Future proofing journalism

By Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede

What is the role of journalism in the ever changing digital and social media environment? How will the fourth industrial revolution change journalism? And can journalism survive? These are questions raised again and again and while they are not necessarily new to the discourse and debate around journalism as the craft has always evolved and changed with the times, there are turning points in time in which more fundamental changes take place.

The invention of the printing press, the industrial revolutions 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and of course now 4.0, all present a point in case. Not only do social and technological transitions alter the media landscape, these transitions are also changed and shaped by the media. As such it is argued that it can be difficult to separate cause from effect, when it comes to the evolution of the media.

The changes brought about by the third industrial revolution or the ‘digital age’ are still much debated and the glut of information, instantaneous nature, and lack of editorial oversight over social media have fundamentally changed everything from news production and news content to news consumption. And while most of us are still grappling with these changes, the fourth industrial revolution is already in full swing. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things are no longer the topic of science fiction, but increasingly our daily reality.

Meanwhile, the news media and journalism has not changed much in terms of the role it assigns itself. While modernity or the second industrial revolution that saw mass society emerge, provided the basis for normative ideas around the role of the news media in liberal democracies (provide entertainment; educate and inform – often with an emphasis on news and what is ‘new’; serve as a public forum for deliberation and discussion; act as a watchdog of government, business and other powerful societal institutions and interests), contemporary debates around the role of the news media are yet to synthesise ideas around a new role for journalism.

It seems we have forgotten that all media are not created equal. And while, some do entertainment better, others do education and information and yet others might act as watchdogs and provide investigative journalism. We need to understand these functions and learn to sort one from the other.

Thus, what journalism can, maybe even more importantly should do, is to build on what is its strengths, independently of platforms, as these will inevitably change with the times. The strength of journalism is not necessarily in providing entertainment or what is new, what it can do however is to add depth, accountability, transparency and empathy to a media sphere that has become increasingly sensor filled. It can do so by telling stories built on accountability and transparency, i.e. taking lessons from the basics of ethical reporting and make sure that what we label ‘journalism’ and the stories that we attribute to journalism, focus its resources on depth and investigative journalism that goes beyond mere reporting and observation, and comes with a seal of editorial consciousness.

These are stories that utilise our capacity as journalists to hone our research skills and become ‘experts’ in our own right in various fields, at least to the point where the old forms of ‘beat’ reporting is replaced with a reporting of emerging global concerns such as migration, the environment and securitisation for example.

We can do so providing compelling stories that also give critical insights. And investigative as well as good and compelling stories take more than machine thinking in 4.0 language, instead such stories compliment or even rival or succeeds in providing a journalism of rigour, thought, and importantly, empathy, yet absent in a ‘journalism’ of robotics or Artificial Intelligence. This is where we still have one up on technological advancements.

Empathy, more than anything will be emphasised in debates around transformation and decolonisation, and journalism will have to take heed of calls to humanise, where it has been, or is, thought to de-humanise.

And we can use technology and the social media sphere to our advantage. This by using big data and find and make use of innovative ways of harvesting and comparing data from across the world. Just think about Wikileaks and the Panama Papers for example. This also opens up opportunities for forming partnerships with global news networks and networks of journalists and NGO’s that work on issues that concern us all.

And where the relative merits of objectivity might have been pitted against change and advocacy, transparency will have to be the new norm(ative) for editorial oversight and consciousness. Journalism will have to trade in stories that provides the audience with a way to verify how a story was produced and where the information came from.

Thus, the journalism of the future is investigative and in-depth, it is empathetic to the context that it serves, and accountable and transparent in ways that counters mere regurgitation, computer generated contents, fake news, political posturing and sensationalism. This for whatever reason and from whatever quarter. It is simply journalism, at its best.

Contributors

Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede

Ylva Rodny-Gumede is Professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television at the University of Johannesburg. Ylva is a former journalist and her current research includes investigating journalism practices in the post-colony, the transformation of communications and media studies curriculum, including the broader transformation of higher education in South Africa.

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