Slippery slope for online journalism quality

Looking down on the newsroom, by Steve Bowbrick

Looking down on the newsroom (Steve Bowbrick, Flickr)

With opinion blogs and click-bait headlines influencing online news audience behaviour, journalists are under pressure to maintain editorial standards while finding ways to increase digital traffic. This pressure has placed a strain on the traditional news industry, with Australian journalists becoming increasingly critical of the quality and credibility of their craft.

According to results from a representative survey to be presented at the forthcoming ICA regional conference in Brisbane, more than half of those interviewed say the quality of journalistic standards in Australia has decreased over the past five years. A similar number – 55.3 per cent – say the same applies to the credibility of journalism during this timeframe.

What’s more, journalists are also concerned about ethical standards slipping, with four out of ten saying ethical standards had become less influential in their work. In addition, just over half the journalists say the pressure towards sensational news has increased in the past five years.

The survey, which was conducted between May 2012 and March 2013, asked 474 Australian journalists from around the country and across all media, who had at least five years’ work experience, a range of questions about changes in journalism. It is the first large-scale representative survey of Australian journalists in 20 years.

The poor perceptions of journalistic quality reinforce similar findings last year by a University of Sydney report into the opinions of senior editors at metropolitan and national newspapers.

Reasons for the drop in quality may be attributed to a vastly more competitive environment, increased working hours and the more pronounced need for technical skills. Four out of five journalists surveyed for this study say the pressure to make a profit has become a stronger influence on their work over the past five years, and 70 per cent say the same of the influence of competition in the industry.

Working hours have been affected in Australian journalism in recent years particularly due the extensive cost-cutting and redundancies across all media. It is therefore not surprising that three out of four journalists report the average working hours have increased over the past five years, and even more say that the time available for researching stories has decreased.

At the same time, technical skills, and the use of social media and blogs are becoming more and more important. Increasingly, too, journalists are interacting with their audiences, with three out of four saying this aspect of their work had increased. Four out of five say such audience involvement and feedback has become more influential in their work.

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When compared with each other, technological changes appear to have had a more profound impact on journalists, with questions around the increase of technological aspects generally attracting higher agreement than questions around economic influences.

There are some differences depending on where journalists work. Those working for public-service media argue that economic influences and sensationalism have become stronger, while they also claim to have less time and a stronger demand for technical skills. Newspaper journalists most strongly experienced an increase in audience influences, while economic impacts were experienced the most strongly at magazines. Metropolitan journalists experienced a much stronger impact from audience interaction and related influences, such as social media and user-generated content.

If you would like to look into this topic further, join me on October 1st ICA Brisbane for my presentation ‘Assessing digital transformations of journalism culture: Evidence from a survey of Australian journalists’.

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