The image of a fedora wearing, pen chewing, notebook carrying journalist of yore is no longer what comes to mind when we think about journalism.
So Andrew DeVigal, a former New York Times’ multimedia editor and current Chair in Journalism Innovation & Civic Engagement at the University of Oregon, launched a social media campaign called #THISisJournalism to encourage readers to highlight new and unique forms of storytelling and journalism.
DeVigal, who created the campaign with outgoing Center for Journalism Innovation director Mike Fancher, found that the Web — that great democratizer of access to information — has equally democratized access to distribution of information. Not only can you read more stories; you can publish them, too. And just as daily papers were scooped by radio broadcasts, with the dramatic shrinking of the news cycle, Twitter now rules supreme.
But this is not a faultless system. “Everything from Twitter to Periscope to Facebook – everything is immediate; everything can be shared and broadcast immediately,” DeVigal said via a Skype video call. “That’s both interesting and scary, right? With all these people talking, who is ultimately listening? And also, who’s curating, who’s putting context? That’s of concern.”
It’s a common debate hashed out in newsrooms and living rooms across the globe. DeVigal and Fancher believe the mandate of journalism is “to enhance public knowledge and enrich civic life” — a task that requires more than just the facts, ma’am.
“Everyone’s a journalist. Everyone has the capability to observe and express from their own point of view what they’re seeing, what they’re observing,” DeVigal said. “[But these sources] lack the experience that we would be able to provide as journalists … to be able to provide context, to be able to provide what the bigger picture is and why this piece of media or this piece of information or story is relevant.”
Despite these concerns, DeVigal is not dismayed by the challenges of unfiltered and unregulated journalism.
“I love the opportunities that the public has been able to create and give voice to from their own perspective,” he said. “And again, that definitely disrupts the whole models of distribution that we have practiced for the last century or so. But for me that’s welcome change.”
The #ThisIsJournalism campaign attracted more than 120 links to works of journalism from a diverse group of over 40 tweeters who ranged from documentary filmmakers to community activists, academics, and working journalists.
— Rob Redding (@rob_redding) May 26, 2015
— Thomas Patterson (@pattersonphoto) May 25, 2015
— Stephanie Essin (@StephyEssin) May 6, 2015
When surveying the results of the experiment, DeVigal identified several themes running throughout.
In addition to the variety of new platforms, he saw new formats and an increased use of humor in the storytelling. Front pages have migrated to Facebook, Reddit and even Snapchat, and data journalism merited a mention for the role that visualizations play in purveying news in ways that words can’t.
Even the historical bastion of the back pages of the paper – the classifieds – merited journalism cred in the eyes of several posters, albeit in more sophisticated online bulletin board formats.
The results provided the basis for the closing session at the Agora Journalism Center’s “What is Journalism?” conference, but DeVigal et al. continue to curate hashtagged tweets, to further the discussion online.
The breadth and depth of the reporting being done by non-traditional journalists confirmed DeVigal’s belief that the raw horsepower of user-generated research will play an important role in collaborative relationships with journalists going forward.
He points to The Seattle Times’ Education Lab as an example of a place that is doing exciting work in collaboration, producing projects that are more engaging and participatory with the public. The lab holds events around Seattle to ask questions of its readership, to uncover what conversations are currently most relevant, and determine how it as a news organization can help the community – and actually encourage the community to become the experts.
Smiling, DeVigal points out the elephant in the room. “At the tip of your tongue,” he says, “I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Well, that’s advocacy.’”
He’s ok with that. While readers are migrating toward journalistic roles, DeVigal sees the need for a similar migration toward the middle by journalists – off of what has historically been the sacrosanct journalistic pillar of objectivity.
“When you are sitting around a page-one meeting, and you’re thinking about what to put on the front page, you’re already advocating for that issue, to be the conversation within the community. So in that way, you become an advocate, you become an activist.”
But what of balance?
“It’s absolutely important to be balanced in this conversation. But to further the role of journalism so that people have the public knowledge and enrich their life civicly, part of it is to take action, to offer to the public the opportunity to make a decision to take action and to make it easy for them to take action. To me in some ways, that’s part of the observation that we made [with this project].”
Beyond a reactive role, however, DeVigal paints a picture of an evolution toward proactive, solutions-based reporting.
While talking about coverage of the police brutality cases in the U.S., DeVigal remarked, “All too often, media organizations are thinking about what’s happening now, as opposed to thinking about what is possible.”
Instead, he’d like to see them asking, “What can we do as a news organization, to think of ways to make things better as opposed to just reporting on what’s happening now? What are ways we can tackle a vision where maybe the questions we should be asking within communities are — what’s next? What can we learn from everything we’ve reported on and what’s possible?”
DeVigal’s final question — what’s possible? — is a nod to Fancher, whom he describes as an amazing mentor and thinker. Fancher considers this to be the “sixth W” question, one all journalists should be asking and answering as part of their reporting.
Returning to the topic of #WHATisJournalism, I asked DeVigal if he saw evidence of this kind of thinking emerging.
“One of our conclusions that continues to come out of this campaign is that journalism can and will always from now on be done by more people on more platforms and with more variations, and more styles,” he said. “What we hope to do is highlight success stories of these new forms of storytelling, these new forms of journalism just as much as ivoh does, just as much as yes! magazine and Solutions Journalism Network does… really looking at the positive approaches so that they become inspirations for others.”