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Has the Digital Age Affected the Impartiality of the Press?

[Impartiality] is to be distinguished from balance (the allocation of equal space to opposing views) and objectivity (by which journalists usually mean an effort to exclude subjective judgement). Impartiality involves no more than the attempt to regard different ideas, opinions, interests or individuals with detachment. As the legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin says, ‘everyone need not receive equal treatment, but everyone should be treated as an equal.’”—Former broadcast journalist David Cox

In an age where digital news is becoming increasingly more relevant and popular, and news is gained more by referral from friends and colleagues, via social media, than directly from journalists and publications, we should wonder if the importance of impartiality is diminished. And if so, to what end?

This article will examine perspectives on these two issues and what role they will play in today’s digital news space.

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The Growth of Social Media as a News Source

According to Oxford’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2015, 41 percent of people interviewed access news via Facebook each week. Also, according to Reuters, “When asked about the value of different news sources, users generally praised social media for bringing them new stories they would not have seen otherwise, but had reservations about the accuracy and reliability of news found via social media.”

Furthermore, “across all platforms, significantly fewer people are accessing the front page of a news website where a list of stories is displayed. More people are going directly to stories via search or social media.”

Starting May 2015, Facebook started hosting articles from publishers directly on their platform via Facebook Instant Articles. According to The New York Times, “Nine media companies, including NBC News and The New York Times, have agreed to the deal.”

This move by Facebook has turned it into a bonafide publisher as well as social network. Previously, articles posted on Facebook were hyperlinked back to the original site. Using Facebook Instant Articles, the articles will be posted directly to the site and remain on the site.

The move by publishers to directly host articles on the website is indicative of news’ growing dependence on social media as a distribution channel.

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The Implications of Social as a News Source 

Social News - Impartiality of Press

Social media is self-selective in nature. Rather than having a print publication that hosts many stories and viewpoints, social media exposes people to stories that are being shared by their social connections, who often share similar viewpoints, beliefs and values. Consequently, news consumption is becoming more individualized, biased towards a person’s pre-existing viewpoints, and less impartial.

We live in an age where, according to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” Is the public simply satiating themselves with information as entertainment or as support for their own pre-existing viewpoints? Has the truth become so democratized as to no longer exist?

Truth and Believability in Digital News

“With an exponential growth in sources of information in the digital environment, some now believe the responsibility for assessing the accuracy and quality of information should switch from the providers of news to the consumers; that in an age of plenty the consumer has a greater role to play and responsibility for what they consume or believe,” states Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism and director of the Center for Journalism at Cardiff University.

While some have placed the responsibility on the consumer to determine the credibility of news, others have suggested that this has always been the case and that, as former newspaper editor, cable-television executive and Silicon Valley CEO Alan D. Mutter states:

“It’s time to retire the difficult-to-achieve and impossible-to-defend conceit that journalists are now, or ever were, objective. Let’s replace this threadbare notion with a realistic and credible standard of transparency that requires journalists to forthrightly declare their personal predilections, financial entanglements and political allegiances so the public can evaluate the quality of the information it is getting.”

Perhaps rather than objectivity or even impartiality, transparency is the key to granting consumers the information they need to tell fact from fiction.

Conclusion

Journalism carries political weight – it influences the perspectives of its consumers and consequently their behavior. Knowledge is a tool of mass power. Therefore, how it is used is of primary importance.

Today, everyone can become a publisher adding their two cents into the bucket that is the web. The question now is, how can we educate consumers in the choosing of their media when the job of distributing media has moved from editors to the public?

In other words, how do we educate our social media connections about the importance of sharing credible, accurate and unbiased stories? Is there simply no solution to this problem and has the age of objective truth been replaced with selective truth?

Please share your comments below.

Jeremy Bamidele is a publicist and communications specialist based out of Los Angeles, California. He has been published in PR Week, Forbes, Cision and Huffington Post. Want to see more from Jeremy? Click here!

Image: winnifredxoxo (Creative Commons)

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