It is one of the fallacies of the digital age that its ubiquitous communication places the power of information in the hands of individual citizens.
At one level it is said to have provided each of us with the means to communicate with an almost endless number of people. At another level it is said to have given us the ability to choose for ourselves the information we receive. On a third level it is said to have given us the power to collectively hold power to account without mediation by mainstream media.
In fact, this apparent universality has had effects that not only fall well short of those utopian goals, but which create environments in which social cohesion and the foundations of democracy are put at risk.
Instead of broadening our range of contacts to give us a greater understanding of the views of others, it has created silos in which we take comfort from people with the same views as ourselves – irrespective of whether those views are reasoned, misguided, or malevolent. If anything, our contacts have become narrower in scope and outlook.
Instead of allowing us to choose the information we receive, we are hostage to algorithms that direct us to particular sources and, on the basis of our use of digital services, may reinforce our silo mentality. And our desire to seek information, without employing any of the skills needed for verification, has opened the field to those who use disinformation as a weapon.
Instead of allowing us to collectively hold power to account, with a few notable exceptions, that power has been allowed to hold the field. The promise of amateur ‘citizen journalism’ – even the flawed publish-then-filter model that allows facts to emerge over time through a process of online changes and corrections – has not been realised. It fails to hold power to account because it lacks throw weight. That term refers to the size of payload a missile can deliver, and citizen journalists cannot make a bang as big as their professional counterparts in the news media. The result is that the holders of power can ignore or minimise their endeavours.
Yet the fallacy persists, and it has eroded the standing of journalists and the organisations that employ them. The rationale is that society doesn’t need them because society can find out for itself.
This may be part of the reason for alarmingly low levels of trust in media, although the full scale of distrust in institutions is a complex matrix. Perhaps people distrust journalists in part because they think they can do a better job themselves, now that they are armed with the tools of communication.
If that is the reasoning, those people are living in a fool’s paradise. And, if they are looking for proof of their folly, they could look to last Saturday’s Otago Daily Times and ask themselves a question: ‘Could I hold people accountable as powerfully as Mary Williams has done?’
Mary Williams is an ODT journalist who wrote a three-part series on Dunedin’s homeless back in August. Dunedin deputy mayor Sophie Barker branded the ODT’s revelations “horrifying and disgusting” and pledged to request a council report on boarding houses and homelessness.
Last Saturday, the newspaper carried one of the most powerful exposés of systemic failure in our welfare system that I have ever read. It was titled In the cracks of care. You can read it here
Williams recounted the story of Harry, whom she had met at an adult night shelter while researching the series back in August. He is a deeply disadvantaged teenager whose physical age – eighteen – places him outside the responsibility of child welfare but whose mental age and disposition makes him unfit to be placed in an adult welfare system. Worse, neither Oranga Tamariki nor the Ministry for Social Development have responded to Harry’s needs in a way that would even pass as adequate.
The teen’s situation became so dire – he attempted suicide – that Williams crossed a line: She ceased to be an impartial observer and became an advocate for Harry because there was no-one else to act on his behalf.
She was able to step down from that advocacy role – and numerous frustrating and unproductive engagements on his behalf with state agencies – only after a psychiatrist assessed Harry following his suicide attempt. A hospital social worker was assigned and the teen was moved to a psychiatric ward.
Last Friday Harry told Williams he was due to be discharged – back to the night shelter where she had first found him. Her advocacy work, it seems, has not ended.
Mary Williams told the story of Harry and herself without hyperbole, and in a controlled way that did not display the anger she would be justified in feeling.
Even the most personally harrowing element of the story was recounted in a way that held her emotion in check. At various stages of his battle with homelessness, Harry asked if he could live with her. Her response: “No. Sorry, Harry. I’m a journalist. My job is to tell stories like yours.”
A front page editorial that accompanied Williams’ story said she had been “forced to break the fourth wall of the Fourth Estate to provide help when no-one else did.” She is not the first to do so and one hopes she will not be the last. However, it was not her advocacy that will ultimately benefit Harry and those like him but the journalism that brought it to light.
Her work differs from advocacy journalism that seeks a given goal and, instead, simply uses observation to speak truth to power. Her advocacy existed only at a personal level and out of compassion for an individual in need. Quite remarkably, in her weekend story she stood back and observed herself in the act of trying to help. It was not an out-of-body experience but a dispassionate means of recounting the failings of a system through her own experience.
Williams demonstrated the power of reportage.
However, journalists cannot exercise that power on their own. They need the standing of a reputable organisation to both validate their work and give it the circulation that makes the holders of power sit up and take notice. A rare front page editorial adds weight of its own.
Journalism is not for the faint-hearted and members of the profession need the courage of their convictions. However, they also benefit from the support of their employer when their work is challenged. It is a form of support seldom available to a digital-age individual or ‘citizen journalist’.
In November 2020 Newsroom’s Melanie Reid revealed the results of an investigation into Oranga Tamariki returning children in long-term foster care to whanau. Video footage from that investigation was banned by the High Court after the solicitor-general sought an injunction and has been unavailable to the public since that time. Newsroom has now challenged the court’s judgement in the Court of Appeal. Newsroom is to be commended for its tenacity. You can read the latest on the case here.
It is in this binary relationship – the ability of reporters to reveal matters that should be challenged in the public interest, and the backing of their organisations to disseminate and support the challenge – that the power of journalism lies.
Without it, the checks on power are weakened and the ability of the public to be factually informed is diminished.
One of the earliest surviving pieces of reportage is an account by Thucydides of a plague in Athens in 430 BC. He said he wrote it in order that others should recognise the disease if it ever returned. His description was so detailed it is still being used to try to identify the disease that killed a third of the city’s population.
It owed its accuracy to the fact that he was describing the symptoms of an illness that he had suffered but survived. His methodical and impartial approach, evidence-gathering, and analysis of cause-and-effect means he could be described as our first journalist.
Those around him where still blaming the gods for the evils that befell them. They could be described as our first social media users.