Speakers including Denis Staunton, John Waters and Mary Fitzgerald took to the stage in the Aula Maxima to discuss the precarious future of journalism in a conference that provoked debate and reflected the changing nature of the industry. By the time the debate had settled, #UCCMedia was trending nationwide, a fact reflecting the evolving nature of how news is reported and digested.
Organised and presented in association with the Irish Examiner and the River Lee Hotel, the conference, which took place in the Aula Maxima last Saturday, February 9th, afforded attendees a front seat to debates and presentations on the current state of journalism in Ireland and the direction in which it is heading.
Speakers invited represented some of the primary print and broadcasting houses in the country, the guestlist not limited to: Michael Clifford and Conor Ryan of the Irish Examiner, Deputy Editor of the Irish Times Denis Staunton as well as IT columnist John Waters and Foreign Correspondent Mary Fitzgerald. Brendan O’Neill contributor to the Telegraph and the Guardian was also a panellist alongside prominent representatives from the world of broadcast media; Joe Duffy and Charlie Bird.
One looming cloud over the day was the obvious dearth in female speakers. Though an attempt was made to address this by calling upon Profs Caroline Fennell and Siobhan Mullally to chair the day’s main panel discussions, the fact, which drew criticism from sources such as Margaret E. Ward of Women On Air in advance of the conference, was not ignored. Journalism Society Auditor Ruth Lawlor stated in her welcome address and on the society’s website that “Out of the numerous female journalists and potential panel chairs contacted for the event, only one was both interested in attending and able to attend – we had contacted females from The Irish Times, The Guardian, The Cork Independent, the Sunday Independent and RTE, among others.”
In his opening address, Dolan O’Hagan, Executive Editor with the Irish Examiner, set the scene of the day, which he described as looking to the future of journalism while recounting the events during his youth in Derry which lead to his decision to seek a life in journalism. Mr. O’Hagan conveyed optimism about the opportunities provided for print media by social media but encouraged journalists to accept “with enthusiasm and an open mind” the challenges provided by same in what he termed a new “multimedia ecosystem”.
The conference sought to tackle two major questions: “Journalism as activism: trying to bring change at the expense of objective reporting” and “Investigative journalism: is it lacking?”
In discussing the former, tensions rose between Mary Fitzgerald and John Waters in particular, with Fitzgerald arguing the need for strict detachment from personal bias in reporting.
“I really feel quite uncomfortable with the juxtaposition between the words “journalism” and “activism”.
“My business card says that I am a reporter, I am not an activist and I don’t think I will ever be”- a point on which her IT colleague disagreed, terming reportage without emotional involvement “clericism”.
“Journalism is not an empirical science”, he claimed arguing , “if we could be objective we wouldn’t need by-lines”.
The two were to continue this debate as they returned to the rostrum later in the afternoon to present talks on “The dangers of reporting from conflict zones” and “Journalism’s duty is to the human and not just to the civic” respectively.
The audience descended into silence as Mary Fitzgerald described the difficulties faced by foreign press on the ground and showed slides of photographs taken during her time reporting in Syria in 2012. She stated “we need to be there” as she reiterated her belief that journalism is about “the simple act of bearing witness.”
The second discussion panel of the day looked at the question of investigative journalism, and whether or not it is lacking. Again, opinions varied amongst panellists who were drawn from both print and television backgrounds. The discussion in this segment moved from the loftier debate of what it means to be a journalist to discussion of the harsh realities facing those investigating stories in the Irish media landscape. The encroaching limits of libel and privacy laws were highlighted, in particular by Charlie Bird and Conor Ryan, who gave accounts of the challenges faced in accessing public information and the personal risks involved in breaking unpopular stories.
In closing the day, Ruth Lawlor thanked all those who had participated in the day which had drawn an audience of both aspiring and established journalist alike.
In reflection of the direction that modern media is taking, the event was live tweeted by a number of media representatives and other attendees resulting in the hashtag #UCCMedia trending at number three in Ireland by the close of the conference.