72 hours of new video are uploaded on YouTube
4,000,000 search queries are posed on Google
2,460,000 pieces of content are shared on Facebook
… and this is just a small segment of the bigger picture
In this digital age of information explosion, journalism, with its commitment to bringing information and truth to the masses, has taken on new facets, and the responsibilities of the journalists have expanded to include new roles while redefining older ones. The most widely mentioned among these roles are those of journalists as curators, gatekeepers, and watchdogs. This article provides a brief glimpse into what these roles entail and how they are related in today’s online context.
1. Journalists as curators
What was the first thing you did on hearing about the Malaysian Airlines plane being shot down over Ukraine? Like many other news stories being transmitted digitally, this headline reached me through my social network contacts. The first thing I did was check if BBC carried a report on the incident. The same happened again when I heard the first mention of the beheading of journalist James Foley; I instantly switched on CNN. Whether out of habit or trust, we tend to depend on news companies and journalists to provide us with the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date information.
The fast pace of online information on the other hand has made it impossible for journalists to always be the first and prime reporters of every event. News-related content is constantly being uploaded and shared by freelance writers, bloggers, and casual bystanders. Consequently, content curation, elaborated in this research paper by Federico Guerrini, is a new role that journalists have had to assume in recent times. As curators, journalists are responsible for sifting through information to identify newsworthy events, locate and verify sources and check the accuracy of their content. Additionally, as curators journalists are also responsible for archiving and preserving content, and collating different material to create a meaningful story (see this article by Sophia B. Liu for a detailed list of journalistic curatorial activities).
2. Journalists as gatekeepers
Gatekeeping refers to the filtering process that journalists use to determine what should feature on the news agenda and what should be left out. With the rise of citizen journalism and increasing reliance on user generated content, the traditional gatekeeping role of journalism has been challenged. As a result, some experts in the field (such as Dr Alex Bruns from the Media & Communications department at the Queensland Institute of Technology in this paper) have suggested moving over to a gatewatching role where the news content is determined collaboratively with the audience. However, the danger in this is that a number of stories with more far-reaching consequences are left out, while stories of meagre importance that manage to capture the public fancy take centre-stage.
An interesting example of this was featured on the show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in April this year (read about it here), where John Oliver pointed out how the American media had shown a disappointing ignorance with regard to the oncoming elections in India, the world’s largest democracy, and the only piece aired by Fox News on India that week had been about a fleeing leopard bursting into a village house. In light of this problem, as mentioned by Jane B. Singer, from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, in her 2006 article, the online information overload lends yet more credibility to the gatekeeping role of journalists in determining what is worthy of the news.
3. Journalists as watchdogs
Beyond the curating and presenting of relevant news pieces, journalists also act on behalf of their audience to question authority or oppose injustice. Thus the watchdog role of journalism is a commitment to public service. It is an active search for stories that need telling: What should we be alarmed about? What should we question? Content found online may be incomplete or misrepresentative of the true state of affairs. It is then the responsibility of the journalist to use the vast online resources as a first step in a deeper investigating that sheds clear light on critical issues. In a keynote presentation at the 2013 Digital Journalism Ethics Roundtable, Todd Gitlin, professor of Journalism and Sociology at Columbia University, cited the example of climate change reporting in this context, where currently the small subset of doubters are represented at par with the large community of scientists who are all in consensus on global warming. The watchdog role of journalism would thus call for greater space to be given to the latter group showing considerable evidence supporting climate change.
The three roles of journalism described above are very much inter-dependent and at times even overlap. Moreover, the roles are not exclusive to the profession of journalists per se. Various organizations, not part of mainstream news reporting, serve each of these roles. Storyful for example, is a for-profit online news curating company, while Politifact is an example of a fact-checking watchdog organization. Further, independent bloggers are increasingly serving the gatekeeping role in media. Regardless of whether these roles are shared with such external organizations and bloggers, the challenges of online reporting demand that journalists in the digital age possess and exercise the technical skills to take on a combination of all three of these roles. The few cases mentioned above reflect how we’re just at the start of this gazillion-bit journey!