Acts Of Journalism Don’t Necessarily Make One A Journalist

Even the uninitiated acknowledges that journalism has changed permanently. That journalism has been in a state of flux because of the digitalization of media is not in doubt since we all encounter the effects of the changes in our everyday lives. However, there is good reason to believe that such street-level understanding is missing when it comes to what the changes mean for everyday media consumption. Most of the confusion, it appears, concern the question of what qualifies to be described as journalism and who earns the right to be addressed as a journalist. Let me start with the obvious – the transformation of the media user.

Yes, institutional media has lost its power to determine what news is and thereby it’s power to set the agenda within the mediated communicative space. Instead, ordinary media users have been transformed from mere users into producers. Jay Rosen called them ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ but in order to properly describe the transformation, I will use Alvin Toffler’s ‘prosumer,’ the term he used to describe the media user when the thin line dividing the producer and the consumer is removed.

However, and this is the fundamental shift: people may be producing and disseminating information, but the critical test is: how much of what they are doing can and should be classified as journalism. I strongly believe that to miss this point and decorate everyone who curates and distributes the work of others including gossip dressed as news with a title reserved for distinguished members of the fourth estate would be a disservice to journalism.

I have heard the arguments, sometimes by prominent journalists, that editors are losing their influence because other nodes of influence are developing in the networked communicative space that empowers non-professionals. Some of those arguments are only stating the obvious because this is exactly what distinguishes the new media ecosystem from traditional media. In a way, new media democratizes communication by allowing marginalized groups that otherwise would have been excluded to participate in the communicative process.

However, to measure a journalist’s overall influence in the same way that you do a micro celebrity would be missing the point totally. Those who have done this assume that the journalist and the micro-celebrity have the same motivation for what they do. Understanding the motivation helps to address the question of whether all who perform acts of journalism can be described as journalists.

I have highlighted what motivates the micro celebrity in the past and it is a waste of time to repeat it here. However, let’s just bear in mind that social media provides the platform that allows micro celebrities ‘perform’ on a stage; accumulate sizeable followership; and milk the numbers for money. In other words, those performances you see on Instagram and other platforms are deliberate, carefully written acts aimed at building social capital that can then be exchanged for real cash.

Hartmut Esser’s essay ‘The Two Meanings of Social Capital’ provides two levels of understanding of how social capital works. First, it speaks of the individual actor’s resources that can be called in from their close friends and acquaintances and second; it describes the performance of the entire network and how all actors relate. For easy understanding, observe how those upcoming actors appear for each other in skits; the quality and frequency of guest appearances you can muster depending on your social capital. This is a model that has been tested and used by micro celebrities and celebrities to full effect. Celebrity and music artiste, Davido’s recent call for donations from his circle and the massive response he received confirms his standing within that network. Simply put, the networked media environment pretty much works this way; non-professionals connect directly with people to build social capital that can be called up when there is a need.

Traditionally, journalists have always been a bridge between newsmakers and the people; and in that role those who are worthy of the calling have been guided by certain values and standards including authenticity of content, source verification and accuracy. Anyone claiming to be a journalist but who ignores those values and standards triggers an alarm and raises questions about any claim to being a member of the fourth estate. It’s that simple. And I think this should be how journalists and editors are measured and not their followership on social media.

The media is also experiencing transformation on another level – the distribution of news. Hitherto, media users would search for information either by buying newspapers, tuning on to radio or their television sets. Obviously reinforced by digitalization of media and the transformation of the media users, people no longer search for news because it is everywhere around them. The information overload calls to mind the image of fish and water used by Marshall McLuhan about half a century back to describe the people’s relationship with the media. Even if you were to try, you cannot miss the stream of information coming at you from the moment you wake up until you go to bed.

Our increasingly mobile world and shortening attention span also means commercial media must find a way to make money, hence the growing adoption of artificial intelligence to profile media users in order to target them more effectively. The more people use mobile devices and social networking sites, the more content producers and platform owners know about their preferences; and ultimately, the more they can be targeted almost with surgical precision. Like Ramón Salaverría and Mathias-Felipe de-Lima-Santos in their article ‘Towards Ubiquitous Journalism: Impacts of Iot on News’ suggest, the AI technologies ‘surreptitiously select and provide the journalistic, advertising and commercial contents that keep users’ attention, following the interests of news providers and advertisers.’ Notice the paradox here; the ‘people formerly known as the audience’ have been empowered by new media affordances, yet commercial media has found a way to control what media users consume.

This is where I think some clarity is required. I have just concluded PhD research that critically looked at how to hardcode citizen journalism into the Nigerian media and if there is one thing that strikes me; it is that there is so much confusion about the exact role and limits of non-professionals doing reportorial work. I was privileged to have interviewed twelve of Nigeria’s finest journalists in the biggest news organisations and I get the sense that legacy media is aware of the impact of citizen journalism on the media. I also understand that most of them are exploring ways to respond to the digital disruption in ways that allow them to maintain their overall influence. More on the result of that research later.

There’s no universal agreement on what it means to be a citizen journalist but one way to understand the term is to remember that whether it is institutional or non-institutional; we’re talking essentially about citizen witnessing, the best examples of which are found in times of crisis.  Sohaib Athar’s tweet of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abottabad, Northern Pakistan in 2016 is one example of an ordinary citizen performing acts of journalism. Janis Krums’ tweet in January 2009 of the image of the US Airways Flight 1549 that had made an emergency landing in the Hudson River shortly after take-off from the LaGuardia Airport is another example of an ordinary citizen using personal social media account to do what amounts to serious reportorial work.

Those may be classical cases of citizen witnessing but the idea also encompasses whistleblowing, of which Julian Assange would be the best example. Wikileaks, the site he launched in January 2007 has been an advocate of a new order in which powerful people would no longer be able to hide their wrongdoings. His method is to steal and leak official documents; sometimes in collaboration with institutional media who otherwise would not have had access to such protected secrets.

The likes of Sohaib Athar, Janis Krums and Julian Assange performed acts of journalism because their citizen witnessing, and leaks qualify as serious reportorial work. By serious reportorial work, I only reference those who distinguish between ordinary people who produce some reasonable useful content from those who merely aggregate what others have produced; re-post, link, remix and distribute to others. To the extent that they are participating in the news process, it is alright to describe them as citizen journalists, but I strongly feel that this should be all the credit they get.

I tend to agree with those who feel that even if you remove all boundaries from the definition of who is a citizen journalist; the more noble variant – of citizen witnessing and whistleblowing – draw attention to the shortcoming we see in the other variants which thrive on re-working content produced by others. The shortcoming represents both an opportunity and a threat and this is where I see legacy media struggling the most. I understand the intense competition from non-professionals and citizen witnesses as well as the need for speed but when trained journalists have no choice but quote citizen journalists as their principal sources, then we have to worry.

Sure, new media has removed walls that separated journalists from newsmakers and the ‘people formerly known as the audience.’ However, even if a journalist were to take what the ‘people formerly known as the audience’ provide; it should be used as a source which is then subjected to the same rigorous processing that normally would apply to other sources. There is reason to believe that the management of the legacy media organisations understand what the threats mean to their continued existence. I came away from my engagement with some of them in the course of my research with the understanding that legacy media organisations want to be respected as authentic sources of news. Regardless, looking around the Nigerian media landscape, there are signs to suggest this won’t be easy to accomplish.

Legacy media organisations already have digital-born newspapers like Sahara Reporters, Premium Times and The Cable, all of which are producing excellent journalistic content, to contend with. You don’t have to be a journalist to be worried that they now face a far more nebulous threat from micro celebrities who are not content with playing in their natural space on Instagram and other social networking sites but rather would like to be addressed as journalists. Self-proclaimed investigative journalists like the wacky one who courts controversy with everything she does, are in this category of non-professionals operating from the micro celebrity playbook. The only difference is that while the micro celebrities of Instagram are happy to be called influencers, the more desperate ones are so brazen in their appropriation of the title ‘investigative journalist’. In that desperation many are dangerously straying into the revered space for serious reportorial work for which they lack the capacity and the commitment to the long-respected values and standards that make journalism what it is.

Their ‘performance’ would have been laughable if it were not so insidious as to be dangerous. We are used to the crazy, rotten girls of Instagram entertaining us with all sorts of ‘performances,’ but the activities of these smooth operators are dangerous because the media landscape is muddied already no thanks to the digital disruption. Nigeria can do without the rotten work of people who delude themselves as being journalists because they think they are performing acts of journalism.