As people’s connection to the world has continued to grow, political reporting and journalism as a profession has had to evolve. Gone are the days where a family would gather around the television for the six o’clock news from the same familiar news desk. Instead unlimited banks of knowledge and social interactions on the internet lead to news spreading quicker and farther than ever before. Anyone can text and tweet news they witness instantly, turning them into temporary journalists. However, the role of the professional journalist remains important even if there are new effects on politics and society.
Journalism has been a profession that has remained, for the most part, static over the past few decades. Innovations such as the radio and the television gave reporters more options for communicating the news to the public, but the process of collecting news and telling news stories remained mostly the same. Dan Redding, in an article for Smashing Magazine titled “We can do Better: The Overlooked Importance of Professional Journalism”, defined journalism as “the pursuit of truth, accuracy and fairness in the telling of a story” (2011). This definition can be applied to journalists from all time periods or at least to the idea of journalism in all time periods. However, upholding this definition is becoming a bigger challenge for today’s journalists, especially when they are covering sensitive topics such as revolutions and elections.
The 2012 U.S election brought to light many of the new challenges journalists face when covering digital politics. During the debates between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, with commentary in real time on Twitter, reporters were divided. They had to juggle between being critical and being fair. In an interview on Mashable.com, Kerry Lauman, editor-and-chief of the magazine Salon, talked about the importance of journalists to have their own personality on social media. He runs his magazine with the mindset of “[being] faster than anyone better than you, and better than anyone faster than you” (Prakash, 2012). Journalism is still all about being first and that now comes down to the second, not to the exclusive prepared days before publication. Lauman continued by saying, “You can’t get away with knee-jerk reaction pieces now. The pieces need to be much more scrupulous” (Prakash, 2012). In an attempt to find an audience, reporters need to be unique and sell themselves, something very new to the industry. But with an audience watching them all the time, journalists have to find a fine line between voicing opinions and voicing facts. With social media on the rise and journalists interacting with their audience on a more personal level, it is sometimes difficult to keep the definition of journalism in check.
The discussion of being accurate and fair still was not a major problem during the first major technological leap in journalism. The internet boom of the 1990’s, when email gave journalists a new and quicker way to communicate, still put the core of journalism first. Radio journalist Ira Basen called this first major change “News 1.0” in his radio report News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media, adding that the expansion online still left “the conversation between journalists and their audience… mostly one-way” (2009). Journalists were still the only ones reporting the news and the only ones trusted with news. But now they could communicate among themselves more efficiently, and send stories to the newsroom from almost anywhere. The introduction of email into mainstream use gave journalists a hint of what was to come, but it did not have as drastic of an effect on the industry as social media would.
It was not until the “News 2.0” generation of social media and mass sharing did the craft of journalism really change. “Everyone now has the ability to send stories, pictures and videos around the world with a click of a mouse,” Basen writes in his introduction. “The lines separating reporters, editors and audiences have become very blurry.” During the past U.S. election, journalists and the public were united on Twitter to discuss everything the candidates said or did. After the first debate between Obama and Romney, Twitter announced that there had been over 10.3 million tweets during the 90 minute faceoff (Sharp, 2012a). This was a Twitter record and showed how important the role that the medium plays is to people’s interpretation of the news.
Many of the tweeters that night were professional journalists, but quite a few were citizen journalists, who do it as a hobby. These people, mostly bloggers, have taken advantage of the tools offered in the new digital age to make their own content to share to the masses. They can voice their opinions, offer insight to current events, and even share firsthand accounts from the scene, common in the Middle East. Jay Rosen, a journalism teacher at New York University, wrote about blogging before Twitter was invented. In his article, he argued that bloggers and journalists were one and the same, writing, “This is an exciting time in journalism. Part of the reason is the extension of ‘the press’ to the people we have traditionally called the public” (2005). Interaction between public and press has advanced beyond anything Rosen could have imagined back in 2005. At the time, the Boxing Day tsunami in Sri Lanka was still the event everyone was reporting on, and bloggers were very much involved. In his article, Rosen quotes John Schwartz from the New York Times who said, “For vivid reporting from the enormous zone of tsunami disaster, it was hard to beat the blogs.” This is the first time where citizen journalism really established itself as a medium that was here to stay. Now in 2013, the network has grown so large that it now includes platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to make a world where everything is connected. Nothing newsworthy happens now that is not witnessed by someone willing to share it with the world instantly.
In October 2012, the PEW Research Centre released some statistics regarding mobile use in the United States, and how much news people read from their devices. PEW discovered that 50 per cent of American adults have either a smart phone or tablet and that 66 per cent of these people get their news on those devices (Mitchell, Rosenstiel, Houston & Christian). This mobile device revolution has led to a higher consumption of news from professional journalism sources (Mitchell et al.), evidence that there remains a need for reporters with knowledge on all kinds of topics. The impending doom of the reporter may be what is being preached to the world, but traffic to real sources’ sites continues to rise with more people on the internet. PEW found that 43 per cent of people find that their tablets boost their overall consumption of news, while 31 per cent said they go to news sources (Mitchell et al. 2012). In the above article from Mashable, Neha Prakash wrote that “it wasn’t uncommon for political journalists to watch the debates with two, maybe three computer screens, a mobile device ready for push notifications and, of course, a social dashboard scrolling in the background” (2012). With such a large audience on the social media, journalists have no choice but to engage them everywhere. The number of mobile devices and social media users will continue to grow and it is a trend that does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.
With more people than ever watching the U.S. election unfold, the politicians had to campaign very differently. One small slip up from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could (and did) affect their campaigns greatly. One of the examples from Romney came in the second debate, when he brought up his “binders full of women” as the way he chose to hire women while Governor of Massachusetts. There were over 102,000 tweets per minute during his digression and a parody account of Romney’s Binder that still has over 6,000 followers today (Sharp, 2012b). While Romney intended to talk about how diverse his workplace was, the quote took off on Twitter, and his real message was lost.
Even with each candidate being very cautious about what people heard them say, it was a big surprise when Jeremy Peters revealed in The New York Times that both campaigns had asked him to edit quotes. Peters wrote last July that “quote approval is standard practice for the Obama campaign” and that “Romney’s advisors almost always require that reporters ask them for the green light on anything from a conversation” (2012). With the way some news stories can go viral so quickly, the candidates were doing everything they could to influence the public’s perception of them. Peter’s continued by writing, “it is a double-edged sword for journalists, who are getting the on-the-record quotes they have long asked for, but losing much of the spontaneity and authenticity in their interviews.” The candidates do not care about the authenticity of the interviews and now that journalists are conforming to their every whim, it will be a big job to go back to the way things were. With so many organizations admitting to quote approval, it appears the candidates are succeeding at spreading their better looking message, instead of what they actually say.
Stories like Peters’ call into question the reliability of journalists. Professional journalists should be trusted journalists, especially with their audiences now being larger than ever. But if organizations like Bloomberg, the Washington Post, Reuters and the New York Times are letting government officials edit their quotes; there is a big problem in the newsroom. “We don’t like the practice,” Dean Baquet, managing editor for news at The New York Times told Peters. “We encourage our reporters to push back.” There is no way to know if the push back is working. Not only has social media changed how journalists research and share their stories, it has also changed how politicians treat journalists, for the worse. There is a major shift in political journalism where governments are being more cautious than ever. Their confidence in the media’s interpretation of events is next to zero and they feel they have no choice but to tamper with how the public sees them.
Covering politics is difficult for journalists, a career that requires bias to be left at home. Getting politicians to give good quotes is one of the hardest parts of the job, but letting them edit the quotes makes the jobs and decisions even more difficult. David Carr, a business reporter at The New York Times, wrote his own piece about political control over journalists, saying, “Subjects of coverage are asking for, and sometimes receiving, the kind of consideration that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago” (2012). Carr used a metaphor of puppets giving a performance to describe the way journalists are treated by politicians and powerful business leaders. He offers a critical look at an industry that is trying to stay afloat while still doing a good job at telling stories, writing, “Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back.” That is the fundamental purpose of journalism, to tell a story about what someone said and why that is important. If a reporter losses the trust of their audience, and they did not say what is reported, then they are out of a job.
Carr was not the only one comparing the Obama administrations treatment of media to a puppeteer. Politico also ran a story with that headline, in which Jim Vandehei and Mike Allen point out even more examples of times where Obama was not cooperative with media.
“(Obama) spends way more time talking directly to voters via friendly shows and media personalities,” they write. “The president has shut down interviews with many of the White House reporters who know the most and ask the toughest questions,” (2013). To the general public, the Obama’s appear everywhere, including talk shows with Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres. They do not talk on CNN or MSNBC, though, where professional journalists will ask questions about policy and not about life in the White House. Professional journalists have a hard time reporting on these appearances because they have become paparazzi moments and not political stories. Ann Compton, an ABC News White House reporter, is offended by this and says, “The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace. The president’s day-to-day policy development is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it” (Allen & Vandehei, 2013). Professional journalists want to let the public know what happens in government, and when they cannot, the job becomes more complicated.
A major reason for Obama’s constant appearances on high rated talk shows is that attention span has also shifted. Even though thousands upon thousands of people tweeted about the election, most of them lost their focus when the scores of the baseball playoffs or other current events took over. Having a smartphone and access to social networks does not fully determine the engagement of citizens (Loader & Mercea, 2012). Professional journalists, however, must remain focused on the story; it is their job. They are there from the beginning, asking questions and taking notes, learning everything they can about the story; political or otherwise. Only professional journalists are qualified to discuss the political matters with the detail they do. Everyone else is a casual observer who tune in and out constantly on their smartphones, between checking in on what their friends are doing and if their favourite team is winning.
The way news is spread around the world has changed permanently. Journalists have had to adopt and face new challenges that would never have been considered only 15 years ago. Politicians are using this to manipulate the media and the public, which makes getting credible information on important policies next to impossible. The public still relies on professional journalists to get their news and reporters remain the only people who are qualified to keep all the news accurate. But those journalists have to fight through the many posts from citizen journalists, who carry smartphones around and can capture footage of news when they see it. Politicians and professional journalists will continue to work together, no matter their differences. Even with journalism evolving, the profession’s importance will never go away.
Allen, M., & Vandehei, J. (2013). Obama, the puppet master. Politico. Retrieved from http://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/obama-the-puppet-master-87764.html
Carr, D. (2012). The puppetry of quotation approval. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/business/media/the-puppetry-of-quotation-approval.html?_r=0
Loader, B. D., & Mercea, D. (2012) Social media and democracy : Innovations in participatory politics. Taylor and Francis.
Mitchell, A., Rosenstiel, T., Santhanam, L. H. (2012). The explosion in mobile audiences and a close look at what it means for news. PEW Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/node/31038
Peters, J. M. (2012). Latest word on the trail? I take it back. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/16/us/politics/latest-word-on-the-campaign-trail-i-take-it-back.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all
Prakash, N. (2012). Is Twitter Helping or Harming Political Journalism? Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2012/11/30/twitter-political-journalism/
Redding, D. (2011). We can do better: The overlooked importance of professional journalism. Smashing Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2011/01/28/we-can-do-better-the-overlooked-importance-of-professional-journalism/
Rosen, J. (2005). Bloggers vs. journalists is over. PressThink. Retrieved from http://archive.pressthink.org/2005/01/21/berk_essy.html
Sharp, A. (2012a). Dispatch from the Denver debate. Twitter Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.twitter.com/2012/10/dispatch-from-denver-debate.html
Sharp, A. (2012b). Twitter at the town hall debate. Twitter Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.twitter.com/2012/10/twitter-at-town-hall-debate.html