The pen is not just mightier than the sword

The School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.  Photo - mojourcomm / Wikimedia Commons (CC)

The School of Journalism at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where Melissa Click resigned her courtesy appointment this week. Photo: mojourcomm / Wikimedia Commons (CC)

The phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” is ubiquitous with the form and elements of change that can stem from the English language. Yet, in this digital age, the phrase by the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton expands, for it is not the pen that can be mighty, but the video can too.

We are reminded of that in lieu of the events this past week at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where the communications professor Melissa Click resigned her courtesy appointment with the journalism school, after she was documented in a video that went viral intimidating a student who was covering the events. Separately, two university officials, system president Mark Wolfe and Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Luftin, announced their resignations.

The video’s attention on Twitter and other social media sites was all that was needed to paint the story that had been at the center of discussion in the media industry, as the focus was placed on two students – Mark Schierbecker, who recorded the video and posted it online, and Tim Tai, who was covering the protest in a freelance capacity for ESPN. Click had apologized to the reporters, according to a statement quoted in the New York Times.

Tai, speaking to the Times, said he had no ill will towards her.

“I never had ill will toward her and I felt bad when I heard she’d been getting threats,” Tai said. “I think this has been a learning experience for everyone involved, myself included, and I hope this blows over for both of us.”

Social media has influenced not just how we consume news, but the newsgathering process. (Image: Pixabay/CC)

Social media has influenced not just how we consume news, but the newsgathering process. (Image: Pixabay/CC)

Yet, while the debate on its effects on free speech continue to be discussed within the industry (both my SPJ colleagues, Ethics Committee chairman Andrew Seaman and SPJ president Paul Fletcher, have written extensively on their blogs on the subject), it has shown the influence social media and the web has had when it comes to the news.

We are not only consuming it but at the same time we are documenting it for an audience that may be intimate, or be in the tens of thousands. One never expects it to be the lead of a major news program or be on the front page of every newspaper or web site, but it has certainly challenged the conventional newsgathering process.

This was also the case when it came to the coverage of the issue of migrants in Europe. The photo of the young Syrian boy washed up on a beach shore also went viral, and graced the front pages of many publications, including Britain’s The Independent, which saw much public outcry, and calls for Prime Minister David Cameron to adjust his policy towards migration and accepting them into the UK.

No matter the story or how it is formed, either through a press conference or indeed a viral video, it is up to us as journalists how to make sense of these events and not only respond to them, but to ensure the people who we ultimately serve get the gold standard of coverage however they consume news, applied with the same judgment as any other story.

In this age of evolving technology, not only is the pen mightier than the sword, but videos, photos and every other digital element is too. It is down to us on how to respond to these tools, and how that shapes the elements and values of something that remains a constant amid innovation — the news.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and blogger for SPJ’s blog network, with a focus on social media trends in journalism as well as British media. Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication based in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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