Top student debaters from the Hong Kong Schools Debating Council (HKSDC) challenged - and defeated - Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) members last week.
The student team was formed by Hongkongers at universities overseas, Natalie So Tsz-ching, James Lo Yuen-fai and Benjamin Allen. The FCC team was made up of SCMP business editor Nick Edwards, Bloomberg reporter Rachel Evans and barrister Kevin Egan.
Three weeks before the event, the teams were given three motions to prepare for; on the night, the audience voted for the final motion from "This house would restrict the use of embedded war correspondents" and "This house believes that the growth of social media is the single biggest challenge facing journalism today". They selected the latter.
The students lost the coin toss and were given the affirmative side of the debate. The teams then had 35 minutes for final preparation.
Rather than have a panel of adjudicators, the debate was judged by all the attendees, including other HKSDC and FCC members. Before the debate started, the audience members voted to express their view on the issue: 40 per cent agreed with the motion, 39 per cent disagreed, and 21 per cent were undecided.
As the first speaker for proposition, So didn't hold back in her attack on the role of the journalist when the social media matures. She gave examples of many politicians, including former Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and US President Barack Obama, who are increasingly using their Twitter accounts to communicate with people directly, rather than always sending out information to mass media.
She also stated that there is a growing trend for news of major events to be first reported on social media sites, rather than through news agencies.
Natalie So opens the debate
First speaker for the opposition Edwards stated that social media is a positive addition to journalism. However, he stressed the importance of accuracy in reporting, concluding that this means people trust journalists' reports more.
Lo, the second speaker for the proposition, disagreed with Edwards' line, saying the role of journalists has changed due to the rise of social media. Journalists, he said, are now only "amplifiers" of news, and their main duty is no longer collecting original sources and information.
Evans in turn explained that social media is a very useful tool for journalists. She added that the industry has survived the introduction of many new challenges before, and they hadn't displaced journalists.
Allen and Egan were both relentless in their speeches, Allen saying that social media was a huge challenge because it was forcing traditional journalism to evolve, and Egan going so far as to define each word of the motion to gain support.
Lo and Edwards wrapped up their respective teams' arguments, and a second vote was taken. This time, the proposition took 54 per cent of votes, and the opposition received 43 per cent.
The HKSDC team was surprised by the outcome, mainly because their opponents had so much more life experience than they did.
So said of the FCC members: "They are all professionals who used their past experience in the industry as examples in their speeches, and that made their arguments solid."
Allen said their aim had not been to beat the veterans.
"This was more about making the debate an enjoyable one. It was less about competition, and more about sharing with the audience and helping the Council members to learn from the debate," said Allen, "It was nice to have this result, but that's not the main point."
Edwards was gracious in defeat. "It was encouraging to have such a passionate debate and to be a part of it, and listen to very young people with this level of opinion about what journalism brings to the world," he said.
"When I first started to work in the field, there was no reliable internet. Things have got more competitive for sure; this is what the challenge of journalism remains."
He admitted, too, that they had been at a disadvantage from the start. "Rachel and I haven't debated before, and Kevin did it long time ago when he was at school," Edwards said. "We were facing a world class debate team!"