Citizen Journalism and Media Responsibility

Trust Me, I´m Lying is the title of a controversial book by Ryan Holiday published in July 2013. It´s been billed as an exposé of the current online journalism system, and with its subtitle, ¨Confessions of a Media Manipulator¨ it makes great companion reading to a report published earlier this year that examines the societal and legal implications of so-called ¨citizen journalism¨.

¨Open Journalism¨ was released in April 2013 by the European Audiovisual Observatory (EAO). It explores the age we live in, where anyone with smart phone and access to the internet can produce and publish sound, images and text. Such content may end up on an individual´s own platform (thanks to the rise of blogs), or on more professional platforms, where indeed such ´user generated content´ is often valued today as a supplemental resource to traditional news reporting. That´s interesting. Because in Holiday´s book he explains why blogs matter, how they drive the news, and how they are manipulated.

Since ´open journalism´ is such a wide-ranging topic, it´s no surprise that legal frameworks have not kept up with such developments. The lead article in the EAO report authored by Tarlach McGonagle of Amsterdam´s Institute for Information Law, analyses the legal implications for various types of user-generated content, which according to an OECD definition, means creative efforts that are published ¨outside professional routines and practices’¨. Can such a definition be still even valid?

The legal and regulatory issues impacted by the widespread creation of user-generated content and news, include basic principles like the right to freedom of expression, media pluralism, and media and content regulation. The report also looks at recent measures undertaken by the Council of Europe in relation to protecting freedom of expression in the online environment, and the relationship between social networks, and traditional audiovisual media services, including the issue of responsibility.

It´s here, on the topic of responsibility, that one can pause for thought on how the media is so cleverly manipulated today. All those ridiculous headlines designed to pique interest: the top 10 reasons for this and that, and how Freddie Star Ate My Hamster. Such tricks, originally designed to boost newspaper sales, are now optimised to get people clicking on ad-driven websites whose only goal is that you click, and click through multiple pages, to get as much exposure to their advertising as possible.

open-journalismAll of this and much more is well-described by Holiday in his book, including various stunts that he´s pulled to trick reporters and bloggers on behalf of his clients. He also covers the new wave of ´iterative´ journalism, which is basically defined as publish first, worry about the details (never mind the facts) later. Result: a complete displacement for consumers and the disintegration of whatever integrity might still exist in the news reporting profession.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the EAO report is the final section. This section sets out the ¨Social Media Guidelines¨ based on contributions to a ¨2013 Social Media Guidebook¨ published by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)´s  Representative on Freedom of the Media. This is an exercise that originally dates back 10 years, when the OSCE Representative first convened a series of Internet Conferences to establish the potential and challenges of the Internet for freedom of expression and freedom of the media. The Amsterdam Recommendations of 2003 and the Media Freedom Internet Cookbook of 2004 approached the Internet as a new phenomenon and an unprecedented communication platform.

By all accounts the new guidelines must still be adjusted, they say, but it is based on the underlying principle of ¨basic human rights to free media and free expression and their implementation in the digital age¨. Indeed, ´adjustment´ is an interesting term, for it seems nigh on impossible to implement anything akin to ethical responsibility in this age of social media. As two of the principles state:

    •    For journalists, the balance of using social media for newsgathering, reporting, verifying – and ethical issues that go with it – remains a challenge that continues to be tested as new 2013 Social Media Guidelines standards evolve to meet the demands of new technologies.
    •    What used to happen before “going to press” – information distribution – in the forms of verification and fact checking, now plays out simultaneously on social media. Process and transparency is as newsworthy as the newsgathering and reporting itself, and is becoming a part of how stories are told with these media. And the whole world is paying close attention.

Indeed. The term ´challenge´ here is also something of an understatement in the current media environment. As is the statement that ´coming up with globally valid and enforceable rules to apply to situations worldwide will be difficult to achieve.¨ It seems laudable but in the end it is a huge tide to turn back, if governments, regulators, civil society, industry, academia and multiple stakeholders believe they might work together to develop helpful guidelines for how technology companies, including those operating in repressive regimes, could best operate to promote freedom of expression and protect the privacy of users.

That´s not to say they should not try, but as Holiday explains, there are consequences. When the methods of manipulation are applied, it backfires. His methods have been used to propel a relatively uninfluential politician into the public mind as a serious US presidential candidate, all for the purpose of generating page views for a  major blog site. When in 2011 it was reported he had received a $500,000 advance for writing a tell-all exposé, some news outlets considered the report to be a strategic marketing stunt that he had put in motion. Prior to its release, it had been reported that he posed as an expert on various issues in order to prove that journalists could not be counted on to do any fact checking. So if this exposé only tells part of the story of what´s going on, which should come as no surprise, it begs the question: even if some news outlets and / or journalists are still ethical, and others not, driven by this insane click-driven ad economy, what hope is there for consumers to know the difference ?

These new journalistic mechanisms would appear to be an economic necessity in the information age. Moreover, there is no doubt that Holiday has pulled out all the stops to use, to his own advantage, the methods he describes to promote the sales of his own book. We would expect nothing less of him. This is what makes the book such compelling reading. Will a set of ´Social Media Guidelines¨ have any impact at all? Of course regulators have to try.  But Trust Me, I’m Lying concludes with both a recognition from Holiday of his part in the web’s deception and with a warning: “Our dominant cultural medium—the web—is hopelessly broken.”


Open Journalism can be purchased via the European Audiovisual Observatory´s Website.