The Changing Role of the Reporter: Sleuth or Megaphone for Public Preference?

by Affect Team on October 7, 2010

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Wikipedia defines “journalism” as the investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience. As detailed in the classic book All the President’s Men, journalists have had a long and celebrated history of exposing critical information for the greater good of society. Yet with the rise of social media, consumers are now more than ever tapping their social networks of friends and colleagues for recommendations on everything from what movie to see this weekend to what kind of baby stroller to buy.

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg explained, “Social actions are powerful because they act as trusted referrals and reinforce the fact that people influence people…It’s no longer just about messages that are broadcast out by companies, but increasingly about information that is shared between friends.”

Where does that leave journalists and bloggers? Many have begun to report on stories based on their online popularity, which can be gauged using search engine results or computer algorithms. Sites that post news based on popularity like Digg and Techmeme have quickly become top news sources for the public. Techmeme groups stories according to “importance,” relying on software algorithms to collect news in real-time. Reporters and bloggers perspectives are clustered around what the site deems important topics.

Facing pressure from publishers to secure a high number of click-throughs for their articles, journalists and bloggers have begun to choose topics based on their online popularity as well, and have been fairly open about it. As the New York Times reported in its recent feature on the site, “Techmeme is our go-to primary source,” said Marshall Kirkpatrick, an editor and lead blogger at ReadWriteWeb, a tech blog. He visits Techmeme up to 15 times a day on his computer and phone, and requires his blog’s other writers to track it for breaking news.

This leads me to wonder whether in-depth investigative reporting has a place in society anymore – or more importantly, whether the public yearns for such information to be culled and exposed, or if they are apathetic to opinions from anyone but their Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Personally, I’d like to argue that investigative journalism provides an important service to society that should not be downplayed.

There is evidence that many reporters and bloggers do still take this tenant of their jobs seriously.  Case in point is Michael Arrington’s recent expose of a secret meeting of Silicon Valley investors where unethical and illegal business practices may have been discussed. Like Henry Blodget wrote in Silicon Alley Insider, I also say “hooray” for Arrington. Where did I first learn of Arrington’s story? Techmeme. Ultimately, it’s clear that services like Techmeme and Digg do a service by helping readers wade through the deluge of stories online. At the same time, investigative journalists and bloggers still perform a very important function to society. At the end of the day, I’m confident that good reporting will continue to rise to the top of the heap, or the crest of the algorithm.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

TJ Walker 10.12.10 at 8:38 am

Technology is changing the role of the reporter quickly. Those without a compass of some sort will finding themselves doing nothing but stories on “the technology on what is making ‘insert name of hot star of the week here’ b*@bs larger.”

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