New communications technologies are revolutionizing our experience of news and information. The avalanche of news, gossip, and citizen reporting available on the web is immensely valuable but also often deeply unreliable. How can professional reporters and editors help to assure that quality journalism will be recognized and valued in our brave new digital world?
Jay Rosen is director of NYU's Studio 20, a master's level journalism program which uses projects to teach innovation in journalism. He is the author of the blog PressThink, and of the book What are Journalists For?
“When I started teaching at New York University Journalism School in 1995, deans routinely told the entering class, ‘journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights.’” said Jay Rosen in his opening comments. “I thought, what a fantastic delusion.”
Journalism isn’t specifically mentioned in the First Amendment, Rosen said, and the oft-cited provision for the “freedom of the press” refers to the entire citizenry, not a professional class of newsmakers.
In the decade and a half since Rosen’s arrival at NYU, attitudes have transformed. Thanks to the Internet, said Rosen, “people realize that they own the freedom of the press.” But what are they going to do with it? What are the benefits, and drawbacks, of expanded access to the tools of journalism, and particularly, to journalistic authority? How has journalism adapted to the web, and what work still need to be done?
Rosen began to tackle these questions by separating the different dimensions of what people mean when they talk about journalism today. There are three distinct layers, he said, that tend to be conflated. “We can better answer how journalism is adapting to the web by pulling them apart.”
The first of these layers, according to Rosen, is the practice of journalism—what reporters and bloggers actually do. Second is “the underlying media system the practice runs on. It’s changed since the mass-circulation newspapers of the 1950s and 60s.” The newspapers of the past reached a wide audience, but today’s media system caters to groups defined by niche interests. The system itself is comprised of various news outlets—television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and increasingly, blogs.
The third layer Rosen identified was the “institution of the press.” These institutions, Rosen noted, are not singular or universal. Shaped by local laws and mores, they vary from country to country. “Institutions include laws that make it possible for people to practice journalism,” said Rosen. “You need a legal system that secures the rights of the free press, or else there’s no press.”
The 20th century was a “mass audience” era, where newspapers with wide circulation and network television broadcasts reached large numbers of people. Today, the "mass audience" has fragmented. While only "vertical" connection was possible in the mass audience era, new technologies have opened up the potential for "horizontal" communication: for instance, it’s as easy to speak with other citizens as it is to address celebrities, political figures, and other so-called “newsmakers.”
Ethan Zuckerman pushed the conversation towards the issue of citizen journalism. There are a variety of reasons that ordinary people relay the news, said Zuckerman. They could simply enjoy reporting, or they might receive compensation. They might be in the right place at the right time as eyewitnesses to a “newsworthy” event, or they could be hoping to influence public opinion. It is this last instance, Zuckerman argued, that generates a great deal of difficulty. Some “people are trying to influence the public whether or not they see themselves as part of the press,” he said.
A case in point, said Zuckerman, was the recent Mike Daisey scandal. An actor and playwright, Daisey presented an excerpt from his play, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, on National Public Radio’s This American Life. Presented as nonfiction, the piece described the harsh working conditions Daisey saw while taking a trip to Apple’s Foxconn manufacturing plant in China. Daisey’s segment did not withstand journalist fact checking. After the broadcast, his claims were proven to be exaggerations or fabrications. Daisey issued an apology that his story was “taken as journalism,” and This American Life retracted the episode.
Daisey is just one example of the many people “trying to influence public opinion by creating media,” said Zuckerman. Some identify as journalists, some as amateurs, but they are all making claims to journalistic authority. How should the press respond when people like Daisey are making a claim, “but following a different set of rules and norms from those we’d like to attribute to a press?”
“The media system has changed,” Rosen said. “Now, lots of people can give us information about the world. Giving us journalism is something different.”
Journalistic authority comes from access, he said. The journalistic impulse is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Today, Rosen said, eyewitnesses can become “accidental journalists.” In 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River in full view of thousands in New Jersey and Manhattan, many ordinary people became "journalists," recapping the crash for their family, friends, and in some cases, Twitter followers.
The problem with Mike Daisey, said Rosen, is that he made the journalistic claim to authenticity without actually relaying what he saw. Journalism is about relaying facts, and that makes it distinct from political rhetoric and argumentation. Daisey’s “counterfeit authority,” said Rosen, “was the problem.”
Authority doesn’t just arise from "being there," pushed Zuckerman. Where do journalists’ claims to authority come from? Many citizens weigh in on the news because of personal and professional expertise. Is their informed commentary journalism? Zuckerman challenged Rosen to think of the press as more than just professional institutions.
“The press is an institution that is constantly in motion and hard to define,” Rosen said. He asserted that new technologies have eliminated the need for a middleman. “Sources who used to speak through the press can now address audiences directly.” Individuals have the power to address the public without using a journalist as the go-between. However, Rosen said that he often found the press a useful translator between experts and the public. Experts often have trouble speaking in the vernacular and professional journalists are skilled in making complex issues accessible.
Zuckerman asked if the press had a role in encouraging this kind of civic dialogue. People now have the ability to talk back to media makers. How can journalists encourage greater public participation?
Rosen drew a distinction between publics and audiences. In broad terms, he said, a public is engaged and active. An audience absorbs media in a more passive way. Historically, they have been separate, but during the 20th century, broadcast media conflated the two. “Attention was aggregated and sold as a commodity [to advertisers],” he said. But the mass audience broke down with the rise of niche news outlets. The Internet compounded this trend towards fragmentation. Rosen saw this as a positive development.
He drew on British sociologist Raymond Williams to argue that, “there are no masses, only ways of seeing people as masses.” Today, the fracturing of mass audiences creates a greater range of options for popular engagement. Audiences and publics are separating once again. The notion of an “active public” is returning, said Rosen. Today, people not only know what’s happening, they want to do something about it. That’s critically important, Rosen said, because if you don’t have an active public, all power remains in the hands of an elite political class.
Question: In the past two decades, there have been many rapid shifts in the field of journalism. What new conventions do you see emerging?
Both Rosen and Zuckerman mentioned transparency. People are grounding their authority in being more straightforward, Zuckerman said. Greater transparency helps us move beyond the dichotomies that govern many elements of the news – such as right/left splits – and pushes publics towards an appreciation of greater complexity.
Question: While newspapers used to curate stories and expose people to topics they may not already be interested in, today’s publics have to take a more active role in searching out their own news. While this can lead to exciting discoveries, aren’t people also more likely to search out sources they agree with? Doesn’t this reinforce their existing opinions?
“This is often called the 'echo chamber' problem,” said Rosen. “But I think people who complain about the echo chamber only listen to each other.” We have to look carefully at echo chambers to know how they function, he said. Following the echo chamber argument, right and left-wing blogs might not know anything about each other’s viewpoint. “But I bet that’s not true,” said Rosen. “I bet they know the most about each other.”
Zuckerman said he took the echo chamber problem seriously. Media was curated in the era of mass broadcast; newspaper editors, for example, would select a variety of stories for their readers. While there were flaws with this model, it exposed people to different viewpoints. “When we search for information we already know we like, we no longer discover,” said Zuckerman. He suggested that we start building “serendipity engines,” that can challenge us to think beyond our known spheres of interest.
Question: An audience member noted that the author Clay Shirky has said Americans suffer from short attention spans, a condition Shirky dubbed “attention scarcity.” What if he is right? How can news curators differentiate and legitimize themselves when it’s difficult to get people to pay attention?
Let’s start by laying out what makes a good curator, Rosen said. First, curators help people save time. That’s one of the easiest ways to create valuable journalism. Good curators also spend time interacting with the people they are curating for, said Rosen. That way, they learn about their constituents’ concerns and preoccupations. Due to their familiarity with their audiences, curators should be able to aggregate information their readers find interesting.
Short attention spans are only part of the problem, said Zuckerman. There is also competition for attention. In the broadcast era, the competition was between various media institutions. Today, it’s between all media producers, which range from institutions to average citizens.
Question: Has journalism adapted to the web? WikiLeaks worked with traditional news outlets. Many Twitter posts link to news web sites. What has really changed?
In the mid-1990s, when newspapers first began to move onto the web, Rosen said, they repurposed their existing print content. The wholesale migration of print stories onto the digital platform obscured the Internet’s potential. Accordingly, very few people asked “what is the web good at?” What can the Internet do that print journalism cannot? In the past decade, news sites have begun to take advantage of the Internet’s flexibility, but for the most part, there is a long way to go. The most progressive sites, according to Rosen, were born digital.
Question: What about the journalists? They are a skilled professional class. What can they contribute in the current landscape?
Journalists have a critical role, said Rosen. By making information accessible, they’re a check on political elites. Today ordinary citizens can monitor the powerful as well, but journalists have the time, expertise, and authority that “citizen journalists” often lack. We need journalists to support civic society, so we, as a civic society, must figure out how we can support them.