The Three Roles of Journalists in the Digital Age

Data Never Sleeps

Click to view infograph from Domo

Every minute…

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

(sourced from Domo)

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.

Journalism 2.0

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!

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7 thoughts on “The Three Roles of Journalists in the Digital Age

  1. Really like your blogpost! Think it’s interesting how you explain the different tasks of journalist and how they overlap. It would be interesting though, to also hear your opinion about these tasks and what challenges you think they will bring! What do you agree to be the biggest challenge?

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  2. Hi Esther & Joliida,
    Thanks for the comments. The questions you ask are really interesting, and you are right, I haven’t stated my opinion explicitly enough there. I was actually having this discussion with someone yesterday, and I really don’t think that it is one role that is more important than the others. Infact, because they are interdependent, engaging in one role, also means you undertake part of the other.

    From what I have read so far, being a curator is something that is given a lot of importance, because more and more issues of misinformation and rumours are coming to light. But I wanted to mention all three in equal light (therefore the venn diagram), mainly because I think we should give the gatekeeping and the watchdog role just as much importance. In my opinion, one big and still relatively less-discussed challenge of user-generated content, is that we focus on things that should probably not be making big news (like the leopard incident or the increased purchase of metal detectors in the Netherlands following someone discovering a small treasure on the beach – happened very recently I think). In a way, the gatekeeping and watchdog role can also be incorporated into curating then, making sure to find, verify and present news that the people should really be aware of, and leaving the more inconsequential stories to the people to share and discover themselves.

    I wonder if that answers your questions? What do you guys think about it?

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    • I agree that all three roles are important. And I want to add that with the rise of social media and citizen journalism it is becoming more complicated to answer whether media should form/shape public opinion by choosing what should appear in the news agenda and what not, or should depend on public demand and fulfill public needs.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Tanks not only for the interesting article but also for the useful links 🙂 What do you think, to what extent journalists realize that they are curators, gatekeepers and watchdogs? Do they really remember about that while preparing an article?

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  4. Hi Kriti, thanks for the answer! Ah, now I understand what your main point is. I still think it depends on the topic which role is most important for a journalist. I also think that, in the context of social media, people more and more decide what gets the most attention. For example, the great attention for the Ice Bucket Challenge was not something that journalists came up with. When we are talking about social media specifically, I still think that the role of journalists is to curate and verify the news.

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  5. Hi Esther, you are indeed right that when it comes to social media, people are deciding more and more what gets attention. Though I am not convinced that is entirely a great trend. For example, maybe the Ice Bucket challenge didn’t need to be such a hype; I wonder how much information it really spread about ALS. In that sense, journalists could make a stance still by choosing to ignore some types of news on social media, and bring to the social media agenda more important issues that might not be that trendy, but deserve our attention. That would partly fall under the task of curating, but also gatekeeping then.

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