(by Wesley Gibbings)
The Impact of Social Media on Traditional Journalism
first presented in Oranjestad, Aruba on September 7, 2013
The theme of convergence dominates the discussion on the relationship between old media and the new. I would argue that the history of mass media has been a story of multi-dimensional impacts on an industry and a profession that have themselves been in a state of constant flux from one political, economic, cultural and technological epoch to the next. At the centre of these has always been the converging and synthesising of sometimes previously unrelated processes.
Today, there is a strong focus on the convergence of media platforms – text, images, audio and video – requiring new levels of understanding by a generation of journalists no longer expected to perform single-medium tasks. There is also the convergence of traditional telecommunications, computer technology and the internet which has created new spaces for the conduct of social discourse. And then there is the convergence of economic, regulatory and cultural forces to match these technological advances.
To understand how the transformation of the media industry has been influenced by advances in technology, it would be important to have a look at the factors that have driven change in the past and the path such change has carved.
Modern journalism in the Caribbean is customarily traced to the formal structures of newspaper and newsletter publications which first appeared in the mid-18th century when a reliable flow of information between European colonies and the metropoles was required to accurately evaluate the state of colonial assets which included emerging plantation economies and the human and technological resources required to keep them viable.
In this sense, our region’s first maritime, agricultural, social, cultural and tourism reporters and even bloggers, known then as pamphleteers, would have worked on the publication of bulletins, pamphlets and newsletters designed essentially for outward flow to colonial capitals while hometown European news was relayed back via publications printed on revolutionary movable type printing presses at the dawn of the 19th century.
Printing was one of the technological processes that would receive special treatment at the onset of the Industrial Revolution through the introduction of steam power and the employment of rotary cylinders to replace flatbed printing surfaces.
These innovations were early signals of the ability of new technologies to replace human hands.
Radio and Television
Commercial radio broadcasting did not arrive until the middle of the 20th century. In much the same way that we currently discuss the relationship between old and new media, there was some deliberation on the initial impact of radio on traditional print media, particularly as they related to reaching a wider cross-section of domestic audiences. Being able to read and write was no longer a criterion for receiving and disseminating news and information and the growing commoditising of such media outputs meant that radio was able to reach a much larger market and gain the support of financial benefactors either through direct state support or through commercial means.
Radio played an undeniable role in democratising the domestic mass media landscape in Caribbean territories while newspapers gained ground through greater thrusts in the popularising of educational opportunity. There was a prevalent view that music records and newspapers would face their sternest challenge ever from increasingly popular radio broadcasters.
Then, in the early 1960s, television made its appearance in the English-speaking Caribbean. For the most part, the state paid greater attention to ownership and operation of national television systems in the early years. As happened with radio, there was some debate about the ability of television to threaten the standing of radio as a preferred medium, even though television sets at that time were all receiving in black and white and were also out of the financial reach of many.
It became clear from experience that each medium possessed a capacity to hold its own. In fact, the newspaper industry grew, while radio receivers became a pervasive feature of almost every household. Ownership and control of television, meanwhile, remained virtually the exclusive preserve of state broadcasters offering limited free-to-air transmissions.
These were the early years – only 50 years ago, if we were to set the historical context. By that time, journalism had expanded as a generally respected professional pursuit both in the major capitals and in the colonies. There tended to be three basic disciplines – newspaper, radio and television journalism. In the early years, there was very limited mobility between these disciplines – newspaper journalists and photo-journalists, broadcasters and videographers all occupying their exclusive spaces with some, but little, cross-fertilisation between radio and television journalists.
As time passed, particularly among media enterprises operating on multiple broadcasting platforms, radio and television, there was a level of convergence of human resources; though few had experimented with simultaneous radio and television news broadcasts – something that is fast becoming an unfortunate feature of some Caribbean operations.
Fast forward to about 20 years ago with the arrival of the internet and subsequent innovations in wireless, voice telephony. There is little doubt that the internet, together with expanded telecommunications capabilities provided the basis for the greatest technological revolution of our time, which has witnessed the convergence of telecommunications, computer technology and traditional media.
In the Caribbean, the phenomenon greatly accelerated the pace of developments in the key sub-sectors of voice telephony, computers and the software that drive them and the mass media which employed them as channels for the dissemination of news, entertainment and information.
In Jamaica, for example, with a population of just over two million, fewer than 300,000 subscribers had telephone landlines in 1992. Today, there are three million handsets in use on the island. In Aruba, the statistic is close to 125% coverage. In the United States, the figure is under 100%.
Internet penetration has also not lagged too far behind, though there remains considerable debate about the bridging of what has been described as a “digital divide”, particularly in developing countries such as ours. The Internet World Stats (IWS) estimate, at the end of June 2012, was that just over 57% of households had access to the internet in Aruba. This is less than Antigua and Barbuda’s 82% but more than Trinidad and Tobago on 53%.
The statistics are useful because they provide an indication of the potential for audience development and, also, the degree to which there can be strong interactive content elements. If such growth has achieved one objective it has been to liberalise the multi-directional flow of news, information, commentary, analysis and even a great measure of trash.
The impact of this deluge of opportunity to scour for and to receive content from new media is now a constant concern of our traditional media enterprises. Newspapers, in particular, have been particularly affected by the widespread availability of timely and relevant but free online content.
The responses from the media industry have been varied, depending on the respective territories, but have included everything from a 100% capitulation to the provision of free online content to the erection of restricted pay walls. Media business models are also looking at the extent to which subscriber charges ought to be balanced against paid advertising – a sector itself witnessing dramatic transformative adjustments.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, to name a few, have also re-oriented advertisers to a range of possibilities which often bypass traditional advertising platforms at costs considerably lower than the media rate sheets.
The impact of all of this on the practice of journalism is not always recognised but is felt most by those with an interest in and involved in the profession. Changing business models to accommodate the activities of advertisers have re-directed funding toward investments in online oriented content.
Due to expanded multi-media possibilities, such investments are tending in the direction of convergence, with content providers no longer restricted to the provision of single-discipline material. Newspaper websites, for example, are now integrating audio and video elements with accompanying implications for the persons being paid to populate not only newspaper pages but internet websites, Twitter and Facebook pages.
Journalists and their Media
The journalist of the 21st century is necessarily a multi-media content provider engaged in a relationship with a growing variety of other providers now including bloggers and other social media practitioners who do not hold traditional journalistic values as part of the requirements for publication of news and information.
The additional level of enquiry to validate the authenticity of information, to ensure that published information is fair, balanced and factual, remains the sacred concern of professional journalists. The temptation to view social media as a competitive element of the mass media environment has now too often served to narrow the distinction between professional journalists and crowd and blogger sourced material.
It is best, I believe, to view the social media as playing a potentially supportive and not entirely competitive role. For while the new media are useful in providing the sketchy coordinates of our reality, only the professional journalist is specifically charged with joining the various dots and presenting a fuller picture of the reality.
I would contend that while some important modalities of production and distribution might have changed, the basic value systems driving the practice of journalism have generally remained challenged but constant.
The challenges, often read as new opportunities, relate to the ubiquity of new media, universal access, immediacy of access, high levels of interactivity and what one media researcher has described as “extreme content customization.”
The more direct threats to traditional journalism have focused more exclusively on what are considered to be the highest values and standards of the profession – the authenticity of content, source verification, accuracy and the truth which are now at the command of virtually anyone with a smartphone, tablet or computer with an internet connection.
American academic, John Pavlik, back in the year 2001, suggested that in many ways these somewhat mixed blessings had the potential to create a better form of journalism, “because it can reengage an increasingly distrusting and alienated audience.”
News as Commodity
What we need to bear in mind as well are the implications of all of this on the bottom lines of the media industry. News is fast becoming a de-commercialised component of media content. It is now essentially viewed by media consumers as a commodity acquired for free on the internet through Twitter and Facebook and via mobile SMS blasts. The immediacy of these platforms has meant that tomorrow’s newspaper, if it already doesn’t, needs to move beyond the presentation of hard news, except in cases where it is needed to provide professional, journalistic validation.
The immediacy of online content has also challenged the most dynamic of mainstream mass media, radio as a provider of timely news and information. The growing, but yet limited, embrace of internet radio in all its manifestations is a unique proposition occupying the minds of researchers and, in my view, is ignored at the peril of current operators of traditional enterprises as is the case with smartphones and handheld receivers.
The fast-paced growth in new technologies and re-calibration of professional resources is yet to be determined as anything permanent. However, it is clear that while the objective professional values of journalists remain constant, the terms of their engagement in the profession are destined to continue to be in a state of persistent change.
It has been noted, for example, that there are as many as 113 million blogs worldwide – many of them news oriented and regularly cited by mainstream news organisations. These are professional outfits designed to generate an income, pay employees and make use of a business model which challenges mainstream media in almost all aspects. They provide timely news and information, apply traditional news gathering values and are multi-media with high quality audio and video. In some instances, mainstream media with an online presence are mirroring the modus of these operations.
There is, as well, the emerging trend to validate the work of what are described as “citizen journalists.” Making use of social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, together with dedicated websites, these practitioners do not work for pay, do not necessarily feel obliged to observe basic journalistic guidelines and, in many instances, promote their own causes. However, their ubiquitous presence has proven to be a unique asset in some measure embraced by the mainstream media.
Coverage of the Arab Spring and ensuing developments over recent years, for example, has been significantly fed by the work of “citizen journalists”. One recent U.S. study conducted by the Newspaper Research Journal concluded that citizen journalism actually complements rather than substitutes commercial news sites. The study in fact found that commercial news sites provided a more sophisticated environment allowing for greater interaction with their audiences.
People with cell phone still and video cameras with uploading capabilities enabling almost instant access by anyone else, anywhere in the world with a mobile phone, hand-held device or computer have nevertheless stormed the news market in unprecedented ways.
In the process, the gatekeeping role of mainstream media on news and events has virtually disappeared. The most important implication for the practice of journalism is that the attitude of “autonomous expertise” applied to determine what is important from what is not has been greatly undermined. Some may contend this is not entirely an undesirable side-effect, since the gatekeeping role of journalists has never fully satisfied the objective of impartiality on the question of special interests, including the nature of media ownership and control itself. In the Caribbean context this requires extensive examination and debate.
The media industry has also been challenged by the fact that converged media platforms which now include vital telecommunications components are moving Caribbean governments to increasingly combine broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory domains. Such an approach is fraught with danger, especially in the face of creeping official encroachments into broadcasting and media content.
Regulatory instinct has moved some of the technical discussions in the direction of prohibitions on content with serious implications for freedom of expression and press freedom. Among the countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), for example, proposed new broadcasting legislation imposes criminal punishments for breaches of broadcast content guidelines. This would have the effect of criminalising acts of journalism.
In Grenada, an Electronic Crimes Act passed by both houses of parliament seeks to punish persons guilty of transmitting material that is likely to be “grossly offensive”, can cause “insult’ or that can “annoy” anyone else. Fines and a possible prison sentence are among the penalties.
Such an unenlightened approach to dealing with new media is more likely than not to impair the positive benefits from these emerging platforms. Increasingly, governments are setting their sights on online content as a target for oppressive regulation and action. This is particularly so for countries in crisis, but is by no means an exclusive phenomenon.
Free expression advocates are staunchly against new regulatory encroachments on the internet and are stressing that protections and remedies already exist via long accepted legislative derogations to freedom of expression including privacy rights, defamation laws, actions against hate speech and the protection of children. Imposing restrictions on what is being described as offensive, insulting or disrespectful content signify steps backward in the effort to guarantee freedom of expression.
There is also now a growing focus on the extent to which the application of copyright laws can conflict with freedom of expression and, by extension, freedom of the press – both through traditional means and via the internet.
The Centre for Law and Democracy, for example, recently published a report in which it argues that the current framework of copyright rules should be examined from a freedom of expression perspective “in order to determine how copyright should be reformed to best achieve its underlying purpose of promoting and protection expression.”
This is an eminently sensible proposal and Caribbean societies would do well to have a closer look at the issue.
Privacy Rights and Online Security
The issue of privacy has frequently been raised as a problematic area of concern in the digital era. I would suggest for the journalist this is a multi-dimensional challenge. The first is the application of privacy rights by individuals with respect to persons on whose activities they report and the second would be the right to privacy of the journalist.
The advent of the internet essentially created an entirely new network of both public and private spaces. Your email messages would, perhaps, be considered to be your private online space while your blog and LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter accounts can pretty much be considered your private spaces. The popularity of these social media has grown considerably in recent years. In Aruba, for example, it is estimated that more than half the population now has a Facebook account – or 52,520 accounts.
These platforms offer some measure of privacy. Facebook Chat would be one example. However, privacy is only defined by the degree to which the businesses offering such services accord a level of security to ensure there is actual privacy. The best available advice on the use of email accounts now includes the use of encryption services to ensure that confidentiality is maintained, at least to some degree.
The subject of internet security and the protection of journalistic sources and data has become one of the most urgent and somewhat contentious matters for modern journalists. The fallout from the National Security Agency issue involving CIA computer specialist, Edward Snowden, and accompanying difficulties being faced by UK Guardian journalist, Glenn Greenwald have stressed the degree to which the digital age continues to offer some old challenges in new clothes.
This issue of internet security for journalists thus presents us with evidence of one of the most difficulty challenges in the current context of new online frontiers.
Mobile Media Houses
Finally, let’s focus on what for now is the most emblematic innovation of the current era – the mobile telephone with all the power and flexibility and functionality of the traditional tools of journalism while at the same time providing a mobile platform through which audiences, wherever they are, can receive media content.
The transformative power of the mobile telephone is being viewed as virtually unparalleled in the democratising of information and knowledge and is being credited with lifting entire communities out of situations of poverty and marginalisation. It has facilitated recent revolutions while opening new markets for rural production and serving as an indispensable tool in the practice of journalism, including citizen journalism.
Mobile telephones outnumber radio and television sets, computers and other handheld wireless devices several times over and must be considered to be the mass medium instrument of the modern age. Media enterprises and journalists ignore the significance of this at their peril.
New Media and Old Media can be said to have been initially involved in a collision which now appears to be emerging as an intimate embrace. The assets of traditional journalistic values and principles when applied alongside new, emerging resources can make for better quality journalism while generating sound bases for social discourse and action.
The software of the old, while not entirely compatible with some elements of the hardware of the new, has value in excess of its longevity and is expressed in timeless quantities of balance, fairness, accuracy and a commitment to the public interest. It is an embrace best negotiated with open journalistic eyes.
Centre for Law and Democracy (2013) Reconceptualising Copyright: Adapting the Rules to Respect Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age – CLD (Halifax, Canada)
International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (2013) – ICT Facts and Figures (Switzerland)
Dunn, H. (2013). Jamaica Media: Ringing the Changes – 50 Years and Beyond (Jamaica)
Internet World Stats (2013). http://www.internetworldstats.com/carib.htm
Gibbings, W. (2012) Journalism, Globalism and New Technologies (Trinidad and Tobago)
Khalatil, S. (2008). Scaling a Changing Curve: Traditional Media Development and the New Media. Center for International Media Assistance (Washington DC)
Gibbings, W. (2003). Caribbean Media Workers and the Social Dimension of Globalisation (Barbados)
Pavlik, J.V (2001) Journalism and New Media – Columbia University Press (New York)