The Internet has created a new, fourth form of journalism next to television, radio and print. The Internet allows information to flow and spread at high speeds, and because anyone can be a publisher, issues related to identity, access to information, protection of intellectual property and anonymity have haunted online journalism from the very start.
The immediacy offered by publication and access on online information has resulted in little attention being paid to content quality.
Sandra Mims Rowe, an editor for the Portland Oregonian in 1999, dismissively described internet-based news as a platform that “makes a journalist out of anybody who has a modem. It values speed and sensationalism above accuracy. New media will not accept our standards. We are foolish to treat them as if they have. This is a grim time for newspapers.”
Rowe is only partly right because internet content falls in three different categories.
The first category consists of content from traditional medium simply transferred in its original state and placed on the internet.
Zimbabwean newspapers routinely “copy and paste” content from their printed newspapers onto their websites.
The second category comprises original content by journalists augmented with hyperlinks such that the interactive nature of the internet is fully explored.
These two forms of online journalism are a mere “transfer” of traditional practice onto a new platform. The third form of online news, consisting of content designed specifically for the internet as a new medium of communication for an online community is the one that concerns the likes of Rowe.
Because the internet churns out information at a very fast pace, writers online are struggling to gain credibility as they take very little time to check the authenticity and accuracy of information in their hands.
The rush to publish by time-conscious online journalists no doubt undermines the credibility of the profession.
Even our mainstream newspapers fall into the trap when publishing breaking news.
Grammatical and even factual mistakes punctuate “priority” news placed on the internet.
Only last week, in relation to a Macheso paternity results announcement someone wrote: “Paternity tests results have proved that sungura maestro Alick Macheso is the father of the two children he had with his estranged wife, Fortunate (Tafadzwa) Mapako’.
It is a fact that most people who write on the internet, particularly on social network sites, are not at all journalists.
However, the information they post is widely circulated and acts in exactly the same way as the traditional, professional information systems.
As such, any information published on the internet, whether by trained journalists or by “ordinary” people, as long as it is directed to or accessed by members of the general public, must be regulated by laws and regulations that govern traditional newspapers.
Some anti-Zanu-PF news sites carry raw vitriol, including direct insults, directed at both the President and his party or Government.
Others wish senior politicians would drop dead, while some celebrate unfortunate incidents such as the mishap suffered by the police chief recently.
Zimbabwean journalists working for foreign news sites have a tendency of “spicing up” their stories to make the country look like a lawless nation where basic human and media rights are not followed.
In relation to the recent arrest of the Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi, Sebastian Mhofu of the Voice of America managed to throw in the following statement;
“The case against Edmund Kudzayi, editor of the State-owned Sunday Mail, was the latest in a string of cases brought by President Robert Mugabe’s Government that critics say are aimed at shutting down independent media in the troubled African nation.”
If the same journalist was to be charged for peddling falsehoods, it would not be surprising to hear like-minded journalists lamenting a “crackdown” on a profession “under siege”.
It is high time that the authorities took regulating online information seriously.
Under the Public Order and Security Act No. 1 2002 (POSA), Section 15 it was an offence for a person to publish or communicate a statement that is wholly or materially false with the intention or realising that there is a risk or possibility of inciting or promoting public disorder or public violence or endangering public safety, adversely affecting the defence or the economic interests of Zimbabwe, undermining public confidence in a law enforcement agency, the prison services or defence forces of the country; or interferes with, disrupts or interrupts any essential service.
Section 16 of the same law prohibits the publication of statements undermining the authority of the President or that are abusive, indecent or false about or concerning the President.
Based on comments or content on several new sites and social network today, the law is being flouted left, right and centre.
It is not an excuse to say the writer is not a journalist because with the internet, everyone is now a journalist.
Writing for the public is now a job for everyone.
Regulating authorities now have a mandate to regulate everyone.