Photo: Gawker.com

Photo: Gawker.com

Modern journalism is impoverished by the anachronistic need to be first.

Once upon a time, in the pre-internet days of the mechanical printing press and morning edition newspapers, there was real value in getting a story first. A scoop, leak or exclusive wasn’t just about journalistic cachet, it was about cold hard cash. Being first meant selling more newspapers than your competitors, by having a story they didn’t have until their next editions rolled off the presses.

As a result journalistic merit was, and often still is, measured by being first instead of best. Walkley awards have been handed out for scoops that resulted not from investigative journalism but journalists being strategically chosen by political players to be the recipient of leaked information.

This journalistic mind-set has not adapted to the digital age of instantaneity. While someone can still get a buzz from being the first to tweet an important piece of information, there is no monetary value that can be extracted from this primacy. [An increased Klout score resulting from 20,000 retweets doesn’t qualify.]

The redundant need to be first is mistakenly still equated with ‘winning’ and it sits at the heart of what is wrong with modern journalism. It drives journalists to publish half-baked stories and poorly-verified information. It encourages the substitution of analysis with opinion. In short it rewards shoddy journalism.

In worshipping information speediness over quality reporting, journalism has inadvertently lowered its own profession’s barrier to entry. Now anyone with similar access to information can assume they’re journalists too. If working journalists don’t appear to value quality, including accuracy, then why should they?

Hence we saw wannabe citizen journalists on Reddit crowdsourcing the identification of the Boston bombing suspects and then crowing about how much more quickly they did it than the Boston Police. The only trouble was, they got it wrong, thereby causing considerable grief for the family of the mistakenly named individual.

Meanwhile on Twitter, people following the Boston Police radio scanner were asked to cease tweeting search locations as they were potentially putting officers’ lives at risk. The platform broadcasting the radio feed obliged by shutting it down.

Prior to that I witnessed at least one interesting parallel discussion on Twitter about who “should” be tweeting information gleaned from the police scanner. Some argued that it should only be credentialled journalists because they could be trusted to uphold their professional standards. I would support this contention if I saw most journalists taking the time to check facts and analyse the issues at hand. Unfortunately, I see too many who simply resort to tabloid dramatisation, rebirthing press releases and gaining gilted glory from drip fed stories and leaks.

In a way, it’s pointless lecturing people on social media to be more responsible with information. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. While it’s admirable to think that ‘breaking news is broken’ and that we should just step away from the tweetstream, many of us will continue to relish and share the excitement that comes from monitoring news events in real time.

What can be changed is our expectation of how news is conveyed: if our expectations change then our behaviours will follow. If news media outlets and journalists showed more caution and respected the need for information to be verified, if they constructively refused our calls for immediate news gratification and gave us quality news and analyses instead, we would end up with more Peter Williams and less Phil Coorey.

Traditional media can do itself, and the broader community, a favour by reasserting the importance of quality journalism over speedy information. This is the key to reestablishing the public’s trust in the media. It probably also holds the last hope that news media can have to be a profitable enterprise in the foreseeable future.

Drag0nista has opinions and she’s not afraid to share them. She’s been a Liberal staffer and a lobbyist, and now works as a communications adviser. She blogs at Drag0nista’s Blog, and if you can’t find her on Twitter at @Drag0nista then she’s either asleep or watching trashy police procedural dramas on television.