The Digital Revolution does not change the most important thing about journalism

A most important point about the digital revolution in journalism currently under way is this: That whilst it changed pretty much everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it did not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. However, whether it means that society can free itself of the false idol of journalistic objectivity is an altogether different and urgent question.

As many others have described, the digital revolution changes apparently everything; and it continues to do so, in a way that is unprecedented since Gutenberg and/or Industrialisation. Maybe even more so. Professionally and personally for me, few things have changed my daily work, challenged my thinking, driven my professional curiosity and academic studies over the last two decades as the digital revolution of media and journalism. And of course as I am writing this, the revolution continues.

This is a dispatch from the trenches. 

Like other journalists of my generation, I lived through the revolution as it radically changed the tools and practices of the trade. For a short period of about 28 months around 2008-2010,  probably like no other editorial manager around the globe at that time, I worked on developing and maintaining sets of editorial standards across dozens of languages and different cultures for a large and complex public broadcaster, right as the digital revolution brought in the massive deprofessionalisation of journalism, but also liberated and empowered the craft in ways previously not imagined. And like quite a few other philosophically inclined people, I dove (dived?)  into the epistemological and even the ontological aspects of what does not change but matters even more than any aspect of the digital revolution: the concept of objective truth in journalism, and the social function of journalism in particular and mass media in general in society.

Hang on there, Christoph. 

Are you really saying that journalistic truth, objectivity and the function of media don’t change? Not even since Facebook and WhatsApp? Yes. I know that is a contentious claim, but one I would argue can be proven both inductively and deductively, not to mention anecdotally.

As a print journalist, I saw how the revolution made newspapers first easier to produce and then seemingly obsolete before taking the latest turn – “glocalisation 2.0”- which I will deal with in this post briefly too, if I have the time, but intend to deal separately at another time. As a TV reporter, I saw how the revolution first made the field work easier, faster and better – and then break all the rules before moving away from TV to form its own eco-system as a form of social medium (e.g. YouTube). As an online and social media journalist, I saw how the web and the technological means at our disposal helped create new and amazing expressions of journalism – from “Medium” to Twitter. At the same time, I witnessed a lowering of professional standards of practice, from research to publication, across the vast phenomenon of not just lazy journalism (aka “the land of lousy hacks”) but media instituions: The revolution has already brought to light that some alleged bastions of quality journalism (in particular broadcasting networks) are in fact just tabloidist ventures operating behind a veneer of cultural gravitas and legitimacy, and compensating for a lack of fairness and objectivity with ideological zeal previously hidden to an analogue public. In this new era, the digital public it constitutes is a different beast altogether.

(Compare – carefully, with a view to content and form –  a print edition of the “Spiegel” during its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century to the – by some measures massively successful – website of 2014, and you will be instantly struck by the differences, but also the similarities underneath which shine through when compared.)

Obviously, there is a lot more to be drawn from what I have summarised here. But since my train ride will be over in a few minutes, let me bring it back to the point of this rambling piece:
That whilst the digital revolution has changed pretty and conitues to change just about everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it has and will not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. Consider what happened in the “Arabellion”, the “Arab spring”. Consider the “filter bubbles” in which people spend their time on Facebook [note: link is to a piece in German].

Ok, I hear you say, so journalism is still required. D’uh! What’s the point of all of this?

Firstly, I don’t think it is a banal point at all. Secondly, it makes me very excited and optimistic about the future, but also concerned that we need to explain this – and its implications – to young (and older) journalists. Thirdly, it is not just about empowering journalists. We also may see the digital revolution as a means of what Gaston Bachelard called a useful “epistemological rupture”: As an opportunity to look at assumptions and unquestioned premises around the function of journalism. And in particular of the nasty, false idol of journalistic objectivity – of which I must write more very soon.

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