The Fourth Estate

I sometimes begin articles like this one with a dictionary definition and this was not going to be an exception, until I found that dictionaries now differ when defining journalism, especially in one crucial aspect.

Chambers has it that journalism is ‘the profession of collecting, writing, publishing etc. news reports ad other articles for newspapers, journals, TV, radio and other media’. Whereas The Free Dictionary has it as ‘the collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles.’ The difference is whether or not it is a profession. Having checked through five other dictionaries I can say that the majority agree with The Free, choosing to use the rather more neutral ‘occupation‘ and, in one instance, stipulating ‘professionally or not‘.

My Chambers is somewhat venerable and I would guess that a more up to date edition would be in line with the others, this change being mainly as a result of new technology. Online newspapers, like the Huffington Post, or HuffPost as it’s now called, take pieces, either articles or ‘scoops’ from readers, unpaid ( something which caused controversy when it didn’t prevent Arianna Huffington and its other founders, becoming even richer when the Huffington Post was sold to AOL ).

‘Citizen journalism’ whereby individuals experiencing great events use Skype and their phones to file a report on what is happening, has featured in a number of crises, most notably the Arab Spring, the protests in Turkey and the Occupy events ( and most recently during the referendum in Catalonia ). Thus those on the spot bring news to those who aren’t, regardless of whether or not they are professional journalists.

The ‘blogosphere’ allows anyone with access and the ability to write to be a journalist ( including, I suppose, me ) and links to social media can make a ‘story’ go viral.  The Story Bazaar has experienced just how far the link to an article can go – I calculated that one small, amateur and unpaid twitter campaign for The Village reached well over half a million people, and certain reviews have spread widely using Twitter and Facebook most notably those re-tweeted by performers or curators of institutions with large followings. This from a small, non-monetised web-site about books, but it pales into insignificance when compared to the giants.

The most prevalent medium for unpaid journalism, however, has to be Facebook, the content of which is almost exclusively ‘user’ driven. The users of Facebook are not, of course its customers; its customers are the companies using the huge amount of personal data gathered by Facebook in order to place targeted advertising. One could say that everyone who posts a short descriptive piece on Facebook is a journalist and many attempt to launch a career from their creative content – after all, a couple of billion users is one hell of an audience. In 2014 The New York Times calculated that people spent 39,757 collective years on the site, every day. To create the content on the site estimates at 15 million years of free labour per year¹.

The new media are polyvocal, not monovocal² like the old newspapers which are slowly being driven out of existence. Maybe polyvocality is a good thing, as the notoriously right-wing bias of the British press seems to have dwindling power (one of the wonderful things about this year’s General Election was just how wrong the, mainly right-wing, press called the result and how little they influenced it ). Single bloggers like Thomas Clark of the pro-Corbyn ‘Another Angry Voice‘ Facebook page reached millions during the election campaign, more than read The Sun.

Political journalism has moved from wide, if controlled, dissemination in pre-digital news media, through to polyvocality and, at the same time,  greater atomisation within preferred groups (where we only receive the news which we want to hear). How do we protect the openness and accountability of political news and debate, in a tradition that goes back to the agora ( though the Greeks didn’t keep records of debates, they had an oral culture ) while retaining the egalitarian nature of the digital world?  And how do we call out those who seek to influence us via fake news, or targeted attacks, as seen most recently in the US Presidential election of 2016?

This subject has got to be worth a further post, but, in the meanwhile I refer readers to….

¹Move Fast and Break Things;How Facebook, Google and Amazon have cornered culture and what it means for all of us (Macmillan, 2017 ) Jonathan Taplin.

²Journalistic Authority; Legitimising News in the Digital Era (Columbia, 2017 ) Matt Carlson.

And the excellent articles in the London Review of Books by John Lanchester and Tom Crewe, which prompted me to read the above.

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