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[EVENT] Journalists, regulators and academics debated the role of journalism in the digital age: ‘Can we believe the media?’

To follow all the twitter interactions and highlights from this event, visit #roleofjournalism.

A lively debate took place yesterday at the Conor lecture theatre of Ulster University, Belfast campus. A group of journalists, academics and media regulators were invited to answer the question: “Can we believe the media? The role of journalism in the digital age”.

Dr. Phil Ramsey, Lecturer in Public Relations and Digital Media Communication at the School of Communication and Media, Ulster University, and Chair of the MeCCSA Policy Network was in charge of introducing the event.

Jonathan Heawood, CEO of IMPRESS, the independent press regulator in the UK, spoke about the effects of the digital economy on the news:

In the digital economy, clicks count. The sites with the most clicks can generate the most advertising revenue. But clicks don’t guarantee quality”. He highlighted the fact that readers being skeptical is a good thing and call for public support for journalism: “We need public support so that journalism can thrive”.

Ireland’s Press Ombudsman Peter Feeney focused on the challenges that YouTube, Google and Facebook pose to journalism:

We need to go back to basics: what is journalism? There is a distinction between journalism and aggressive commentary on social media.

In relation to the sustainability of digital news sites and local news, he said: “news organisations have given their content for free too much. We are used to not paying for our news. But there are some efforts being made (…) For platforms, the first time is self-regulation.”

The debate continued with a panel of experienced journalists. Clodagh Rice, Ulster graduate and Business Reporter at BBC NI, moderated the discussion and also shared the challenge of social media from her own experience. She spoke about journalism as a profession and as a trade, and reflected upon the importance of journalism students getting their feet on the ground to acquire experience early on.

Brian Pelan, Editor of View Digital, said:

We want our readers to trust what we are saying. The problem is that we are small and under-resourced. We are competing in a digital world where Google, Facebook and Twitter reign supreme (…) On their platforms you will find truths, lies, smears, potential libels and incessant noise of keyboard warriors (..) The sort of material that should and would be dumped in any self-respecting newsroom that is guided by a sense of values.

Maeve Connolly, Deputy Digital Editor at Irish News, focused on the role of social media for journalists on the trade:

Social media allows us to distribute our stories globally, to develop an engaged community, and inject life to legacy brands. Social media are also a source of news for us. User generated content is a great to have eyes on the scene, but you have to verify it. Journalism has changed, but its core elements will never change.

Journalist Yvette Shapiro, with more than 30 of experience including BBC Northern Ireland, UTV, Sky News and Belfast Telegraph, highlighted how the immediacy of tools like twitter can challenge the very fundamentals of journalism. She urged young journalists to have courage to challenge the “digital beast” and how it sometimes almost prevents journalists from getting the stories right.

The panel was completed with Milne Rowntree, Director of BA in Journalism at Ulster University:

[At Ulster University] we work to develop new skills: SEO, mobile, video, multiplatform journalism. But we always come back to the core: telling a story. The three things that we emphasise are: accuracy, legality and ethics.

Máire Messenger Davies, Professor of Media Policy at Ulster University, closed the evening by emphasising:

Media studies are more important than ever. People need to know the difference between news and clickbait.

The event was co-organised by IMPRESS, the Centre for Media Research in the School of Communication and Media of Ulster University, and the MeCCSA policy network. Around 80 people attended the event, among which were students, academics, journalists, lawyers and public-sector workers.