Welcome to the echo chamber

From Reuters to the BBC the future of journalism is being presented as cyber-utopia. For many in the industry, though, the reality is of poor quality content fuelled by dodgy ethics. 

Leah Borromeo
17 March 2015

Image: Peter Kennard

I do wish journalists would stop banging on about how extraordinary a time it is for journalism. Ooh Twitter, oh check this blog and that Instagram and while you’re at it let’s make this ‘go viral’ on that there YouTube. Ah teh internets. The saviour of us all. I wonder if the monastic world babbled ablaze when Gutenberg launched his mechanical printing press. 

We live in a world knocking around in a tin box. Rattle it a bit and it makes a lot of noise. But that’s about it. Noise. But these days it’s profitable noise…and rarely does any of that economic benefit find its way to the person who originally produced the information. 

‘But these are real life events and we can tell the world about them on social media platforms in real time. World leaders are accountable. Information gets out immediately and people can discuss them as they’re happening. And we have citizen journalism - everyday people who can report and investigate things that are happening to them. It’s authentic, it’s now, it’s….’ 

You millennials and your constant consumption of information. Oh. Wait. You millennials and your constant consumption of user generated content. The millennial - the demographic the UGC and press marketing people fetishise as their next big golden calf. But the demographic they seek to market to is also the first demographic to be exploited.

Reuters summed it up nicely with their slogan “the business of information”. There are romantic ideas of what journalism is - generally harboured by gumshoe students who think their whole lives will be spent clearing out the arteries of injustice like Paul Foot. But that’s the romance. Presenter of the Radio 4 Today programme John Humphrys - arguably the ‘voice’ of the BBC - isn’t quick to encourage young hopefuls into journalism. It’s not an easy ride and there may just be “too many” people who want to become one. Despite an exaggerated reputation as blathering, gobshite alcoholics, a lot of hard work goes into keeping across everything every day and even more goes into making all that knowledge coherent. 

Then there are the bitter realities of the jobbing hack - having to produce a number of stories per day, generally copied and pasted from news wires or compiled and remixed from video feeds. What you glean from the internet can seem an easy way to add authenticity and materiality to a report…a way to make it your own. Or so you think. 

Have you ever yelled “echo” in a large chamber and heard it come back to you? That’s kind of like the internet. You get out what you put in. 

As journalists, we’re forced into a meta narrative that pushes the self-importance of our own profession. Someone writes a story then someone else writes a story about that story. Someone then creates a top-ten list based on bits of that story or whoever wrote that story. Then someone else PhotoShops something in that story as a unicorn and plays Nicki Minaj over it and a meme is born. By writing about ourselves, we aggrandise ourselves. Our own voices are clattering around the tin box unaware that there is a world outside that box. You don’t actually learn or unpack very much about the world and how it works. 

The internet also opens up the workforce to all sorts of labour exploitation. From unattributed material gleaned from social media to call outs for people to submit their photos and videos to ‘help’ tell the story, news organisations are wise to play on people’s vanity and sense of event participation to save a few bob on having to pay a journalist to actually cover a story. And it can all happen now now now. 

Image: Peter Kennard 

I suppose it is a good thing that information can travel around the world in near-real time. I recall being the night editor on the Sky News intake desk on Christmas evening 2004. At around 2am that morning - Boxing Day - the iNews alerts buzzed alive with notices about an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. My colleagues and I fetched an atlas and marked each report. The marks fell along a fault line. Soon, the United States Geological Survey confirmed that the quake off the Andaman Islands happened very near the surface, triggering a tsunami warning. 

Me: How bad is it?

He: By the time we hang up? Not good. 

I recall the solemnity in the expert’s voice as I patched his phone call through to the sound gallery. In a matter of seconds, he was on air and I was on the phone to the Foreign Office emergency number and another colleague was ringing all the senior bosses on a Boxing Day morning to say we were looking at “the big one”. We were roping in every reporter and every crew member with that kind of collegiate camaraderie and ego-wrangling that makes newsroom relationships perversely beautiful. 

For a channel determined to get everywhere first and fast, we’d won. BBC News24 and the ITV News Channel were still running ‘off-tape’ and hadn’t reported it yet. 

We pulled in the latest moving images and stills from news agencies. YouTube had yet to be born, Facebook was still in nappies and Twitter’s parents were still discovering puberty. I culled and aired user generated content from Flickr, Imageshack, MySpace, WAYN and found contributors via early blogging platforms like LiveJournal. 

Ten years ago, UGC fell under more scrutiny that it does today. Editors raised an eyebrow and researchers were asked to prove it was real. There was a care to the skepticism because that’s what journalists are supposed to do…ask questions about everything - especially when someone claimed to be an eyewitness. We were on the cusp of the social media revolution and early adopters like me weren’t quite understood. Journalists then would have killed for the tools we have today but were less quick to believe what we saw was true. 

These days the internet can kill Mikhail Gorbachev and because news of it is tweeted and retweeted by reputable journalists, it can became true…until someone comes out and says that Gorby was not dead at all and could you please go back to sharing photos of cats. 

Un-checked, user generated content can be inaccurate and any news source caught on that wave will also be inaccurate. Crucially, there are a bulk of editors who see UGC as a ‘free’ way of getting to events they would otherwise employ a freelance to cover. The BBC’s Have Your Say section is one of those sneaky participatory reach outs for free material - although it isn’t the most egregious example. That trophy goes to any news editor who actively culls material from the internet, sticks a user’s handle on it to credit it and prays to the news gods they haven’t nicked a photo off an NUJ photographer who won’t buy their ‘fair dealing’ argument and demand paying

Having people around to collate and publish and re-publish all this noise also brings into question what journalism is. I hear pay rates at an outfit I used to moonlight at haven’t changed much since I started there over fifteen years ago. The job spec now includes trawling the internet for things that would deliver traffic to the website - from stories related to the headline stories to drafting ‘listicles’ and writing quizzes loosely pinned to events. It seems the role of journalist is no longer one that questions the world to show it as it is, it’s someone who can aggregate information like a data miner. 

Now imagine yourself bright-eyed, super keen and fresh into your first job as a journalist. Your ill-fitting office clothing belies your youth and your attempts at furrowing your brow only accent your naiveté. But you have a job. For the countless others who don’t, those who use the tools of the internet to try to build audiences and followings and those who work many unpaid hours writing and filming things ‘on spec’ - they’re being trumped by the unscrupulous who use their material without offering compensation. A definition of user generated content is “material your organisation has not commissioned and paid for”.

There is an argument for an online resource of primary and secondary sources for journalists to go to that is fact-checked - a sort of library of history and current events. A ‘digital public space’ where ideas are shared and discussed and from which new creative and political works are spawned - a place where data shapes better futures and personal data isn’t used as currency.

This is what we would like to call the internet and others like to call the BBC News website. But it should not be the domain or privilege of any particular website or institution or even a search engine. People should be wary and aware not to take everything they read or see at face value and as cold, hard fact. Just because it’s on Google or the BBC doesn’t mean it’s true. (If it were, the likes of the Yes Men would never have seen it as a ripe place for pranking). 

Furthermore, the internet is awash with the open exchange of knowledge and information produced by those expert in their fields or experienced by those who were witness to events. Because if this, it can also be a platform for collective manipulation and truth-bending by actors large and small (if you doubt me, look up the earliest reports surrounding Ian Tomlinson’s death at London’s G20 demonstrations in 2009). 

If something is required from an expert or eyewitness, then that person should be paid or offered something in equal exchange for their contribution. “Great exposure” and “something for your portfolio” does not cut it. It’s the contributor’s prerogative to decide whether their contribution should be remunerated or not. 

This reminds me of an early-career conversation I had with an executive producer.

Me: She’ll shoot it for us. She lives just down the road and has a camcorder.

He: Good.

Me: How much will we pay her?

He: Don’t mention pay unless they ask for it.

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