In the digital age, one of the most complex challenges for media outlets is how to re-shape the editorial responsibilities of journalism itself. Are the hallmarks of good journalism – accuracy, independence and impartiality – still relevant or necessary in the YouTube age?
In a research paper published by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Accuracy, Independence and Impartiality: How legacy media and digital natives approach standards in the digital age, I argue the internet provides many new ways to improve the quality of journalism.
That doesn’t mean that the faster pace of today’s news cycle – where news often breaks first online – doesn’t have its downsides too.
We saw an example of that recently when the images and video of a man beheading American photo-journalist James Foley began circulating on the internet. Social media sites Twitter and YouTube announced they were “actively suspending” the accounts of people circulating the images. Yet a number of newspapers around the world – including the Murdoch-owned New York Post and Australian tabloids Daily Telegraph, Herald Sun and Courier-Mail newspapers, along with the Fairfax-owned Age – all ran a gruesome image from the video on their front pages, ignoring Foley’s family’s plea not to do so.
The Daily Telegraph’s editor Paul Whittaker said:
We do not believe it is the role of the media to self-censor. The image is confronting. But the wickedness of this extremist Islamic group will not be properly understood while media outlets engage in self-censorship. We do not shy away from our obligation to our readers to tell the truth.
Would those editors have made the same decisions to run the images if they weren’t already online?
But for every example of ethically questionable journalism partly driven by the changing nature of viral news and audience behaviour, there are plenty more examples where the internet has improved the way journalists operate.
Who decides what’s ethical journalism?
Most newspapers developed a set of ethical guidelines or standards in the 19th century. Public service broadcasters such as the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation followed suit in the 20th century. The context in which those standards existed was very different to today.
Most cities had one newspaper, a single voice on which to rely for news. Today we not only have a greater array of news mastheads to choose from both within and beyond continental borders, we can also consume news on social media platforms, from citizen journalists who witness an event, and via endless apps and messaging services on our mobile devices. And we can engage with and contribute to the news in timely ways that weren’t possible when newspapers were printed only once a day.
All of this means that journalism’s core standards must evolve to meet the internet age.
While there are threats to ethical standards brought on by the sheer volume, virality and fierce competition for dwindling advertising dollars in news, the digital era has forced news organisations around the world to find new ways to uphold traditional editorial standards of accuracy, independence and impartiality.
Transparency and hyperlinks
Since 2010, US investigative website ProPublica has been investigating the financial links between doctors and drug companies.
It built a publicly searchable database so patients could check if their doctor was being paid by a pharmaceutical company. In doing so, ProPublica linked to the company disclosures of the 15 drug companies their database was drawn from.
The audience was able to access the source material in a way that was just not possible in pre-internet days.
Greater context and faster corrections
Earlier this year, sports and culture website Grantland issued a lengthy correction after the publication of an in-depth feature about Dr V, the inventor of a golf putter.
The journalist worked for seven months on the story and during that time inadvertently outed Dr V as transgender to one of her investors. Dr V committed suicide a few weeks later. At that point Grantland had no plans to run the story due to a lack of news values.
But after Dr V’s suicide, the journalist re-wrote the piece to incorporate the entire story. After careful consideration, Grantland published the piece.
Then it became apparent the story still didn’t handle the transgender issue appropriately. Editor Bill Simmons issued a brave retraction, spelling out the reasons Grantland felt the piece failed.
Further, Grantland commissioned a guest editorial from Christina Kahrl – a board director with GLAAD, which promotes the image of transgender people in the media. This detailed the problems the story had in dealing with transgender issues.
The story remains online, but starts with a paragraph that links to both Simmons' correction and the editorial by Kahrl, so that readers have the full context if they still choose to read the feature. This example demonstrates how digital outlets can issue more comprehensive and transparent corrections than pre-internet media might have done.
More voices breaking through
Last century newspapers usually held a monopoly. The digital era gives audiences access to a greater number of voices from all sides of the spectrum.
As the internet grows, audiences have a wider array of global perspectives on a vast range of topics. Some, such as Upworthy founder Eli Pariser, have warned of the “filter bubble” or “echo chamber” effect, where consumers only follow the views of those they agree with, not just through their own choices but also because online search engine algorithms learn to suggest material that fits their persuasion.
But the digital era has prompted some media organisations to serve audiences a wider diet of perspectives. The BBC, not content with just providing a duly impartial approach in its own news reports, is also linking to a variety of reports from other news organisations. Not only can readers find out what the BBC says about the Syrian crisis, but also what other news organisations are reporting.
In the past fortnight, Australia’s public broadcaster the ABC has started rolling out a similar “From other news sites” feature on its news stories, based on the BBC’s Newstracker service.
It is clear that digital journalism can allow for greater commitment to editorial standards. From better linking to primary sources of information, to greater commitment to transparency, there has never been an age more able to incorporate open, high-quality journalism.
The real challenge is getting all media outlets to use these new tools to adhere to editorial strengths of verification, accuracy, independence and a plurality of perspectives.
* Kellie Riordan will discuss her research on Accuracy, Independence and Impartiality in the media on ABC Radio’s Conversations with Richard Fidler today (Wednesday September 3) from 11am AEST. Click here to listen live or download the podcast.