SuperMedia

A few weeks ago I met with Charlie Beckett in London and we had a great talk about journalism in the new-media landscape in which he described some of the research initiatives and projects he is involved in as Director of Polis, a journalism think tank at LSE.  Back in the States now, I just finished his recently published book SuperMedia: Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World, which  I found an impressively thorough and clear-minded assessment of the often pained contemporary evolution of journalism. You can check out several chaptershere.

SuperMedia
is packed with examples of recent experiments undertaken by journalists and news media organizations, but it’s more than merely descriptive of the current state of affairs. As the title makes clear, SuperMedia is marked by lofty insider ambitions: it’s a manifesto, basically, that plots to save what’s best about journalism. It’s a call to recognize what Beckett hopes will be an
enduring connection between public good, human rights and the news. The book argues that, far from being a species on the verge of extinction, new networked journalists can be a great force for positive global change. Networked journalism — journalism that breaks down the divide between old and new, amateur and professional (7) — can be at the heart of the new “super media,” he says:

[SuperMedia]
does not have the answer to a problem like climate change. But it will address the issue in a way that offers a networked understanding and the possibility of engagement. The public needs to
understand but also to be involved…. A networked media offers the public a chance to be more than simply informed. By increasing the dialogue between public and power, it can
facilitate change. In the end, it is about turning media literacy into political literacy (167-168).

I am instinctively drawn to the boldness and optimism of this argument, even though I tend not to believe in super heros or in narratives of change based on the hope that those in powerful positions (in this case professional networked journalists) will act benevolently.

SuperMedia calls for for more public involvement in the process of news production in order to create more diverse content and more effective tools for enhancing public life. That seems to me essential, the clear way forward. How that will work is another question. Beckett imagines a new model largely based on the old model, where journalists are necessarily separate from the public and charged with maintaining norms like balance and objectivity.  He sees journalists as the architects of diversity, through
an “openness to engage with new sources, perspectives, and narratives and an ability to use them to create networked journalism.” (150) He explains that one of the most important functions in the networked environment is to quickly filter, verify and aggregate information.  And he stresses the defining quality of “journalism” this way:

To have validity as journalism, rather than simple testimony, news communication has to attain a degree of authority. People have to trust it as a version of reality that aspires to objectivity, fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness. It might be valuable without that
quality but it is not journalism.

The discussion of this distinction does not come around to examining the ways that the procedures and values constructed in order to accommodate this aspiration “to objectivity fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness” create a series of biases, including bias in favor of the status quo and bureaucratically credible sources (Glasser), which in turn excludes the public from the process of storytelling and can contribute to apathy and distrust (Carey, Schudson).  And it does not fully explore the cultural function of journalism — how it serves simultaneously as conveyor, translator, mediator, and meaning maker (Zelizer) — and the power that
comes along with these various roles. That is, SuperMedia does not unpack the increasing tension between professional journalism and amateur journalist publics and it doesn’t fully address the fact that the contemporary mixing of the two is controversial not simply because the public may dilute the quality of the news product but because allowing the public into the news-making process suggests that the model that assumes journalists are exclusively qualified to uncover the truth is becoming obsolete.

Instead
of holding fast to certain categories and criteria of what is and is not
journalism, I think the concept of Networked Journalism should reflect the
blurring of these distinctions — for that is where we are at today: widespread amateur use of digital networked tools for practices that are journalistic are part of the news media, both officially and unofficially. If we accept more empowered view of the public, a public that has the capacity to act as participant and not merely spectator in the public sphere, then we need to let go of the idea that the forms and practices of professional journalism are the only thing that qualifies as true news product.  Diverse forms and styles of communication work to invite additional diverse voices. These new forms can empower 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. This expanded view of networked journalism, I think, can better support the participatory public at the heart of Beckett’s optimistic book.

Carey, James (1989) Communication as Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Glasser, Theodore (1984) “Objectivity Precludes Responsibility.” The Quill, February, 13-16.

Schudson, Michael. (2003) The Sociology of News. New York: W.W. Norton.

Zelizer, Barbie (1998) Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera’s Eye, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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2 Responses to SuperMedia

  1. Hi Adrienne,
    That’s a very astute review. I’m flattered that you took my effort so seriously. I think you hone in on precisely where my background as a traditional journalist conditions my view of its future.
    The quote you chose is about the most traditional that I get in the book, though. And much of the rest of the book is about how old concepts of ‘trust’ or ‘authority’ are challenged by opening up mainstream journalism. Bear in mind that I state explicitly that this is a book about how mainstream journalism will change rather than a book about the totality of news media.
    In that context, I thought there was a lot of ‘blurring’ of distinctions in the book. (Or maybe it was just in my over-worked brain!) I probably wouldn’t be as categorical about what is ‘journalism’ now as I was in that quote. I would certainly never have said that there would be a group of people who would ‘exclusively’ decide what journalism or the truth is. I am quite explicit in the book that it can be ‘amateurs’ or ‘professionals’and that ‘editorial diversity’ is a key outcome of a more open media.
    As for Glasser’s view of the inherent bias of professional media etc? Well, I think that kind of interpretation depends in large measure on rather traditional assumptions about mainstream media, treating it as an institution rather than part of a spectrum of ‘news communication’.
    As for exploring the ‘cultural functions’ of media? Well, that’s way beyond my pay grade -I’m going to have to leave that to you Adrienne!
    Best wishes and thanks for the review,
    Charlie Beckett

  2. Adrienne says:

    Hi Charlie–
    I think our (slight) difference in views comes from our distinct vantage points. For me the short comings of journalism of the past are closely tied with the qualities that to some made it great. I’m not a journalist so I have the luxury of looking at professional standards as a cultural construct rather than a practical imperative. (They are of course a bit of both).
    I hope I didn’t overstate the extent to which I think your view is conservative! In fact your book challenged my own thinking on a lot of levels and helped me to more progressively imagine how the line between traditional and new forms of journalism can and will continue to blur. And you are right, once we treat journalism as more than an institution we can’t really make assumptions about the biased produced by its norms.
    I’ll keep trying to figure out the the cultural elements of it all and hopefully I can add to the great conversations you’ve begun (or extended) with SuperMedia.
    Cheers,
    Adrienne

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