Ever since the printing press gave birth to mass communications and journalism, the news business has been driven by technology and never more so than today.
Personal computers, smart phones, digital cameras, all of them brought to life by internet technology and social media, have put the audience in the newsroom and are redefining journalism. At the same time, the boundaries between news and entertainment and between news reporting and advertising have become blurred and people are asking whether this is hurting journalism.
This was touched upon in the Pakistan-India Social Media Mela, held in Karachi, where talk ranged from the good (internet solidarity, entrepreneurship, minority rights and Twitter literature) to the bad (internet bullying) and the downright ugly (the problem of foul-mouthed internet trolls — people who post poisonous rhetoric on social networks).
The impact of social media has driven political revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and helped spread dramatic stories of tsunami and earthquakes in Japan and Indonesia. For some traditionalists, this carousel of change is a white-knuckle ride, but it is good news for media.
Of course, the internet is not without its traps. Some of the world’s leading media were left red-faced in 2011, for instance, when a mysterious young Arab feminist internet blogger, who had been quoted widely by journalists covering the conflict in Syria, turned out to be a hoax.
Given the problem of anonymity on the internet, journalists need to set standards and verify online sources of information to avoid repeating the misinformation, bias and ignorant prejudice that infects so much of the internet and social media. Above all, they should never forget that what distinguishes journalists from someone on Facebook or on Twitter is that they have ethics.
This difference is important to remember when the traditional definition of the news gatherer is now being extended to include social media users. This new generation of journalists comes equipped with technical know-how and social networking skills but many of them remain ignorant about why journalism is important for democracy.
They need to learn that journalism is not an information free-for-all. To function well, it must be ethically driven. At its best, it can be a filter for decency, honesty and truthfulness but without ethical restraints, it will become just another source of propaganda.
This is a particular threat in Pakistan where state and non-state actors routinely apply political pressure, where illiteracy makes people dependent on media and where media sometimes cut ethical corners in their competition for audience, circulation and market share.
The vision of journalism as a public good still holds in the digital age, but it will only grow if traditional media begin to regard social networks and the internet as less of a threat.
All journalists might do well to embrace a touch of humility and accept more openly what US journalist Dan Gillmor famously admitted in his ground-breaking book We the Media, “my readers know more than I do”.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2012.