‘News, as we know it, is dead.’
This statement keeps coming back whenever a journalism friend drops me a note on stuff he reads about what’s wrong with today’s journalism. His argument is sound, but I often find myself defending news, and journalism as we know it.
What has changed over the years, and why is journalism or news often at the receiving end of endless criticisms? For one, the tectonic shifts in the way we do journalism has challenged long-held practices, such as verification, accuracy, and good ‘ol gumshoe work, which involves a lot of research (I’m not talking about Googling stuff). I’m referring to following paper trails; going out for real interviews; doing your homework before shooting a video; or simply writing snappy but non clickbait-ish headlines.
Social Media-fication of News
This term I borrowed from my journalist friend. We now rely on social media for our daily dose of news. Social media outlets like the juggernaut: Facebook — are now competing with known news media brands for our attention (and advertising spend). Who wins? The one that has no original content but is the default homepage of every breathing human being who has access to a smartphone and a decent Internet connection. If more than 90% of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook, how do you compete with that?
And because social media is such a compelling force to reckon with — they wield power and influence over our daily activities. Social media is where the action is. People are engaged in debates, in conversations, in sharing the funniest punchline that becomes a meme. This is social media. That’s where advertisers and brands are betting on.
Has social media conditioned our brains to respond to short bursts of information? Vines offer 6-second videos. Snapchat Discoveries serve vertical video stories made for short-attention spans. Facebook Instant Articles are pushed to allow users to have direct access to news. Twitter delivers 140-character breaking news headlines. Instagram and DIY photojournalism.
Does technology define our society, and the way we do news and journalism?
‘News is a commodity’
You’ve probably heard this one before, but yeah, news is and has become a commodity — which is far from what it was: a means to hold public officials accountable; a voice for the voiceless; a public forum where great and relevant conversations can happen; a venue to expose the truth and challenge status quo; a venue for free speech; a channel for people to understand different perspectives on issues about our society, culture, government and our way of life; a medium where democracy can thrive and lead to better governance.
News is a commodity when it becomes too generic. The motivation to produce news is driven by the general thought of, “Who has the biggest and loudest microphone?” and “how much page views can you churn out every day.” Screaming and click-bait headlines. Bells and whistles. Scandalous and controversial opinions. Digital voyeurism thanks to close-circuit TVs. Online celebrities. TL;DR.
Mark Zuckerburg once said that “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” Has social media turned us into mere consumers of news and information? We consume content posted by friends. We take posts we see in our feeds as gospel truth; then we limit ourselves to what is in front of us. I would even dare say that while our society consumes more “news” than ever before — many are ill-informed about bigger issues like climate change or perhaps the #LumadKillings in Mindanao.
Context is lost, as people react to headlines and tweets only. Cat videos are in. We judge news by the “shares” and “likes.” We are obsessed with memes and love taking online quizzes. We don’t watch TV anymore — or at least the TV that we once knew. We know every nook and cranny of Hollywood TV series, but we don’t even remember how many Presidents have we had since we became a republic.
What’s the point of doing journalism these days?
It is hard to attract people to journalism. Before I start my term in the university, I often ask my comm and journalism students why are they studying journalism or communication. Very few dare say that they are there to change the world. Most would say it’s a stepping stone to another career.
Why do I still teach? I still believe there is a point to journalism — and it’s NOT dead. It is, however, evolving. New roles have emerged. Another friend is starting as a “social media editor” in a large TV network. When I asked what his job description was, he paused, and went on to explain that he was hired to manage “owned” social media accounts of the network. And then, there’s this so-called engagement editor, which is the next iteration of a social media editor.
Is the practice of gumshoe journalism disappearing? Has social media killed the messenger? Have we really given up on the idea that journalism leads to democracy? Has journalism become more of a reactive force to a more fast-paced environment that is social media, where news is dictated by #trendingtopics or online scandals and aberrations? That I leave to you to answer.
Journalism and news won’t go away. Our society needs it. I need it. But as a former, practicing journo, I have always believed that journalism IS a vocation — a responsibility that we choose because of we believe the people needs to be at least be informed of what’s happening around them to make better and informed decisions. In fact, you don’t need to go to journ school to learn this stuff. But it helps if you’re guided by those who have been there in the trenches, fighting the battles in spite of the odds against them.