Monthly Archives: March 2014

New Trends and Knowledge-Based Journalism

The United States has a long tradition of “objective” journalism. At least we tell ourselves that objectivity is an ideal to strive for. In some other news cultures there is not even the pretense of objectivity. A newspaper, for example, will have a perspective and they will state it clearly and the reader is expected to know the perspective. So there is a communist newspaper, a socialist newspaper, a business capitalist newspaper, and so on. The reader understands the perspective and reads the news with the interpretive lens called for.

But whether there is objectivity or perspective the news is still a sort of “lecture.” The journalist is an authority and the reader is “learning” something. Given the distrust of journalistic institutions, sinking circulation, weak citizen engagement, and low credibility for news this monologic approach is clearly dying off.

But modern incarnations of journalism are more influenced by user generated possibilities as well as new technology. Fueled by the ideas of public journalism and a reinvigorated public sphere where ordinary citizens could communicate about ideas, contemporary thinking about journalism includes more interactive possibilities. (A good reading on these and related matters is by Marchionni in the journal Communication Theory volume 23, 2013) The reader can use various web tools to participate in journalism and this can include supplying content and forming a sort of collaborative journalist-citizen relationship.

These new trends are interesting and grounds for improved engagement between the public and journalism institutions. But I am less concerned with what journalism practices are called (public, participatory, interactive, or conversational) then I am with journalism’s quality and reliability. I prefer the term “knowledge-based journalism” as described by Patterson in his book Informing the News: The Need for Knowledge-Based Journalism. A thorough essay on knowledge-based reporting appears here.

Knowledge-based reporting tries to maintain the tradition of accuracy and truth but recognizes that most of the time the news report will simply do its best to get the best version possible. Still, knowledge-based journalism relies on its tradition of verification. Journalism is not fiction, or entertainment, or propaganda. Patterson, as described in the essay available in the link above, argues that journalism should adopt the thinking and processes of “science.” That is, the journalist formulates guesses and hypotheses, gathers facts, and knows how to apply other facts.

Walter Pincus wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review accusing journalists of being narcissistic primarily because of journalism’s interest in larger long-term investigatory projects that are likely to bring Pulitzer prizes. The article makes a few counterarguments warning against the narcissism that prompts journalists to devote too much time to one story rather than making a variety of issues available to readers.

But deep knowledge and competence and specialization are at the core of knowledge-based reporting. Patterson reminds us that journalists who are uninformed and lack detailed knowledge are more subject to manipulation by sources, make more mistakes, and vulnerable to a few experts.

Finally, communication scholars have pointed out that journalists are just fine at providing the who, what, where, and when but fail miserably at the “why” question. I have asked journalists about this and they typically reply that they do not want to turn the press into a school text. But this hardly seems like an inevitability. And with new technology and graphics the possibilities for likely presentations and explanations seem ample. I will not repeat the cliché about democratic and free societies relying on quality information. But “democratic and free societies rely on quality information.”

Ethnopolitical Capitalism and Access to Communication Technology

Most and Lease Expensive Cities

The table above represents the most and least expensive countries in the world. I’m not so concerned in this posting with a discussion of cost of living but with the relationship between how expensive it is to live somewhere and access to media, computers in particular. There is a correlation, a strong correlation, between developing countries and what has been termed the “digital divide.” This lack of access to information and information technology is not a simple unfortunate byproduct of other things, but a crucial issue with respect to economic and social development. Media access will provide the crucial information and knowledge that make developing countries more productive.

The full implication of the consequences of the digital divide are still being untangled, but there is no doubt that the cheapest places to live are usually developing countries and they lag significantly behind industrialized countries when it comes to technology and the Internet. Even more interesting and perhaps detrimental to developing cultures is the fact that these developing countries focus on infrastructure rather than how the technologies are to be used. Of course, infrastructure is important and necessary but issues in information strategies, diffusion of information, and political possibilities are perhaps more important. Communication technology lowers barriers to the development of democracy, helping disadvantaged communities, and facing social problems. There have always been the “haves” and “have-nots” but now there is the “information rich” and “information poor.”

Muslims and the Digital Divide

Catherine O’Donnell in an article on Political Parties and the Digital Divide explains that Muslims are increasingly wired and have made progress in the last years. In particular political parties are online accompanied by growth in blogs, listserv’s, and chat groups. Interestingly, politics in Muslim countries is increasingly online but the divide between rich and poor countries is greater than ever. Developed countries have more high-speed broadband and sophisticated infrastructure. Again, the price of living in developed and undeveloped countries is predictive. The cost of an hour of Internet in a cyber café located in one of the developed countries in the chart above has dropped significantly. But this is not true for less-developed countries.

Prejudice and the Digital Divide

One more insidious relationship is between race and technological availability and use. Technological power is deepening the levels of discrimination suffered by those who live in undeveloped countries and are especially a member of a minority or disadvantaged group. Technological power advantages those already in power and reproduces the class system that makes it so difficult for less powerful groups to prosper. The study “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” documents the relationship between the use of new digital technology and disadvantaged groups. Below are some conclusions from the study, which was completed in 1999 so the actual data has changed, but the general thrust of the conclusions still hold.

“Those with higher education have more access to information technology.”

“High income families are more likely than low income families to have Internet access.”

“Political disadvantages are correlated with communication technology disadvantages.”

There is not only a racial divide but an ethnopolitical one. Group contact, including dialogue and deliberation, predominantly rely on access to new technology. And this is increasingly true because new technology provides the means and opportunity for communicative exchange at a far greater level then could ever be achieved by organizing face-to-face contact.

Computer skill and access to the technology and training necessary to maximize their use is a form of new power. If these new technologies are not made available to disadvantaged groups then power gaps will grow even greater and the differences between groups that typically lead to tension and communicative distortions will be exaggerated. Equally as important is the content that travels on communication technology. Dialogue between contentious groups such as Islam and the West must find the public sphere. This is most likely to be in cyberspace.

No Advocate for New Media Would Want to Take Credit for Egypt or Ukraine

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multi-sensory impact that is not present during routine politics. we have not heard much from Ukraine but pay attention as things heat up.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community. But it does pose the conservative dilemma which is that shutting down new media causes an uproar and does as much damage as good in the eyes of the dictator.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities  in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

Edited From Feb 2013

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