For several decades, journalists have held a privileged status as gatekeeper. As a gatekeeper it was their duty to decide which information enters the public and how (Trench, 2007). However, in the last ten years the role of a journalist has dramatically changed (Fahy and Nisbet, 2011). The audience do not have to rely on traditional media anymore, instead, they enter the web and look for specific information on web based platforms. A dizzying array of science information, misinformation and commentary that can be hard to sort through (Allan, 2011). How do we know which information is reliable?
Journalists have shifted away from their traditional role as privileged ‘information couriers’. That is not to say that journalists no longer play an important role, on the contrary. Fahy and Nisbet (2011) mapped several unique typologies of journalistic roles, including the watchdog. This role is underwritten by the essential skills of revealing information in an objective, factual and critical manner on behalf of their audience. Because of their collaborative relationship with the audience, they are generally adopting a more critical and interpretative stance towards the industry and policy-oriented organizations.
Mind the gap
Will those watchdogs help you to gather reliable information? Mellado and Van Dalen (2014) argue that there is a significant gap between the journalistic role conceptions (how a journalist ought to do his job) and their role performance (how a journalist do his job). The factors explaining which journalists are more or less likely to put their ideals into practice, are based on political, economical and organization influences. The watchdog may be closely related to the professional ideal of the press as an autonomous fourth estate, but he experiences the most economical and political influences. This has led to an significant large gap, which can be explained by self-censorship1 .
However, the way political and economic influences are perceived by journalists is highly dependent on the national context (Hanitzsch and Mellado, 2011). This can be largely explained by the high levels of political parallelism, which refers to the fact that media in some countries have distinct political orientations, while media in other countries do not. Figure 1 illustrates these differences among countries.
The international watchdog
Figure 1 points out that Turkey, as well as China, report the most political influence. Not suprissingly, after all the operations operated by the government of Erdogan. After the coup, for example, he imprisoned more than 30 journalists because they did not speak the “pro-Erdogan language”. It becomes even worse, when he wants to change the definition of a terrorist to include people who support the Kurds (including journalists).
“‘It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger,
but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists”
– President Erdogan (2016)
But how would it be to be an watchdog in an country as Turkey? An illustrative example of the situation in Turkey is the documentary of the Dutch journalist Fidan Ekiz called the “the pen and the sword”. It this documentary she points out the difficulties of being a watchdog under political influences. It reveals that watchdogs are being hunted by the institutions of Erdogan, while the citizens think that “there is no country in Europa, where you have more freedom of press as in Turkey”
So, when there is so much press freedom, how can Ebru Umar (a Dutch columnist of the Metro) than being sued by the Turkish government? In the broadcasting of “De Wereld Draait Door” Ebru Umar confesses that she was sued by a Turkish man that felt insulted after reading her (somewhat critical) column. The man states that she insulted Erdogan, and therefore also the Turkish nation. But how about our “freedom of speech”?
Be the watchdog
In our country freedom of speech is so self evident, that you hardly wonder why it is so important. The documentary of Ekiz emphasizes the value of press freedom. For example, what if there where no watchdogs in Turkey? If we where only provided with news under control of Erdogan? Will their reality, become our reality too?
Not only in Turkey, China or Russia, but also in the Netherlands. How about the article that appeared on Vice (2016) after the House of Representatives abolished the medical confidentiality, silently? While we were all in discussion about the new donor law, the Dutch government changed the law so the health insurance companies can browse in our medical data. This could have an big impact on the covering of our insurance by health insurance companies. The question remains, why? To do something about a waste of 0.002% of the healthcare budget, which is two thousandths of one percent. Insane is a word that does not cover “the cargo”.
But how do we know that those conclusions above are not manipulated or out of context? How do we know that this journalist did not write for a company who will benefit from it? Like the newspapers in Turkey who are operated by Erdogan? How do we know that a source is trustworthy? In my opinion, the answer is simple: we don’t know. Every source of information is influenced, by certain people, with a certain view in a certain frame. Therefore, we have to rely on ourselves. Journalism of the future will be the audience who composes their one story. May this explain the exponential rise of crowd-checking1 (ING, 2014)?
2 Crowd-checking means using public opinion to establish whether or not something is true (Campbell, 2011)
- Allan S. (2011). Introduction: Science journalism in a digital age. Journalism, 12(7), 771-777. doi:10.1177/1464884911412688
- Fahy, D., & Nisbet, M. (2011). The science journalist online: Shifting roles and emerging practices. Journalism, 12(7), 778-793.
- Hanitzsch, T., & Mellado, C. (2011). What Shapes the News around the World? How Journalists in Eighteen Countries Perceive Influences on Their Work. The International Journal Of Press/Politics, 16(3), 404-426.
- ING. (2014). Impact van social media op het nieuws. Retrieved from ING: https://ing.nl/media/ING_sming2014-rapport_tcm162-70316.pdf
- Mellado, C. and A. Van Dalen (2014). “Between Rhetoric and Practice.” Journalism Studies 15(6): 859-878.
- Trench B (2007) How the internet changed science journalism. In: Bauer M and Bucchi M (eds) Journalism, Science and Society: Science Communication: Between News and Public Relations. New York: Routledge, 133–141