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Waleed Aly: Journalism isn’t really a profession and clickbait is costing us our authority

Commentator Waleed Aly has warned that journalism faces losing its authority with the public if competition continues to drive publications into the world of clickbait.

The host of Ten’s The Project, who earlier this year won the Gold Logie as most popular TV personality, gave the Andrew Olle Media Lecture in Sydney last night.

Waleed Aly logies

In the speech, Aly spoke of how commercial pressures and digital disruption have led to an increasingly lightweight news cycle which has in turn hurt the public’s trust in the trade of journalism. He said:

“Although we think of ourselves as professionals, journalism isn’t really a profession in the traditional sense. It’s not like medicine or the law. We have an ethical code of sorts, but we’re not bound to it by some solemn oath.  There are no induction ceremonies in which people wear ridiculous gowns or hats. There’s no official body that can strike us off the roll for malpractice. And no one is suggesting there should be.

“The truth is that in traditional terms, we’re a trade.  We’re pretty much self-regulated.  If we stuff up, we publish a notice or an apology, maybe pay a fine if it’s serious, and we move on. We lose our jobs not because we lose our licence to practice but because our jobs either disappear or our reputations are damaged enough to mean our market value has crashed. If we’re unethical but valuable, there’s nothing to stop us, really.”

And he warned of the chase for short-term profits via clickbait. He said:

“What if, in the endless competition amongst ourselves we’re driving each other to do anything for a commercial advantage? What if our cut-throat rivalries are driving us ever further into the admittedly profitable world of clickbait?  Is it possible we’d be pursuing short-term victories at a more comprehensive, long-term cost to our authority, much like we’re seeing in politics?”

Earlier in the speech, Aly warned that speed is given priority over thinking things through. He said:

“Time seems to be the enemy of ratings. In the competition for ratings, everything ends up being more or less the same as everything else. If we’re honest, we’ll admit we’ve seen this in our various newsrooms. The minute one network or radio station is running with a particular story, every other network scrambles to ensure they have it, too. This phenomenon of journalists watching each other to ensure they are never left behind by their competitors, combined with the narrow range of ‘received ideas’ television allows, has an overall homogenising effect where everything begins to resemble everything else while insisting it’s unique.”

He added:

“You can see it in the way people will actually apologise on social media if they share something that has been around for more than a day, lest they look like they’re off the pace. That’s actually quite a profound practice: to be slow online, even slightly, is embarrassing.

“We’re now after instant thinkers. Our ‘received ideas’ now need to be almost premeditated. Even in print – what has traditionally been our most serious, reflective medium – there’s precious little room available for the idea that has taken days to percolate. Not unless a topic has generated enough heat to become a snowballing scandal over days.  And I think this is a problem because when I think about the people I know whose opinions are consistently the most challenging and insightful, they often can’t think of anything to say until the media cycle has lost interest.

Aly also pointed to the increasingly formulaic nature of online content designed for social sharing. He said:

“We’re at a point now where we don’t really have to guess what it takes to achieve this form of success. There are lots of studies analysing what sort of content is most shared on social media platforms, and trying to crack the code for virality, and certain things keep coming up. Once you remove all the stuff about pictures of cute animals and babies, you’re left with some pretty reliable traits. Quizzes and lists do well. So do images, videos and charts. Health tips and love advice are reliably strong, as is anything about a topic that is already trending. And beyond that, emotion and controversy are very effective.

Aly – whose contributions on The Project regularly get picked up on social media – was careful not to exclude himself from criticism as he warned that journalists are incentivised to create popular content.

HuffPo is among the sites that regularly send Aly's TV segments viral

HuffPo is among the sites that regularly send Aly’s TV segments viral

He said:

“I’m not saying there’s no place in journalism for content that is emotional, accessible and even provocative. But I am saying we have a problem if that becomes journalism’s centre of gravity. We have a problem if, for instance, press gallery journalists are being asked to provide content that will do well online, rather than that which will offer citizens a nuanced understanding of what happens in Canberra. Speaking for myself, if I’m in that environment and I have the choice between reporting a story on, say, how superannuation tax concessions work and another story about, say, a gaffe from Tony Abbott, I’ll choose the gaffe story every time. It’s easy to write, easy to read and will earn me more kudos. Why wouldn’t I?  And if I have a choice between spending weeks or months getting to know a low socio-economic community to get a direct sense of what their concerns are and staying in my office and bashing out a live blog of the parry and thrust of the day in politics, I’ll choose the blog every time. Again, why wouldn’t I?

Guardian

The Guardian is among the gaffe-loving titles

Aly also flagged up a media obsession with political gaffes – and the prioritisation of opinion over news over the past two or three years. He said:

“It’s this kind of shifting centre of gravity is I fear we’re now seeing. Sure, the last election campaign wasn’t exactly a classic, but I can’t remember one whose coverage has been so gaffe dominated. In our contemporary metrics, that stuff works. And it’s for similar reasons we’re witnessing the ever-collapsing wall between opinion and news in our work. I remember the first time I saw my op-ed column published at the top of the webpage amongst the top news stories. It was 2013, and I was deeply shocked. Now I’m shocked if it’s not. Once I understood that news was king and commentary was subordinate. But the facts of shareability often say otherwise and now I’m not so sure anymore.

“It’s becoming increasingly common for us learn the latest news from some opinion or analysis piece, for instance. Clearly I have no problem with editorial content. In fact, I think it’s crucially important. But that’s not the same thing as saying we should welcome this dynamic by which we privilege opinion and pump it out into digital forums in which we encourage people to react with their opinions so that others might then add theirs.

“We need to be careful here, because if everything our audiences consume begins to look like opinion, we’re going to have a hard time preserving our craft.

“If the audience is constantly being bombarded with our ‘hot takes’ – if we’re slowly replacing the news cycle with an opinion cycle – can we really complain when they think that everything we say is commentary?”

Aly also criticised the trend towards covering social media reaction to a television show as a news story in its own right. He said:

“It’s remarkable how much content we get now out of reporting on each other. There’s now an apparently compulsory tradition for instance, of reporting on what happened on something like, Q&A: delighting in the take-downs and the zingers, revelling sarcastically in the howlers.

smh.com.au publishes weekly recaps of Q&A

The SMH publishes weekly recaps of Q&A

“Really, it has become a whole new genre of news.

Daily Mail is among the sites keen to report when a TV host slams something

Daily Mail is among the sites keen to report when a TV host slams something

“Hence the constant reporting of other people’s interviews, in which no one simply asks their guest some firm questions: instead they ‘grill’ them or ‘slam’ them in a ‘fiery exchange’.  This stuff is eminently clickable and easily shareable.”

ike news.com.au regularly report 'fiery' exchanges

Sites like news.com.au regularly report ‘fiery’ exchanges

“Even the successes of great journalism won’t save us if we submit ourselves wholly to the commercial logic of clickbait even if only by accident.”

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