New Media, New Journalism

Many years ago Margaret Mead, the late anthropologist, noted that the introduction of something as small as a needle and thread into a society would change that society. Her point was that even when technology appears benign, it isn’t. We are shaped by technologies, no matter what their scale.

This isn’t necessarily destructive, nor deterministic. It just is.

Today this seems simple and obvious. We adjust to a flow of technologies coming at us in a cascading stream that sometimes becomes a torrent. We wade, swim and sometimes are swept up in the waters of this change.

For example, in barely four years the iPod transformed how we listen, share and purchase music. One study noted that people with earbuds walking on city sidewalks seemed oblivious to the external environment . It called this a condition of the iPod culture.

Since its launch In October, 2001, ten million iPods have been sold and a new form of content-sharing and audio production is underway. Months ago no one had heard of Podcasting. Today producers of podcasts are ubiquitous.

we have to answer
this fundamental
question: what
do we -? a
bunch of digital
immigrants —
need to do
to be relevant
to the digital
–Rupert Murdoch

We participate in this change as if it were a matter of course. It hardly seems remarkable. But it is remarkable. Digital technologies are changing our institutions and their practices in fundamental ways. Broadcast radio and television face competition unlike any they have known before. I listened with great fascination recently to a conversation in which the broadcast media (radio and television) were referred to as “old media.” It was as if they are passe’.

Recently when Pepsi introduced a new soft drink it not only avoided broadcast television, it also avoided the “traditional” thirty-second spot format, choosing instead to take its message to the Internet and other digital media. In addition, a variety of alternative media were employed including sponsorship of extreme sports and word-of-mouth “viral” marketing.

The new media not only provided the company with cost savings, they also allowed for more accurate, targetted marketing.

The loss of audience share by broadcast networks has been widely documented. But broadcast television is not alone. Christian radio saw its audience slip 10% between 1992 and 2005, according to a survey by Barna Group.

Equally intriguing is the generational divide that marks media use. National Public Radio, Public Broadcasting, network news and Christian television are all seeing their audiences grow older without replacing them with younger viewers and listeners. Barna says, for example, that Christian television is viewed by “people in their 60’s and older, females, residents of the South, African-Americans, people with limited education and income, and born again Christians.”

The only mass medium to increase its audience share in recent years is the Internet. The number of younger users have grown faster than older groups. And people under 40, according to Barna, show little interest in Christian media of any type.

give the
of media,
they will
use it.
Don?t give
of media,
and you
will lose
–Jeff Jarvis

As Kartik Subramanian writes, the iPod playlist makes possible 10 million unique experiences of music. It’s this individual empowerment that is fundamentally re-shaping the social context.

Excerpts from a symposium on digital technologies and journalism in The Nation, list how these basic changes are affecting traditional journalism and creating new forms of content sharing.

Digital technologies, according to Jay Rosen , NYU professor of journalism, have changed the social context:

  • there has been a power shift from producers to users, mostly because of the Internet;
  • this has led to a loss of sovereignty in the press. What I [Rosen] mean by that is simply a loss of exclusive control;
  • Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in mainstream journalism. Problems of finding a believable voice keep growing in mainstream journalism, and this is related to the shift in power;
  • (blogging) is well adapted to a world where the shift in power is taking place, to a world where there are many centers of sovereignty;
  • Blogging is well adapted to two-way dialogue as opposed to one-to-many dialogue, which is also part of the media shift that we are living through;
  • professional journalism, the way we teach it and understand it, [is] in fact an artifact of a one-to-many world.

There is a radical shift underway in media production and use. It is a shift toward empowered individuals. It involves many “centers of sovereignty,” in Rosen’s words. The old centralization of information and power–the one to many model–is breaking apart. Generations under 40 are opting out of traditional media and moving toward digital media, especially the Internet. As this happens, more people are getting religious information through media than through churches. Young people are looking for interactivity and functional information they can use. They are skeptical of centralized information sources. And, of course, people under 30 are native to the digital culture, unlike their elders who were formed in a pre-digital culture.

The implications for the culture and for religious organizations are striking. I’ll be writing about this in future posts.

Assaulting Compassion

The Moral Bankruptcy of the Bankruptcy Law

…even though
people “own”
they’re actually
mere stewards
over God’s
–Sean Gonsalves

The bankruptcy law has passed and the politicians seem proud. But the questionable morality of the law remains. Columnist Sean Gonsalves writes the most concise and compelling biblical critique of the law that I’ve seen. It’s an unusually good piece of social criticism. He uses biblical sources in an accurate and responsible narrative. I was impressed.

Bob Edgar on Senator Frist

The Rev. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, distributed a letter to the editor today expressing concern for the plans of Sen. Frist to appear on a telecast denouncing judges and alleging they are silencing people of faith.

Dear Editor:

We are surprised and grieved by a campaign launched this week by Family Research Council and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who said that those who disagree with them on President Bush’s

[The] attempt
to impose
on the
entire country
a narrow,
private view
of truth
is a
— The Rev.
Robert Edgar

judicial nominees are “against people of faith.” This campaign, which they are calling “Justice Sunday,” should properly be called “Just-Us” Sunday. Their attempt to impose on the entire country a narrow, exclusivist, private view of truth is a dangerous, divisive tactic. It serves to further polarize our nation, and it disenfranchises and demonize good people of faith who hold political beliefs that differ from theirs.

To brand any group of American citizens as “anti-Christian” simply because they differ on political issues runs counter to the values of both faith and democracy. It is especially disheartening when that accusation is aimed at fellow Christians. The National Council of Churches encompasses more than 45 million believers across a broad spectrum of theology and politics who work together on issues important to our society. If they disagree with Senator Frist’s political positions, are these 45 million Christians now considered “anti-Christian”?

In the spirit of 1 Timothy 6:3-5, we urge Senator Frist and the Family Research Council to reconsider their plan. We will be praying for the Lord to minister to them and change their hearts so that they will not continue to take our nation down this destructive path.

Bob Edgar, General Secretary
National Council of Churches USA
New York City

Coming almost simultaneously with the election of a new Pope, the letter will probably receive little, if any, attention in the media, but the scripture reference zings. This brought to mind a note on Methoblog that Jay wrote to four detractors (A Letter to the Boys) calling for continuing conversation between diametrically opposed groups in The United Methodist Church. As the rhetoric gets hotter around these issues, I wonder if considered, constructive dialogue is possible.

In an interview recently on the television program Religion and Ethics Weekly , Mike McCurry expressed his belief that within the church community we can still talk to each other. I share his optimism, but must admit that the more I read the headlines the less optimistic I am. Partisan politics and religion have merged. When that happens, political rhetoric assumes a place in what should be the language of faith.

Faith informs politics, but politics is not faith.


1. there has been a power shift from producers
to users, mostly because of the Internet. Jay Rosen

this has led to a loss of sovereignty in the press. What I mean by that is
simply a loss of exclusive control.

Objectivity as an ethical touchstone, as one of my sources said, is faltering in
mainstream journalism. Problems of finding a believable voice keep growing in
mainstream journalism, and this is related to the shift in

It (blogging) is well adapted to a
world where the shift in power is taking place, to a world where there are many
centers of sovereignty. Blogging is well adapted to two-way dialogue as opposed
to one-to-many dialogue, which is also part of the media shift that we are
living through.

professional journalism,
the way we teach it and understand it, were in fact an artifact of a one-to-many

Blogging, Journalism and Credibility

Blogging is changing journalism and empowering information users according to roundtable discussion of journalists and bloggers reported in The Nation.

This review, while cursory, is more than the the usual look at blogging. It doesn’t repeat the case histories that show us how bloggers got Dan Rather or Eason Jordan of CNN. These stories have been done more than enough.

It excerpts discussion that hints at the more significant change blogging is creating. This is a shift in the power relationship between users of information and producers of information. Producers are now those who used to be called the “audience.”

The information revolution is changing traditional institutions. This discussion only scratches the surface, there is much more to be said about this. But it’s a start.

Out of Sight, Out of Credibility

In the formative years of radio and television religious denominations enjoyed a privileged relationship with these media. The broadcast industry operated under federal regulations that required networks and local stations to function in the public interest. Networks provided both airtime and funding to produce religious programs.

President Harry Truman broadcast a live pitch for One Great Hour of Sharing on nationwide radio in the late 1940’s to support refugee relief in Europe at the close of World War II. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was a primetime performer on television. Religious magazine shows and documentaries were among network staples.

In the heyday of Mainline religious programming, the 1950s, the visibility of the denominations was pervasive.

As the media environment changed, however, the relationship between broadcast media and denominations declined. Religious news was relegated to the Saturday church page in newspapers and it rarely made broadcast news unless it was controversial or scandalous. But the most accurate description might be “benign neglect.” It appears that for many journalists religious news was not considered worth covering.

In the ’60’s the Mainline churches had already begun to pull back from radio and television programming for many reasons. But local ecumenical efforts sustained visibility in many cities and they carried on the tradition of community service until they lost airtime with deregulation.

In 1984 the Federal Communications Commission began deregulation that has continued to the present. In that year it increased the number of radio stations a single owner could hold from seven to twelve and eliminated programming guidelines, ascertainment requirements, rules governing commercials and program logs. In 1985 the FCC concluded that the “fairness doctrine” no longer served the public interest and it stopped enforcing it in 1987. This spelled the end of broadcasting in the public interest.

Today we live in a multimedia world, the common denominator being that in the United States broadcasting operates on a capitalist model. The messages of non-profit and religious organizations must compete with a multitude of other messages and they must find an effective way to get that message before audiences. The playing field has changed dramatically.

Something else changed, and for a while at least, it escaped the understanding of some religious leaders. The privileged status of religious organizations changed. Where they once were treated with benign neglect, in the new media environment they are fair game for expose’ as any other organization. The sex scandal in the Roman Catholic Church highlighted this in a way that cannot be ignored.

One gets the sense that early-on some of the bishops believed they could stonewall journalists investigating sexual abuse and control the story with silence. But they couldn’t. The capacity of individuals to tell their own stories, and the multitude of media outlets looking for stories makes it virtually impossible to control all external communications channels completely. By the time church leaders discovered this, the story was out of control and they were in a terribly difficult position. They were reacting to a cascade of bad news daily.

I am concerning myself with media coverage in these comments. How the bishops handled the allegations of abuse is not within my scope. The apparent lack of a communications strategy became a case study in why communications is, or should be, a priority for organizations today. If an organization is not prepared to tell its own story, someone else will, and they will tell it from their perspective. This may be positive or negative. In either case, control is given over to others and this is not a desirable place to be in a media-saturated environment.

This is a hard lesson for some to learn. Today it’s more difficult than ever to control public perception of an organization because there are so many ways for detractors to influence how an organization is viewed. Therefore, the most effective stance is a proactive communications strategy in which the organization settles on the message it wants to deliver and the audience it needs to reach and develops a plan to communicate with them.

We believe
our first
is to the doctors,
nurses and
to mothers
and fathers
and all others
who use our
products and
…to our
…to the
in which
we live and
and to
the world
as well
…to our
Johnson & Johnson

The message, of course, must be truthful and it must set a context that encourages understanding. Communication must be consistent with the behavior of the organization. Saying one thing and doing another is the quickest way to destroy credibility.

The classic example of positive crisis management is the Tylenol scare in 1982 when seven people died in Chicago from cyanide poisoning linked to taking Tylenol. Executives at Johnson & Johnson were quick to tell consumers to not take Tylenol, removing the product from store shelves and focusing on how the product had been contaminated. It was a serious crisis that could have destroyed both the product and the company.

But J & J managed the crisis with a communication strategy that demonstrated the company valued public safety over its own survival. After the crisis passed, executives implemented a strategy for returning the product to the shelves. This included triple seal packaging, substantial customer discounts to draw people back and an all-out educational effort with customers and medical professionals. It worked. In six weeks, J&J had put the crisis to rest and re-established Tylenol’s position in the marketplace.

For their efforts they received plaudits from the media for transparency and honesty. When asked how they pulled this off, President David Clare said it was because of the company credo, written by Robert Wood Johnson when he started the business. The credo states the company’s responsibilities to “consumers and medical professionals using its products, employees, the communities where its people work and live, and its stockholders .”

It was about two things–integrity and message.

I now shift my attention from the Roman Catholic Church and J&J to the Mainline denominations which have been notably absent from the national dialogue in recent years. I believe the Mainline churches have a message that would resonate if it were put into accessible language and delivered effectively. It is a message of concern for the wholeness of God’s creation. It’s about particular concern for those who are poor. It’s a commitment to search for peace instead of conflict, forgiveness and reconciliation rather than retribution, and inclusiveness rather than enmity.

I also believe that in the overheated rhetoric that marks the national dialogue today, discussing this message could be a healing catalyst. The challenge the Mainline denominations face is finding the way to stimulate dialogue, formulate messages so they do not become entangled in political partisanship and empowering people to claim and embody values so they shape our lives. This involves taking a more proactive stance toward all media, old-line, such as broadcast and cable, and new media as well. I believe it will mean re-stating traditional values.

No group has a monopoly on traditional values. In the history of the church it is a tradition to stand for justice, and to advocate for the poor, dispossessed, and victimized. It is traditional to engage in reflective prayer, worship and to participate in those activities that will make the world better. This tradition is about living the life of faith with integrity and a consistent moral vision. It’s been so throughout history.

Finally, credibility comes down to consistency between words and actions. In our skeptical age, no matter what the medium, it’s what we say and what we do that is the measure of our credibility.

Community journalism text

The work in community journalism that was done
over the past decade indicates that the more journalists engage in conversation
with the audience, the more likely they are to get information that is reliable
and comprehensive. It stimulates conversation about community concerns rather
than conversation about how the journalist missed the story. The result is
greater credibility because the end result is reporting closer to the
community.<br /><br />

A Mediated Culture of Sadism

Many, many years ago, almost in another life, I listened as the program director of KLNG radio, where I was host of a daily talk show, delivered his critique of my on-air methods after an “air check.” This was a routine coaching session that all station personnel went through, designed to improve performance. A recording of your work on the air was played back and the program director commented on strengths and weaknesses.

But this time it was different because we had a consultant from a company that helped stations boost ratings and the consultant had recommendations for me. The first was to jump right into the beginning of the show with a provocative comment. Be controversial. Make them angry from the start.

The next was to stay away from subjects no one cares about, such as Social Security. “It’s for old people (those were his words, not mine), and when an old voice is on our air dials click off all over the city. Don’t even let them continue. Get them off the line.”

The mantra around the station for commentators like me was “Be controversial.” We did as we were told. And, as we did, the on-air culture of the station began to change. The audience changed. And the format changed.

My job was to be provocative. I was supposed to hold the audience long enough to expose them to the commercials that were scheduled with precision, and we were held tightly to this schedule. The consultant determined that the average listener stayed with us for no more than 15 minutes. So we programmed in 15-minute increments. Weather, news, traffic, talk and commercials every 15 minutes.

Paradoxically, local television news was moving in another direction–the beginning of the insipid “happy talk” news format, coupled with an emphasis on local news. But local news did not mean more reporting on the school board, the state capitol or the city council. It meant fires, auto accidents, murders and controversy. Television was also going after attention-getting visuals. Compelling video, even if it had no direct connection to the local audience, was more likely to be aired than useful information from a school board meeting that was less visual. This was the beginning of “if it bleeds it leads.”

It was weird. Stories of gore and death were sandwiched between banter and sophomoric joking.

After 30 years
of analyzing
TV violence
and its effects
on viewer
George Gerbner
concludes that
the mass media
have become
the primary
source of
the information
we use to
make sense
of the world
around us.
Media Channel

It’s clearer now in hindsight that a shift was occurring in the broadcast industry, especially at the local level. Information was becoming a commodity. News and information were being treated like a tangible product. And the audience was becoming the consumer. If information is a product to be consumed, then service to the community and public dialogue become less important.

There’s a difference between providing information for community dialogue and treating listeners as consumers to whom a product is sold.
Clay Shirkey writes that consumers “have no way to respond to the things they see on television or hear on the radio, and they have no access to any media on their own — media is something that is done to them, and consuming is how they register their response.”

One result of this was a growing distance between the media and the audience. A subtle shift was occurring. News and information were becoming entertainment and viewers and listeners were spectators, not participants. While the audience and the entertainer may interact, entertainment is not about dialogue, it’s more passive and limited.

Instead of
in media,
media [are]
done to us
–Clay Shirkey

First broadcast licensees were able to get the fairness doctrine repealed. This was a federal mandate which required broadcasters, operating on airwaves owned by the public, to provide air time to opposing points of view in a balanced manner. Then public access rules were eased. These required broadcasters to provide programming in the community’s interest.

The result is that fewer voices are heard. A less diverse image of local communities is seen. And significant discussion that once provided balanced community dialogue is absent from the airwaves.

Instead of participating in media, media are something done to us, as Shirkey writes. The idea that broadcast media serve the public interest is almost gone. Access to broadcast media is available only to those with the money to purchase time. This excludes the poor, non-profit community groups and community service organizations. Those with access are, for the most part, commercial interests.

Evangelical radio and television programmers adapted to this entrepreneurial model. Their followers seem content to fund their programming even if they have no other mission but to keep the programming on the air. Likewise, the political right was prepared to offer provocative and controversial radio content that fit the consultants recommendations. The whole idea ran counter to the basic practices of Mainline communions and most liberal organizations. Neither were prepared for this coarsened style of programming and they were left out.

Mainline denominations face very different internal constraints than the evangelical right because they have a more diverse constitutency. They devote significant financial resources to mission and ministry and often they regard communication as an optional expense. This, plus other constraints, has kept Mainline groups out of significant engagement in the old line media (broadcast radio and television) for twenty years.

It’s important to remember that deregulation did not come at the request of the audience. It came from pressure by licensees who claimed that the equal time clause was onerous and no longer necessary with the proliferation of new media. Similarly, they sought to escape their responsibility for public access programming by citing increased competition from cable companies, which, they noted, provided an entire channel for community access as a part of their licensing agreements with municipal governments.

In those days I often heard employees joke that a broadcast station was a license to print money, a claim that was commonly heard when it was time for contracts to be renewed.

viewers develop
an exaggerated
sense of the
world as a
violent and
dangerous place
…our violence-
and news media
are “nurturing
a culture of sadism”
–Paul Klite

Today we have media that are not particularly responsive to community needs or even community standards. The public is unaware that broadcasters are given virtually free use of the publicly-owned broadcast spectrum, with no meaningful requirement to serve community needs or to include the community in the programming. We have seen the tone of the public dialogue change as a result of program consultants whose concern was bottom line profits, not advancing the public dialogue. We have seen how this has changed the quality of news coverage, and by extension, how it has changed the public dialogue itself. It has become more polarized and confrontational and less inclusive, participatory or pertinent to community concerns.

The critical issue is that the media shape perceptions. Even today, the vast majority of people in the U.S. get their information from broadcast media. Rocky Mountain Media Watch conducted a study over 5 years that found that 40 to 50% of newscast airtime is devoted to violent topics irrespective of crime rates. “As a result, the group concludes, viewers develop an exaggerated sense of the world as a violent and dangerous place…our violence-obsessed entertainment and news media are “nurturing a culture of sadism,” said Paul Klite, executive director of RMMW.

The U.S. media have also shaped the coarsening of the national dialogue by highlighting extreme voices and behaviors while shutting out the voices of moderation.
Klite suggests the media “decrease the frequency of violent stories, but also become more sensitive to their potential effects, educate viewers about these effects, and create news stories which seek to make sense of the background and social context of crime, rather than simply churning out tabloid tales of horror.”

How do progressives and Mainline theology deal with media today? How does a humanitarian perspective get expressed in media today? How important are the broadcast media in an environment of new media that is empowering individuals and giving them the ability to tell their stories themselves? How does this empowerment relate to faith?

These are questions that I’ll write about in future posts.

Credibility and Trust

Four seemingly unrelated articles cause me to think about trust, credibility and communication in our media-saturated culture. The first is Nicholas Kristof”s column on April 12 about public attitude towards newspapers and television news operations. He reports that according to “Trends 2005,” a Pew Research Center report, 45% of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers.

The Fox News Channel has the trust of less than one-third of Republicans, and even fewer Democrats.

In the second article Ed Garvey writes in the Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), that the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church face a confidence gap among their U.S. flock. A New York Times poll shows only 18% of Roman Catholics have a great deal of confidence in those running the church. Garvey notes that church membership is up but attendance is down.

The next
20 years
are going
to be
years for
those on
the religious right.
But a reaction
will set in
over the
next quarter
of a century
that may
hurt Christianity
in all its
–Tony Campolo

The third is a report on remarks by the popular evangelical speaker Tony Campolo referenced by Dale at Movable Theoblogical and reported in Ethics . Campolo tells a British audience the current success of the religious right is sowing “disillusionment” that will result in “a departure from churches” in the next 20 years as “thoughtful converts” realize the Bible addresses a broader range of issues than the limited agenda of the religious right. He says this will harm all Christian groups.

The fourth is a survey (All the Mainline News That’s Fit to Print ) of coverage of Mainline denominations in the New York Times over the past twenty years by Lovett Weems and David Schoeni for the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. It reveals decline in coverage and concludes that the Mainline voice is less influential today than in years past.

These whet my appetite. They are fertile ground for comment, critique and speculation. By looking beneath the surface of these stories I think we can learn a lot about ourselves, the culture and how communication shapes us and misshapes us. In the next few posts I will look at these and I invite you to reflect on them as well.