I. Why apologize for letting the public in?
I was recently speaking with the Editor in Chief of Bondy Blog—a blog that was established during the 2005 riots that in France that features reports by Bondy youth about life in the banleiue and issues effecting banlieue residents. It’s a fantastic example of how the news media landscape can be enhanced by the voices and perspectives of members of the public. And it has received a lot of attention in France in part because it has been widely acknowledged the civil unrest in France is due in part to the marginalization of the voices of ethnic and religious minorities in the French media. So what makes Bondy Blog great is the freshness and authenticity of its perspective. Yet as I spoke with Mohammed he kept emphasizing it’s connection with professional journalists, that it is serious and that it doesn’t recklessly cast off the norms of professionalism. I’ve heard this many times from people involved in media projects that combine traditional and new media practices—this constant reassurance that the standards have not completely disappeared with the emergence of the public into the news process. But my question is Why would it?
II. Shifting role of public
This need to apologize I think is connected to that fact that while the news media landscape—its norms, products, practices—are radically changing we have not yet updated our view of the public to correspond with its emerging role.
The professionalized model of journalism –that has existed more or less since after WWI –characterizes the pubic as passive, overwhelmed and largely incompetent. Walter Lippmann in the 1920’s likened the average American to a “deaf spectator” saying, “he doesn’t know what is happening, why its happening, and what ought to happen.” He argued for an elite class of professionalized journalists to sort out issues of public concern and for a passive news audience. And essentially his vision came to pass.
Lippmann’s view has been contested John Dewey and other advocates of a journalism that facilitates rather then precludes conversation and debate. James Carey’s wrote in the late 80s:
“The public will begin to reawaken when they are addressed as a conversational partner and are encouraged to join the talk rather than sit passively as spectators before a discussion conducted by journalists and experts.”
This is precisely what is happening today. The emergence of the blogosphere and other independent and collaborative news and the increasing possibilities of bypassing msm is a challenge to the Lippmann-like understanding of what news is and what it ought to be.
So when the public emerges as part of the new-making process it’s not only or even primarily its lack of training that causes anxiety. The public as part of the news process is disconcerting because it suggests that the model that assumes journalists are exclusively qualified to uncover the truth is becoming obsolete.
In order for journalists and traditional news orgs to remain relevant they need to rethink the relationship between professional journalists and the public and to make room for the public in the news-making process.
III. Public interest in this new environment
This may seem an obvious point but I raise it because so often the emphasis is on how the news industry will survive in this new environment. And there is an assumption that it’s “survival” is linked to the survival of a rich public life. But I don’t think we can or should make that assumption that if the news industry can preserve itself in its current form the public will benefit. Clearly, me at least the broadcast, one-way model of news has outlived its relevance.
If we accept this much more empowered view of the public, a public that has the capacity to participate in the public sphere rather than be spectators of it then this requires new approaches to the question of how can the public interest be served by news.
One clear answer is that the public interest is served by the development of news models that are inclusive of a diversity of perspectives and a diversity of forms of news-related content.
What rules the internet is the personal-style communication—viral marketing, homemade videos, blogs, news that is saturated with opinion. And these diverse forms, rather than compromising the quality of our information environment, greatly enhance it. And here is why:
The possibility of diverse forms and styles of communication invite more diverse voices. While there are still wide swaths of the population that don’t have access to the internet, both content and the form, right now at this point in time, are still largely unbound from the homogenizing influence of professionalism.
This is a crucial point because these new forms empowers people to communicate in the ways that they see fit, to develop new genres and styles, to truly participate rather than being forced to adopt to a particular form in order to be included in the conversation. So if you have something so say about global warming can make a video, write a poem or rap lyrics, record a podcast, you can use satire, you can remix a political speech, and so on.
All of these new voices and perspectives making there way into public discourse requires the issue of truth to be addressed more rigorously. Bloggers, do-it-yourself amateurs, alternative media activists, and professional journalists are struggling over the right to define the truth.
I’ll conclude here by saying that I think this debate is incredible healthy. It signifies that “truth” as the exclusive domain of authorities and the journalists who use them as sources is receding and making way for communication created by the public based on storytelling, exchange, and perspectives that are traditionally excluded.
And in the face of eroding civil rights, increased media concentration, and intense public mistrust of government and media, this struggle is integrally tied to the struggle for the revival of public life and the role of public discourse in democracy.