April 22, 2019

Journalists have been the protectors of truth for generations and little has changed in that regard over the years. Newspapers and the six o’clock news were staples in every Canadian household and we waited until work the next day to discuss the latest news with our peers.

Today things are different — very different. We no longer wait until six to find out the day’s news. In the case of a mass shooting or some other major news event, most people know about it within minutes of the incident.

Social media has changed the way we consume news and, whether or not you want to agree, by the time a mainstream news outlet has reported on it everyone already knows and has made up their mind.

The problem this creates is that it gives the impression that mainstream media are unreliable as an up-to-the-minute sources for news. It also puts credibility into question when journalists are reporting information that has since been refuted, changed, updated or is just irrelevant. By the time the information goes through the usual media channels, new information has already circled the globe.

It also creates a climate where fake news can spread faster than mainstream media can refute the claims. In an age where anyone with internet access can be a citizen journalist, truth has become exceedingly more subjective. Journalism then takes on a new form as public relations, marketing, fake news or even satire — and the scary part is that few people are able to tell the difference anymore. Organizations are now employing citizen journalists to spin their own brand of news in efforts to sway public opinion before mainstream media can dig into the facts.

It is reasons like this that I have been so outspoken about the decline in journalism and how media outlets are going the way of the dinosaur. It isn’t however, because they are no longer relevant; it’s that many media publications are not taking the threat of citizen journalism seriously enough. They believe that the tried tested and true forms of media will still prevail regardless of the social climate. The truth is that younger generations consume their media in a much different way today and, in order to stay relevant, media outlets need to adapt. It’s no longer good enough to regurgitate facts and call it journalism.

This is where the idea of branded truth comes in. Journalist are taught to remain completely unbiased in their reporting, offering nothing but the raw facts and allowing the public to come to their own opinions on the subjects. This used to work as most people only had the mainstream media telling them the information. Now things are different. You have celebrities and social media influencers telling their followers what to think. This, from a journalism perspective, doesn’t feel like a threat, as in most cases the opinions of these people are typically uninformed and baseless.

The issue with this is that, if you look at the public following of some of these individuals, they have more influence and reach than any media publication could dream of. This gives them what internet experts like Jesse Hirsh call online authority and means that, regardless of qualifications, they have developed a trust among their followers and can practically demand authority, regardless of their actual knowledge of the issues or the sources of their information.

Online authority is most prevalent in cases of social justice issues, such as the #metoo movement. The calls for social justice by celebrities and influencers have triggered very real reactions from both the general public and those with the power to make decisions long before legal justice and true journalism can sort out the facts. A couple of great examples of this would be the cases of Kevin Spacey and Johnny Depp. Both actors were accused of wrongdoing and, before any sort of trial was held, both Spacey and Depp had their main acting roles cancelled.

Spacey was kicked off of the show House of Cards after he was accused of sexual assault and, within one day of the accusation, he was pulled from his hit, had his special Emmy award revoked and had his entire career and reputation destroyed. Yet to date, Spacey has not been convicted of any crimes.  

Then there is the case of Johnny Depp, who was accused of assaulting his wife, actress Amber Heard. Within days of the accusations, Depp was fired from his lead role in Pirates of the Caribbean by Disney Studios. Heard claimed that Depp had been physically and emotionally abusing her throughout their short marriage and the internet went wild, calling Depp out on it without any proof of wrongdoing. In response to the allegations, Depp was able to produce 87 surveillance camera videos, 17 depositions of witnesses (which includes police officers), and images of bruises and severed fingertip that show a completely different story that Depp himself may have been the victim of domestic assault, gaslighting and an elaborate plan to set him up for her own financial and career aspirations.

Both actors were publicly ridiculed and and had their lives essentially destroyed before ever having a chance to prove their innocence — and they are not the only ones. This sort of social justice is common due to the nature of social media and facts have little to do with it.

This is why I believe that journalism is changing and that, in order to remain relevant, publications need to take a totally new approach on how they get their messages out to the public. It’s not enough anymore to just regurgitate facts and let the public sort it out because the public is getting most of their information for unreliable sources. They no longer care what the newspapers might be saying on a subject and rather prefer to take the opinions of their favourite influencers.

Being unbiased and objective has always been at the core of journalism, in theory, but the fact is that there is really no such thing as being truly objective. Whether we want to admit it or not, our bias will always be present in our writing. If you don’t believe me, just look at how a left-wing and right-wing paper cover the same story. Both have a very different view on the truth. The fact that I can even say left-wing paper is proof alone that there is always a bias.

Publications and journalists need to take a page from the influencers and start developing a following on social media and become known for having an informed opinion on the stories they cover.  This means that they need stop pretending they don’t have a bias and start becoming more vocal on why they have it.

A journalist can become well known on social media for always having the facts straight and being able to back up their claims with the evidence obtained through proper journalism. The big difference is that, unlike most influencers, they have the ability to dig deeper into the story and develop credibility for always having the facts straight. This also means engaging with people more online and spreading facts the same way others spread fallacies. Following the story long after it’s been published and entering into debates to sway the opinions of the otherwise ill informed public are examples.

There is also a case for the public becoming more responsible for fact checking the information they find online, but if politics are any indication of the willingness to do their homework, I wouldn’t rely on that to produce the best results.

Former journalism graduate and now pioneer for journalism marketing, Adam Rochon, believes that it’s up to the public to be more responsible about how they process information.

“It’s really an individual’s responsibility to understand how they are consuming their information and making the best decision for themselves. Will people manipulate? For sure. There will always be manipulation but, with that being said, there are still a lot of people who will have good and honest intentions and will want to let people know what’s going on in their community, their government or what businesses are up to. I think the truth will always find its way but it’s the job of the general public to understand where they got the information they are processing,” said Rochon.

It is up to journalists to decide where they want to take their careers and they will ultimately dictate the future of journalism. This means that despite the large media publications wanting to maintain a specific status quo, they are powerless to the direction their industry is heading and need to rely more heavily on the journalists to develop their own personal brands. This may result in an entirely new business model for media outlets, where, rather than employing in-house journalists, they may need to seek sponsorship agreements with individual journalist personalities and their respective brands.

It is more important than ever for journalists to branch out and become influencers, build followings and promote their own brand of truth. They will need to be willing to take a hard stance on important issues and be prepared to back it up with hard facts and heated debate. It is up to them — the truth seekers — to adapt and break into this new way of journalism or step aside and let the Joe Rogans of the world redefine what truth is.

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