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A developing story

The advancement from print to electronic to digital and then social media has been rather fast, turning journalists into institutions

A developing story

In journalism, this tension between the proprietor and professional editor has always remained. Proprietors came into the business to sell news which the journalists considered a mission. As journalists took pride in being watchdogs of power, diggers of facts who questioned authority and unearthed truth, both them and the proprietors valued accuracy and authenticity as the crux of news which could then be sold in the market.

Those were simpler times when print journalism dominated.

The tension was there because the proprietor had to depend on the editors, their team and the collective editorial judgement. This did not always sit well with the powers to whom truth was being spoken. In the short history of journalism in this country, it was editors who were sacrificed to keep the institution going; at other times, the conscientious proprietor’s head would roll as well.

With the arrival of television, the word ‘journalism’ was overtaken by ‘media’ and it wasn’t just a matter of semantics. Technology brought its own ethics and modalities. The advancement from electronic to digital and then social media has been rather fast, when compared with the period of ascendancy for print journalism.

So how does individual versus institution debate play out in current times?

With time, it is not just the institution as an employer that has transformed. Journalists used to have institutional affiliation in the form of trade unions which provided a safeguard — against the transgression of the employer as well as the political power trying to curb their freedoms. With their trade unions considerably weakened, journalists find themselves vulnerable and look for alternative sources that strengthen them as individuals. Technology comes in handy.

There is another view about the power of journalism itself and that power is drawn from its institutions. Journalist John Lloyd who holds this view writes, “All journalism is a matter of power, for only by exercising power of various sorts can journalism have any effect. That power includes… to stimulate and organise public opinion in one direction or another, and in so doing put pressure on the political level… in the sense that it sets a standard of truth telling which the rest of the political process feels bound, or should feel bound, to emulate. It also includes the ability to inspire fear in (especially) public figures — the fear ranging from being reported as acting in an unethical fashion through to being caught having an affair. To have that power news organisations need to be organisations…”

Organisations inevitably comprise individuals who thrive on bylines. Television, especially news media, when it came gave a face to the name. The once loved columnist of print became the now loved anchorperson. Being a mass medium, the popularity and following multiplied many times over and, despite the institutional support, to an ordinary viewer the individual appeared larger, much larger, than the institution.

A new tension began between the credible print journalist and the popular television persona.

Some time in between came digital media and most of print journalism switched to publishing online as well. Now the highbrow print journalism that was forced to keep a distance between itself and the readers, except perhaps through those revered ‘letters to the editor’, got a chance to have an interface with the readers in the comments section. The readers suddenly got a voice and the writers started getting feedback — negative and positive, inane and valuable — that they had always sought.

Once on the social media, journalists have started “curating their own brands” or marketing themselves. They may be doing that because, as said earlier, they feel vulnerable and need to empower themselves in the face of feeble institutional support.

Between the onslaught of internet and social media arrived the blogger, the self-taught ‘journalist’ whom the formal media people looked at with nothing but disdain. Internet had finally provided that ultimate democratic space, so to speak, to an ordinary person who was free to say and write whatever he or she wanted to; without of course the intermediary or sieve of editorial checks. Some bloggers became bigger names than individual journalists, some even bigger than news organisations.

With social media, especially Twitter, that space was now equally available to anyone and everyone. Slowly and gradually, journalists took to Twitter as news organisations also allowed their platforms for blogs, even though the idea of blog-writing is essentially antithetical to mainstream journalism.

To be fair, journalists have joined Twitter for a variety of reasons. Social media has become crucial not just in terms of ideas and access but also as a tool for doing active, live reporting. It has made feedback quicker than before, and the reader can have a conversation and debate with the journalist in real time.

But social media plays by its own rules. There still are a few institutions that allow their employees a limited and guarded presence on social media. Broadly though, especially in our surroundings, boundaries stay blurred between personal and professional profiles, all disclaimers like ‘Tweets are personal’ notwithstanding.

Once on the social media, journalists have started “curating their own brands” or marketing themselves. They may be doing that because, as said earlier, they feel vulnerable and need to empower themselves in the face of feeble institutional support. Some might think they disempower the institution in the process.

Unlike the ‘impersonal’ journalism of yore that was supposedly driven by ‘quality’ (a subjective term no doubt), here numbers matter — the number of likes, the number of shares and retweets, the number of followers and so on. Journalists are now institutions unto themselves. In a way, by allowing themselves to go public without an editorial check, they now look so much like the bloggers they once did not approve of.

Media today is an all-time happening place that journalists find hard to leave. As the tension between individual and institution remains, the real challenge for journalists is how and when to process that unlimited amount of information, to reflect on it, to present it as something of value and to write beautiful sentences that aptly tie form with content.

Farah Zia

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