Journalism, like many other professions, has changed dramatically over recent years due to the advent of digital technology. Journalists have benefitted from unparalleled access to instant information, however as a consequence they are now expected to report on events almost instantaneously. Yet despite this, the fundamental duties and responsibilities of a journalist remain the same, and must be adapted to modern times.
The first point of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) Code of Ethics, which journalists aim to uphold, stresses that journalists should be “striving for accuracy.” Social media and the internet more broadly however, have allowed for the dissemination of information to be almost instantaneous. Therefore, journalists must report news instantly and this can affect the accuracy of stories produced. No longer afforded the luxury of being given time to research a story, rather journalists must be accurate, while writing to an increasingly tight deadline.
As Lamble points out in News as it Happens (2013), while social networking sites and blogs can offer valuable information to journalists, their credibility must be scrutinised. He notes that “you often have no idea who is actually posting information.” If a journalist was to use such information and later find it to be false, it would create a difficult situation and consequently damage a journalist’s reputation. Furthermore, it could break one of the main ethical guidelines for journalists, namely, to “do no harm.”
Another source of digital technology which has had a large impact on journalism is email and text messaging. These offer a form of instant written communication which can be used to communicate with a source or even conduct an interview. As Lamble (2013) notes, they produce a record of conversations which is useful for accurate quoting and also allow for an interviewee to reply over time, if they are not available at the same time as the journalist. Once again though, there are dangers involved with these forms. Firstly, it is important to verify that the person replying to you is the intended recipient and not an impersonator. To get around this, make sure information is sourced from an official website or profile on social media. Emails and texts can also be ignored, so it is important to be persistent with these forms of communication. They are usually better suited to arranging interviews rather than being used to partake in them, as they can be impersonal and it is hard to catch the interviewee off guard with an unexpected question.
Digital technology has also been a valuable tool for research. These days, most facts and figures can be found through a quick google search, which can allow research to be completed a lot quicker than previously. Yet as with everything on the internet, the verity of information you find must be confirmed. Sites such as Wikipedia are to be approached with a good deal of scepticism, as anyone can edit them and hoaxes are abound. In order to verify online information, it is best to use official government websites which are usually accurate, while also trying to confirm information through another reputable source. It is apparent that becoming tech-savvy is a very important skill for a journalist to have, as a skilled online researcher can find information that leads to a ground-breaking story.
While media outlets have always been rushing to be the first to break important news stories, the internet has accelerated this, putting pressure on journalists to publish stories quicker than ever before. This, coupled with the fact that many sub-editors are losing their jobs in newsrooms, means that there is a greater chance of errors occurring. It is on the onus of the journalist to ensure this is not the case, as errors tarnish the reputability of both the journalist and the publication they work for. Digital technology has also meant that journalists cannot afford to stick to one medium such as print, radio or television; they must learn to be proficient in all forms of reporting. For example, a reporter for a newspaper also may have to record footage for their publication’s website.
While reduced newspaper circulation and job cuts have led some to view the internet as damaging to journalism, former News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan disagrees. He believes that rather than being the enemy, the internet is “a medium on which great journalism can reach a larger audience.” As such, newsrooms have completely changed their structures and schedules, to accommodate multi-platform journalism. Consequently, journalists must acquire the skills to work effectively with digital technology.
Personal social media accounts have become a valuable, yet potentially hazardous domain for journalists, depending on how they are utilised. Twitter especially has become an important tool for journalists to share their personal views on issues, engage with readers and fellow journalists, as well as for building a loyal following. Yet tweeting something that is deemed offensive could have disastrous personal consequences. A recent example is that of journalist Scott McIntyre, who lost his job at SBS after tweeting insensitive statements about the Anzacs. It becomes apparent that while social media gives unparalleled opportunities for a journalist to have their voice heard, it also means that they have to be careful with what they post online. Even private personal media accounts on websites such as Facebook can be scrutinised, while more professional social media websites such as LinkedIn can be harnessed to create a successful career. In summary, social media is a form of digital technology that can be extremely productive for a journalist, but conversely it can have a damaging effect on one’s career if not used properly.
The furore over McIntyre’s tweets and subsequent sacking lead one to reflect on the enlightenment philosophy of freedom of speech. Enlightenment thinker John Milton said in 1644 that “opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.” But was McIntyre’s opinion knowledge in the making or just uniformed and slanderous? Regardless, another enlightenment thinker, John Stuart Mill, “argued that freedom of opinion, thought and discussion was, above all, foundational to civilisation” (Josie Vine Lecture 2/3). Yet while freedom of speech allows McIntyre to put forth his opinion without prosecution from the state, it does not mean his employer cannot take action against him. The MEAA was disappointed at the decision to sack McIntyre and believed it was an infringement on the “private lives of media professionals” (MEAA statement 27/4). It is apparent that media organisations see staff Twitter accounts as a marketing tool and thus will not tolerate tweets which they believe will damage their brand.
While digital technology has allowed for journalists to spread and access information faster than ever before, it also created many ethical and professional issues. It has meant that journalists need to be more skilled than ever in order to adapt to the myriad of new technologies available. Despite this, the fundamental duties of journalists remain the same, such as the need to be transparent, to tell the truth, to be accurate, to include full disclosure, to allow freedom of the public sphere and to do no harm. It is fulfilling these duties while utilising digital technology, which has become a vital task for journalists in the 21st century.