Doctoral thesis explained why online journalism contains so many errors

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Online journalists are expected to have a multitude of skills but working under time pressure and quantity requirements leaves little opportunity to apply these different skills. Source: unsplash.com

“People have come to Pirita Yacht Harbour to secure their vessels so the storm would hurt them much.” This headline was published on the Delfi news site on 26 September. Such mistakes happen very easily and not because the writer is uneducated or illiterate, but because of the conditions the writer has to work in. This became evident from my doctoral thesis in which I looked at the skills Estonian online journalists use in their work.

The media space is saturated with information and it is more important than ever for journalism to provide high-quality information to people. Professional journalistic content is separated from all other information spread in the media space by its creation process during which the journalist makes the story newsworthy, i.e. separates what is important from the less important, is critical when choosing sources, checks facts, focuses and formalises information to make it clear and unequivocal. At the same time, they also edit the text to make it linguistically accurate and exemplary.

It is probably this last step – editing, or more likely hurrying with editing, that distorted the information in the above example from Delfi into the headline that was finally published.

The skills and competences that the journalists use for processing information into, e.g., a news article, influence the quality of the end result. Sadly, reality does not match the ideal and journalistic texts, especially online, contain mistakes, use incompetent sources, and contain inaccuracies and unverified claims. This all reduces the trustworthiness and quality of journalism.

This is why I studied the skills journalists use in processing information or, more specifically, which skills they are able to use in their work.

Results and why they are important

The studies that constitute a part of the doctoral thesis revealed a conflict of expectations and practice. Journalists, referring to editors and reporters, assume that online journalists are multi-skilled. Very few skills, however, are actually used in everyday work.

For example, when we asked the editorial manager what skills an online journalist should have, we got an entire list of various technical and journalistic skills. However, when we looked at what the online editors actually do, their use of skills was largely limited to copying text, simple editing and translation.

Looking at the big picture, this is a problem – journalism students gain a lot of different knowledge and skills during their studies at universities which they cannot actually use with the work organised in such a way. Therefore, these skills are lost or people decide to leave such online newsrooms.

“Keeping the line” and “producing units”

From the research, it became evident that a contrived time pressure dominates the work processes – most of the online journalists interviewed on different years had the obligation to “keep the line” or continually publish articles (e.g., one every hour), which the journalists call “units”. When we asked why editorial managers or reporters thought it necessary to continually publish something, there were no clear answers.

This mentality seems to originate from the knowledge and experience that is passed on from journalist to journalist and people spread these work practices between newsrooms. “Keeping the line”, for example, has been spread throughout all Estonian media houses. Some editorial managers explained the need for this with the so-called heavy users or the readers always hungry for something new and clicking the refresh button.

It is true that at the beginning of the 2000s, when social media was not so common yet, there were readers that were constantly refreshing the web sites of media publications to get something new. Today, social media offers a continual flow of something new and the heavy users almost do not exist any more. The editorial managers, however, still rely on the dated knowledge which has been passed on within and between the newsrooms – “the line must be kept”.

Such “production of units for the line” is directed at quantity not quality. It is easy and quick to copy a paragraph from social media or a press release and get a “unit down”. However, this takes all the journalist’s time they might have dedicated to researching a meaningful story, working with sources, checking facts and writing the story. This time pressure as well as the contrived expectation for the volume of work inhibits the application of various knowledge, skills and competences.

There is no point in monetising information that is available for free

In one of the studies for my doctoral thesis, together with my co-authors, I tried to see if and for which online journalistic content the audience is willing to pay. In other words, what are the audience’s expectations to online journalism. This information is necessary to create a comparison point between the audience’s expectations to the skills of the journalist and the skills actually applied in work processes.

We found that, among other things, the readers primarily expect a comprehensive and thorough coverage, but also content that is created masterfully and diversely using the specifics of the web as a platform. And the audience is definitely not willing to pay for “units” containing information that can be found on Google for free.

The results of the three studies I conducted revealed a conflict: the online journalism newsrooms are orientated to constant and fast content creation which does not promote neither online-specific nor thorough treatment of topics. Editorial managers expect the writers to publish a lot in a short time span, but not that the stories published are of high-quality, trustworthy and require journalistic or other skills.

One of the most important results of my doctoral thesis is the knowledge that there is a significant difference between what the editorial managers expect the online journalist to be capable of, and which skills the journalist is actually able to use in their work. This is due to the work organisation and practices in newsrooms. The main reason why online journalists can only use a limited amount of skills is time pressure and the requirement to continuously publish “units”. Work practices are carried from one newsroom to another, which, in turn, makes the newsrooms quite similar in terms of work organisation and practices.

An online journalist can be multi-skilled

From the studies conducted for this doctoral thesis, it transpired that it is possible to apply diverse journalistic skills in online journalism, but also technical skills and skills specific to a thematic area. For using the possibilities of the web as a technical platform to the full, a significantly wider array of skills and competences needs to be used than in television, radio or newspapers, for example.

However, it is also possible to work in online journalism in such a way that the use of journalistic skills is very limited. This depends on the editorial management decisions and resource allocation within the newsroom; to put it plainly, how much time, technical means and support the editorial managers give their employees.

Therefore, one of the reasons why online journalism has mistakes is the limited opportunities the journalists are given to apply the skills which make journalism – journalism.

I am also an online journalist at ERR Novaator and, in my opinion, very good journalism can and may be created online, but the editorial managers must have a desire for such content.

Something practical

To assess which skills are present in a specific online newsroom and which of these are used, I developed a model for assessing skills and competences. It can be used in a newsroom as a basis for an interview or as a questionnaire. At the moment, I am continuing the development of the assessment model, so that during my post-doctorate, I could develop a web application that every newsroom can use to assess which skills their journalists use in their work.

The doctoral thesis Skill Performance of Estonian Online Journalists: Assessment Model for Newsrooms and Researchwas supervised by Halliki Harro-Loit, a professor of journalism at the University of Tartu, and Ragne Kõuts, an associate professor of sociology of journalism at UT. The opponent was Henrik Örnebring, a professor of media and communication at Karlstad University, Sweden.

The translation of this article from Estonian Public Broadcasting science news portal Novaator was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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