Are We in a Golden Age of Journalism?

Golden Age

In a recent piece in Business Insider, Henry Blodget proposed that journalism has entered “a golden age.” While he has a number of well-spoken points, there are three that seem the most salient for US international media.

  • Every journalist on earth can now reach nearly every human on earth, directly and instantly.
  • The proliferation of mobile gadgets has made it possible to consume news anywhere 24 hours a day.
  • Today’s journalism now offers reporters a full range of storytelling formats, rather than be trapped in a single format, such as a newspaper article or television broadcast.

Are we in a Golden Age?

We are.

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There has been explosion of creativity across all aspects of journalism. Social curation. Mobile broadcasting. Data visualization. Long-form stories. User generated content. Open news hacking. It is a fantastic time to be a part of journalism.

Before I go too far in tech idealism, we need to balance the potential of the digital age with the critical values that distinguish journalism from public relations or propaganda.

Borrowing a phrase from David Ensor, Director of Voice of America, we need to “aggressively utilize new tools, but keep close to old journalistic values”.

For the old values of journalism are the best guides on how to apply the technological advantages we have today. A subtext to all of thoughts on digital journalism is that “digital tools can help you access new markets, but ultimately it is quality content, maintained by strong journalism values that will enable you to build and keep audiences.”

In a series of posts I want to write about some of the profound changes that technology has wrought in how we gather and write the news. Specifically issues of Sources, Speed & Accuracy. Let’s start with the impact of technology now and into the future of Sources.

Sources

On May 1st, 2011 a simple tweet of a man woken by helicopters illustrated the potential of the Internet to become a valuable source for journalism. Despite highly compartmentalized knowledge, nape-of-the-earth-flying with radar absorbing helicopters, one of the most important military operations of the US’s War Against Terror was revealed by a guy who couldn’t sleep.

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The “Osama Raid tweet” was a stark display that with the right tools and knowledge social platforms could be a powerful source for news organizations. In the digital age you have the potential of leveraging every mobile phone, every Tweet, every Facebook post as source.

Sourcing Sources: The Role of Social Forensics 

While the Osama Raid tweet was found by reporters through more luck than anything, there is a growing usage of social media forensics with journalism.

Social mining tools, commercial platforms like SocialFlow, SalesForce Marketing Cloud or Mass Relevance, as well as other competitors and academic tools allow journalists to quickly sort through social content to find nuggets of journalistic information.

Used as a blunt object, newsrooms are using social data analysis to try identify news trends early. In this mode, newsrooms are not always applying their core journalistic values of sourcing or context, but just thinking about being the first to report on a news event.

More sophisticated users use social data analysis to ask more interesting questions: “Why did this event occur?” “Who is associated with it?” “How is the public influenced by it?” “Who is a reliable and authoritative source on what is happening?”

How information moves between people and across the network are essential elements to understanding the news. For example in the recent attack on the Westgate Mall there was a running PR battle between Al-Shabab and the Kenyan government as a real battle was taking place. For a journalist that back-and-forth on Twitter was newsworthy. Using social forensics reporters have a better opportunity to broaden the story, to understand the context of the attack with all of its ethnic, religious and political implications.

For instance, How does the Arabic population in Kenya in the Mombasa region view Al-Shabaab, a Somali based organization? What are the various reactions by the people of Kenya to the attack?  How do these reactions align with key tribal and political organizations? What is the discussion and thoughts of the Somali diaspora in places like the US, Canada and the UK and populations in Africa?

While this information is not a traditional “source” it is the distillation of the comments, feelings and engagement of millions of “sources”…social media data in essence is a ‘meta-source’, a source of sources, that can help truly inform a story.

There is an immensely important role for journalistic values in using social media data as a source. It can be a dangerous proposition to not apply basic journalism skepticism.

Jennifer Carrnig, Direct of Communications for NY ACLU, captured the promise and problems of social data: “When everyone has a video camera with them at all times, the potential is limitless. But there is clearly a downside to that, because when everybody is submitting stuff, it is hard to know in real time what is valid; there is the potential for [false information] to be out there.”

Data: An Emerging Source for Journalists

A second powerful new source–and perhaps one still in its infancy–is data. Journalism is rooted in storytelling; and the tradition is of a reporter talking to enough other people to paint a picture of the news.  It almost goes without saying that when I say “sources” 99% of you in the audience think “people.”

However, we have to start broadening our minds. Computer-aided journalism and data visualizations from NPR, Ushihidi, InfoAmazonia, NYTimes and infographics like Visualizing Palestine are beautiful examples of how data not only enhances storytelling, but IS the story.

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Infographic on Syria communicates the news in a visually engaging way.

Data is a valid and highly relevant journalism source because powerful data analysis tools have become accessible and affordable for non-technical users. You don’t need a PhD in statistics or have to have the title of “Data Scientist” to be able to mine journalistic insights from data sets. This is information that was not possible to glean from any one person or even groups of people. If your future newsroom is going to start recruiting “data sources” a good place to start is the Data Journalism Handbook and getting your reporters to understand tools like Google Fusion Tables or Tableau.

Social forensics and data are just two emerging sources amongst a number of encouraging technology-based tools, including crowd-sourced platforms (e.g. Open Watch) or social curation/verification services (e.g. Storyful), which I will cover in more depth as they are also great tools for enhancing journalistic accuracy in this networked age of speed.

My next post will discuss the nature of Speed vs. Accuracy and how journalism organizations are balancing the ability to publish quickly with the core journalistic values…

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Rob Bole is the Director of Innovation for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @rbole.

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