COMMENT Demise of the journalist, rise of the blogger
By Michael Vatikiotis
BANGKOK - Long ago as a journalist I considered my primary role to be an observer, to be a reporter of what I saw and heard with the aim of informing the public. These days, however, I am a consumer of news, and it seems to me that many journalists have become participants as well as observers of the events they cover. As a result, they are doing more persuading than informing. There is a crucial difference.
Participants have a point of view shaped by their role, whilst observers can afford the luxury of objectivity. This may make for a more trenchant or passionate piece of writing, it may also, for many, give meaning to the freedom of speech; but it does not constitute journalism in its purest sense.
There are two principal reasons for this trend towards participant reportage. The first is simply that there are fewer jobs for reporters tethering them to financial support and editorial policies that can afford and enforce strict objectivity. The slow death of the institutional press is strangling the profession and forcing its members into, for want of a better word, prostitution.
But there's an even more pernicious threat to professional
reporting, and it stems from the pervasive presence of social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. These Internet-based outlets have their origins in the social world, enhancing connectivity and building networks, yet they have become powerful news media platforms. Full disclosure: I tweet. I also increasingly surf Twitter as a source of news. In a world preponderantly dominated by online media, it is Twitter that alerts you to what may be interesting and relevant, as well as breaking.
Unlike the days of hot type and cold copy, you don't need a newsroom filled with editors and subs to become an influential news source. Just about anyone with thumbs, a smart phone and a data-plan can move stories, influence opinion and command the news.
This may not be a bad thing. After all, if there are fewer publications to cover the news, why not give motivated citizen-journalists the job? The BBC News website solicits the views of citizen journalists, with the request for input to its stories. “Have your say,” the Beeb declares with a people’s power flourish. More of its once-authoritative broadcasting on World Service radio has been given over to the views of listeners culled from social networking sites.
Democracy of voice
So the business of reporting has become more democratic. Gone are the days when the well-connected correspondent or the imperious editor was lord of all knowledge and opinion; instead we now have millions of voices contributing to a composite compilation of news that takes a practiced ear and eye to navigate and interpret. Just browse the videos posted on YouTube under the subject heading “Civil War in Syria” and a cacophony of voices and images assaults the senses.
In a broader sense, access to this new media has empowered people to take a more active role in events. It has given people in countries where the media is muzzled a chance to express themselves freely. It has also allowed people who hate to give voice to their hatred.
Journalists, in the purest sense of the term, abjure political involvement to maintain their objective stance. The netizen reporter strives to acquire followers and lead as an opinion maker. As such this may seem like acting the arbiter, but in reality it can form the basis for political power and a platform for corrosive hate speech.
Instant access to news as it happens - via a smartphone feed - offers no way of knowing who is right or wrong. The editors, whose job was to ensure objective reporting and to help refine and order train of events into a logical and comprehensible story, have largely disappeared from the news process. Reporters have been unleashed.
The result is that the news consumer has the task of editing the copy as it is received: filtering out the clearly biased and subjective view from what is possibly an objective fact. It's difficult, and clearly very much dependent on the reader’s own proximity and knowledge.
There are platforms known as Aggregators that aim to replicate the editor’s role. Often they simply browse the net and produce manageable packets of news, like canapés. Qualitative judgments are still left to the consumer. You must know which side of the conflict in Thailand or Ukraine blogger A or B is to appreciate and judge his or her content.
Left unknown, of course, is the whole issue of who sponsors these citizen journalists. Unpaid bloggers thrive in periods of intense political crisis, but so do the paid spin-doctors in search of the tools of deception. Traditional journalism was always prone to influence peddling and inducement, but there were editorial safeguards, and more importantly the financial security to fend off offers to write for hire. As that financial security goes, so for the most part do the editors. This leaves it to the individual moral conscience of the reporter. How sacred is the truth on an empty stomach?
These issues have been afflicting the news business for the best part of two decades, but we have in a sense become immune to the effects. “Someone posted on Twitter and Facebook” has become the modern equivalent of “read all about it.” Like many other aspects of our civilization that have broken away from institutional moderated moorings to become atomized by technology, we simply need to make more judgments for ourselves, which may not be a bad thing intellectually. Carpe Diem.
But then how will history be written, and who gets to judge how events played out? Sadly it will be those who hold power through organized means, with the resources to chronicle events and frame their context, rather than what used to be known as the Fourth Estate.
Michael Vatikiotis was a veteran correspondent and former editor of the Hong-Kong based news weekly The Far Eastern Economic Review before its closure in 2004. He contributes op-ed columns to several newspapers including The New York Times and can be read on Twitter @jagowriter.
(Copyright 2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)