Data, Cats and Syria: Death of Traditional Media

5 Chairs sat atop the stage in front of an exposed brick wall at the Frontline Club just off Praed Street, the topic of discussion for the night was ‘Death of Traditional Media’. The hum of networking and anticipation hung in the air like static. Grapevine, a group of journalists who last April set up a conference like this for student papers all over the country, hosted the event bringing together two sets of panels.

The night started off with the Data panel, consisting of a variety of journalists and data miners from Nicola Hughes of The Times to Dan Knowles of The Economist. Data, stats and facts were open for dissection with the panel digressing about the power of the stat in the modern day, was the data journalist the future of the industry? More than ever the statistically founded argument has seen to be vital in modern day politics, with MP after MP citing national survey and audit reports to back up their arguments for or against policies. Only recently have the Office of National Statistics (the ONS) released the latest school league tables, spurring even more debate about this country’s education system and it’s ability to produce intellectual and steadfast citizens. Education isn’t the only part of society that has been reduced to numbers, crime and healthcare are two areas that have shown recent prominence in statistical based politics.

This reliance and dependence on stats raises some thoughts and questions for us to ponder. We as citizens are being fed information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with no respite, working our brain like never before. Google and Wikipedia have opened the gateway for us to consume all the knowledge in the world and become part time intellectuals. However with this constant stream of knowledge in this fast paced world we live in, how often do we sit back and take something for what it is? How often do we really question what we are being fed? If I had quoted several studies to back up my argument just now would you check the references and discern the data I had acquired? The answer is, most probably, not. After all we have far too much to do with what little time we have, we aren’t going to trawl the internet just to see if an article is true to its word.

Such power resounds in the hands of the modern day journalist because of this, and as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. As journalists we must question the data as much as anyone else, so as to depict a pure image so neutral that the facts speak for themselves. We are the middlemen, sifting through the data that researchers have produced to give the average person a concise understanding of what is happening, we have to ask the data questions that no average person has time to do. However agendas and ideologies get in the way and obscure the neutral truth because after all we are human and we all differ in opinions, we malign the data to fit our needs, thus leaving our responsibilities by the wayside. By sidetracking the obligation and responsibility of fair representation, the consumers of media must step up to the void that we journalists choose to leave behind.

Panelists and audience members alike agreed on the prominence that data plays in the present day, and the role it will continue to play as media transgresses from an archaic business model to a fiscally fluid machine. But what about the logistics of data? Results always conjure up nightmares of misinterpretation within media but what about how the results are collected? Data, in mainstream culture, is seen by many as infallible ‘A study showed that 80% of cats are left handed’  is a sentence that will most probably be met with ‘wow, I didn’t know they could write’. I may disappoint many, but data is in fact fallible. Michael Blastland acknowledged that many people can become overawed by the size of data to the point where they believe it, just based on the size of it, when in actual fact it can be 100% wrong. Things like data integrity, quality of surveying and manipulation can all diverge the real outcome of the experiment. One just has to look at the huge PR campaigns/scientific research of the 1950s and 60s when tobacco companies gave doctors millions of dollars to say that smoking was good you for, only for it (obviously) to be shown as false.

The Freedom of Information act (FOI) and the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have become the go to places for the modern day journalist to find reliable information, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look to breakdown the data fed us.

So with the conclusion of the Data panel it was clear to see how data has shaped our industry from a traditional system to one based on facts and figures and not just good integral writing. Next up was the Editor’s panel, four editors from four different publications and websites looking to discuss the foundations of journalism in the present day. There was Luke Lewis of Buzzfeed UK, Merope Mills editor of the Guardian (Staurday edition), Pete Picton of Mail Online and Helen Lewis the deputy editor of the New Statesman.

Going away from the new age identity of data journalism, the panel talked about fundamentals, particularly how in this age of ‘dying media’ good content is still what sells and will be what always sells. Such a notion is pinned to the fact that no matter how much data you have, if you don’t create something that’s easy to read and identify with then you may as well be an academic.

Then an interesting point was made to the panel, are we finding that the internet is watering down the integrity of journalism? Many quips were made towards Buzzfeed’s incessant use of cat pictures to garner clicks and Luke Lewis was being bombarded with queries about the next ‘Cat’s reacting to Syria’ post, that ultimately would go viral. Begging the question; do we create content that deals with serious issues of the day and risk boring people or do we dilute our content for the sake of the audience members? A balance is certainly something that needs to be found because dealing in such extremes does not attract readership or reflect well on your work, especially if you want to become a journalist and not just a blogger.

However such a dichotomy exists and flourishes. All you have to do is look at the difference between print and online to see that one has many restrictions particularly in the way it presents itself whilst the other has almost none. With print we see an emphasis placed upon serious articles (part from your page 3s and your tabloid fillers) being produced and done by certain deadlines, upholding the tradition of the printing press. Then with online publications you can see the lack of restraint, just the other day the Mail Online posted a whole article about one of the TOWIE actresses nearly stepping in a puddle. This is from the number 1 visited online publication. Much like everything else, the progression of the news industry is becoming far more liberal with what they create content about. It certainly has it’s flaws like the one I just mentioned but at the same time why should we stay in the past with traditional media, if it wasn’t for the new age of media this sort of partisan journalism wouldn’t be here and a lot of famous editors and journalists wouldn’t be where they are now.

So no I don’t think this is the ‘death’ of traditional media, but merely the reinvention.