The Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards is among the most prestigious and richest in the country. The awards, now celebrating its 10th year, rewards outstanding reporting and excellence in journalism, with the overall winner walking away with R125 000 in prize money.
The Vodacom awards have various categories by media such as print, radio, television and by niches such as sport, financial/economic reporting, consumer journalism etc.

Of course, the media industry has been fundamentally impacted by the growth of digital media. It has affected the sector economically, cornering classifieds and job ads that used to be the domain of newspapers, siphoning away readers from print media and made media global so that audiences are no longer confined to where the paper was available but to anybody that can access it online.

Less revenue, greater costs cuts, fewer editors, less fact-checking. The results have had a sobering impact on the journalism. It’s also redefining how media practitioners engage with their readership/audience, competitors and sometimes even sources.

Readers have become collaborators in distributing and analysing content; the Letters page editor doesn’t exist online, making newsroom transparency and accessibility important; breaking news happens via social media; and talent doesn’t have to climb the newsroom ladder slowly, but is spotted and grabbed.

So it’s not surprising to find ‘online journalism’ as a category in the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards. What is surprising is that the category description talks about online media as “news in bite-sized chunks” when long-form journalism has met with considerable success online. But that is another debate.

As of this year, the Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards has added a category called ‘Social Media in Journalism’ in association with Cerebra, a social media and mobile company.

“This [social media] category recognises the most effective use of social media networks, communities and tools in the creation and/or delivery of journalistic content,” the awards website explains. “This could cover the use of social media in information gathering, research or promotion and distribution of the content of a story.”

How important is it for an award like this to acknowledge the role social media is playing in modern journalism?

One of the award judges, journalist and industry researcher Arthur Goldstuck (@art2gee), says that “it is important to acknowledge social media in its own right only insofar as traditional awards do not recognise the role played by social media in supporting or expanding reportage and journalism.

“In its own right, it will ultimately not be seen as a separate category of journalism, but one that pulls all strands of journalism together. My ideal would be to reward entries that illustrate the best integration of all media platforms.”

Prof Anton Harber, from the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University, says while social media is generally a useful research tool and a powerful communication device, it is very seldom the medium for carrying anything but the shortest alert and link to a story.

“As such it has become an essential tool for journalists, but this feels a bit like giving an award for the best use of Google, or the best use of the telephone,” says Harber. “I am concerned that the proliferation of award categories cheapens awards and am surprised they did not just make the use of social media a criteria in all of the other categories for which they are making awards. I fear that in the rush to be trendy, they may be demeaning their awards.”

Harber nails the hammer on the head when he says social media would be better recognised and served if viewed as criteria in all of the other categories for which awards are made. Social media in the media context, after all, is not about the platform or media but about how journalists relate to and engage with their readership.

Could the award lead to greater interest on social media by journalists and media organisations?

Prof Herman Wasserman, head of the Research Unit for Media in the Global South at Rhodes University, believes the award could make journalists aware of the importance of social media within the converged media landscape and encourage them to explore social media and its uses for journalism further.

“An especially good outcome would be if social media would encourage and enable journalists to establish closer contact with their audiences, allowing for greater reciprocity from the audience and help journalists to find more ways of collaborating with audiences (or what Jay Rosen referred to as the People Formerly Known as the Audience) to produce news interactively,” says Wasserman.

As journalists explore the use of social services such as Twitter, the ethics of how the profession’s standards and ethics (and, yes, some might argue lack thereof) translate into this sphere does step to the fore.

Many news organisations still don’t have social media policies in place. On the upside, this does gives journalists leeway to experiment for themselves but the world of 140 characters can be unforgiving.

So what would be optimal – the freedom to experiment or corporate support pushing use of social media within some defined parameters?

Wasserman says the freedom to experiment is important but, at the same time, organisations should also be aware of the challenges posed by social media for journalism – especially ethical challenges.

“Organisations should allow journalists to experiment but also create an environment where journalists are aware of the issues around privacy, accuracy etc that arise in the social media arena, and create opportunities where these challenges can be discussed and engaged with,” he cautions.

Goldstuck agrees there is nothing wrong with the freedom to experiment, “if it is given a context and if it is in the hands of a skilled practitioner”. Goldstuck warns that editors who don’t have the skills or the vision to integrate social media will merely damage such efforts; journalists who don’t have the skill or knowledge to engage in social media will probably embarrass themselves and their media outlets.

“Well-defined parameters, along with visionary editors and skilled and informed journalists, would provide the best combination and integration of skills and content required,” says Goldstuck.

“Having said all that, there are no hard and fast rules for what works best in social media, or how traditional media must integrate social media. Those will evolve with time, and the best practitioners will help to lay down the ground rules through example, rather than by decree.”

Originally published on Marketing & Media | South Africa – click to see more comments


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