Media leaders defend the professional journalist
News reporters are key to verifying and contextualizing information from the social networks when covering important events such as the Arab Spring
Events such as the Arab Spring and economic crisis have changed the way we treat information. Cellphones, computers and the social networks have created a new way of dealing with it. Technology has helped empower individuals to transmit their ideas, opinions and circumstances and the media must adapt to this new environment.
This was the central theme of the first debate at the International Media Council (IC2012), organized on Thursday in Madrid by the Paley Center for Media, which instigates debates on the impact of information and communication in people’s lives, and the PRISA group, owner of EL PAÍS.
The event, which was inaugurated by Frank A. Bennack, vice president and CEO of the Hearst Corporation, is a forum on journalism that brings together directors of the main international communications groups.
In the first presentation, titled News at the Speed of Life: Lessons Learned from a Watershed Year in Journalism, the director of BBC News, Helen Boaden, defended the kind of traditional journalism that sees her reporters travel to Homs to inform about the conflict in Syria. “In the United Kingdom audiences weren’t interested in Syria until we sent one of our own reporters,” she said. For Boaden, the media are suffering “a painful transition,” but she warned of the risk of underestimating TV journalists and the medium’s news impact.
During the Arab protests, we had to use social networks; the government wouldn’t let us enter Egypt"
The social networks offer a torrent of information, but how you do know if it is credible? asked Katharine Viner, deputy editor of The Guardian newspaper. Wadah Khanfar, chairman of The Sharq Forum and the former director general of the Al Jazeera network, offered an answer: “When we started to cover the news of the Arab Spring we used content from the social networks out of necessity. We had nothing else. The government wouldn’t let us enter Egypt. The only sources were activists and bloggers. At first there was resistance to using these sources from editorial staff. They said they couldn’t verify the information. We had to work to authenticate all the stories that came from the social networks,” he said.
In this case, the task of the journalist was not just to check the information but also to put it into context. The participants defended the figure of the professional journalist in carrying out that task. PRISA CEO Juan Luis Cebrián asked: “Who is going to pay for it? Professional journalism has to be paid for. Coca-Cola is not going to subsidize us.”
“Nobody has the real answer,” said Viner of The Guardian, while the BBC’s Boaden pointed out that the coverage of the Japanese tsunami required a lot of economic resources and suggested the need for “niche products” that can generate revenue to cover these events.
All participants agreed that new media technologies are changing the way of reporting the news. Richard Gingras, head of news products at Google, noted that the future of journalism will be better than the past provided that maximum benefit can be extracted from the technology. “Editorial staff will have to reconsider how to give shape to a story that can be consumed in the form of an article or a tweet,” he said. In order to adapt to the changes he suggested that university journalism departments teach computer science classes in order to combine information and communication technologies in a more efficient way.
The digital media also have to attend to a global audience, noted EL PAÍS editor Javier Moreno. He said that 20 percent of the newspaper’s website traffic for the reports on the recent nationalization of Repsol-YPF by the Argentinean government came from the social networks.
For Moreno, the social networks phenomenon “was a sudden change that has torn the ecosystem of our culture to shreds.” He also referred to the participation of the public in coverage of events such as the 15-M movement and said the newspaper was “committed” to spreading the news of the demonstrations around the world. “There were thousands who sent photos and commentaries. It was an avalanche of content because we offered them a platform for live coverage and a global outlet.”
The event was also attended by Vadim Lavrusik (Facebook), John Paton (Digital First Media), Brandon Rosage (Ushahidi), Andrew Rashbass (The Economist Group), Shafqat Islam (NewsCred) and Kamal Bherwani (PRISA).