Networked Journalism – Gates of Eden?

Networked Journalism (pic from Flickr user 'ndanger')

Networked Journalism (pic from Flickr user 'ndanger')

Is the act of journalism loaded with any inherent social responsibilities? The answer to this question is central to taking a stance on the utility and desirability of networked journalism.

By social responsibilities I do not mean ethics. I can say now, before I have been rolled down the hill from the moral high-ground to the gutter press by an editor demanding stories that will sell copies, that I sincerely believe journalism should aspire to objectivity and truth. It should never mislead, and it should always inform. This is not the debate I am getting at here, however.

Part of the reason Charlie Beckett is such a fan of networked journalism is because of the positive social effects he believes it will encourage. In this article, he asks readers to think of how networked journalism can open “up the space for a more participatory politics at all levels.”

He expands on this: “Imagine how it can inform a more deliberative democracy. Instead of claiming a special dispensation, the journalist will now become part of a network of responsibilities and relevance. It’s where I have always thought good journalism belonged.”

Later on he outlines his vision for the future role of the journalist: “The networked journalist changes from being a gatekeeper who delivers to a facilitator who connects.”

This is all noble stuff, but there is a significant risk in emphasising public participation as the main social purpose of journalism if it comes at the expense of another equally crucial function: giving the public information they did not know before, and did not think they would be interested in.

If the network journalism see-saw becomes weighed down too heavily at the public end, and citizens are given free reign over the news agenda, there is a danger of getting bogged down in the hyperlocal. In terms of news agenda setting, crowd-sourcing could turn out to be of limited utility because there are many crowds, and many of them think their own is the most important.

Journalism is about people, but it is about people all over the world. It is important on a number of levels that members of the public do not exist in their own localised news bubbles. In this sense, I’m not with Charlie when he says journalists should surrender the role of gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is necessary just so that people know there is a gate that leads somewhere else.

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~ by seanbradbury on October 23, 2008.

2 Responses to “Networked Journalism – Gates of Eden?”

  1. Careful with your terms Sean, gatekeeper is loaded with meaning. In online terms it means someone who controls the agenda, access to information and what others should be allowed to see.

    Does it have to be weighted? Does it even have to be part of the mainstream agenda – could newspapers support their own site like Spot.us which works with the community and look at distributed models on where it should be published?

    I think Beckett’s ideas are interesting, if a little evangelical, but there is definitely something here – even though he isn’t the first person to come up with this idea, he’s got a big name brand behind him to distribute his ideas.

    What is interesting is the idea that people need gatekeepers to tell us what we are allowed to see – is that why mainstream media is losing readers and viewers?

  2. I still think that if Beckett and others are prepared to champion citizen/networked journalism by highlighting its democratic potential, they have to account for the other side of the debate which questions exactly what a news agenda set by the public would constitute, and the potential effects of this.

    There is a real danger that important political and social issues will not become salient unless they are prominent in the media. If we are not reading and hearing about such things, governments need not be concerned about them. My worry is that many important issues will slip further and further from view, as the media is increasingly obliged to devote the bulk of its coverage to what you referred to in one of your online lectures as the “me-sphere”, and the blinkered content this could potentially give rise to.

    Ollie has blogged on this theme and he makes some great points: http://oliversmithswriting.blogspot.com/2008/10/give-em-what-they-want.html

    He says: “So where exactly will the rise of the ‘me sphere’ leave editors, torn between reporting the news people want to hear, and the news they really ought to know? Coupled with the fragmentation of news outlets – will it make it ever more easy for people to disown responsibility to report events like the Rwandan genocide?”

    I hope I am just being pessimistic here, and time will tell. If, as it develops, citizen journalism works to put issues on the agenda and these are aggregated and projected back louder and further by traditional media outlets, that would be ideal. You are right about Spot.us, it will be realy interesting to see how that develops.

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