The Changing Faces of Journalism

10 April 2024
Purple Pingers

Artwork by Tim Garrow

If this time last year you’d told me a man named Purple Pingers would become one of the most effective reporters on the rental crisis, I would have been sceptical. Likewise, if you’d said that three young Palestinian journalists named Bisan, Motaz and Plestia would change the way millions of people around the world view one of history’s most harrowing conflicts.

But here we are. These reporters are now mainstays on our little screens, providing crucial coverage of two of the biggest news stories of our time. And they couldn’t be further from traditional mastheads or the six o’clock news.

“A huge regret,” Jordie van den Berg laughs when I ask him about the name Purple Pingers, under which he publishes his popular ‘shit rentals’ TikTok videos critiquing Australia’s dodgiest rental properties. His videos gently mock news media norms, presented in a deadpan monologue with little regard for his appearance. In the absence of a lapel to attach his mic to, he often uses ridiculous alternatives – a shoe, a corn chip, a zucchini. His commentary is equally ribbing. “I’m not a glazier,” he muses on a rental in Seaford, “but I feel like duct tape is not how you fix broken glass.”

The humour is a foil for a serious subject. 31% of Australians now rent as a long-term proposition, competing for homes in a scarce market. With rents rising at the fastest rate in 15 years, millions are at the mercy of whatever they can afford.

Jordie, a non-practicing lawyer, wants everyone to see the fallout of this perfect storm: rental homes riddled with mould, cracked walls, broken windows, greenery growing through floors. So many of them.

Historically, media and political conversations around renting haven’t really included renters. “Often when we discuss this stuff, it's a white man like me who is a lawyer or politician and they're so out of touch with what's actually going on,” Jordie says. “Or an economist. They’re talking about numbers and not people.”

In response to his videos, Jordie was inundated with more shit rentals. So he launched, where renters can leave reviews of properties and agents. He also gained the attention of politicians and the mainstream media, who now call on Jordie as an expert on the rental crisis.

Asked why he thinks traditional newsrooms don’t do this reporting themselves, Jordie recalls one interview he did with Channel Nine. While they were keen to hear about rental horror stories, the reporter requested Jordie not share examples from “Fairfax (Nine Media) and News Corp respectively own and,” Jordie explains. “They'll publicly say there's no conflict of interest, that they're completely separately run. But then you'll have the reporters saying to me they don’t want to mention the fact that these dodgy listings are on Domain.”

From the rental crisis to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, millions are eschewing traditional news sources and getting their news from social media, with Gen Z leading the way, according to Roy Morgan research.

RMIT journalism lecturer, Tito Ambyo considers why. “I think one of the reasons is that people need, and want, simplicity and straight answers in this stressful time.” While social media can be a problematic news source when it comes to algorithms and misinformation, there are plenty of authentic voices in the mix who are deeply connected to their subjects.

Once referred to as ‘citizen journalism’, it’s a term Macquarie University journalism professor, Peter Greste, finds problematic. “I hate the term citizen journalist. As far as I’m concerned there’s only journalism,” he explained to Spin Cycle in February. “Anyone with a smartphone is capable of producing journalism-like content. What distinguishes journalism from not-journalism is the way in which information is gathered, organised and presented. As long as it’s done according to widely recognised journalistic ethics, standards and procedures, then I think it’s safe to call it journalism.”

Tito suggests good journalism and activism aren’t strange bedfellows. “I became interested in journalism because I grew up under the (Indonesian) dictatorship of Suharto and wanted to be a part of opposing him,” he says. “I wanted to be part of the changes I wanted to see in the world. And to me that’s a kind of activism.”

Motaz Azaiza is a photographer from Gaza. Before last October, his Instagram feed was filled with beautiful images capturing moments of joy in his home city. Ongoing tensions with the occupying Israeli forces were present but his lens was mostly trained on celebrating the everyday: a line of fishing boats streaming through an emerald sea, a girl in the street dressed as a fairy, Iftar fireworks in Al-Bureij refugee camp.

From October 8, his ‘everyday’ changed dramatically. Motaz continued to photograph Gaza’s people but the joy was replaced by scenes of utter carnage wrought by Israel’s relentless bombing following Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel. With no outside journalists allowed into Gaza (unless embedded with the Israeli army), Motaz and his peers, including Plestia Alaqad and Bisan Owda, posted directly to social media, giving their global followers an unvarnished view of what was happening.

Soon their audiences grew, with Motaz reaching 18.6 million Instagram followers, Plestia 4.8 million and Bisan 4.3 million. While theirs is eyewitness reporting, these aren’t foreign correspondent style observational set pieces to camera – they are raw accounts from people living the devastation; journalism fueled by fear, anger, love, pride, exhaustion and pleas for help.

In one video Plestia holds her phone as she walks through her neighbour’s apartment while bombs land nearby, the force blowing her hair back. Her eyes dart nervously as she calmly describes the situation. In another, Bisan shows us the pure terror of a night under attack in Gaza.

Their work comes at a high cost. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in December that over 75% of all journalists who died in conflicts in 2023 were killed in the Israel-Hamas war (the vast majority being Palestinian media workers killed in Gaza), with reports of journalists being targeted. Both Motaz and Plestia have reluctantly left Gaza, exhausted and fearing for their lives.

As the gulf widens between what audiences see on social media and on legacy media, Australian newsrooms have struggled in their response. Nine papers banned a number of their journalists from covering Gaza related stories after they signed an open letter in November alongside 170 reporters and Media, Entertainment & Alliance Union (MEAA) members representing multiple newsrooms. The letter called for fairer overall coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza. (The ban remains at the time of writing.) Guardian journalists were directed not to sign open letters or share anything on social media that might compromise their employer’s journalistic integrity. An editorial in The Australian thundered at journalists becoming ‘social warriors’ while failing to acknowledge its own side-taking on many issues. Newsrooms were in turn accused of hypocrisy after Crikey revealed that editors across the board had participated in visits to Israel sponsored by lobby groups or the Israeli government.

According to Tito, “traditional media organisations are bound by traditions, laws, and practices that are often difficult and slow to change and are largely dictated by people who don’t necessarily understand what it’s like for news audiences and consumers today.”

He also reckons some Australian newsrooms fail to address their own biases. “There are forms of activism that are allowed in many newsrooms and others that are not. And I think it’s not an accident that often it’s the causes that marginalised people are facing that are seen as ‘problematic’ activism.”

“Journalists are meant to be good with navigating biases that come from stakeholders in a particular story,” Tito says. “But we are often not good with navigating our own bias that shapes our reporting.”

In a fractured world, the demands of journalism are changing. The tools for reporting are the same but the ways stories are told and disseminated are not. Where traditional newsrooms prize impartiality and a perceived distance from subjects, audiences are responding to voices whose evident skin in the game is precisely what makes their reporting so powerful.

If mainstream newsrooms fail to acknowledge and respond to this, they might find their audiences shrinking even more than they already have.

Jess Lilley is a co-host of Spin Cycle, making sense of the 24/7 updates and hot takes we are bombarded with by media outlets, politicians and pundits all trying to own the narrative, Thursdays at 7pm. Tim Garrow is a sometime doodler and designer. His work is inspired by 90s cartoons, Mambo and the picture books of his childhood. You can check out more on his Instagram.

This article first appeared in the April Amnesty 2024 issue of The Trip.