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Friendlyjordies leading the way for new public interest journalism

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Jordan Shanks has risen in popularity through his entertaining political commentary (Screenshot via YouTube)

As distrust in the mainstream media grows, independent journalists such as Friendlyjordies are on the rise, writes Chris Hall.

ON A FRIDAY afternoon in June, political commentator PRGuy17 was unmasked. Previously an anonymous Twitter account, PRGuy17 had built a following of more than 100,000 with his support of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and his criticisms of news media outlets.

The calls to reveal his identity were deafening, culminating in a judge’s order for Twitter to hand over details of the account owner. In the end, it was YouTuber Friendlyjordies that got the scoop in the shape of a one-hour interview exposing PRGuy17. The Guardian, News.com.au and The Age were left to play catch-up.

This was not the first time Friendlyjordies, fronted by Jordan Shanks, had broken major news or had an impact on public discourse. The former NSW Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, a regular focus of Friendlyjordies, singled out the channel as a big reason for resigning in 2021.

Friendlyjordies has also prompted lines of inquiry in NSW Parliamentary committees. It has also been discussed at length by journalists in major news organisations, as well as the general public. The channel’s audience is large and its engagement dwarfs that of major Australian news organisations (see table) and is comparable with international news organisations on YouTube. Clearly, Friendlyjordies is having a dramatic impact, but is it journalism?

Public interest investigative journalism is an important element of well-functioning democracies. It not only reports on public interest issues but also plays a key watchdog role, holding those in power to account. Using social media, it is now possible that non-institutional creators can bypass traditional gatekeepers of the press and establish themselves as producers of journalism. The YouTube channel Friendlyjordies is one example of social media creators producing journalism.

There are many types of journalism. When assessing Friendlyjordies, I focus on the kind of journalism that fits within public interest investigative journalism ideals.

For Friendlyjordies content to be journalism it needs to:

  • report on a topic that is in the public interest;
  • include original investigation such as primary documents, interviews and original AV material;
  • ensure claims are factual, transparent and verifiable;
  • minimise harm and allow the right of reply; and
  • make it clear who the creator is so they can be held responsible for the content.

Friendlyjordies regularly publishes videos on its YouTube channel that meet these criteria. Videos reporting on public interest topics, such as political integrity, can be seen in the videos titled Allegations of Misconduct, Friendlyjordies Attacks Labor and The Baddest MP: Dutton.

These videos include leaked documents, emails and photos, as well as statements from confidential informants. These videos also include clear attempts to minimise harm, for example redacting documents and blurring faces. And it is made clear that right of reply was given. Where replies were received, they were included in the video content. The creator of the video is clear, Jordan Shanks and his team, so they are not hiding their identities or avoiding responsibility.

The key difference between these videos and content produced by organisations such as ABC and Sky News is that Friendlyjordies' journalism is delivered differently. Public interest journalism is presented using the YouTuber norms, including elements such as a conversational mode of address, memes, jokes, overly dramatic sound effects, explicit reference to demonetisation issues, calls to action, YouTube video end templates and more.

Numerous other videos exist on the channel containing the journalism elements mentioned above, which cover public interest topics such as environmental degradation, political and corporate integrity issues, police powers, natural disasters and issues around media ownership and the freedom of the press. While the delivery is not that of a traditional TV news broadcast, the substantive journalism elements are there.

This is not to say that the whole channel is about journalism – far from it – but it regularly publishes journalism content. The channel also includes video content that is political commentary, news commentary, humorous skits and TV show reviews, such as reviews of The Bachelor, which I only watched purely to see if it had any journalism elements.

The emergence of independent YouTuber journalism creators is significant, especially in the current context where trust in news media is low and news avoidance high. Some important legal questions also come up with this new type of journalism. Legal definitions of “journalist” and “journalism” vary across jurisdictions and areas of law.

Without the institutional knowledge and legal resources of major media corporations, what legal pitfalls will new platform journalism creators find themselves in? What gaps exist in the law regarding platform journalism creators? Friendlyjordies seems to have experienced numerous legal pitfalls, the latest being a criminal contempt of court charge.

It is likely we will see more non-institutional social media journalism creators emerge and not just on YouTube.

Chris Hall is conducting PhD research at the Centre for Media Transition, Faculty of Law, at UTS. Follow Chris on Twitter @Sydney_Dialect.

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