Privacy + Web 2.0 – A Reflection

David Zita

Journalism issues in contemporary society

26/5/15

Are you the only one reading?

 

Or has someone, somewhere, beaten you to it, intercepting and dissecting all these words before you even clicked the link?

 

Whether the answer be yes or no is irrelevant; the fact such a situation is possible is disturbing.

 

When considering journalism, maintaining privacy in an increasingly technological age has become the single biggest challenge the profession has faced.

 

Scarily, it’s poised to become even larger over the coming years.

 

However, before delving into the issues it poses to journalism, perhaps an acknowledgment of technology’s benefits would stop me sounding like a technophobe.

 

Technology has allowed journalists to interact with readers in a previously unfathomable way.

 

Perhaps Stephen Lamble, in his academic textbook News As It Happens, puts it best:

Online and mobile publication offers former print-only news organisations, journalists, editors and news producers a platform for print, sound and vision in a single medium.

 

Such possibilities allow news to be reported more efficiently and comprehensively than ever before, which in turn allows for the public interest to be upheld in a way not possible before the advent of social media and Web 2.0.

 

It has allowed for unprecedented reach across the globe, with Twitter in particular allowing for an interconnected world, one constantly able to receive news and get a hold of Rudyard Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men: who, what, when, where, why and how.

 

As John Hartigan (former News Limited chairman) said in 2009, “In the digital age, all information is theoretically available to everyone for the first time in history”.

 

While this statement reads as one of profound optimism towards the possibilities of journalism, delving deeper into Hartigan’s words provides a far more prophetic meaning than Hartigan may have intended.

 

The information he refers to spans far beyond news, instead covering everything from an innocent Google search to one’s digital life story.

 

In an age where account synchronisation is encouraged by all online platforms, those able to dissect such information are granted a digital breadcrumb trail, one weaving comprehensively through all aspects of one’s life, both public and private.

 

How are journalists to conduct thorough investigations and guarantee the safety of sources if their communications can be intercepted at will?

 

Journalists have a responsibility to uphold the public interest and inform them of news, and this sometimes requires anonymity.

 

Stripping journalists of the ability to remain inconspicuous therefore inhibits their ability to truly scrutinise those in power.

 

Sources that once came forward will now recede into the shadows, fully aware of the heightened surveillance abilities afforded to those in power.

 

As if this wasn’t troublesome enough, Web 2.0 has allowed for the news to be manipulated like never before, making it increasingly hard for journalists to distinguish right from wrong when it comes to ‘breaking’ news.

 

To witness the potential havoc this can wreak on attempts to uphold the public interest, one need only jump back to 2009.

 

French composer Maurice Jarre had just died, leading to an increased number of Internet searchers regarding the musician.

 

Capitalising on this, tech-savvy sociology student Shane Fitzgerald edited the supposedly biographical Wikipedia page, attributing a quote to Jarre, which was subsequently used by many journalists around the world.

 

The hoax wasn’t discovered until Fitzgerald himself admitted to the act in an article he wrote for the Irish Times, titled, ‘Lazy journalism exposed by online hoax’.

 

Within the article, Fitzgerald noted, “I was shocked that highly respected newspapers would use material from Wikipedia without first sourcing and referencing it properly”.

 

However misguided Fitzgerald’s intentions were, he unearthed a daunting truth: distinguishing the true from the false is more difficult than ever before, thanks to the advent and evolution of Web 2.0, with the tech-savvy wielding an unprecedented amount of power when it comes to shaping and manipulating potential ‘news’.

 

A journalist’s greatest weapon is their curiosity. They are encouraged to question the ‘facts’ lying in front of them. However, getting the true news, and upholding the public interest, has become incredibly unnerving thanks to an increasingly customisable online database of information on the ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’.

 

Indeed, Kipling’s six honest serving men are becoming less trustworthy with every web search.

 

Even when all these possibilities are brushed aside, there’s also the issue of actually writing an article, as the online writing process is notably altered from that of a newspaper.

 

Thankfully, this is an issue in the process of being resolved, with writing structures like ‘the inverted pyramid’ being adapted for online publication.

 

The ability to acquire information instantly through social media has also birthed a more demanding society, with the details short, sharp and understandable. Indeed, ‘news as it happens’ has never been more literal.

 

Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Dr Rasmus Nielsen, accurately depicts the approach to journalism necessary in today’s society: ‘Kill the welcome mat and cut to the chase’.

 

Thus, the actual writing methods of journalists have become an issue due to the advent of online news, but thankfully this is one being addressed.

 

Ultimately, it proves far less daunting than the aforementioned issues of metadata and content manipulation.

 

Journalism is not easy. In fact, the news industry in general has been finding it tough. In the wake of the 2012 Global Financial Crisis, Fairfax was forced to close two major printing plants.

 

Furthermore, both it and News Limited announced major cuts to jobs and large-scale restructures of its organisations.

 

However, though Web 2.0 was daunting for the news industry, the ability to optimise it has helped journalists become as necessary as ever in society.

 

Perhaps, instead of putting up a roadblock no journalist can past, the online age has opened up countless new and exciting avenues to the final destination.

 

Social media has allowed journalists to connect with the rest of the world like never before.

 

News now truly breaks as it happens, meaning the public interest can be fully realised and addressed in the midst of newsworthy events, rather than hours or days after.

 

Yes, perhaps there has never been a more daunting time to venture down the path of journalism.

 

But there has never been a more exciting time either.

 

 

 

 

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David Zita Written by:

Born and bred in Melbourne, Australia. Passions: AFL, Tennis, Writing, Presenting Goal: Sports Journalist Quote to live by: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

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