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What would Eric Malling do?

Reinventing investigative journalism in the Internet Age

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It seems like digital technology—the rise of the Internet—has turned out to have the revolutionary power of Gutenberg’s printing press. The way society bought and sold, communicated with each other, and received all kinds of information, including the news, has been completely transformed.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) reports that 73 per cent of Canadians spend at least three to four hours online daily, while one in eight spend more than eight hours online daily. More than half of them are regularly accessing their news and current events online.

The internet allows us to access newspapers and broadcasts from all over the world and read about that region’s news as though we lived there. A glut of information provided by every self-proclaimed expert on every conceivable subject is available, and you would think such conditions require less knowledge and memory on our part, but in fact, it seems we need more.

Do we know who to trust?

Back when one-hour, long-form journalism on CBC’s The Fifth Estate aired, Canadian investigative reporters like Hana Gartner, Adrienne Clarkson and Eric Malling brought in-depth stories to Canadians that took weeks to develop. Malling cut his teeth on print news but became better known for The Fifth Estate and later for the news program W5, on the CTV network. 

Eric Malling died in 1998, but his work ethic and convictions about the importance of the media had a profound effect on his fellows. Over the course of his career, his work triggered parliamentary committees, a national debate about government debt, and in one instance, the resignation of a Federal cabinet minister.

If the way we consume news is different, in terms of our shorter, bite-sized digital temperament, then new ways of producing revenue have also changed. Because the online world reaches the widest audience for the lowest cost, the media must continually adapt their production and distribution models to keep their audiences engaged and informed.

Broadcast journalists don’t always have the luxury of an accompanying producer, cameraman and editor in the field anymore—they often have to ask the questions, take the video and edit it themselves while still meeting their deadlines.

Is there time anymore for a 20-minute piece on corruption, environmental issues, or crime in two parts? The answer is yes, but the place you look for it might be different.

Who are the journalists?

We are no longer passive consumers of news—we have become participants. Where in the past, journalists like Eric Malling were the first to cover and give a thorough report about a crisis, regular citizens often break a news event using video taken with their cell phones. These visuals are shared and re-posted liberally. They’ve collected a range of comments on social media long before they are curated to appear on a traditional news program. As well, the term “citizen journalist” is growing in popularity as people with a keen interest in a subject and a cellphone can cover an issue on a regular basis and gather an audience around the reporting of it. The conventional media may frown on this because it changes what the definition of journalism is. But the trend is growing, not diminishing.

The good news is that there is still appetite for the long-form discussion on Internet services like YouTube, where a consumer can subscribe to a myriad of channels discussing topics of interest, at varying levels of quality. But is it a good thing that consumers have become the arbiters of the content they wish to see, not professional journalists?

On the one hand, more voices are being heard, which means a diversity of views on an issue or event can give us a fuller picture. On the other, since consumers have the luxury of listening only to the views they already hold, is it possible that the glut of commentary just creates more political or philosophical polarization—buttressed by the pervasive perception that the traditional media is no longer neutral?

It also means the line between hard news, commentary and content marketing is beginning to blur. Can we identify what is news and what is sales? Or are we becoming unaware as to what is real and what is advertising? This is a development that yesterday’s reporters would likely deplore.

Nevertheless, if Eric Malling were alive today, it’s doubtless that he would still be one of those voices, who knows, perhaps an independent journalist? As such, he would also have the freedom to build a loyal audience and publish across a variety of platforms.

Since large news corporations are no longer the sole authority on news topics, navigating this brave new world means two things: real journalism is still an awesome responsibility—to report objective truth in the public interest. And with such a cacophony of voices, informed consumers need to recognize and appreciate enlightening and analytical thinking. We must think critically, and look beyond the surface, to separate the gold from the dross.

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