Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The death of journalism?

By Graham Cooke

Is journalism dead? No, but in its traditional form it is dieing, and it will not be long before the last rites are held.

I stress 'in its traditional form'. Journalism as a whole will not die. People will still want information; they will want to know about things going on around them - we are by nature inquisitive, and that's a good thing.

But the kind of information we access, and the way it is brought to us, is changing and the concern is whether the new-style journalism that is also evolving, is up to the task.

A recent survey conducted by the Media Trust in the United Kingdom surveyed the state of regional journalism in that country and its findings make bleak reading.

It found that newspaper closures and job cuts were having a 'devastating' effect on the quality of news in local areas, with job insecurity and commercial priorities limiting journalists' ability to question and analyse.

Reporters were stuck at their desk, cutting and pasting media releases, scarcely finding time to lift a phone and call contacts, let alone get out into the community and find stories.

The internet, instead of becoming a valuable additional tool for research was becoming the be-all-and-end-all; media officers and publicity companies were increasingly dictating what appeared in the news pages.

As traditional journalism sinks into this malaise it is being replaced by a new breed of 'citizen journalists' - untrained amateurs using mobile phones and emails to tap into the media, providing information on everything from the local Rotary Club meeting to potholes in the road outside their homes.

It is a development that is enthusiastically embraced by media owners - free news from an army of unpaid reporters and photographers. Many actually encourage the practice by running prizes and give-aways for the best news tip or photograph of the week.

Meanwhile, the increasingly diminishing pool of trained journalists are put to work knocking the often semi-literate contributions into shape.

In parallel with this is the growth of so-called celebrity journalism. What might have once been material for gossip columns is increasingly represented as hard news. Again media owners will argue that its popularity demonstrates that is what the public wants. Maybe, but is it all it wants? And does this represent a demeaning race to the bottom?

A free and unfettered media is a cornerstone of all democracies. The paradox is that with the exception of government-financed television and radio channels this essential service is provided by commercial interests. For most of modern history the hybrid system seemed to work reasonably well, and it is only in the last decade or so that it has been showing signs of breaking down.

If professional journalists are chained to their desks, and 'citizen journalists' do not have the training or experience to seek stories other than those right under their noses; if we become obsessed with the latest B-grade starlet's sex scandal to the exclusion of all else, then who is left to uncover dirty dealings at City Hall?

As one frustrated journalist, writing in response to the Media Trust report put it: "There's no time these days to cultivate contacts, go out and cover stories and give your work any thought - it's just like bagging spuds. Do one, on to the next one.

"It's heartbreaking."