In our fast paced and ever changing society, is there any role left for journalists?
In June 2014, Australian journalist Peter Greste was sentenced in Egypt to seven years in prison for producing “false news to try and defame Egypt”.
At the press conference following his sentencing, his parents Lois and Juris asked the media “what does this mean for you?”. They may have been speaking to the journalists at the conference, but their words were meant for the industry as a whole.
Greste’s imprisonment suggests a more dangerous world for journalists, as freedom of speech is compromised. Increasingly we are hearing of journalists’ freedom of speech being sacrificed in favour of their publication. Recently, Mike Carlton resigned as a columnist for Fairfax over his use of offensive language towards readers complaining about his column on the war in Gaza. Darren Goodsir, the Sydney Morning Herald’s editor-in-chief, rang Carlton and demanded he apologise for the comments and threatened suspension. Carlton’s subsequent resignation is a reminder that no individual journalist is greater than the publication they write for; they are at the mercy of their editor and, above them, their publishers.
Rupert Murdoch’s recent bid to take over Time Warner reminds us that freedom of speech is also threatened by the absolute media ownership of a single person. Currently, Rupert Murdoch controls 130 newspapers, owns 50 per cent of 16 others, most with online versions, and publishes around 30 magazines. Journalist John Nichols said with regards to Murdoch’s ownership threat that “an individual media mogul could play an outsized role not just in major markets but the dialogues, the debates and even the campaigns of the whole country.”
Journalists are not only at the mercy of their owners, but also of international freedom of speech laws. These laws makes reporting on global events accurately difficult as it can be seen as subversive, as identified by Greste and the other Al Jazeera jounalists also sentenced for similar crimes, such as Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed.
According to International Freedom Expression Exchange, the impact of international disregard for freedom of speech “carries an implicit threat to all media”. Locally, Tony Abbott responded to Greste’s incarceration, saying, “Freedom of the press is fundamental to a democracy and we are deeply concerned that this verdict is part of a broader attempt to muzzle the media freedom that upholds democracies around the world.”
Despite this Abbott also encourages media censorship. Recently, he urged journalists not to report on national security matters or risk jail. Abbott said news that “endangers the security of our country frankly shouldn’t be fit to print”. Abbott’s view about what the media can and cannot report blurs the definition of what freedom in freedom of speech means.
In 2008, poet Islam Samhan was jailed in Jordan for allegedly insulting Islam by incorporating verses from the Holy Koran into his love poetry. Soud Qbeilat, president of the Jordanian Writers Association, said, “It is all about the freedom of expression… When there is no freedom there is no creativity”.
Not only is the tightening reign on freedom of speech threatening to dissolve a fair media industry, there is also the real risk that journalists will become extinct. There are several threats to today’s journalist. Firstly, their pay.
According to PayScale, an average journalist in Australia earns just AU$46,860 per year, while among full time Australian workers, the typical average wage is $72,800 per year. “A job isn’t all about the money,” says journalist Harriet Farkash. “But to be earning $25,000 less than the average worker is hardly an incentive to become a journalist.”
It’s not surprising then that the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that journalists work for just 10 years in the industry before changing careers. “It’s not realistic when you think about mortgages, school fees and just the general cost of life to stay in a job that pays peanuts. I worry that if journalists aren’t paid appropriately we won’t have an industry at all, which is a terrifying thought,” says Ms Farkash.
If the pay hasn’t put off young people form pursuing a journalism career, the scarcity of jobs likely will. Matt Connellan, 22, recently acquired a cadetship at News Local, but it wasn’t easy. “Getting into entry level journalism is tremendously difficult,” he tells The Newsroom. “The competition is so fierce that unless you’re able to stand out, then you’re just another of the many good journalists out there looking for work. You have to put in the hard yards and impress the right people.”
If you make it, do not expect an easy road. The nature of the media as fluid and interchangeable has led to fewer jobs and increasingly more redundancies. Fairfax recently announced there will be 80 redundancies across production, lifestyle and photography by the end of the year. If the underpay and overwork wasn’t stressful enough, the fear of losing your job would surely add to stress levels.
“You constantly have to prove yourself,” says Mr Connellan. “I need a break,” he laughs.
Does this mean journalism will soon become an obsolete industry? How will journalism progress as an industry or will it develop beyond recognition in the years to come?
Something needs to be done to change our freedom of speech laws. Journalists need to be protected, internationally, so that they are able to report the news without the risk of facing prosecution, as was the case for Peter Greste.
The decline of print, while apparent as a threat, has also allowed journalism to maintain relevancy in the burgeoning digital landscape. The industry has faced a transformational change in the last decade; print news and broadcast news, while remaining relevant, are being cast aside in favour of digital media. The role of digital media is now an important aspect of modern journalism and journalists keeping and creating new jobs. The possibilities of a wider audience gives journalists the chance for greater success as they are able to reach an international audience as quickly as the local one.
Another way to combat these threats is to be bigger across more types of media. “The current wave of journalists have a huge advantage over their predecessors,” says Ms Farkash. “The social media savvy are able to run circles around those who are accustomed to only print media and as media is now over arching on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, the ability to adapt to change is the most imperative quality of an aspiring journo,” she adds.
In the words of Peter Greste’s parents, “Journalism is not a crime. The campaign for media freedom and free speech must never end.” – Benedicte Earl
Top photo from D@LY3D’s Flickr photostream.