How Opinion Became More Important Than Fact and the Future of News (Part II)

From Thinking Outside The Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent: The first part of this article touched on the fact that there are now many online celebrity news websites, and indeed the world wide web has been a fertile breeding ground for the growth of opinion and the decline of fact. Now every person with access to the internet can express their opinion on a blog, Facebook, or Twitter. Indeed ‘Web 2.0’ (the social web) was a phrase coined to describe the way in which people began to use the internet to connect to other people directly in the way they wanted rather than relying solely on programs and services directed by others. On the internet, unlike in the world of traditional media there are no defamation or libel laws so people can freely express any opinion they want and declare that it is news even if it contains not even the slightest bit of truth.

What is the future of news? Many so called news stories and articles can be transmitted across the planet within days but there is often no way of knowing how credible they actually are unless you do the research to find out for yourself. And let’s face it, how many people can be bothered to go to all that effort especially if their internet usage is limited. As mentioned more and more people are using the internet as their main source of news and traditional media sources (especially newspapers) are in decline. The question media regulators (and law enforcement agencies) need to ask is, should citizen journalists be held to a higher level of accountability (one similar to their offline counterparts), or should we be encouraged to be more critical when reading news stories and more readily ask ourselves how true these stories really are? If we do decide that online journalists do need to follow higher standards how realistic is the idea that these standards could even be properly enforced? No doubt it would be extremely difficult to do so. Someone who would seem to agree is the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who has been relentlessly pursued online by political cartoonist Larry Pickering about claims that have raised little interest in the mainstream media. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Prime Minster held a press conference in late August to defend herself against allegations that had been prompted by Pickering and others who she described as “the misogynists and the nutjobs on the internet”. She also didn’t believe that the allegations of Pickering would stop even after after addressing all the questions posed to her in a press conference lasting over an hour.

People reading this might believe that the rise of opinion led reporting is heading towards a point where no ‘news’ stories can be trusted at all, and that technology has exacerbated the problem. This is not true. Without the internet, mobile phones, and social media sites people around the world would have no idea about what is really happening in countries involved in civil war. In Syria for example state tv shows news stories claiming that opposition forces are “an armed terrorist group” killing innocent citizens and attacking the military. However the Syrian opposition (the Free Syrian Army) has been able to present an alternate view through footage taken on mobile phones. Admittedly much of this footage cannot be independently verified but it provides an important insight nonetheless, one which will help shape the UN’s view of the Syrian Government and future responses to its actions.

It is interesting to consider whether the public’s obsession with celebrity is a good thing or not. Indeed it is a subject that could be examined from a variety of angles. But there can be little doubt that celebrity news, regardless of whether it is true or not, is incredibly big business. And with the advent of the internet and social media anybody can voice their opinion, and few of us are obliged to adhere to rules of defamation that traditional media forms are expected to adhere to. This unfortunately has created an environment where the most vile criticism and slander can go largely unchecked. In fact these inflammatory opinions are often very popular, as some tv shock jocks demonstrate. Finally, if people are going to access most of their news online at the very least we should expect individuals and websites who purport to be credible news sources to be diligent in their reporting.

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