Trust, the missing link

At the moment Australian journalism seems to be at odds with its audience and it all seems to come down to trust. The Finkelstein report, released earlier this year, names journalists as the fourth least trustworthy professionals, above only real estate agents, advertising people, and used car salesmen.

Though it’s not as though journalists themselves are too blind too see it. In a study conducted in 2004 by RMIT and Roy Morgan a sample of journalists were surveyed. And it seems there are mutual concerns for both journalists and audiences. The report identifies accuracy, bias, and ownership as key contributors to the public’s lack of trust in journalists. With 56% of the surveyed journalists admitting to ‘often’ making mistakes, and 62% say these mistakes are ‘sometimes’ corrected. Further, 73% agree that media proprietors ‘use their outlets to push their own business and/or political interests to influence the national debate’.

Accuracy, bias, and ownership all contribute to the lack of trust that has created the gap that divides news producers and audiences. Since the rapid increase in the usage of online media outlets and the decline in newspaper readership, this gap seems to have grown. There have been attempts to address this in other countries such as the United Kingdom, with The Guardian. Editor-in-cheif Alan Rusbridger identifies the web as being a crucial factor in bringing a higher level of transparency to world affairs. He says “Our approach recognises the importance of putting a newspaper at the heart of the open eco-structure of information so that you can then harness different voices and link to an array of other sources.” This quote does more than establish The Guardian’s change in journalistic practice it also highlights a change in mind set. The notion of an eco-structure that works through a reciprocal collaboration of recourses, that allows for a relationship between news-producers and those formerly known as the audience; a relationship rooted in and encouraging trust.

Deni Elliott, in Essential Shard Values and 21st Century Journalism, claims that the social responsibility of the journalist in a democracy is to “notice and report the important events and issues that citizens need to know so that they can govern themselves effectively”. Yet with the rise of digital media it seems that the role of the journalist has changed, and that in order to notice report important events and issues journalists need to adopt this notion of an eco-system that collaborates with others (such as bloggers), curates material, and encourages debate. However, insofar as Australian journalism, this change is seen as more of a threat than a benefit. James discusses the attitude of the journalist towards the changing dynamics of the news industry in Authority?. This perceived separation between journalistic ‘professionals’ and those formerly known as the audience is no longer viable.

I find myself perplexed, given the current state of the relationship between the Australian public and Australian media outlets, it begs the question, what are we waiting for?

Data Journalism

Another interesting aspect that we’ve come across in our research is the field of Data Journalism, which could easily be considered a part of the Open Journalism eco-system. From the Data Journalism Handbook, I was able to glean these key points on what this form of journalism is:

  • Combination of traditional journalism, with the ability to tell a story with the scale and range of digital info now available.
  • Complex stories can be told through engaging info graphics, or how a story relates to an individual, and it can open up the news gathering process.
  • Data as the source, and data as the tool with which the story is told.

Once again, the Guardian is showing everyone how open it is to new models of journalism by employing this model, but it seems Australian news broadcasters are not out of the loop either. The ABC (already looking to work more collaboratively with their audience using projects such as ABC Pool and ABC Open) is also working on implementing data journalism on its website. One of the main benefits of data journalism seems to be however, that it allows for a more open and transparent look at the facts of a story, and allows the audience to interpret the numbers for themselves, without simply taking a journalists word for it.

The Coal Seam Gas By the Numbers project that the handbook mentions is still up on the ABC site, and contains corrections from the editor down the bottom, where data has been revised or incorrectly stated, a list of references used in compiling the report, and invites users to have their say on Twitter, Facebook and the comments thread.

Geoff McGhee, an online journalist who specialises in multi-media and inforgraphics, produced this video piece about Journalism in the Age of Data that is very informative.

I’m there, you’re not.

I’m there, you’re not.

Following on from my previous post realting to a journalists authority, this piece by Jay Rosen is an interesting exploration of the origins of authority in journalism. When it is possible for anyone who is “there” to publish or transmit their own experiences to a wide audience, how can a journalist lay claim on “authority”?

Authority?

Over on The Drum yesterday, Tim Dunlop has nailed one of the biggest problems facing journalism in the digital age:

The collapse of the funding model on which media relied is one thing, but even more worrying is the self-aggrandisement of the audience that has accompanied it.

This development raises the most vital question confronting the media today: just how did the audience for news, the famed ‘punters’ of newsroom banter and contempt, ever get it into their heads that they were entitled to question the way journalists went about their jobs rather than continue, ad infinitum, to passively consume whatever editors in a fiscally prudent limited number of outlets fed them?

How did these same punters ever think that their role in society was anything more than to allow themselves to be aggregated into homogenous demographic categories that were sold by media organisations to advertisers for unchallenged profit?

And what ungodly devil’s spawn of misinformation found its way into the water supply and convinced ‘the audience’ that they should be allowed to bypass the righteous gatekeeping of the mainstream media (peace be upon it) and fooled them into thinking that they, too, could have a role in contributing to public discourse?

This insidious invention, the Frankenstein monster of tenured academics alive during the discredited 1960s, has completely overturned the natural order of tenured news gatherers.

Armed with this new tool of mass dissemination, an unlikely number of ‘readers’ have convinced themselves that they are also actually ‘writers’ and they fill up their ‘blogs’ (an abbreviation for blah-blah-blah catalogue), their Twitter feeds, their Facebook pages, and, heaven-forfend, the ‘comments boxes’ on the websites of the mainstream media with their thoughts on subjects.

This is the attitude that seems to be common among many news organizations and among journalists themselves. “How dare the audience think it can do what we do?”. Journalists can no longer rely on the authority that is granted to them by access to the means of distribution; self publishing is free and easy, knowledge flows openly, and there is a community of peer to peer reporting and commentary that is threatening the traditional role of the journalist.

What Tim Dunlop has identified is the resistance from journalists to the changing dynamics of the news industry. How are journalists going to retain their authority in an age when anyone can self publish? I don’t think it’s going to come from shutting themselves off from the wider knowledge community through paywalls. They will not earn the respect of their readers by belittling bloggers; anyone who has looked at the NBN coverage in Australia will know that a blog can cover news as well as, and often better than any newspaper.

I think we are entering an age where journalists will gain their respect and voice by engaging with the citizen reporters, bloggers and journalists and becoming a part of the conversation that already exists around news.

What is the role of the journalist in open journalism? Does the journalist have a role at all? Is it one of curator as author? How does citizen journalism fit in to this?

Why are we here?

This year, when The Finkelstein Report into journalism in Australia was released, it confirmed what many of us already knew: people no longer trusted journalists.

A basic criterion of media performance is accuracy. Public perceptions of the performance of Australia’s media on this criterion are not flattering. These are the findings of several surveys.

  • Only 35 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey by Essential Media agreed that ‘the media usually report the news accurately’. As with trust, however, perceptions varied for different media.
  • A 1976 survey by Saulwick found 66 per cent of respondents believed ABC television presented political news accurately; 51 per cent believed commercial television did so. Only 39 per cent believed newspapers presented political news accurately. In a subsequent survey in 1990 by Saulwick 76 per cent of respondents said television (undifferentiated between ABC and commercial) presented news accurately, but only 50 per cent said the same of newspapers.

In fact the Finkelstein Report confirmed a lot of what we already knew but is worth repeating.

New technology, particularly the internet, has revolutionised access to the news. The result has been a reduction in the circulation of newspapers and a reduction in revenue from classified advertising. The advertising expenditure is now spread across platforms. Main news organisations are recovering only a small proportion of these revenues by moving to online publishing

Much has already been written about the role of the internet in the declining readership and profitability of Newspapers and journalism. Research in the US from Pew Research Centre tells us that newspapers are losing $7 of print revenue for every $1 of digital revenue they gain. There is nothing to suggest that a similar trend is not occurring in Australia. It is easy to see why newspapers have been slow to adapt to online when a majority of their income is still coming from print. But the trend shows that print revenues are fading and show no sign of slowing down, while online revenue is rising but not fast enough to replace income lost in print.

Journalism is Australia is suffering two seemingly unrelated crises. One of trust and credibility among audiences and one of financial viability. Exasperating this situation is the growth of “Web 2.0” and the growth of participatory culture. The barrier of entry for publishing is lower than ever and “the people formally known as the audience” are interacting with their news like never before. Blogging platforms are allowing people to self publish, and even newspapers are integrating blogging into their newspaper websites with many prominent columnists also blogging on a daily basis.

Journalists have long viewed bloggers and the internet with suspicion and have news organisations have been dragging their feet when it comes to adopting true participatory conversations with their audience. While suspicion between old media journalists and the new media are easing, it is still mostly an uncomfortable relationship.

But while the internet age threatens the dominance of previously dominant news organisations, it also presents a great opportunity for journalism to explore new models of participation, news gathering and publication. What forms these new models might take are the subject of much discussion, research and experimentation. Open Journalism is one model that is being explored by The Guardian in the UK.

Open Journalism is a model of journalism that places journalism at the centre of an open eco-system of information and news gathering. Rather than treat bloggers and readers with suspicion it seeks to engage them in the process of news gathering. Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, has this to say about the Guardian’s Open Journalism project:

We are developing an idea of a newspaper that is very different, Our approach recognises the importance of putting a newspaper at the heart of the open eco-structure of information so that you can then harness different voices and link to an array of other sources.

“We are reaping the rewards for breaking out of the old mindset of journalism and understanding that we can harness, aggregate, curate and report, which is a distributive model of journalism that has a richness and diversity of content.

Over the course of our research we will build a workable definition of Open Journalism and how it relates to other related concepts such as “citizen journalsim” while exploring the forms that Open Journalism currently take and how they might be improved. is it financially viable and will it address the issues of trust that currently exist in Australian journalism?