The winners of this year’s Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism will be announced in Brisbane tonight.
For the first time, the 2013 awards include prizes for Multimedia Storytelling and Podcast (the latter within the broader Radio Documentary category).
The new categories represent a significant, if still cautious, embrace of the digital age by Australia’s premier journalism award-giving body. Their inclusion signals some recognition of all those are-they-or-are-they-not journalistic forms that we associate with the rise of the Internet.
There is a film I talk to students about called Shattered Glass (directed by Billy Ray and released in 2003) because it marks, for me, the moment at which media power really began to shift from analogue to digital platforms.
The film tells the true story of Stephen Glass, who in the late 1990s fabricated dozens of major feature articles for The New Republic in the US – one of the most prestigious and authoritative news publications in the world.
The whistle was blown on Glass not by another print outlet, or a network TV news investigation, but by a reporter for (the now defunct) Forbes Digital Tool, Adam Penenberg. Forbes Digital Tool, part of the Forbes.com business media empire, was one of the first online news publications, and this was the story that made the established media take them, and digital journalism in general, seriously.
Breaking the Glass ceiling
That the Glass scandal was broken by an online publication is important for two reasons.
First, it put to rest the idea, common among journalists of the old school at that time, that digital media are less capable of producing quality journalism than the established print and broadcast media.
Second, it showed that the established media, staffed by trained professional journalists, rigorously edited and quality-controlled, are just as capable of producing worthless garbage as any blogger or social networker.
It blasted through the status hierarchy that divided analogue and digital media (old and new, if you prefer) from the mid-1990s, when web-based journalism became a presence in the media environment, until at least the early 2000s, when the two somewhat grudgingly learned to live with each other.
From this vantage point, we can see that journalists and their media organisations have, in the last 15 years or so, gone through a process akin to bereavement or loss. There was denial, then anger, then depression, then negotiation, and now acceptance that digital technology and social media are here to stay.
We should welcome that outcome. Digital media allow ordinary people to participate actively in the production of journalism, and comment and react to it with unprecedented speed and ease.
Crude, but good
User-generated content may be raw and often crude, but it opens up the public sphere to all those millions of citizens (and non-citizens in the context of authoritarian countries) previously excluded by the limits of technology.
User-generated content is increasingly used by mainstream news media, as in coverage of the Arab Spring protests assembled from cellphone video footage uploaded to YouTube or Twitter.
Millions of people can share the stuff they like on social media, which spreads the reach of good journalism, and critique or challenge the stuff they don’t like, or that’s just plain wrong.
Social media provide a Fifth Estate, another layer of scrutiny on the media itself. This can only be good for journalism which, as Shattered Glass demonstrates, is more than capable of the most humungous errors of fact, not to mention outright fakery and fabrication.
Digital media allow enhanced scrutiny of political and other elites. WikiLeaks proves how powerful the Internet can be as a means of spreading information that the powerful may wish to keep secret.
So too with Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who released thousands of NSA documents. All democrats should welcome the pressure these voices and the digital media they use put on governments to be more transparent, and to justify their policies on such matters as Internet surveillance and censorship.
This is true of authoritarian regimes obviously – the Arab Spring was to a large extent a social media event – but as Snowden’s revelations show, liberal democratic governments have plenty of skeletons in their cupboards.
Digital media shine new light on them. In doing so, they enable us to make informed decisions about how much power our state should have over us.
All of this means the digital media are an asset, both to the mainstream news media, and to the global public, rather than a threat.
But WikiLeaks and Snowden also show the downsides of social media – so much information, too little time to process, analyse, make sense of it.
In the analogue era we worried about information scarcity, and bias amongst those few outlets that existed. Today we have information surplus, and not enough time as individuals to assess it all for accuracy, or indeed bias.
And yes, maybe there were aspects of the big data leaks we’ve seen that were damaging to Australian, or US, or British national interests. But how do we know which bits? And do we have to suppress them all because one or two bits might be dangerous?
It’s the job of the professional journalist, working for properly-resourced news media, to undertake that filtering, sifting, sorting, interpretative work on our behalf, and with our consent. Trained journalists have the time and skills to make sense of 300,000 Iraqi war dispatches.
I don’t, but I do want to know what’s in them, and what it tells me about those who fight wars in my name. That is when I turn to my Guardian, or Australian, or Sydney Morning Herald. And that’s why, despite the challenge to traditional journalistic practices presented by digitalisation, the need for and value of professional journalism remains high.
Indeed, we might say the sense-making, sifting and sorting, reality-structuring functions of journalism become even more important in the era of social media and proliferating sources of news, commentary and analysis, where there is more information, coming from more directions than ever before.
Social media do not undermine traditional journalism – though they may expose its flaws, weaknesses and hubris. On the contrary, interacting and engaging with their potential is the key to the survival of a recognisable profession of journalism and a healthy news media in the coming period.
Embrace and prosper
To prosper in an online world, news media must embrace digitalisation and social media, as most are now doing, while identifying and strengthening the distinctive qualities they possess as professionally trained, properly resourced, organisationally secure, trusted sources of news, analysis, commentary and opinion.
The news brands that survive the transition from analogue to digital will be those that successfully combine the dynamism and diversity of digital media with the authority, technical skill and aesthetic qualities we associate with the best of journalism today.
Cheap short-cuts, penny-pinching, down-sizing, hoping to piggy back on the power and appeal of social media won’t work on its own, because digital media start-ups do that better already (Gawker and Buzzfeed for example, or the Huffington Post).
Exploit the technology to make efficiencies, by all means, but organisations such as the ABC, Sky News, News Ltd, Fairfax must invest in their editorial resource as much as in digital infrastructure.
With that approach, journalists can aspire to again be what English journalist Joan Bakewell once called “a New Priesthood” – respected, trusted figures to whom we turn for guidance and advice about the complex world we live in.
That’s why awards such as the Walkleys remain important, and why it’s so encouraging they are taken so seriously, and receive such extensive coverage as they do. Not every country publicly recognises its journalists in this way.
Indeed, not every country has news media of the quality of Australia’s. And that is cause for celebration, on at least one night of the year.
Brian McNair will present the Radio/Audio Documentary, Feature, Podcast or Special Award at the Walkleys tonight, on behalf of the Creative Industries Faculty, QUT. The Awards ceremony will be broadcast on ABC3, hosted by Lateline presenter Emma Alberici.