Digital Media and the Future of Investigative Journalism

By Mark Hunter There has never been a greater need for independent, in-depth reporting, yet the news industry is largely failing to capitalize on that need. That failure is no secret: it is driving a decline in the public’s appetite for newspapers and network television in numerous markets, and thus in revenues. It is also driving the emergence of new competitors for the public's attention. Wikileaks is one of those competitors; so are environmental groups like Greenpeace, which have effectively established their own news-gathering and distribution networks. In the current situation, "stakeholder media"—outlets created and controlled by communities of practice or interest, with the goal of influencing organizations or their governance—will continue to grow in reach and power. This has implications for the content of investigative media, and also for their business models, and not least for their ethics. Their content will be increasingly aimed at procuring an immediate and sustainable advantage for the communities that support them. That will certainly include practical information generated by media users as well as journalists—a function that was pioneered by internet-based user forums. Crowdsourcing will be expanded and refined. Stakeholder media will also feature more critical aggregation, sifting through masses of information to save their users time and search costs. Their business models will depend less on exclusivity and more on sharing the benefits of networking than is currently the general case for independent media. On the one hand, exclusivity may not increase the social value of a given investigation; it also lessens a report's impact, because the fewer the number of people who know about a situation, the less likely it is to change. On the other, networking may enable independent media to form sufficiently large publics, through coalition, to generate attractive advertising bases, or markets for other serves (such as databases). The ethics of investigative stakeholder media will shift (and are already shifting) from objectivity to transparency. There has always been a conflict in journalism between the neutral stance of objectivity and the reformist drive of investigators; that conflict will become more acute. Transparency—the revelation of why journalists have sought and exposed certain information, and of how they did it, and in whose interests—will become more prominent. The decline of the news industry—not only as an economic entity, but as a credible source of reliable information (another documented trend)—is an opportunity as well as a danger. Whether we like it or not—most journalists I know do not—it is well underway. So is the rise of stakeholder media. This is the new world, and the news world, that we have to live and work in from now on. This is hardly novel in the history of journalism; so-called "objective" media became the mainstream of news media only within the past century, and only within certain regions. Media that defended the interests of specific communities or movements (or powers) were the rule, not the exception. Read more about this topic in the new Open Society report Mapping Digital Media: Digital Media and Investigative Reporting. Via Open Society Foundation Blog.

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