The ‘new’ News. News in a digital age.
As a journalist I thrive on change. I look for it, deal with it and expect it to happen right up to a deadline. It’s all part of the job. But journalists expect to see that change in a story, not in the very concept of news itself. Today’s news – and the delivery of news – has changed beyond recognition. The information we provide, the stories we tell, has altered unrecognisably in a generation. I’m not just talking about the technology, I also mean the ethical framework we work in.
But let’s start at the very beginning. Well my beginning. 24 years ago as a newly trained journalist with the BBC. A world where I was working without google, social media and the Kardashians! How did I cope? As a rookie reporter at Radio Leeds, it was my job to tell a story in a fact-based, objective way. Armed with my storytelling sidekicks – a notepad, hefty tape recorder and a public phone box. If I could find the place and the people, then I had a good chance of getting a story. But it would only reach the airwaves if it was balanced and considered. My job was to try and tell the truth. How simple those times seem now.
Life on the road was unpredictable and exciting. Each morning held a new assignment. Without the help of the world wide web, the emphasis then was what I could gather at the scene. Knocking on doors, asking at the local library, sitting in court or a council meeting. Hearing from those at the heart of the story. No fortune or favour. Just facts.
It was a similar ethos when I was promoted to a news anchor in regional TV. Whatever the story, whoever the interviewee, my aim was to get the story but remain impartial. The viewer didn’t know what football team I followed, let alone the political party I voted for. I felt I was a conduit for the news, not a commentator on it. I dealt in communication not controversy. I was there to hold people in power to account. To find answers for ordinary people in extraordinary situations. And if I hosted debates, of course I wanted people to express their opinion. To provide a grown up discussion – an exchange of diverse ideas. Guests would disagree or argue a point with someone, but they would still listen to the alternative points. You didn’t storm off, you didn’t get cancelled.
Technology has changed that. The way we communicate has been revolutionised. People are consuming news all the time. Journalists operate at breakneck speed. The news cycle is on a super-spin. We don’t really have time for in-depth. Articles and videos are bite-sized not banquet-sized. Less is more. Snappy headlines. Snazzy graphics. Short video clips. Bloggers, influencers, anyone with a phone – they’re all reporters. They can put an opinion into the world – something which may go viral – without any fact checking or editing. This vast digital landscape allows you to choose the news you want. And ignore accounts and programmes you disagree with.
News also now comes at you from so many places, not just newspapers, television and radio. Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, Facebook rants, celebrity posts and TikTok trends. Opinions are making headlines and can be presented as fact. News presenters don’t always have journalism qualifications, their number of social media followers can be the way to a prime role. In some cases, the more outspoken and controversial anchors are the better. That combination will go viral. And for some outlets going viral is more important than being accurate. Impartiality is no longer the holy grail. Getting clicks, likes and retweets is the priority.
Journalists are now competing for an audience like never before. They’re not just telling a story – they’re selling it too. With less time to think, consider and prepare. News was once a one-way avenue of communication. Now it’s a spaghetti-junction. Social media lets us interact, participate and even influence the news. We’re living in a time where there’s no real distinction between professional journalism and other groups. Misinformation has an outlet. There are so many voices. It’s a confusing and biased landscape. Truth is slippery. Algorithms don’t care about the truth, they work on viral information. Responsible communication isn’t the priority it once was. So maybe it’s time for a new code of ethics in this online age.
But listen, I don’t look back with rose-tinted glasses. Because maybe that lack of choice in where you once got your news, also brought with it a whole heap of issues. Maybe all newsrooms and journalists have a bias. And perhaps the digital age has made us focus on transparency rather than objectivity. Reporters need to make it clear to audiences what they’re about and where they’re coming from. Like I said at the start, I thrive on change. Living in a culture of content can make it hard to know what is fake and what is real online. So let’s keep our minds open and alert. Look at numerous sources. Watch and listen to different points of view. Vary our timelines. Verify data. Look for the real story. I’ll do the same. We’re telling these stories together now. So let’s make sure the truth is heard.