201609-Cann-Linda-Ms-July 16Journalist turned medical student Linda Cann explores how the digital age is transforming news.

Thomas Jefferson once declared that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter”. That quote was as inspiring to me as a young, idealistic newspaper journalist as Fiona Wood’s story is to me now as a youngish and equally idealistic medical student.

While the news media isn’t perfect, many examples showcase the positive impacts of journalists raising awareness of health issues such as smoking or holding the government to account regarding systemic problems. This is Journalism as the Fourth Estate: the guardian watchdog of the people providing checks and balances on the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Police.

Such noble vision is manifested most potently in investigative journalism, with its corruption-chemotactic pursuit of the public interest. It can shine a light on public interest issues such as insufficient hospital funding and unfair distribution of health resources.201609-publishing-newspapers-web-tablet

While the digital revolution has generated some benefits, it’s also bringing investigative journalism to its knees. Newspapers provide many opportunities for in-depth reporting, but are suffering declining circulation and advertisers. Online news organisations attempted to copy the newspaper prototype but are struggling to find a business model to sustain general news journalism, let alone investigative reporting. The latter is distinctly time and resource intensive.

How can a news organisation justify dedicating months to an investigation that results in the same number of clicks as an article about the weather?

Furthermore, the feedback capabilities of the internet have exposed what people actually read and it’s hard for journalists not to become cynical when an average day might see a health reform article in a prominent position on the homepage be blitzed by a gallery of models in bikinis.

The internet has exposed the inconvenient truth that investigative reporting in newspapers is largely subsidised by classified ads, the TV magazine and the sports pages. Readers are no longer ‘accidentally’ informed of government health policy while on their way to the celebrity gossip section.

The end result? Investigative journalism loses its ability to hold the powerful to account, pursue public interest issues and keep the bastards honest.

The digital era has fragmented audiences, resulting in niche media channels with fewer viewers. This means fewer advertisers, less revenue and a reduced number of journalists. In the past decade there have also been mergers of media organisations with consequent newsroom job losses.

In WA, there is one daily newspaper and it recently merged with a major television station. It’s also in the process of swallowing-up the only other newspaper in town. Less news diversity reduces the number of spotlights shining in dark corners.

The digital age has obvious consequences for all sectors of society, including health professionals. Questionable government health policy and poor working conditions in hospitals may well fly under the radar with any calls for change ignored by authorities.

Social media and search-engine algorithms often serve to reinforce a particular world view through the use of targeted content. No more bumping into serious content on the way to stories about vaccination conspiracies or homeopathic cancer ‘cures’.

Thankfully, opportunities do exist. An organisation such as ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative newsroom based in Manhattan, has found success in pursuing public interest journalism. But it does need well-financed individuals to champion its work.

I hope similarly like-minded people exist in Australia because the health sector will always need healthy injections of investigative journalism.

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