Technology has made a huge impact on the world of journalism – not only in the way that news is gathered and reported, but also in the way that audiences prefer to receive their news, and their likely responses to it. This means that technology offers current and future journalists exciting digital opportunities, but also some considerable challenges.
Although this link between journalism and technology has accelerated in recent years, it is nothing new. It began with the invention of the telegraph, and the fact that you could send coded messages hundreds of miles instead of sending a man on a horse or a ship. Then, the first telephones meant that reporters could brief their editors in ‘real time’.
The first newspapers were produced on Gutenberg presses, which involved hand letter setting and inking – a long and tedious process. Contrast this with modern digital printing equipment, which can produce tens of thousands of newspapers each hour.
The clatter of typewriters in newsrooms has been replaced by streamlined and silent ways to capture content. Today’s journalists don’t just use computers and laptops either – they also use handheld technology that provides them with great mobility and dexterity.
Journalists don’t even have to be all together in a newsroom anymore to collaborate and communicate with their colleagues, editors, and other professionals in their field. They can work from anywhere in the world to deliver news to their head office.
Now, artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to collate news content and background information, and augmented reality systems can deliver words and imagery. Technology really has come a long way!
However, it is the subtle changes – and the less obvious impact that technology has had on journalism – that we will explore in this article.
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News and its impact on society
For centuries, journalistic writers and photographers have been vital in capturing history and reflecting the events, trends, and public opinions of their time. Their core principle was always to be unbiased observers and reporters – and they have had mixed success, of course. Humans are not robots, and emotions are hard to separate from many journalistic tasks.
Does journalism sometimes serve to alter society and shape history though? A better understanding of world events and the ability to share news quickly, and internationally have clearly left their mark on major historical events. This includes the progress of wars and the commercial activities of international companies, for example.
Throughout the years, decisions have been made, and public opinion has been shaped, by the work of journalists. Another illustration of how news affects – as well as reflects – society is when countries impose strict media controls to limit what their citizens see and hear. Technology has made it far easier for people to use the internet to bypass censorship.
Is disruptive media always a good thing?
Technology and the exchange of digital information have provided us with a greater choice of where news is received from. This is sometimes referred to as ‘disruptive media’ – new markets and values that challenge the more established news sources. Technology and ‘disruptive’ media channels have eroded the privileged position that traditional journalism once held.
They have also put a great deal of pressure on the mainstream news media to find their own innovations and new ways to make their role relevant and appreciated. To see the context of all this, you only have to consider the way that organizations and key figures can now either generate biased news or dismiss the news as ‘fake’ to direct the opinions and actions of the public.
It’s not that sensationalism and false reporting are new – they are centuries old. It’s just that now they can be amplified and shared more rapidly and successfully. Readers no longer have to go out and ‘buy’ their chosen delivery method, or switch on a particular radio or TV show. News of all kinds and calibers arrives directly in their hands, via their devices.
Getting their ‘news’ in this way also means that the general public is often consuming news from social media platforms. This is a ‘bite-sized’ source of information, and often clarity and context are completely discarded.
Digital news vs. traditional
How many people rely on digital news delivery? One research organization found that 82% of US adults reported getting news from their devices ‘often’ or ‘sometimes.’ A decreasing number say that they rely on television news sources. Of course, printed news publications have seen a considerable drop in sales over the last few years, leading to the big titles (and some smaller ones) adopting digital platforms pretty much across the board.
One of the questions that this throws up is how many people are getting news from authoritative and compliant news organizations. There are now prolific numbers of fringe, biased and even outright dubious ‘news’ websites, with none of the ethical and trade control measures to hold them back.
According to the research mentioned above, 13% of people questioned said that they prefer social media for news, rather than news websites and apps.
This could well be influenced by a growing distrust of the news organizations that should be the primary sources of carefully gathered and checked content. A Gallup poll in 2021 found that the public’s trust in the media had fallen to its second-lowest level on record (its lowest point so far was 2016).
There is also a degree of serious news ‘burnout’ among consumers. The COVID-19 pandemic and other world events (such as the outbreak of war in Ukraine) had many people ‘glued’ to their televisions and other news sources. The intensity of this type of news – and all the debate and discussion about economic issues and austerity – may well have created a desire to disengage from mainstream media.
Small snippets of information from social media may also seem to be more ‘palatable.’
The cost element cannot be ignored either. The news gained from social media and search engines is free at the point of delivery. Buying traditional news publications costs money, and television sources often involve lengthy advertising breaks to sit through.
Why is trust in media falling?
Why is the general public losing faith in mainstream media sources?
Modern consumers fully appreciate how easy technology has made it to create and distribute sensationalism, propaganda and manipulative information. Many people are aware that the downside of having so much news available by digital means is that the traditional measures, checks and stops have been removed. Instead of a team of editors and sub-editors checking the quality and accuracy of the content, anyone can now package information online as ‘news.’
The difficulties in identifying propaganda, opinion and misinformation, and picking out genuine news, are further compounded by the prolific nature of social media. These platforms are where people go to share all manner of fabrications and opinions, so, of course, there is suspicion even when journalists present carefully checked facts and a high degree of impartiality. It doesn’t help that some mainstream media companies are not as resolutely neutral as consumers would like them to be.
The Skills of Modern Journalists
If new generations of journalists are to re-engage the public and win back their trust, they must return to the fundamentals of balanced, unbiased and reliable news. Ironically, technology can help them to achieve this.
Firstly, the tremendous power of data gives them opportunities to collate, sort and analyze a massive amount of information. Then, technology can also enable media outlets to make news personal and relevant to different audiences. This starts with journalists having the correct skillset to optimize technological advancements in their sector.
For instance, a digital journalism master’s at St. Bonaventure University enables future professionals to harness the technological insights they need, but within the context of the highest journalistic standards and excellence. The online course also builds other agile and adaptable journalistic skills such as media communications, reporting, writing and digital news competencies.
The advent of digital news delivery has blurred the traditional roles in the profession. At one time, there would be separate teams of writers, photographers and designers, and you would firmly ‘stick to your lane.’
Contemporary journalists need a strong grasp of how to create reporting imagery (still and video) and how online news posts are designed. They may well be asked to not just write the news content, but also to upload it and do multiple other journalistic tasks.
News can no longer be just words
One of the primary reasons why journalists now need a wider mix of skills is that news media ‘output’ has changed so drastically in the technological age.
Many people still remember the days when the bulk of news consumption was from newspapers with many pages, which were often heavy in both weight and tone. Technology has both stimulated a greater hunger for news imagery and ensured that there is huge potential for it to be gathered and shared easily.
This includes vast amounts of existing imagery, as well as new and unique photographs and video. In fact, thanks to ‘stock’ imagery held digitally, up to 50% of news-related photographs that consumers see may be illustrative, rather than being novel and specific ‘coverage’.
Consumers are familiar with getting the information they need from photographs and videos footage. Social media platforms have also made both static and moving imagery a personal communication method. People take photographs and footage of everything from their food to the biggest moments in their life, to share as ‘news’ for family and friends.
Humans have always preferred visual representations of the information they need and want. We can process images an incredible 60,000 times faster than plain text. Therefore, the information that our brain uses is 90% visual, and we can make decisions based on visual input in a split second.
Putting words in with photographs and video doesn’t just grab attention – it is also more likely that the text will be read, understood and remembered. Podcasts and video podcasts (sometimes referred to as vodcasts) also have the benefit of being easy to access ‘on the move’ and at any time of day that the consumer prefers.
So, no matter how skilled journalists are at ‘painting pictures with words’, they may also need to be ready to back up shorter, pithier and more impactful content with plenty of visual references. This has possibly become even more true thanks to the internet and the use of modern devices to get constant stimulation and visual references.
Are attention spans shrinking?
There is a view that technology has contributed greatly to a decline in attention spans. So, it stands to reason that the likelihood of consumers reading lengthy news articles has decreased.
One piece of research into the use of mobile devices is especially illuminating on this topic. It suggests that the problem may not be that we have less ability to concentrate, but instead the prolific nature of information that we have available to us.
When a selection of British adults were asked how often they check their phones, the average reported was about 25 times a day. The reality was up to 80 times a day.
The future of journalism and technology
The above question is important, and part of the reason why modern journalists need to have data science abilities, as well as general technological, skills. Having at least a basic understanding of data analytics enables journalists to invest more of their time in understanding their audiences, including how consumers find, view and react to news items.
This can ensure that journalistic output is strong and relevant enough to grab and hold the attention of target audiences in the face of all the other information resources they have access to online.
Will society even need human journalists in the future? No exploration of journalism and technology would be complete without a reference to AI. AI is already available to analyze consumer profiles and information about world events, and to correlate and deliver highly person-specific news.
However, even AI is not without its challenges. This includes potential bias. It is filters and sorts news according to its programming, and this is still open to pre-set restrictions on what is transmitted. AI news collation and distribution systems are also a source of security risks.
Also, the ability of journalists to connect emotionally to the subject matter, and employ empathy, can add vital dimensions to reported information.
Therefore, there is every reason to be confident that well-trained and insightful human journalists will still be crucial to news gathering and dissemination for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps instead the focus will fall on augmented reality and its ability to deliver news instantly in a vast array of situations. For example, imagine sitting on a train station platform, scanning posters and ‘experiencing’ events happening somewhere else in the world while you wait.
This links with the consumer hunger for visual news and just how far this is satisfied. Would it be ethical and advisable to use virtual and augmented reality to put people into sensitive situations so that they can experience news ‘as it happens’?
Journalistic collaboration and investment
One of the most exciting ways that technology is now shaping the future of journalism as a career is by creating new international collaborative opportunities. It is possible to easily support real-time work teams and media labs, anywhere on the planet, with automated processes to share and contribute to information and imagery.
For instance, rather than a foreign journalist traveling to report on an emerging situation, they can work with local people ‘on the ground’ in a cooperative way to conduct investigative journalism. Research and real-time intelligence can also support and enhance first-hand accounts.
The opportunities offered by technology offer journalists a vital way to underpin their role, and rebuild consumer trust, through the intuitive use of data skills. They can find relevant facts quickly, check them thoroughly, and then deliver them directly to people’s devices in a very short period of time.
The internet also offers journalists a 24-hour opportunity to gather and share news, and abundant ways to respond to consumer trends and interests. This relies on media companies investing in the latest technology, of course, as well as journalists having the skills needed to optimize the ever-advancing opportunities it provides. This may all take shape within increasing regulation on all forms of news transmission, to enable consumers to identify high-quality journalism in an ocean of ‘news’ information.
Alex is fascinated with “understanding” people. It’s actually what drives everything he does. He believes in a thoughtful exploration of how you shape your thoughts, experience of the world.