An outbreak of positive thinking on new media and the future of journalism

Not so long ago I published a post titled: The future of journalism and blogging – chapter 957.  Essentially I argued that, despite all the despairing navel-gazing and prognostications of doom for MSM news and political journalism posed by free content on the Internet, especially social media and citizen journalism,  the opportunities these developments offer to the existing media far outweigh the undoubted short-term threats.

Now that theme has been taken up in an ARC-funded study for SBS conducted by a group of media academics headed by Terry Flew and including blogging media academic (and fellow Best Blog Posts 2010 judge) Jason Wilson.  The study bears the catchy title: Rethinking Public Service Media and Citizenship: Digital Strategies for News and Current Affairs at Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service.  I’ve copied some key extracts over the page, but the whole thing is worth reading.

An issue of immediate significance to SBS and ABC is that their enabling legislation, passed in both cases in 1983, makes no reference to online media. Both are empowered by parliament to deliver radio and television services only, and they are funded accordingly. There is also the question of what they wish to do with their online sites. Media organizations typically think of the online site as an adjunct to their established media platforms of print, radio, and television, but such an approach significantly devalues the extent to which the online environment is more radically transformative of media production cultures, particularly those related to news and journalism, as “the unmanaged and perhaps unmanageable nature of the network itself . . . creates an essentially infinite, unbounded product,” and as “collaborative decision making erases old divisions of labor in the newsroom and, increasingly, draws on external input as well” (Singer, 2010, pp. 107, 108). This creates a new matrix of challenges and threats, but also opportunities for publicly funded media organizations. In particular, it raises the issue of whether they should be reconceived as public service media organizations, rather than as public service broadcasters, developing a service-based and platform-neutral understanding of their mission and their role in the broader media ecology in relation to content diversity and media citizenship (Coleman, 2004; Moe, 2008; Trappel, 2008). It also presents the question of the extent to which the sites should be opened up to the public in the sense of allowing citizens to be the content creators themselves, radically altering long established hierarchies of media production and consumption.

The paper concludes that, while there are significant risks for a public service broadcaster like SBS in opening itself to “media citizenship” and User-Created Content (UCC), the potential benefits and opportunities are manageable and outweigh those risks.  Nevertheless, the risks as envisaged by Flew et al are worth outlining briefly:

  1. In the case of SBS, the audience expectations of television news bulletins are such that UCC would not be considered to be of a suitable standard for broadcasting, and would not be provided with the quality and regularity that material from industry professionals is. UCC could be the basis for niche programs rather than the main news bulletins, but there was a view that its natural home would be in more locally based services—such as the rural and regional networks operated by the ABC—rather than the flagship news broadcasts. In contrast, SBS Online offers much better scope for the incorporation of UCC than SBS Television, as there is no inherent constraint to the amount of material that can be provided (unlike news bulletins with 30- or 60-minute timeslots). Expectations are different about online content, in terms of its quality—particularly audio-visual content—are different, and the ancillary services, such as chat rooms, discussion forums, blogs, Twitter feeds, etc., can hang off news stories and current affairs pieces more effectively.
  2. The third issue relates to the relationship between SBS’s news “brand,” its reputation for accuracy in its international news and current affairs stories, and questions of balance and bias that arise for SBS as a public service broadcaster.
  3. The fourth point relates to the continuing need for the editorial function in news selection, filtering and framing, particularly in the context of considering the use of UCC. The shift toward immediacy and reporting on demand, along with diversification of sources beyond established news agencies and employed reporters, raises questions of how facts are checked, stories verified, and the editorial function exercised. The case of the October 2008 hoax carried on CNN’s user-driven iReport site, in which a report that Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack led to a sharp fall in Apple’s stock price, drew attention to the dangers to brand reputation that can arise from unfiltered news content on established news sites.

Flew et al also pick up the concept of “pro-am” collaboration between professional and “citizen” journalists, as canvased in my previous post.  All in all, the paper is a promising development and exhibits a refreshing level of insight into the positive opportunities of social media and “citizen journalism”.  Whether SBS management actually picks up the ball and runs with it is another question.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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[…] higher than ever for journalists to report events as they happen, I can’t help but agree that we should embrace it, as social media will play a larger role in helping us to do […]