Journalism for everyone – why the BBC’s journalism website is such an important public resource

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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.

Written by Martin Moore

December 16th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

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