POLIS LSE Media & Power Conference: Journalists working with audiences

Last Friday, more than 500 academics, journalists, managers and consultants attempted to take another look at the role of media today at the 2nd POLIS Journalism Conference at the London School of Economics (LSE). The panelists and participants aimed to answer the following questions: “who holds the media power,” “who are and where are the new watchdogs,” “what do we need to know about this new information society?” By asking these questions, the panelists and conference organizers cemented the idea that journalism has gone beyond citizen-journalism and that it is now time for a new media configuration to be acknowledged.

Helen Boaden, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News Director kicked-off the conference ball with an interpellant speech where she reminded the participants that journalists need to be held accountable. Although she emphasized the role of traditional news values in today’s journalism, such as accountability, impartiality and fairness – values highly associated with the BBC – she ended the speech by calling for the importance of using new technologies for better journalism. Her speech set the tone for the rest of the conference.

Unlike the BBC Social Media Summit (#bbcsms) earlier this month, where participants and speakers were deeply enthusiastic about the use of social media in journalism, POLIS’ speakers took a more guarded approach towards the issues surrounding it. Bill Neely International Editor for ITV News, produced by ITN, said: “I don’t like the expression ‘citizen journalists.’ They give information but they don’t analyze and they don’t balance”. A big trend is that traditional media, who are concentrated on their product, are unaware or in slight denial of the serious transformations that are happening.

During and following the session titled ‘After the WikiLeaks’, panelist Alisson Powell, Fellow at the LSE, blogged: “It is clear that systems of power and influence are changing. It is also clear that states and corporations will continue to have power but will exercise it in different ways in a networked world. Similarly, resistance will operate differently; exploiting the features of the network.”

Wikileaks’ panel participant Angela Philips from Goldsmith University added: “putting stuff online does mean that you find or interpret it (…) journalists have to keep an eye on democracy”. She meant that eyewitness accounts – such as picking up the phone and meeting sources – remained key to the role of journalists to bare democracy.

One of the most interesting and robust panels of the conference tackled ‘Media and Revolutions’ and generated excellent feedback from the audience. The session emphasized the role of citizen and journalist during revolutions. Alan Fisher, correspondent for Al-Jazeera, said that “social media is an echo chamber and not the cause of the Arab Spring”. This argument was backed up by most of the panelists. Bill Neely said “the revolution was driven by the power of the idea not the social media. We have to temper our feelings of a Facebook revolution, though it accelerated it.” Hosam El Sokkari, Head of Audiences for Yahoo! Middle East – and formerly from the BBC, added “social media will prevail, but social media is not the idea.”

The conference continued in the afternoon with an interesting panel entitled “Has The Press Lost Power?” The panel was filled with newspaper gurus. I would agree with Jeff Jarvis from City University of New York, who was critical of one of the Davos summit media panel that has a similar label. The question in today’s journalism is not whether or not we should save the press. The press and the number of newspapers’ sold have been in decline and this will persist; or we have no proof yet that this scenario is untrue. The future of journalism lies more in who will stand out and which successful strategies will prevail.

The conversation during the newspaper panel was colored by a back-and-forward between members of the press and online publishers discussing the power of the press in the United Kingdom. The Huffington Post, it was argued, is not that influential in the United Kingdom because the British press is very competitive. The difference between the United States’ commercial model, where the press used to have local monopolies, and UK public service broadcasting model was emphasized. Meanwhile, in another panel George Brock reminded the audience that each media in each culture has its context. We should not analyze media in a bundle, he cleverly stated.

Verification is at the heart of the conversations on the future of journalism. It is at the heart of what journalists do, said George Brock from City University London’s School of Journalism during the Wikileaks panel. There is a strong wind coming from traditional media organizations who are realizing that their role in the new media ecology is to be the ones who are able verify to make sense of what is often perceived as “the noise” in the World Wide Web.

Approaches to how to tackle this issue are still new. Some like Andy Carvin, who leads NPR’s social media strategy – and not present at the conference – rely heavily on user-generated content to cover breaking news stories while others might suggest to use traditional journalistic methods, like picking up the phone, to verify the content. The BBC, for instance, has a user-generated hub in the middle of their multimedia newsroom who is dedicated to verify, through multiple methods, the content that is generated by the users. Yet, there is not really one method that prevails more than another one.

This conference proved again that traditional media is still hesitant to abandon its conventional practices. However, the level of openness to new media is at the highest that it has ever been and lies in the future of journalism, as Boaden suggested shyly at the end of her opening speech supporting the use of social media in journalism.

This conference has demonstrated a real shift in the debate. We don’t speak anymore about the validity of citizen-driven journalism but we finally accept that new actors are in the pool. The power has now shifted, but it is uncertain as to who holds it. We live in a network society and it is important to understand network power, said Alisson Powell from the LSE. Now, the question is how journalists deal with it: what are the best practices and experiences, and in what contexts? This question was not really answered during the conference. More thinking about journalism models needs to be done in this transitional period. But there is hope.

More information on the panels’ discussions to be found here.

About Valerie Belair-Gagnon