In a world where we’re bombarded with information and it’s often difficult to tell the ‘fake news’ from the truth, we need journalists more than ever. But if we want accurate reporting, we need journalists with the right skills.
The new MA International Journalism in the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies (LiFTS) is filling a gap and I spoke to our new Director of Journalism, Dr Idrees Ahmad, about why it matters.
I came of age during the war in Bosnia and the one sliver of light in that otherwise grim episode was the extraordinary courage and commitment of journalists keeping the spotlight on the horrors and injustices. Their coverage shamed the world into taking action and stopping the atrocities. It was a reminder of what journalism can be at its best.
But in the next decade, I also witnessed what happens when journalism fails. The Iraq War was a direct consequence of journalistic abdication.
It was both the positive example of the journalists who risked their lives in the pursuit of truth in Bosnia and the negative example of the journalists who failed to ask tough questions in the lead up to the Iraq war that brought me into journalism, both as a practitioner and a critic.
I am inspired by journalists who combine great storytelling with an acute understanding of the social relevance and moral force of journalism: from George Orwell, John Hersey, Tony Judt, to Svetlana Alexievich and Marie Colvin. I also find inspiration in journalism’s great innovators - from Bellingcat to Forensic Architecture.
I had followed the vital work of the Essex Human Rights Centre and read Darragh Murray’s excellent book on digital open-source journalism. I wanted to be in an environment that combines this kind of intellectual rigour and social relevance.
But I was also drawn by the cross disciplinary approach in LiFTS, which reflect my own range of interests, from literature, film, creative non-fiction, to drama.
If there was less heartbreak in the world, I’d be spending more time reading Tolstoy, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison; watching John Ford, Tarkovsky, and Terrence Mallick; and immersed in Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekohv. At Essex, at least my toes remain dipped in all these enticing streams.
Journalism has changed dramatically over the past 15 years, mainly due to social media. In many respects it has become better, but the challenges have also multiplied.
The internet has created many new opportunities, but with big tech companies stealing advertising revenue, it has also put the news industry under strain. The news business is currently in flux. On one hand the eco-system has expanded with fact-checking organisations, dedicated investigative units, open-source research communities, transparency organisations. Social media has also brought another level of scrutiny, forcing traditional media to up its game.
But social media has also added to the noise. A saturated media landscape has also created space for malicious actors who use the mantle of journalism to exploit audience’s credulity with clickbait and sensationalism, playing on prejudices, increasing polarisation.
But the realisation has been growing since 2016 that democracy cannot survive without robust journalism. This has led to the emergence of new funding models and a growing awareness of the vital role that journalism plays in our society.
Social media has radically transformed the practice of journalism. In the past, both state and non-state actors needed journalists to get their message out. Even Osama bin Laden invited journalists to a cave in Afghanistan for his “message to the world”. Journalists were indispensable and this afforded them some level of protection.
But with the rise of social media, everyone has their own megaphone. They don’t need journalists anymore. This has created a riskier environment for journalists. Human rights abusers in particular have no use for journalists. But that’s where open-source journalism is filling a void.
The ubiquity of smartphones and social media have ensured that wherever there is access to the internet or mobile data, most human activities are being captured on someone’s electronic device. Indeed, the bigger challenge these days is sifting through the deluge of data currently being produced. Inevitably, this space is also being filled with noise, often in the form of weaponised disinformation, which is intended to bury the truth.
Open-source journalism addresses this by restoring the primacy of facts and verifiability. The central pursuit in open-source journalism is finding publicly accessible data for an incident, verifying the authenticity of the data, establishing the temporal and spatial dimensions of the incident, and cross-referencing details with other digital records and witness testimonies.
Open-source journalists are conscious of the risk of manipulation so they start by first authenticating the data before drawing any conclusions from them. This is the closest that journalism has to a scientific method. It is transparent about the process thus allowing any independent auditor to examine the data and test the conclusions. The field is constantly evolving and it has a vibrant community which makes it one of the most exciting areas of journalism.
The MA International Journalism creates a balance of both theory and practice. It not only gets students to reflect on the practice of journalism and its social significance, it also addresses key aspects of journalism practice.
The course lets students learn about key issues in journalism through contemporary case studies. It is also designed to help students develop greater rigour in their reporting and tell more compelling stories. Students will learn to write with clarity and vigour while also being able to engage audiences through superior storytelling across different media, including magazine features, podcasts, photo-essays and documentaries.
The most important attribute for any journalist is curiosity - curiosity about events, people, places, trends, and craft.
Ultimately, this curiosity should find a focus. A journalist should be able to claim authority over at least one subject area, be it war, migration, environment, entertainment, art, travel, health, technology, or crime. Because journalism is all about details, and a good journalist has that discriminating eye which misses nothing important.
Good journalists are also good readers. They are always trying to renew or deepen their understanding of issues. Good journalists are also omnivores in their media consumption. They may be gleaning important facts from a study, picking up new forms of storytelling from a novel, or learning new ways to engage audiences from a film.
Journalism hasn’t made a billionaire out of anyone, but many people have lived meaningful and interesting lives as journalists. They get to witness history, socialise with interesting people, and at times change the world.
Senior Communications Officer, University of Essex
Kate Clayton is a Senior Communications Officer with specific responsibility for promoting research from across the Humanities Faculty. She has expertise in corporate communications, crisis communications, copywriting and storytelling, media relations and publications.