When the concept of networked journalism was in its infancy, it was thought by many to be journalism’s salvation from the flailing commercial media system. As networked journalism has evolved from an academic concept to an undeniable reality, it has certainly changed the face of journalism, but that’s not to say that this brave new world isn’t without its own particular pitfalls.
In the old commercial media system, journalists competed with other journalists. There was competition between coworkers as well as rival journalists at competing news agencies. Everyone wanted to “scoop” the other guy by breaking a story first, or better yet, getting an exclusive story. For the journalist, the goal was to enlighten and inform the public, often shedding light on scandals and criminal activity. For the news agency, the goal was to attract more readers or viewers and generate more ad revenue. As corporate conglomerates have acquired newspaper publishers and television networks, and corporate lobbyists have more closely aligned government policy with corporate interests, conflicts of interest have arisen which threaten journalistic integrity.
The press, with its freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, was intended to be a government watchdog by our founding fathers. With the evolution of corporate media, many journalists have found it necessary to work outside of traditional news agencies in order to properly police the powers that be. That, coupled with the fluidity and interconnectivity of social media, has given rise to networked journalism.
In networked journalism, journalists no longer compete with each other, but rather work together to bring the facts of a story to light. Rather than each journalist being their own island, networked journalists operate as pieces of a larger system that connects journalists to the public in an interesting new way. In the old system, journalists created content which was consumed by the public. In networked journalism, journalists and the public both create content, and journalists and the public are both consumers of that content.
The advent of social media has allowed the general public to become sources, consumers, and producers of journalistic material. This creates great opportunities, but also unique difficulties for the professional journalist. As we stated earlier, the goal of a journalist is to enlighten and inform the public; however, as a professional journalist, you should also expect to be paid for your contributions. Within networked journalism, many members of the public create news material, but don’t consider themselves to be journalists, and thus don’t expect to be paid. Monetizing your efforts becomes more difficult when so many others are willing to work for free.
Moving journalism out of the realm of newspaper and television gatekeepers also allows any story to get run. This gives networked journalism limitless power to bring any truth to light; however, it also makes it much more difficult for your story to get seen. If your stories are spread through social media, you’re likely to have your hard-hitting piece sandwiched between a post of what your sister made for dinner and a meme of Kermit the Frog sipping ice tea.
To make matters more difficult, some of the traditional news agencies have abandoned the journalistic principle of impartiality. It used to be that there was a relatively small number of sources for news material, and impartiality ensured that all of those sources were creating roughly similar content on any given topic. This meant that everyone consumed a mostly consistent story from all sources and then would interpret and retain that information based on their own social and political beliefs. Now, in an effort to maintain readers/viewers, many of the traditional news gatekeepers are openly declaring themselves to be either liberal or conservative and creating widely different content. A conservative person consuming only conservative content can have a fundamentally different view of reality than a liberal person consuming only liberal content. Couple that with amateur journalists who don’t have a need or desire to fact-check their pieces, and you end up in the realm of fake news. Fake news will almost certainly be a widely researched topic for years to come, as it’s thought to have influenced the 2016 presidential election.
So how do you make your mark and navigate the world of networked journalism? You must arduously stick to the ideals of true journalism. Remain impartial. If you go to work for one of the news gatekeepers, choose one that you believe to be an impartial source of news. While opinionated pieces can be fun to create, you’ll never change the world if you only ever reach an audience that already agrees with you. Check your facts. When stories go viral, they take on a life of their own. Would you rather be remembered for your mistake that changed the world or for your truth that changed the world? Most importantly, you must maintain journalistic integrity. Social media is a venue of rumors and opinions. If journalism is to thrive in this new marriage, professional journalists must be beacons of reputable news.