The outcry of journalists in Beijing during the Olympic Games 2008 about the restricted access to the web (Reporters without Borders 2008) and the efforts of North Korean officials to create their own autonomous network (Chen, Ko and Lee 2008), gives an idea of how important the internet is today. Everyone seems to be mobile and there seems to be an endless flow of information.
Gossip, bellmen or town criers and newspapers made up the main sources of public information for many years. Radio and television are more recent forms of media, but all of those were controlled completely by a relatively small group. The web added a new and more open platform to the media. Especially with the current development of web 2.0, ordinary people can publish any information to a huge audience. Thus newspapers are dying and journalists try to keep up with the speed of the information flow and the invention of new applications for the web. Examples are the blog “Snowmail” by presenter John Snow (Snow 2009) or the many BBC outlets on Twitter, for example “BBC have your say” (BBC 2009), a BBC outlet that is designed to get in touch with the audience.
This article is going to highlight the development of so-called citizen journalism and question how the new media has changed journalism and whether we still need it.
How we got to where we are today
What began in 1969 with the ARPANET (World Wide Web Consortium 2001) and was finally built into a browser called “WorldWideWeb” in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee (Berners-Lee 1998 and World Wide Web Consortium 2001a), has become an essential part of our every-day life. The idea behind the ARPANET was to connect Universities. Tim Berners-Lee wanted to bring this first connection further and build a platform out of it: “The system must allow any sort of information to be entered. Another person must be able to find the information, sometimes without knowing what he is looking for” (Berners-Lee 1998).
Looking at the web as it is today, this goal definitely has been achieved. Using Google or Yahoo one can find information on almost every topic. We can share text, pictures or videos with people around the world. A very easy way to provide other people with information is for example the networking site “Twitter”. They say about themselves: “Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” (Twitter 2009). As the messages on Twitter, called tweets, really can be read by any user of Twitter, unless otherwise stated, this networking page can be seen as a new source of information. Today we also use the internet instead of a telephone or even hold video conferences with it. The technological possibilities seem endless. One can even create a virtual self in a virtual world, for example in the so-called “Second Life” (Second Life 2009).
The internet started with very few people using it, before becoming one of the biggest tools in the modern world. Today even educational institutions, political parties and small societies use the web to inform, interact or socialise.
Tweeting out the news
“There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy” (Krums 2009). With this text and a picture of the happening Janis Krums was the first to report about an airplane crash-landing on the Hudson river on 15 January 2009. Using “TwitPic”, part of the networking site “Twitter”, Krums was able to break the news via his mobile phone before big newspaper or news agencies even heard about it.
This example shows clearly that the way information can be gathered and published has changed. While Janis Krums uploaded his picture into the World Wide Web, he partly took on the role of a journalist. This development of ordinary people reporting incidents or taking pictures and videos of news has been termed “citizen journalism” (Allan 2006: 143-167).
Other prominent examples can easily be found. The footage of an emergency landing of an airplane with a huge hole in its outer skin and thus rapid loss of cabin pressure was not shot by a cameraman. One of the passengers simply used his telephone to record the scene (MSNBC 2008). Many pictures of the London bombings also were taken by people who happened to be at the place of the attack, rather than by professional journalists (Allan 2006: 147-148). Helen Boaden, BBC director of news, is quoted as saying: “People were sending us images within minutes of the first problems, before we even knew there was a bomb” (Allan 2006: 147).
With networks such as Twitter, citizen journalism has reached a new dimension. Media outlets are no longer the only source of pictures, video or news. Thus one has to question whether the gatekeeper theory, first developed by White (Richardson 2005: 92), is still applicable.
Are there any gates left?
The gatekeeper theory states that journalists choose, out of the information they get, those news that are fit to be published. The way journalists pick the stories is not defined though (Richardson 2005: 92). It has to be said that journalists are still very keen to select the news, but their role has changed. The word gatekeeper implies at the same time that those news the journalists did not choose would not be made public. This is not true anymore. One example for this system being overruled by the web can be seen in the disclosure of the fact that Prince Harry of Great Britain was serving as a soldier in Afghanistan. While the media outlets of the country agreed not to publish this fact, the information appeared on the web and therefore passed the gates of the journalists (Times online 2008).
Thus it can be followed that the web is a quite powerful tool in order to reveal or break news. Consequently the gates kept by journalists are not as closed anymore as they once might have been. Richard Sambrook, BBC director of Global News, takes it even further: “News organisations do not own the news any more” (Allan 2006:170). Furthermore he states: “Thanks to the internet, the role of media gatekeeper has gone. Information has broken free and top-down control is slipping inexorably away” (Allan 2006: 170).
On the contrary it has to be argued that not everything that is published on the web is noticed by many people. Hence journalists still might have at least a small role of choosing news for a broader public. The real power of the media being a gatekeeper however is gone.
Who is setting the agenda now?
With the gates being more or less wide open for anyone who would like to publish something, especially on the web, it also has to be questioned whether journalists are still one of the few agenda setters. The main statement of the agenda-setting theory is that “while the media do not tell us what to think, they may tell us what to think about” (Franklin 2005: 12-13).
A recent article in The Guardian (Blincoe 2009) can be seen as an example that also networking sites, such as Facebook, can be agenda-setters. The journalist obviously visited the network site and came across a group with the name “You are not an advanced country if you have separate water taps” (Facebook 2009). In his article he then wrote: “If you ever wondered what the world really thinks of Britain, the answer comes with a new Facebook group” (Blincoe 2009). This shows that journalists at least look at those pages and use them as sources.
Another instance can be found in Germany. Using Twitter and other networking pages the initiators of an online petition against a new law, restricting the use of web pages, were quite successful. More than 50000 people signed the petition, forcing the committee on petitions of the German “Bundestag” to discuss the matter further (ARD 2009).
Especially the last example clearly shows that people do not only talk about things that are reported by the media, but also set their own agenda using the new media. While the media still has some power to set the agenda, there are clear signs that citizen journalism and network sites are getting more and more into a position to at least start a topic, which then eventually is picked up by journalists.
All of the above developments might be seen in line with a new public sphere emerging, with the web as the platform to discuss, form ideas and find solutions. Thus it would fulfil the Habermas’ condition of a space “conceived as the sphere of private people come together as a public” (Habermas 1989: 27). Nevertheless, the internet is also a place to just interact, relax or socialise. Hence it might not be exactly what Habermas was thinking of, but there is the possibility that the web could help to build a public sphere. This public sphere then could not only be used by ordinary people, but also by governments or politicians.
Do politicians still need journalists?
US-president Barack Obama in particular has shown that using the web with all new gimmicks can help a politician to gain access to the voters. With his own homepage, a blog, a mobile service and accounts on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn and many more networking sites (Obama 2009), Obama truly can be called a media president.
One might get the impression Obama does not need journalists any more to get his message to the people. Recently he hosted an internet town hall, inviting all citizens of the USA to ask him questions via email. Thus again the agenda setting role of the journalists was undermined. The media was only able to analyse and to look at the outcome of this event.
Barack Obama is not the only politician using new media to directly address the voters. In Germany all main parties changed the look of their homepages after the big success Obama had. Today they have a high usability, pictures or videos to attract the user and many functions to interact directly (for examples see the homepages of the CDU and the SPD, CDU 2009 andSPD 2009).
Even though this might seem very practical and convenient, the new direct connection to the inhabitants for the politicians also has the risk of unfiltered PR. While PR formerly was filtered, analysed and commented on by journalists, the politicians now can put their message directly to their voters in many ways. With spin-doctors working for quite a number of politicians, this development has to be followed closely and with as much attention as possible. As a spin-doctor is “someone, especially in politics who tries to influence public opinion by putting a favourable bias on information presented to the public or to the media” (Franklin 2005a: 252), there might only be a narrow level between PR and propaganda. This article is not going to suggest that any of the above politicians is likely to use propaganda in order to manipulate his voters. Nevertheless there is a risk lying within this direct contact through the web.
Democracies need journalism
To prevent the risk of propaganda and in order to analyse and put into context the PR published directly on the web, journalists today are probably even more needed than ever before. Democracies need some sort of control, someone who is going to question the authorities without being afraid of the consequences. Citizen journalism certainly cannot fully cover this role. Janis Krums, for example, broke the news about the crash of an airplane in the Hudson river, but he was not able or willing to provide any further background, any outcome or an analysis of the incident. It was up to the media to find out whether there had ever been something like this before, what kind of an airplane it was, how many people had been aboard, how many injured there were and how and why this happened in the first place. Krums only wrote a few hours later on twitter that he just had given an interview. Further information about the accident cannot be found in his messages from that day (Krums 2009a).
Consequently it has to be argued that journalists are needed to take over this role. Furthermore, looking at the possible thread of propaganda, journalists are not just needed to analyse, put into context and provide background. Journalists have to become more of a watchdog again. Not only to check on politicians and make public any misbehaviour of theirs, as the original watchdog-theory is asking for (Richardson 2005a: 273-274), but also to take a closer look at the events within the economic sphere. The recent financial crisis has shown that the actions of managers should also be questioned and any misconduct made public.
Hence there is the need to educate journalists ready to challenge the ones abusing their position, prepared to put news by citizen journalists’ into context, able to provide background information and capable of analysing events and publishing unbiased news.
The new media with its citizen journalism and the direct and interactive connection between politicians and voters obviously has changed journalism. It is not necessarily the news agency any more that is breaking the news, but rather some ordinary person who happens to be at the scene. Journalists are not solely print-, radio- or TV-journalists any more, but rather have to turn every story into an online-package as well. This also will have to be taken into account for the training of future journalists.
It is a positive message to already find quite a number of news outlets having homepages with a high usability. Some media outlets can even be found tweeting out news or using other networking sites to reach the users. As the example of the London bombings has shown, journalists and citizen journalists can exist next to each other and be fruitful for each other. As the media was blocked off from the scenes of the attack, affected persons, most of them ordinary people, were able to report on the event and some even took pictures. Neil McIntosh, assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, is reported to have said: “It’s very complementary in that I think the blogs look to us to get immediate news and we maybe look to them to get a little bit of the flavour of how people are reacting outside the four walls of our office” (Allan 2006: 151).
In conclusion this article has shown that the new media has changed journalism and that journalists have to be more flexible today in order to serve not only the old media, but also to create content for the new media. New applications, such as Twitter, are already implemented in some areas and need to be used even more. Citizen journalists are great sources and have to be taken into account as often as possible. Nevertheless ordinary people and the web cannot fully take over the responsibilities and functions of journalists. Journalism remains a very important and valuable institution that has to find further ways to integrate the new media into its business.
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