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Watching the Watchdog: Notes From The Future of Journalism

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost.

I can't tell you how I got these documents. I can't tell you who wrote them. I can't even tell you where they come from.

All I can tell you is that they were written recently, at a university somewhere in Canada.

Documents like these are usually seen by no more than a tiny handful of people -- the writer, the evaluator and perhaps a couple of others.

I readily admit that they're not quite up there in importance with those American military and diplomatic secrets about American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that WikiLeaks splashed all over the Internet.

Even so, they're my very own, real leaked documents. Written by students studying journalism -- some of whom will become the next generation practicing our honourable craft. If you have any interest in Canadian journalism in our Canadian democracy you should read them.

The students were assigned to write a paper on a chapter in my book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor. The theme of the chapter, This I Believe ..., is that traditional, general-interest journalism -- produced by trained, professional journalists -- is the crucial cornerstone of democracy and that social media threatens to destroy that cornerstone.

Twenty-four class papers were leaked to me. In the 16 excerpts below I've omitted any obvious response to my own writings and selected what appear to be original thoughts and ideas from the students themselves.

I list them in the order they were given me.

"One of the many problems faced by mainstream media is hegemony (ideas of the dominant class in a society) that is so structurally reinforced in the media industry that anyone who is not of the ruling class is forced to conform in order to work in the industry.

"Unfortunately the decline of mainstream media may be the only way to end the cycle. I am not suggesting the professional journalism has to die, it merely has to come to a breaking point before people will realize that it is time for a true change."

"New technology is eliminating traditional media such as newspapers because as a young person in 2012, I do not read the newspaper, and I don't know anyone in my group of peers who does either. Everyone in this day and age uses Google and the Internet to find their information."

"The argument that citizen journalism may not be the most ideal spread of important information is a valid one. The issue arises because this information is so easily accessed, and with so many people sharing and receiving information through social networking sites, all the biased and solely opinionated blog entries, tweets and status updates spread like wildfire among the masses.

"This is the reality of today."

"The sharing of opinions leads to the development of new ideas which is a part of what a democratic society is. Even though social media and the internet are slowly killing ethical journalism, ethical journalism cannot kill the social media and the Internet; they must find a way to use the internet and social media to their advantage."

"In my own experience, I find it time consuming to read newspapers every day so I resort to reading CP24 tweets on Twitter as an alternative. The need for newspapers is dying out because of the Internet taking its place.

"I also believe that without ethical, professional journalism, the people would have no other trustworthy source of information about the world around them. Journalism exposes truth that the powerful are trying to hide from the people and without freedom to have opinions and critical ideas, the nation would be more totalitarian than a democracy."

"Traditional ethical journalism is in trouble, as the Internet has significantly taken away from the depth of news stories and the integrity that journalism has been honoured and respected for in the past."

"The news industry is suffering the death of a thousand cuts by the new forms of media that dominate the market. The increase in cheap reporting, particularly in crime stories, has eroded a fundamental principle of journalism which is for the journalist to go out and check the 'people's pulse.'

"News may become so saturated in cheap reporting from lack of funding that it will strangle itself slowly until it crumbles under the weight of expenses and loss of readership to the Internet: the parasite wins."

"When citizen 'journalists' write a piece about day-to-day issues, there is absolutely no requirement for them to be educated, skilled and have enough knowledge on an issue to write a piece about it.

"It goes to show that in order to be a legitimate journalist and a messenger of news, one needs to have the proper education, perspective and ability to best analyze a situation and relay the truth to the public."

"There is the issue of the role journalists play in the democratic system. It is without question how important they are to the democratic system as they inform the citizens on all aspects of the state, particularly around the time of elections.

"Democracy is run and maintained by the masses and when they cease to care for democracy, then and only then will democracy cease to exist. Journalism helps keep said citizens informed, thus making the democratic process run smoother."

"With the looming powers of social media, ethical and free journalism is becoming more and more difficult to find. Not only is this a dangerous reality for the establishment of truth, but it is also a great threat to the sustainability of our democracy.

"We see journalism itself being taken over by self-serving citizens who hold the power of the World Wide Web in their hands. This possibly destructive fate must be stopped through the powers of traditional journalism in order for us, the people, to remain free subjects of society."

"The emergence of the Internet as a new medium should be seen as a way to get the truth that ethical journalists strive for to a wider audience."

"Social media as the sole means of information for an individual is extremely dangerous. If the public were to rely only on social media as a means of information, people would become isolated, confining themselves in a comfortable world free of views and ideas that oppose their own.

"The danger that comes with social media is that in all its seemingly limitless possibility, it is frequently used as a source of truth and information, despite the fact the majority of the information found on the internet lacks validity."

"A journalist's most important role is to challenge society's customs. Citizen journalists do not have degrees and the experience to understand that role. Continued disregard for these values will subject Canadians to a barred society. Who can the public rely on if they cannot trust journalists?

"Internet journalist are untrained wannabes that have no experience in the field of journalism. They have no education on the journalistic codes of ethics or morals. Many would rather rant about their own opinions instead of providing their readers with trustworthy reports. There are no editors online to ensure accuracy.

"Inexperienced, unreliable people are posting information without credible sources. This process ignores everything that journalism stands for."

"The journalist's whole role is based around finding the truth, however ugly it is, and presenting it to every person they possibly can. The more that journalism is restricted, the more power is given to already powerful, self-interested institutions like business and governments. Truth is knowledge, and knowledge is power -- so the more truth that these institutions can withhold from the people the more power they gain.

"If journalists allow themselves to become disconnected from the people, then how can they truly work for the people? If journalists lose their enterprising, investigative spirit, then the common man will be subject to the bare and often incomplete information dealt by the 'flacks' who are looking to protect the self-centered interests of the people who pay them.

"If journalism is embodied by truth, and truth is power, then it could be said that those who deign to influence journalism for their own gain are very dangerous indeed. That is why it is important that journalists stay free, ethical, and forever dedicated to the truth."

"I've found most of the claims on the Internet (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs) are not properly sourced or supported by proper evidence. The accurate information posted is usually repeated from trained journalists who spent their time researching. The Internet is stealing away the readers of the professional journalists, but without them, bloggers would have no information to repost, resulting in any reliability of citizen journalists to be diminished."

"People who do not question what they are being told likely lack the desire to know any more. They say ignorance is bliss, and it is not within the journalist's abilities to rid ignorant people of their ignorance; that burden is not on them.

"Journalism may not be what it used to be; it may have been corrupted by the internet and the corporations, it may be stifled by powerful people, but journalists that seek the truth do still exist.

"Journalists provide a service to the people. They are responsible for being professional, ethical and honest. They must check and double check every fact. They must provide truth that the Internet cannot, they must expose and educate and save the public from being mislead."