The Internet undermines the power structure of the past 500 years of publishing. Since the invention of movable type, those who owned the presses controlled the information and how it was distributed. No longer. Power is shifting.
Anyone with a cell phone, laptop, or access to a computer has the ability to publish at will.
The Question of Trust
This is important to all of us because at root is a fundamental question of trust. Who do we trust for information that we act upon; that informs our understanding of the events, ideas and values that shape our world; and that aids us in forming opinions about the events and policies that affect our lives and those of billions of others around the globe?
For years, professional journalism was the only game in town because presses, radio and television stations were expensive. They were in the hands of corporate owners, and professional journalists were the gatekeepers of information. They set the agenda by deciding what to cover and how to report it.
With the disruption of the Internet, the business model of newspapers, general circulation newsmagazines and broadcast news can’t be sustained.
“The People Formerly Known As The Audience”
A second disruptive result is occurring simultaneously. When broadcast media were the primary means of getting information, we (the audience) were passive receivers of what others decided we should read, see or hear. We were atomized sitting in our cars listening to radio or watching TV at home. Journalism was a lecture.
Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University and a leading thinker and practitioner of journalism and new media, has coined a phrase, “the people formerly known as the audience,” which captures what’s happening. The social location of content creation has shifted. Today we comment, do our own research, challenge and bypass the gatekeepers. We participate. We blog.
Blogs are our own personal printing press, TV or radio station. Blogging is an irritant to journalism. It’s changing journalism, and that makes some journalists pretty frustrated.
Six years ago, Rosen said the debate about whether bloggers are journalists was over. But I was surprised to read recently that he thinks it’s back. And judging from the quotes from journalists and bloggers he provided in a speech at South by Southwest, it’s nastier than ever.
The Principle of Objectivity v. POV
One of the norms challenged by citizen bloggers is a fundamental principle of objectivity of professional journalism. Blogs thrive on point of view. Objectivity was an attempt to free reporting from the biases of the writer, source or reader. It was a way to apply scientific method – observable fact – to reporting, according to the editors of Telling the Story, a primer on journalism from the School of Journalism, University of Missouri-Columbia. It was an ideal.
But blogs don’t labor under this ideal. They are personal. Few bloggers make an effort to apply unbiased observation in their posts.
Objectivity evolved (erroneously, say Kovach and Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism) into a role of neutrality for reporters. Neutrality results in an attempt to provide balance.
Dan Gillmor, a journalist who now teaches at Arizona State and is an influential analyst and practitioner of new media, says the attempt to provide balance can result in an “unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the ‘sides’ are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called ‘providing balance’ by journalists who are typically afraid that one side in a political debate will accuse them of being biased in favor of the other side. It is not ‘balanced,’ of course, to quote a supposition or a blatant lie next to a proven fact and treat them as having equal weight.”
Objectivity creates another pernicious unintended consequence. Rosen says the price of professionalizing journalism was the de-voicing of the journalist. Journalists are taught to write so they don’t betray their own personal passion for the content. We are served up a lot of stories that reflect this straightforward treatment.
The Cumulative Process
Blogs are cumulative, not fixed around deadlines or news cycles. Sometimes we’re able to see the blog in process. Journalism delivers a fixed product, gone over by a succession of editors, revised into a final form and published. Recently, we’ve begun to see stories online that are updated, or corrected, but the editing process remains dedicated to providing a finished product, not iterations of an ongoing conversation.
Finally, what this says to me is that if I want to be informed and knowledgeable, I need to participate in the online culture of sharing, researching and providing content – not necessarily as a professional journalist but as an engaged citizen. The information landscape is radically changing, and I need to understand both its strengths and limitations.
The best way to do that is to participate in it. I think it’s the only way to develop your own voice, and to learn the limits and strengths of the new media. And as we learn, we will also develop even sharper skills – along with justified skepticism – that can help us discern whom we can trust.