How Journalism Has Transformed During the Digital Era

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We don’t need journalists. The citizens, experts and elected politicians can now mediate themselves. What is the point of the professional news media in the networked age?


The Internet and social media have had a tremendous influence on the media outlets and journalists working for them. Citizens, politicians, experts now have access to the online open platform, making their voices easily to be heard without the mediation of news agencies. The new environment of information feeding leaves the doubt that if professional journalists and news media still stand significantly in our daily life and democratic process. This article focuses on the changes that network age brings as well as the impacts it brings to the profession. The Internet users communicate the information in real time, which unintentionally replace some of the function of journalists. Through the lens, the essay argues that personal extended rights of voice online do not conflict with the necessity of professional journalists. Instead, more sources and evidence could be collected by the journalists to double check the truth, which is beneficial to the development of news media. Then it will further illustrate several cases nowadays to discuss key responsibilities and capacities of professional journalists and news media in the networked age when journalists not only telling a story in a wide context but in a more collaborative way.

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Refinding the voice in the digital age

The First Amendment in the US writes down the freedom of speech and the press. Although no speech can be legally suppressed due to the law, the power and channels to make voice heard were always held by the politicians, celebrities, and the newspapers until the advent of the Internet. Through publishing stories, words and photos of politicians and celebrities, the newspapers are considered as a great channel to communicate the society and empowered to interpret and mediated the world. However, with the rise of the digital age and social media, the control over the channels is dissolving. The citizens having access to the Internet are becoming more informed with all kinds of news feeds, more active with the comments and interactions, and more critical about the happening events. At the same time, the politicians and experts do not need to seek the assistance of newspaper and accumulate their own fans on the platform. The US president Trump has over 46 million followers and could talk to his supporters directly without the interpretation of the news media which may be against him.

As a result of extended voice, the occupational status of journalists has dropped significantly with the doubt that if professional journalists are still needed. For instance, the self-identity of journalism in China transformed from an uncrowned king, or the fourth estate to the “news labours” (a title Chinese use to joke journalists like the migrant workers) in recent years.

The new technology, new media platform, and online journalists, including citizens, politicians and others who spread the useful or attracting information, indeed bring challenges to the self and social identification of professional journalists. In 2003, Singer(Jane B. Singer, 2003) clearly states the distinction between practitioner and layperson in journalism and argues that online journalists pose a threat to the notion of professionalism rather than the profession itself.

Meiklejohn(1948:26) gives her idea in an elite perspective and argues that “what is essential is not that everyone shall speak, but that everything worth saying shall be said”. Her word is biased from the critical perspective but justifies the significance of journalists and professional news media since it foresees the chaos, unchecked content, fake news, rumours and out of order when everyone could make their voice heard in the digital age.

Therefore, the judgement that “We don’t need journalists anymore since everyone could mediate themselves in the network age” is the surface of things, only realizing one of the functions of journalists, which is communicate the information and overlooking the other important functions that professional journalists can do.

Journalist, citizen journalists and professionalism

The definition of journalists in Cambridge Dictionary is “a person who writes news stories or articles for a newspaper or magazine or broadcast them on radio or television.” The traditional definition comes with the emergence of news outlets in the 19th century. At the beginning, journalism is considered closer to a craft than a profession since concrete knowledge and techniques need to be applied in their work. The barrier to entry contributes to the concept professionalism, which is a term journalists often use to describe excellence to which they aspire(Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). There are several general dimensions when considering the concept professionalism. Larson&Larson(1979) classified three dimensions: cognitive dimension centering on knowledge base and techniques, normative dimension covering service orientation and important ethics, evaluate dimension, broadly linked with special power and prestige. Although other scientists carefully point out the other side that professionalism could be a concept promoting to justify the power of imbalance between the professional and the layperson(Allison, 1986), the characters of professionalism still serves well when defining the difference between citizen journalists, politicians, experts and the professionals.

Citizen journalists are considered as “ordinary individuals who temporarily adopt the role of a journalist in order to participate in news-making, often spontaneously during a time of crisis, accident, tragedy or disaster when they happen to be present on the scene” (Allan, 2013:9). The common thing shared by the citizen journalists, politicians and experts is that they are all sources possessing important information from the perspective of traditional journalism. Nowadays, the internet and social media enable them to express directly without the interpretation of the professional journalists, and probably without professionalism as well.

It is difficult to define journalism and journalists in the networked age. The engineers of Facebook and Google use an algorithm to decide different news feeds for different people. Facebook has published the core values to guide the process of choosing topics and contents, like “Friends and family come first/ a platform for all ideas”. Except for the ethics, they work like real newsrooms by prioritizing genuine stories over misleading, sensational, and spammy ones. Should engineers be considered as journalists? I would exclude them out of my analysis although Facebook accepts their role as extremely powerful media organization in 2016, serving news to 1.86 billion people every day. The platform itself should be considered as indispensable online players of news circulation rather than professional news media. In the following parts of this essay, several cases related to citizen journalists, politician and expert’s media use will be shown to demonstrate the indispensable role professional journalists played in the networked age.

Saving Truth from information chaos

“Terror attack” on Oxford Street in 24th Nov 2017 shows the great potential of networked journalism but also exposes its weakness. Armed police searched Oxford Street after Scotland Yard received “numerous reports of shots fired” at the tourist hotspot and nearby Oxford Circus Tube station. Several celebrities and a number of witnesses sounded warnings on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Wechat. Some even claimed that they had heard the gunshot and one of their friends had injured. But the chaos was ended by police’s statement that no evidence of shooting has been fired. Pop star Olly Murs was accused of sparking hysteria with fake news by Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan. He later stated on Twitter that “Have no idea the whole store went crazy. Many different stories flying around”, which is indeed the awkward situation citizen journalists are in. Even with the information and the access online, with the technique to present the situation by pictures and videos, the witnesses did not succeed in reporting the story fully since they were easily misled by people nearby and the emotional atmosphere, as well as having a weak consciousness to verify the other sources.

Citizen journalists in the case took over more of the adversarial duties of traditional journalists by providing large amounts of information on the scene. However, it also makes the interpretive role of journalists more necessary as someone needs to sift through all the information and disseminate the valid part. (Renita Coleman, Joon Yea Lee, Carolyn Yaschur, Aimee Pavia Meader, & Kathleen McElroy, 2016) A number of news organizations have invested in fact-checking and to put it front and center of its coverage. The incident of CNN journalists resign in July 2017 shows the determination of the mainstream media. Three CNN important journalists have resigned after the publication of a Russia-related article that was retracted. The story cited a single anonymous source, but the journalists by-passed the fact checkers, journalism standards experts, and lawyers before publication. Leaving CNN’s accuracy and fairness to be discussed, the editorial rules.

The news bubbles presented by the Internet and social media is made up of fragmented, random facts. What professional journalists should do at the scene is being a questioner to various facts and afterward, be a tailor to weave authentic facts into a true story. The public, too, is terrified of being duped by a fake story. The new fact-checking model is expected by Forbes as a potential solution to the decline of trust in mainstream news media.

Working collaboratively towards deliberation

Kovach and Rosenstiel(2014) interviewed news workers what distinguished the feature of journalism. The standing out answer volunteered is concerned with the democratic function of journalism, nearly twice as often as any other response. It indicates the self-identification and expectation of professional journalists, which is “a warning system with sensors” that are sensitive throughout society. It works through the public sphere to act as “a sounding board for problems that must be processed by the political system” (Habermas, 1996:359). However, the philosopher John Dewey expresses his deep concern about the public sphere in modern democracies when mass media are pushing people apart instead of pulling them together(Dewey, 1927). What Dewey sees is diffused, scattered and intricate public with diverse viewpoints. The diversified information brought by the media helped better equipped citizens and therefore resulting in better participatory democracy(Gans, 1998). For instance, financially and technologically weak individuals voice are hardly on public agenda unless media pass the microphone to them. One hundred years ago, Adolph Ochs committed that The New York Times to the then-radical idea that still animates today. His vision for the opinion report is “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion”(“Business Announcement”, 1896). Until now, his idea is still practiced by the following journalists.

In China, the professional media and journalists triggered a debate at the end of 2017. Beijing’s crackdown on its “low-end population” aroused Chinese people’s attention. A fire killed over a dozen people in the suburb of Beijing and afterward thousands of migrant workers are being forced out of their homes under a citywide clean-up campaign. The migrant workers are the vulnerable groups with low salaries, low education level and poor access to the Internet, whose voice are hard to be heard even in the social media. Therefore, the topics about migrant workers are seldom put on the public agenda. In the following weeks after the fire, Chinese responsible media and experienced journalists worked with the workers, the government officials and the related parties, painting the macro landscape of the policies as well as the stories of the individuals. The series of reports successfully remind the Chinese society of social inequality and spur online protest. Journalists, in this case, collaborate closely with the Internet users, politicians and experts, and win the attention to vulnerable groups by the citizens and the government.

Good journalism has always been about networking(Beckett, 2008). Blogger Jeff Jarvis takes it into a new level and to a new paradigm by defining “Networked journalism”, which stressed the collaborative nature of journalism based on the new situation. In the networked age, journalists and politicians, citizen “have become both actors and sources through mutual interaction in online spaces”(Ekman & Widholm, 2015).Any citizen, politician or expert can only provide their own experience and comments, but the professional media is expert in integrating all together, pointing out the viewpoints from both side, and promoting the debating atmosphere towards the public sphere.

Contributing to imagined communities as a whole

Many Western country’s education groups have put discussions on the performance of media in a multicultural society on top of the professional agenda since knowledge itself can be seen as a resource of information. Who are included or excluded as news actors indicates the news media’s attitudes towards representation(Deuze, 2005). Journalists’ awareness of different modes of intercultural communication will has a direct and profound influence on the audiences’ world view. Even in the digital age, the media literacy of representation is still seen as the professionalism of experienced journalists and news media, who are responsible for cultivating multicultural sensibilities and multicultural citizenship in the modern democracy. Anderson clearly justifies the existence of journalists by pointing out news media built a sense of locale, region and nationhood because the stories they report sustained communities in the imagination, which the information flow on the Internet can’t provide due to the barrier of language, border and other political factors.

Brexit was considered by HuffPost as a vote against globalization and multiculturalism as much as a vote against Europe. However, Brexit occupied the top search term in Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) for a whole day, and in the following months, it still remains the hottest topic. The news related to the UK and Europe actually hits many countries headline like China by the choice of editors around the world. The attention paid to the outside world built the imagined community and identified the audience as the world citizens. Schudson (2011)suggests the prominence of journalists and news media in 21th century and argues that “Its coverage of small personal dramas of everyday life, triumphs or tragedies in science and education, and conflict or transcendence in religion and culture may create a community as much as its coverage of politics builds a public agenda”. “world village” envisioned by McLuhan is realizing through the population migration around the world as well as the dramatic growth of mass media, delivering global news to local household in very short time. The audiences who were more likely drawn into the local news now has a broader sense and realizing that they are belonging to a single universe, governed by rational human nature and acting as part of the universe(Jeffres, Bracken, Neuendorf, Kopfman, & Atkin, 2002). Without professional news media, the public in the past had no chance to know what happened across thousands of miles of the Atlantic while nowadays, even with the Internet, people have little desire to know or finds the news abroad could offer nothing to the everyday life.

Given all that, the professional news media serves as the catalyst for cultivating cosmopolitan citizens with the appetition of international issues and other cultures.(Jeffres, Atkin, Bracken, & Neuendorf, 2004)


In this essay have argued professional journalists and news media are still of great significance in the networked age. Although social media and online service extend the channels for citizens, politicians, and experts to express themselves without interpretation and mediation, the professionalism of traditional journalism lost in the cyberspace should regain and reinforce by the professional journalists and news media. Following the hint of three dimensions of professionalism raised by xxx, the essay concluded three key roles that the professional should play, namely, double fact checker, defender of participatory democracy and catalyst for cosmopolitan.

The professional journalism should be aware of their indispensable roles and build the self-identity based on the cognitive, normative and evaluate dimension of professionalism. In order to accomplish the goals, they should also be open-minded and work closely within the emerging powerful news network consisting of online news journalist, politicians, experts and many other new players.

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