Archive - March, 2007

Converging Media-Where is it Taking Us?

Converging media are taking us to places we’ve
never been before, and I don’t mean mere geography.

It would be easier if we had a roadmap to tell us where we’re going with the radical changes affecting virtually every old-line media organization today. I’d sure like one.

Our organization is serving several audiences and this requires continuous research, sampling and adjusting. Sometimes we do it well, sometimes not, because audiences don’t stand still and the technology just keeps changing. Every communications organization today faces this challenge.

Serving multiple audiences is expensive. One generation still demands its information primarily in print. Younger generations want interactive, always accessible information on-demand through digital technology. One of our publications received a very positive letter from a reader who captured the dilemma but also expressed hope. “Keeping the print age connected to the broadcast age while hearing the digital age will help our denomination flourish.”

Well, let’s hope it helps the denomination flourish. But let’s also hope the faith community understands that this is what it takes to communicate today–a set of skills that can function well in a single medium while also marrying multiple media and making them seem to be seamless. The key word in this letter is hearing. If we don’t listen, we’re likely to do what far too many other media do–talk to people rather than converse with them. Communication today is about bringing to people relevant information they can use in the medium they are most comfortable in, while maintaining consistency and seamless connection. And you cannot do this in a one-way flow of information. It’s got to be a conversation, otherwise the user will move on to the next relevant alternative. It’s about community.

Cross-media integration is no simple task. Each new technological innovation that finds broad acceptance places new demands on information providers. Faith communities have not understood this challenge in the past–at least in my opinion. That’s because they have looked at communications as a support function–a set of tools, equipment and products. And some have thought they could opt out of some arenas, as they did with broadcast television and radio. And at times we have assumed we have a lock on an audience. We don’t. Like it or not, the competition for mind space is on-going and uninterrupted. Old loyalties are quickly dropped as relevant new content and new experiences come down the information pipeline.

Technology influences the culture; this has become a cliche’. More interesting to me is how it affects our understanding of community and how we live in commnities. For religious groups community has meant face-to-face personal interaction with others; worship, prayer, study, mutual support. It’s hands-on–or hands around your shoulder–as the need warrants. New forms of social networking are not merely foreign territory, they are theologically challenging. Is it authentic community when these things happen in a virtual environment apart from face-to-face, hands-on touch? There are plenty of people I know who tell me virtual community provides meaning, especially if you are isolated from the touch of traditional community.

Social networking makes “digital immigrants” (i.e., people born before digital technology) like me uneasy. Some even see it as disruptive. (A side note is necessary: With two of my colleagues I spent a day talking with Jonathan Marks, a self-proclaimed “insultant” (rather than consultant) who looks at how technology is relevant to us and how it affects us. I am greatly influenced by his framing of the issues. So, I acknowledge Jonathon’s influence and hope I’m not stealing his ideas but incorporating them into my own thoughts.) But “digital natives” (those born in the digital society) consider digital media the natural order of things. What matters to them, according to Jonathan, is not the technology, but the content and the experience the media deliver. It’s about what the medium allows you to do. It’s about relevance.

As media converge–audio merges with cellphones which merge with video which drive you to online content which takes you to a DVD which takes you back to a website which takes you to … well, it’s a communications loop that keeps on going. I don’t think anyone knows where it’s taking us. But I know a lot of us want to go along for the ride.

And I also believe that opting out is not an alternative. The mainline denominations opted out of broadcast a couple of generations ago because they thought it was too expensive and unnecessary. They saw it as equipment and delivery; as a tool not a function of community. They could still communicate directly with people and get their message through, and besides, we have these important communities. But the technology contributed to a changed culture and the options exploded. Today if you’re not present where the conversation is taking place, it’s as if you don’t exist.

So I don’t know where the converging media are taking us, but I do know this. If we’re not in the stream of the conversation, we’re out. Opting out is a choice–it is to choose to be irrelevant.

(I’m going to continue this thread on relevant media. But, I’m heading for a part of the world where I know I won’t have access to the Internet for posting. I’ll be back in a week. Until then, let me know what you think.)

What’s News and Who Says So?

The State of the News Media 2006 presents some
difficult data about newsgathering and the quality of news today.
(Correction: In rushing to connect online while traveling outside the U.S., I inadvertently mis-attributed the State of the News Media 2006. It is by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. I read about it in a column on Poynter. In my haste I did not make this distinction clear. I regret the error.)

I noticed it many years ago when I worked in Omaha but it became part of the background reality that disappeared in the daily practice of journalism. The local newspaper, a metropolitan daily known as the Omaha World Herald, set the agenda for electronic newsgathering in the city. The newspaper had the most reporters digging into the widest range of stories. Television and radio stations often took what was reported in the paper and found their own angle on major stories, or simply re-packaged them for broadcast. And in each case the end result was less substantial because the time allocation is so different. Broadcast news is not long-form journalism.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism study State of the News Media 2006 offers little hope that newsgathering is getter better. If metro dailies are the fulcrum of news reporting, it looks bleak because among all media they are in the most decline.

Metro dailies bring us suburban, state, national and international news. The Poynter survey calls them “one-stop news outlets.” As they shrink, the number of places delivering information may actually increase as niche publications appeal to smaller, special interest audiences. Paradoxically, the overall result is smaller audiences with focused interests.

What’s so bad about this? The Poynter study suggests it makes it easier for the those who want to control information. The trend away from journalists with specialties toward generalists has practical results and they aren’t good for the audience. The coverage is less deep and often uniform. Without specialists, the tendency is for the same spokespersons to be cited giving us the same interpretation of events, the so-called “herd mentality.”

A second disturbing trend is the decline of the watch-dog function. Journalists who act as investigators in the public interest are becoming history. This trend is particularly important in coverage of state and local politics where wrongdoing will get less attention as large dailies give ground.

And Poynter says this reveals the battle between the idealists and accountants in the newsroom is over. Quality journalism does not translate into greater readership. Quality reporting doesn’t result in improved bottom lines. I interpret this to mean it’s more difficult to pour resources into costly investigative pieces that don’t result in revenue. The journalist who views herself as an advocate for the public interest has a harder time making the claim, and worse, doing the job today. Public interest journalism is giving way to advocacy journalism.

I’ve heard the claims about bias in the media and I’ve been frustrated at the way some journalism has been practiced. There are plenty of examples. But this watchdog function is one that has been valuable when it works well, and it has often worked well. From the Pentagon Papers to treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and a host of other important national and local stories, it is a valuable part of our civic life.

I’m traveling outside the U.S. as I write this and the difference in news reporting while in the U.S. and from outside is striking. Even the CNN network reveals remarkable differences. CNN International reports on the U.S. government significantly differently to the world audience than CNN reports to the U.S. audience. One current example is the reaction to the Mugabe government retention and beatings of opposition group leaders in Zimbabwe. This item is getting heavy play on CNN International but little attention on CNN reports inside the U.S. according to those I’m talking with back home.

This is a result of the tailoring of news around niche interests. Apparently international news isn’t considered a broad enough interest to U.S. audiences to merit comprehensive coverage. This attitude also drives reports that tell us how many U.S. citizens were affected by a tragedy abroad before telling us how it affected local residents.

It comes down to what’s news and who says so? Increasingly, as reporting is tailored to individual interests it is whatever the news providers believe will catch the eyes of individuals who can move on to the next story with one keyboard stroke or the flick of the remote control.

We’re not the better for it.

Why Should Media Matter to People of Faith?

Media frame the important stories of our lives.
If people of faith don’t participate in this framing, their values are left out
of the discussion.

Mainline and progressive religious groups have a history of holding media and popular culture in low regard. Television, for example, is often viewed as corrupting, polluting and trivial.

I recall a conversation years ago when I advocated listening to country music as a way to understand the narratives revealing the concerns of working people. A religious leader with whom I was speaking cut off the conversation abruptly by proclaiming that country music is “cheap grace: it’s just people crying in their beer.”

This executive worked in the same organization I now work in! But the attitude is common. Mass media and the diversions it offers are viewed as being beneath us. And this is dangerous.

In fact, church leaders in the 16th century held the same attitude toward the popular tracts written by the protesting theologian, Martin Luther, and printed for mass consumption. The disregard for the medium by Roman Catholic leaders left the field open to the Protestants to churn out sermons, treatises, pamphlets and Biblical commentaries that changed the way people perceived the church and faith. Abandoning the media to these reformers put the established church behind the curve and it took years, if not centuries, to catch up.

Country music is not the ninety-five theses. But the use of new media for the distribution of ideas relevant to the everyday lives of people is relevant. The media frame the concerns. While Catholic leaders relied on tradition, liturgy and visual representations of the stories of faith, Protestants saw the medium of the printing press as a means to emphasize scripture alone as the source of authority in faith, and the medium was an opportunity to tell that story widely by taking it directly to the people.

The printing press broke down the gatekeeping function of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Reformation was well ahead of the capability of the church to deter it.

Two points are worth considering. First, the medium shaped the message. By allowing the reformers to take their message directly to the people, the source of authority shifted significantly to the individual reader. It put information directly into the hands of the people. This was revolutionary. And equally important, the Protestant reformers framed the issues and were prolific in getting their framing before the people.

Their contention that authority resides in scripture and can be perceived by all believers changed the course of Christian faith, and the church.

The failure to take media seriously makes it possible for those who do engage in the public dialogue through media to frame the issues and set the values according to their understanding and those who don’t engage don’t get heard. At least, they don’t get heard widely.

Strange that those who inherit this tradition have forgotten it. Today faith and values are being framed in multiple ways as evangelical entrepreneurs engage the Internet, television, radio and other media while the mainline groups stand apart or withdraw altogether. The framing of important issues is left to others.

And while it’s accurate that media professionals missed the boat for a number of years by ignoring religious coverage, it’s not quite so true today. Media coverage is still marked by the trivial and marginal–see the Discovery Channel documentary Lost Tomb about a purported burial site containing the bones of Jesus. (An op-ed by Michael Medved in USA Today discusses this with appropriate critique, in my opinion.)

But the issue remains. If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will. And you may not like what you hear. That’s why media should matter to people of faith.

Is Everything so Relative There is no Agreed-upon Truth?

In the media, the spin, the scandals, the search
for miscues have eroded our ability to agree upon truth, according to Senator
Barack Obama.

When truth has a thousand faces, how do we find common ground and agree upon anything that approaches truth?

In a media-saturated environment this is the reality we live in. Media frame the stories that shape our perceptions. It’s a subtle and cumulative process that affects how we define meaning or perceived threats. When competing claims are made or conflicting facts are presented, truth eludes us. With fragmented media and thousands of pieces of information, it’s harder today than its ever been to agree upon what is true.

In The Audacity of Hope, Sen. Barrack Obama attributes this dilemma to political spin and the search for scandals and miscues by media. There’s a lot in this description that appeals. However, it isn’t complete either. At least, not from the perspective of one who has been working in communications for many years.

In the circles in which I work communication has been viewed primarily as a set technical skills secondary to the “real” work–that being whatever project or program its advocates can convince others is important, or which even without broad consensus, they believe is a priority. The result is competing claims for funds and support. Is it more important to treat HIV-AIDS or cancer? Pay teachers higher salaries or pave roads? Start new churches or . . . well, you get the point. Each claim tries to establish the truth for its view of reality. And each frames reality around its own particular set of truths. When this happens the measures of progress become narrow, we start to compete with each other and our view of what is really important becomes unmanageable. There is no common ground, and the ground we do claim must be protected against the inroads of others.

This territorial mentality ultimately isolates and divides because it presumes a scarceness of resources. We fight for a limited pot of change.

Couple this with a heightened sense of individual autonomy and you have a recipe for the breakdown of community–a process that has been decried by many social theorists for many years.

Instead of communicating with each other and coming to understand the position of others, we shout at each other, manipulate the data to support our viewpoint and set out to defend ourselves against all comers. Is this not a great part of the polarized environment we experience today? There seems to be no center. There is no common place, nor values that we can agree on and we’re left to defend ourselves, or withdraw into our individual pursuits. The rest of the world be damned.

I’ve been digging into this recently and in the next few posts I will take on the subject of communication and its role in our lives. I think communication is more than a set of support functions, more than content and more than equipment. It’s the conversation through which we develop relationships that give us our voices, allow us to hear others and find common ground to act on those matters that are primary to a functioning social order.

And because I’m part of a community called a mainline religious denomination, I write from that context. It’s a frustrating context because, as I’ve written in this blog before, these groups have abdicated responsibility for communicating in meaningful ways in the public arena. We’ve allowed others to set the agenda and have not aggressively sought to be part of the conversation in public media.

So I’ll be coming back to this and I’m interested in comments from readers about how my analysis compares with yours.

But first, I’ll be traveling the next couple of weeks and don’t know if I’ll be able to connect online. If I can, I will. If not, I’ll be back in two weeks.

The Cost of the Iraq War

The war in Iraq is burning money at the rate of
$250,000 a minute according to Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars.

Writing about the costs of the Iraq war, Gordon Adams offers a breath-taking picture of the rate of spending in the current issue of Foreign Policy. Adams writes about emergency fund requests; requests for funds that don’t go through the same budget process that is required for budgeted items and, therefore, receive less scrutiny by lawmakers. Under these allocations Adams breaks out spending per minute. It’s staggering. At the current rate of $10 billion a month, the per minute expenditure is $250,000. Adams writes in the time it takes to turn a page in his magazine almost $1 million will be spent. He reminds us the White House said the war would cost $50 billion. It’s closing in on ten times that amount.

To see what could be funded with these amounts the National Priorities Project provides a running meter which compares data about pre-school, kid’s health, college scholarships, public housing, or public education. You can check how war spending equates to these programs in your state and city.

A different comparison is provided by Casey Adens-Wansbury in an op-ed published by Tom Paine. com. Adens-Wansbury writes, “Health coverage can be provided to every child in America in 2007. The funding necessary to expand coverage to all children and pregnant women would be the equivalent to just nine days of Defense Department spending in 2007, and three months of the tax cuts to the richest one percent of Americans this year.”

These are the financial costs. The human toll is considerably different and I haven’t even attempted to address these.

Why is the News Mostly Junk?

In the wake of the Anna Nicole Smith “news” it’s
a fair question to ask why the news is so laden with junk.

“What’s happened to the media in the U.S.?” a colleague from Europe recently asked me. “Why is so much fluff and junk passed off as news?”

He then recounted turning to CNN where he got a heavy dose of Anna Nicole Smith.
” What’s news about this?” he asked.

Shortly after, I was in a group conversation that turned to the decline in standards in local news. A news producer said he had told his wife that even as low as news standards have fallen, he doubted the local news shows would lead with the Anna Nicole Smith story. It had nothing to do with local news in Nashville. To his frustrated amazement, however, two local stations led with the Smith story.

Recently as a snow storm threatened Nashville, we turned to the local morning TV weather to get an update. We saw a police chase on an interstate. But it wasn’t a local highway, it was a police chase in Baltimore. The young newscaster explained it was news because it had been going on for such a long time. That he had to explain why it was “news” was revealing. Is news news if you have to tell the audience why? Why does a police chase in Baltimore merit airtime in Nashville whether it continues for 10 minutes or an hour?

This isn’t harmless.Frank Rich wrote a column on Feb. 25, in which he notes public fascination with Anna Nicole. He compares our current disinterest in stories about a resurgent Queda and our media diversions to the circumstances leading up to 9/11 and asks, “Haven’t we been here before?”

Rich points to the fascination of the news media in the summer of 2001 with “a 24/7 buffet of Gary Condit and shark attacks.” Abetted by the media the U.S. public seems as distracted with the frivolous now as then.

In an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Drew Curtis says it’s the 24-hour news cycle, the drive for profit, the frantic quest for ratings and the capability we have to tailor our news to our individual interests using digital media. Curtis says, “It’s looking more and more as though the age of impartial journalism was a temporary blip in history whose reign ended a few years ago when the Internet turned news consumption from all-inclusive (per newspaper) to a la carte (per story).

Curtis offers an intriguing solution: divide news channels into two, one to carry the fluff, the other real news. Put revenues from both into the same account. Until that happens, he says, consumers will have to adjust to journalistic standards being thrown out the window and mass media outlets should cover real news or give up all pretenses.

Is Homosexuality a Proxy Issue For How We Understand God?

Ray Waddle, freelance religion writer, suggests
homosexuality may be a proxy issue rooted in how different people understand

The conflict about homosexuality is about more than sex, according to Ray Waddle, a freelance writer on religion. In a column Saturday in Nashville’s daily newspaper, The Tennessean, Waddle lays out the differences between religious conservatives who oppose homosexuality and other religious perspectives that don’t.

Waddle’s thesis, citing a proposition first raised by linguist George Lakoff, is that the root of the conflict is opposing views of God. Some believe God is strict while others say nurturing. These different views divide us and shape how we see many other issues, the most volatile today being homosexuality.

Understanding this, however, does nothing to ameliorate the harm done by name-calling and negative stereotyping that is too common in this debate. If I were on the receiving end of the epithets and hate-filled rhetoric, I would find it very nearly impossible to agree that anything is more important. Calling it a “hot button” issue trivializes deep human concerns and so, too, does calling it a proxy. It means there is something more important and basic at stake. So, if I begrudginlgly concede the point for a moment, what is it?

Lakoff contends it’s different moral systems. If you believe that moral authority comes from a God whose commandments define right and wrong–and in this moral system homosexuality is defined as wrong–then accepting homosexuality violates the hierarchy of moral authority.

In this frame, Lakoff says homosexuality threatens the moral order because it goes against the strict father model of family, with God being the original strict father. It disregards the moral instruction the father commands us to obey. A lesbian father figure doesn’t compute.

A contrasting view of God as beneficent is held by millions of Christians and rests upon a belief in God’s grace. Through grace, God seeks to nurture us and God’s grace is unconditional; you can’t earn it, it’s given freely and it’s available to everyone.

Jesus is central in this perspective as well, personifying God’s grace. In this frame, we can be filled, healed, and transformed by grace. Grace leads us to connect with and serve others and our communities. Therefore, homosexual persons are accepted in the community. The nurture of God is redemptive for everyone.

In the strict father system we are called to be accountable for our behavior but God recognizes we can’t achieve redemption ourselves. Jesus takes the burden of our sinful behavior on himself and sets us right with God through the sacrifice of his own life. This is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

But neither of these systems teaches us to behave badly toward others. When a public person such as Ann Coulter stands before an audience and gets applause and laughter for using an epithet so harmful it should be banished from the vocabulary, it should offend no matter our particular beliefs about homosexuality or God. It should be called what it is, hateful speech. It’s a frontal assault on human dignity. The first step toward oppression is to demonize and de-humanize the “other.” Let’s at least agree that this language and the attitudes behind it are not traditional Christian values.

When asked to help a group of persons seeking redemption in 1739, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, suggested they meet regularly and offer support to each other–to connect and form community. And he wrote a directive called The General Rules, by which those who were seeking salvation were to guide their lives:

  • First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind . . . ;
  • Secondly: By . . . doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all . . . ;
  • Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God . . . ;

Waddle writes of the conflict that is tearing at the Anglican communion, but his suggestion is useful for any group seeking to come to terms with differences about this issue. He suggests they step back from pressing their claims, talk to each other–and listen. Not a bad suggestion for any people of faith struggling with the issue because there’s something else at stake (I think)–an understanding of human dignity and a bit of our own humanity.

If we can agree that Wesley’s principles should guide our conversation, and that brothers and sisters who are known as Gay and Lesbian are no less deserving of respect as children of God, perhaps we will not betray the God in whom we so doggedly profess belief, and in doing so shall retain a measure of our own dignity and humanity, first by doing no harm. How we deal with homosexuality may reveal as much about ourselves as about God.

A Cheap, Effective New Treatment for Malaria

The announcement today of a new medication to
treat malaria based on
artemisinin is a
hopeful sign of the tremendous activity now being directed toward ending this

A new drug based on artemisinin and wormwood holds the promise of low-cost, easy treatment for malaria which claims a million lives a year, kills one child every thirty seconds in Africa and is a drain on the productivity of national economies in many developing nations.

Doctors Without Borders and the drug company Sanofi-Aventis are making the announcement. It is being presented as a low-cost treatment for people already experiencing early stage malaria.

Doctors Without Borders, which has long been a vocal critic of the practices of pharmaceutical companies in the developing world, teamed with the Sanofi-Aventis to create the drug. It will be sold through an interesting price structure that leaves great lee-way to local pharmacists. Poor patients will be able to purchase the drug for one dollar U.S. per pill while others will be charged four dollars.
The medication will also be sold at cost to the World Health Organization and other non-profit groups as well.

In addition to its low cost, the medication is also dosed for children, a particular problem for most malaria drugs available today. Children under eleven pounds will be treated with a dosage formulated for their weight. This is an especially positive feature of the new drug.

The drug will not be patented, leaving open the possibility that others will use the formula to create their own brand of medication, and they won’t have incentive to make a counterfeit version.

This is one more hopeful sign in the move to lessen the toll of this disease that plagues the poor.