism.co.uk, buzzmachine. But few that have such a wealth of teaching materials and resources, curated so carefully and put together so professionally.
Take, for example, the section on ‘public interest’ journalism in Ethics and Values. Alan Little uses the wars in the ex-Yugoslavia as a basis to explain how a journalist has to guide ‘An intelligent, informed audience… to make the connection between a specific event and its broader significance’. A ‘journalism tutor’ gives you the material to pitch a story – on its public interest merits – to a news editor. There are guidelines about the use of secret recording and on the line between privacy and the public interest. And BBC journalists talk about what they understand by ‘public interest’ journalism.
There are similar sections on trust and judgment, accountability, independence, impartiality, and truth and accuracy. Elsewhere on the site you can see tutorials about writing for the web, read about the difficulties of maintaining contempt of court on the web, and test how much you know about world religions.
There could, of course, be more. I’d like to see a section on transparency in journalism – what this means and how to do it well. But this is a remarkable and important resource, not just for those who aim to be journalists, but for the growing millions of professional and amateur communicators on the web.
There is a battle brewing for 2010 around regulation of audio-visual news (also known sometimes as on demand programme services, or TV-on-demand, or video, but more about that later). At the heart of the issue is how the different media regulatory bodies judge when audio visual material is television-like and when it’s not. Only then can they decide who has responsibility for regulating it. Or not. Tricky? You haven’t heard the half of it.
The battle comes to a head next year because:
- The government is accepting bids for Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) that will step in when ITV steps out of producing regional news (see report on Media Guardian)
- News groups – including newspapers – are already putting together bids to run IFNCs (e.g. Trinity Mirror, PA and Ten Alps in the North East). Meaning that newspapers will be involved in the production of audio visual material for broadcast on TV and on the web
- The Audio Visual Media Services Directive comes into force on 19th December 2009, meaning that all audio visual material on the web that is television like will be regulated by ATVOD (the Association for Television on Demand)
- The PCC’s remit already extends to audio visual material on newspaper websites, such as that produced and broadcast on Trinity Mirror sites (e.g. on Birmingham Mail)
- Broadcast television news (i.e. the stuff you see on your telly in the living room) will continue to be regulated by Ofcom including, presumably, the regional news produced by the IFNCs on ITV between, for example, 6-6.30pm
These things, you have probably noticed, are not mutually compatible. They add up, at the very least, to a regulatory soup and potentially a regional news car crash (please excuse the multiple mixed metaphors).
Even in the most straightforward future scenario in which: the Conservatives win the next election and maintain commitment to IFNCs (already in doubt), Ofcom accepts a number of bids, and there is a relatively smooth transfer of services at the end of 2010 (alot of ‘ifs’ there) – it is still far from clear how these services would be regulated and by who.
Which is presumably why Baroness Buscombe, the chair of the PCC, has launched a broadside against Ofcom, warning this week that “extension of Ofcom’s powers beyond television could damage freedom of expression” (see ‘Buscombe: Ofcom expansion has risks for free speech‘).
The PCC is presumably concerned that if, say, Trinity Mirror-PA-Ten Alps wins the NE England franchise for IFNC, then the audio visual news it produces will no longer be regulated by the PCC but by Ofcom and, by extension, all video content broadcast on Trinity Mirror newspaper websites will have to adhere to broadcast regulations on impartiality.
This is highly unlikely. For one thing, the AVMS directive, which will apply to the new television-like services online, will not be regulated by Ofcom but by ATVOD, and does not include guidelines about impartiality (though ATVOD does accept Ofcom as a backstop regulator). Moreover, the IFNC is not the same as Trinity Mirror newspapers, and will be distinguishable from them (not least because it will be making programmes for television broadcast).
However, she is right to start to raise questions about audio visual news regulation. From the perspective of the public, who regulates what as regards audio visual material online is already confusing. After the 19th December (when AVMS comes into force) it will be even more so. By the end of next year it will only be lawyers and regulatory nerds who will have a clue as to who is responsible to whom for what. This is not a great situation to end up in.
These issues desperately need a proper public airing in the first half of 2010. Unfortunately, given the forthcoming election, they are liable to get lost in politics until the summer, by which time things will be even more of a muddle than they are now.