One of the hallmarks of journalism in the digital age (here’s hoping we collectively agree on a less wanky term for that at some point) is an increasing willingness on the part of publishers and editors to admit to what they don’t know.

The unquestioned authority and impenetrable nature of, say, a newspaper masthead, is chipped away at with every new question, and that’s no bad thing.

But running parallel to the endless debate and discussion over paywalls, the availability of information, the potential of new technology and the changing role of the journalist is more fundamental, life-and-death type questions, like this:

“In an age when a deadly drone can be piloted from half a world away, can the journalist justify the risks of being right in the midst of things?”

That’s Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger speaking at an International News Safety Institute event in Athens this week:

“In the first decade of this century, Reuters has already lost 12 employees. That is a rate of more than one a year, tragedy striking down without regard for age or experience or nationality. Usually journalists die well out of sight of the public or of their editors.

“This year, however, the organization Wikileaks released the video from the lead Apache helicopter that stalked and killed in Iraq three years ago, video that Reuters had sought unsuccessfully with Freedom of Information Act requests.

“That video shocked and angered many both inside and outside journalism. That video also showed how dangerous trying to get the story really is.”

He continues:

“With the great democratisation of technology, there have never been so many people in every country on earth who have both the ambition and now the means to publish their views, thoughts and images without the structure of a large institution around them. This has many wonderful implications for journalism. It has many frightening implications for safety.

“Where international news organisations have embraced safety training, equipment and an ethos of caution, individuals are unlikely to have either the means or the experience to realise what they’re missing. And if professionals opt not to cover certain events, I fear that vacuum may be too tempting for amateurs to avoid as well.

At a time where many media proprietors continue to perpetuate the idea that there’s a war between the old guard of journalism and the new, this news chief says this:

“Now is the time for us to accept the newly broadened definition of our craft and ensure that we give opportunities for training and safety consciousness raising to the legions of self-declared journalists who, emboldened by their blog’s popularity or their scores of Twitter followers, might rush in to the very danger spots we should be avoiding. The very traps of competitive pressure, personal ambition, adrenaline’s urging that can ensnare the professional journalist are even more alluring to the self-declared one, looking to garner page views or fame.

“We in the profession have an obligation to ensure that all who seek to practice journalism do it safely and know how to balance the risks and the rewards.

“As a profession we have a great chance to make sure that all practitioners start making the right decisions. And we have a great responsibility to make sure that all involved really wrestle with whether every exposure to danger, every decision to ‘be there’ is truly important and worth it.”

An insightful admission from a news boss with a lot on his mind.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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