“No matter how technologically advanced things are, you can’t take away the journalist’s role as a traditional gatekeeper of the truth.”
Dr William Silcock used these words to describe Maldivian journalism student Lujain Ismail Shafeeq’s video, “The Future of News”. Shafeeq’s video was a finalist in the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy’s 25th Anniversary video contest at the Harvard Kennedy School in the United States.
Dr Silcock is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona, one of the largest universities in the US. He was selected as a Fulbright Scholar in Ireland and Sweden, has received several awards over his 25 years of broadcasting, and is considered a pioneer in the research of global television news culture. Dr Silcock has previously organised workshops for journalists in Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, among others.
He spoke to journalism students at the Maldives’ National University on Sunday, October 16 regarding topics in communications such as ethics and the evolving nature of the press.
He observed that Lujain’s video presented modern journalism as a function of technology: using phones, cameras and global positioning systems (GPS), the journalist covering a story is relieved of the tasks of identifying a story, verifying sources or selecting quotes.
“In his vision, machines do a lot of the work for us. The traditional facts of who, what, where, when and why don’t need to be asked anymore.” But as Silcock points out, one flawed Tweet could jeopardise the journalist’s value as a messenger. “The audience contributes to the story, but what if the information is bad?”
Silcock used this and other videos at Sunday’s lecture, “Social Media and Online Journalism”, sponsored by the United States State Department in Colombo, to explore the concept of free expression.
Silcock began by identifying the original meaning of a message.
“Sacred texts were the first ‘Word’. Across the spectrum of religious belief we have lots of varieties of sacred texts. I once asked a Muslim student to teach me the value of the Word in the Qur’an. She taught me this: words are synonymous in Islam with responsibility. She quoted from the Qur’an: ‘Man does not utter any word except that with him is an observer prepared to record. Each word we utter we are responsible for in front of Allah.'”
Today, however, the nature of a message and the responsibility it entails is morphing.
“We are in an era of the ‘visual village'”, said Silcock. “We all want more images across the news.”
Although visuals have been attached to words in many religious and mythical texts throughout history, Silcock pointed out that those detailed images required attention and appreciation. Today, however, audiences want immediate satisfaction.
Noting that “journalism is market-driven” and “advertising is fundamental to the free press,” Silcock observed that, “we now have so many devices, so many platforms to communicate, that the audience attention has become fragmented and fractured.”
The impact on journalism, he said, was serious.
“There’s the traditional legacy media, papers such as the New York Times which have been around. But now we have ‘down in the valley’ media. The audience is actively engaging in and contributing to the news.”
Referring to the blogs and websites that many news outlets use to provide further information about their stories, including the process of creating them, Silcock also highlighted the effect of Twitter: “It’s microblogging, a story comes out in under 140 characters.”
Turning the focus on Facebook, Silcock suggested that social media outlets were adapting to a growing concept of “tribal journalism: people sharing information across platforms.” In the interest of free expression, everyone’s voice is given room for consideration.
Yet it remains the journalist’s task to navigate the possible pitfalls of so much information. Not only can journalists get false information through social media, they can also get too close to the spotlight.
“It’s important to put up a firewall between show business and journalism,” Silcock said. “TV news in the US, for example. Anchors sit in front of a fancy desk with all kinds of monitors that make the place look like something from Star Trek or outer space. But we don’t need all that.”
Silcock consolidated the ethics of ambushing a source for a story-breaking quote in the following terms: “Heat for light’s sake. You want to clarify the story. The negative side to that is heat for heat’s sake.”
In his concluding remarks, Silcock recognized the impressive and useful influence of social media on the news industry.
“Historically, we got through lots of transitions with technology. The typewriter, radio came along and then the television,” said Silcock, showing slides of these items. “But notice this picture of America’s famous pioneer of television Edward R Murrow. What is he doing? He’s reading a newspaper.”
Silcock advised his audience to apply social media forums in innovative ways for positive results. Referring to American documentary maker Ken Burns’ concept of the computer as “the electronic campfire,” he said, “we can compare people sitting at a campfire late at night, to people at a computer. They’re fueling the fires of free expression.”