Andy Dickinson Andy is a Senior lecturer in Journalism at Manchester Metropolitan University where he is the program lead for the MA Multimedia Journalism.

Defining the virtual journalist

Reading Time:

I've become a bit obsessed by the question 'Who is a journalist?"

I don't mean the idea of who is allowed to call themselves a journalist - I've only ever really been professionally interested in the motivations behind the question rather than the question itself.  I'm thinking about it in terms of an identity.

Let me put it another way. If I say 'journalist' to you, how would you describe them? Not what they do, but who they are. What image appears in your head?  Are they tall, short? Male or female? White?  Do you imagine a 'clone' of trusted TV anchor like Xinhua news agency's AI newsreader or is it something more stylised.

Ananova or Max headroom - is this what a virtual journalist looks like.

If the idea of committing to a physical description of a journalist gives you pause for thought...what about the character and personality? Is it a 'rat like cunning' that Nicholas Tomalin cynically observed. Are they an Introvert or extrovert?

Online versions of ourselves

Think about your social media account. To what extent do you think that account really reflects you, the person behind the account.  If I asked a social media user to draw a picture of you based on your social media account, would it resemble the real you?   Most of us would probably say 'No, that's nothing like me'.  In fact, we are regularly told that we should be careful in *cultivating* an online identity. We need to 'construct' a presence that balances the personal and professional.

It means we often adopt a 'hybrid' identity with boundaries that are sometimes difficult to manage especially when it comes to ideas of trust - what version of us is authentic and approachable  to engage people ('you can trust me'),  but remains balanced and journalistic ('You can trust us').

What interests me at the moment is the extent to which these hybrid identities might contribute to the emergence of identifiable 'thing' called a journalist. Somewhere in the primordial soup of social media, is there a thing called a journalist being given form, one tweet at a time?

Will we see an emerging Monster of the ID (Spoiler: No)

Let's not get too Frankenstein here. I'm not talking about having to barricade the newsroom doors against the monsters of our journalistic or social media Id. I'm also not *too* worried about Twitter becoming self-aware at 2.14am. But I am interested in how we might describe and understand this emerging construct of a journalist as a character, and use the way they 'behave' to help us understand how we can communicate more effectively in the online world.

Virtual journalists for virtual worlds

Where I think it gets more interesting is if we think about these online spaces as 'worlds'. What if Twitter was a real place. Would it look like the 'real' world. There'd be a lot more fights.  As we begin to really get to grips with immersive journalism and telling stories in VR and AR , the idea isn't that strange or as esoteric as you might think.  We are creating worlds for all of us to inhabit and interact in.  

At the same time we are also deeply worried about the influence of the algorithms that help define these spaces and shape interaction  - you only need to Google algorithmic accountability to get a sense of that.

It's interesting to think about how these two areas might combine.  Will we ever sufficiently understand these *virtual worlds* to engage in any meaningful accountability that we might recognise. Maybe, as some argue,  we'll get to a  point where we'll need  journalism agents doing our work in virtual worlds we are not equipped to understand.

I think it's important that journalists have a stake in this from the start. Just like the demand for ethicists to be at the heart of AI development, journalists need to be part of building an understanding of what it is to question and hold to account the powerful in a community - whether they are *real* or not.  If we are going to create avatars/clones to help us do this, they should be entities built from the ground up to understand the world they inhabit,  but imbued with a character that we and those that interact with them would recognise as a journalist.

Wagner James Au was the first 'embedded journalist' in Second Life. He dressed his Avatar, Hamlet Au, in "a crisp white suit, my tribute to Tom Wolfe"

If we don't then we'll end up with someone else's best guess of what a journalist is and what they do.  And if you want to see what that might look, then maybe you could try playing The Sims.  The popular virtual world game allows you to become a journalist and this it what it looks like.  

The Journalist Character from Sims 3. You don't want to know what they get paid...

Does that look like a journalist to you.?

Journalism ethics Vs. Research ethics

How do you balance the ethical demands of university research with the practical and professional demands of teaching journalism?...

Datashare and Workbench: Experimenting Data journalism apps.

I got a bit of time to play around with two new data journalism tools that have been on my radar. They offer some interesting perspectives on data journalism...

andydickinson.net   Never miss a story from andydickinson.net, get updates in your inbox.