My Problem With Journalism

I hate having an axe to grind. Really, I do. “It’s unlike me.” When I notice that I catch myself grinding an axe, I “get on my own case.” I can be quite harsh with my own self.

But I’ve been trained to voice my concerns. And I’ve been perceiving an important social problem for a while.

So I “can’t keep quiet about it.”

If everything goes really well, posting this blog entry might be liberating enough that I will no longer have any axe to grind. Even if it doesn’t go as well as I hope, it’ll be useful to keep this post around so that people can understand my position.

Because I don’t necessarily want people to agree with me. I mostly want them to understand “where I come from.”

So, here goes:

Journalism may have outlived its usefulness.

Like several other “-isms” (including nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, and racism) journalism is counterproductive in the current state of society.

This isn’t an ethical stance, though there are ethical positions which go with it. It’s a statement about the anachronic nature of journalism. As per functional analysis, everything in society needs a function if it is to be maintained. What has been known as journalism is now taking new functions. Eventually, “journalism as we know it” should, logically, make way for new forms.

What these new forms might be, I won’t elaborate in this post. I have multiple ideas, especially given well-publicised interests in social media. But this post isn’t about “the future of journalism.”

It’s about the end of journalism.

Or, at least, my looking forward to the end of journalism.

Now, I’m not saying that journalists are bad people and that they should just lose their jobs. I do think that those who were trained as journalists need to retool themselves, but this post isn’t not about that either.

It’s about an axe I’ve been grinding.

See, I can admit it, I’ve been making some rather negative comments about diverse behaviours and statements, by media people. It has even become a habit of mine to allow myself to comment on something a journalist has said, if I feel that there is an issue.

Yes, I know: journalists are people too, they deserve my respect.

And I do respect them, the same way I respect every human being. I just won’t give them the satisfaction of my putting them on a pedestal. In my mind, journalists are people: just like anybody else. They deserve no special treatment. And several of them have been arrogant enough that I can’t help turning their arrogance back to them.

Still, it’s not about journalist as people. It’s about journalism “as an occupation.” And as a system. An outdated system.

Speaking of dates, some context…

I was born in 1972 and, originally,I was quite taken by journalism.

By age twelve, I was pretty much a news junkie. Seriously! I was “consuming” a lot of media at that point. And I was “into” media. Mostly television and radio, with some print mixed in, as well as lots of literary work for context: this is when I first read French and Russian authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I kept thinking about what was happening in The World. Back in 1984, the Cold War was a major issue. To a French-Canadian tween, this mostly meant thinking about the fact that there were (allegedly) US and USSR “bombs pointed at us,” for reasons beyond our direct control.

“Caring about The World” also meant thinking about all sorts of problems happening across The Globe. Especially poverty, hunger, diseases, and wars. I distinctly remember caring about the famine in Ethiopia. And when We Are the World started playing everywhere, I felt like something was finally happening.

This was one of my first steps toward cynicism. And I’m happy it occured at age twelve because it allowed me to eventually “snap out of it.” Oh, sure, I can still be a cynic on occasion. But my cynicism is contextual. I’m not sure things would have been as happiness-inducing for me if it hadn’t been for that early start in cynicism.

Because, you see, The World disinterested itself quite rapidly with the plight of Ethiopians. I distinctly remember asking myself, after the media frenzy died out, what had happened to Ethiopians in the meantime. I’m sure there has been some report at the time claiming that the famine was over and that the situation was “back to normal.” But I didn’t hear anything about it, and I was looking. As a twelve-year-old French-Canadian with no access to a modem, I had no direct access to information about the situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia still remained as a symbol, to me, of an issue to be solved. It’s not the direct cause of my later becoming an africanist. But, come to think of it, there might be a connection, deeper down than I had been looking.

So, by the end of the Ethiopian famine of 1984-85, I was “losing my faith in” journalism.

I clearly haven’t gained a new faith in journalism. And it all makes me feel quite good, actually. I simply don’t need that kind of faith. I was already training myself to be a critical thinker. Sounds self-serving? Well, sorry. I’m just being honest. What’s a blog if the author isn’t honest and genuine?

Flash forward to 1991, when I started formal training in anthropology. The feeling was exhilarating. I finally felt like I belonged. My statement at the time was to the effect that “I wasn’t meant for anthropology: anthropology was meant for me!” And I was learning quite a bit about/from The World. At that point, it already did mean “The Whole Wide World,” even though my knowledge of that World was fairly limited. And it was a haven of critical thinking.

Ideal, I tell you. Moan all you want, it felt like the ideal place at the ideal time.

And, during the summer of 1993, it all happened: I learnt about the existence of the “Internet.” And it changed my life. Seriously, the ‘Net did have a large part to play in important changes in my life.

That event, my discovery of the ‘Net, also has a connection to journalism. The person who described the Internet to me was Kevin Tuite, one of my linguistic anthropology teachers at Université de Montréal. As far as I can remember, Kevin was mostly describing Usenet. But the potential for “relatively unmediated communication” was already a big selling point. Kevin talked about the fact that members of the Caucasian diaspora were able to use the Internet to discuss with their relatives and friends back in the Caucasus about issues pertaining to these independent republics after the fall of the USSR. All this while media coverage was sketchy at best (sounded like journalism still had a hard time coping with the new realities).

As you can imagine, I was more than intrigued and I applied for an account as soon as possible. In the meantime, I bought at 2400 baud modem, joined some local BBSes, and got to chat about the Internet with several friends, some of whom already had accounts. Got my first email account just before semester started, in August, 1993. I can still see traces of that account, but only since April, 1994 (I guess I wasn’t using my address in my signature before this). I’ve been an enthusiastic user of diverse Internet-based means of communication since then.

But coming back to journalism, specifically…

Journalism missed the switch.

During the past fifteen years, I’ve been amazed at how clueless members of mainstream media institutions have been to “the power of the Internet.” This was during Wired Magazine’s first year as a print magazine and we (some friends and I) were already commenting upon the fact that print journalists should look at what was coming. Eventually, they would need to adapt. “The Internet changes everything,” I thought.

No, I didn’t mean that the Internet would cause any of the significant changes that we have seeing around us. I tend to be against technological determinism (and other McLuhan tendencies). Not that I prefer sociological determinism yet I can’t help but think that, from ARPAnet to the current state of the Internet, most of the important changes have been primarily social: if the Internet became something, it’s because people are making it so, not because of some inexorable technological development.

My enthusiastic perspective on the Internet was largely motivated by the notion that it would allow people to go beyond the model from the journalism era. Honestly, I could see the end of “journalism as we knew it.” And I’m surprised, fifteen years later, that journalism has been among the slowest institutions to adapt.

In a sense, my main problem with journalism is that it maintains a very stratified structure which gives too much weight to the credibility of specific individuals. Editors and journalists, who are part of the “medium” in the old models of communication, have taken on a gatekeeping role despite the fact that they rarely are much more proficient thinkers than people who read them. “Gatekeepers” even constitute a “textbook case” in sociology, especially in conflict theory. Though I can easily perceive how “constructed” that gatekeeping model may be, I can easily relate to what it entails in terms of journalism.

There’s a type of arrogance embedded in journalistic self-perception: “we’re journalists/editors so we know better than you; you need us to process information for you.” Regardless of how much I may disagree with some of his words and actions, I take solace in the fact that Murdoch, a key figure in today’s mainstream media, talked directly at this arrogance. Of course, he might have been pandering. But the very fact that he can pay lip-service to journalistic arrogance is, in my mind, quite helpful.

I think the days of fully stratified gatekeeping (a “top-down approach” to information filtering) are over. Now that information is easily available and that knowledge is constructed socially, any “filtering” method can be distributed. I’m not really thinking of a “cream rises to the top” model. An analogy with water sources going through multiple layers of mountain rock would be more appropriate to a Swiss citizen such as myself. But the model I have in mind is more about what Bakhtin called “polyvocality” and what has become an ethical position on “giving voice to the other.” Journalism has taken voice away from people. I have in mind a distributed mode of knowledge construction which gives everyone enough voice to have long-distance effects.

At the risk of sounding too abstract (it’s actually very clear in my mind, but it requires a long description), it’s a blend of ideas like: the social butterfly effect, a post-encyclopedic world, and cultural awareness. All of these, in my mind, contribute to this heightened form of critical thinking away from which I feel journalism has led us.

The social butterfly effect is fairly easy to understand, especially now that social networks are so prominent. Basically, the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory applied to social networks. In this context, a “social butterfly” is a node in multiple networks of varying degrees of density and clustering. Because such a “social butterfly” can bring things (ideas, especially) from one such network to another, I argue that her or his ultimate influence (in agregate) is larger than that of someone who sits at the core of a highly clustered network. Yes, it’s related to “weak ties” and other network classics. But it’s a bit more specific, at least in my mind. In terms of journalism, the social butterfly effect implies that the way knowledge is constructed needs not come from a singular source or channel.

The “encyclopedic world” I have in mind is that of our good friends from the French Enlightenment: Diderot and the gang. At that time, there was a notion that the sum of all knowledge could be contained in the Encyclopédie. Of course, I’m simplifying. But such a notion is still discussed fairly frequently. The world in which we now live has clearly challenged this encyclopedic notion of exhaustiveness. Sure, certain people hold on to that notion. But it’s not taken for granted as “uncontroversial.” Actually, those who hold on to it tend to respond rather positively to the journalistic perspective on human events. As should be obvious, I think the days of that encyclopedic worldview are counted and that “journalism as we know it” will die at the same time. Though it seems to be built on an “encyclopedia” frame, Wikipedia clearly benefits from distributed model of knowledge management. In this sense, Wikipedia is less anachronistic than Britannica. Wikipedia also tends to be more insightful than Britannica.

The cultural awareness point may sound like an ethnographer’s pipe dream. But I perceive a clear connection between Globalization and a certain form of cultural awareness in information and knowledge management. This is probably where the Global Voices model can come in. One of the most useful representations of that model comes from a Chris Lydon’s Open Source conversation with Solana Larsen and Ethan Zuckerman. Simply put, I feel that this model challenges journalism’s ethnocentrism.

Obviously, I have many other things to say about journalism (as well as about its corrolate, nationalism).

But I do feel liberated already. So I’ll leave it at that.

12 thoughts on “My Problem With Journalism”

  1. “Journalism may have outlived its usefulness.”
    While this may be true in the future and there seems to be a shift into that direction, journalism is still essential as the digital divide exists and will exist for quite some time. Also, we need to be honest, there is a lot of people that need information presented in an easily understood and entertaining form that can be readily consumed. There are certain skills needed to access, assess, interpret, and redistribute information in a quick and effectual manner. Most people do not have these skills and developing them takes time and aptitude. Joshua

  2. @Joshua Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comment.
    And I certainly respect your perspective. (Though, I must say, it’d be easier to know “where it comes from” if you provided a link to a profile of some sort or included a statement about your connection to media. For instance, are you in media studies or social science?)

    With all due respect, I must disagree on both counts.
    On the first one: journalism may still seem useful but it’s clearly not “essential,” in the grand scheme of things. People can easily survive without journalism. In fact, many people (those affected by the Global Divide as well as those who suffer from depression) usually live saner lives without journalism. And there always are multiple ways to learn about what is going on in The World which have nothing to do with journalism. People usually claim that journalism helps because it’s supposed to pre-filter information. The point isn’t that there’s a lack of information going around.
    To a large extent, the digital divide is a dimension of a larger divide. But it’s not an irrevocable “fact of life.” Actually, the more engaging the digital world will be, the more likely people from all parts of The World will be to overcome that divide on their own. In my experience, people in the so-called “periphery” are very entreprising when it comes to things which may help them in their own lives. It’s typically not a question of money and it’s more likely to work if it comes from inside instead of being imposed from the outside (two of several reasons Negroponte’s initial OLPC plan was so misled).
    In fact, people in most parts of The World (with the glaring exception of North America) have adopted the cellphone as a major tool in their lives. Cellphones have become a de facto “leapfrog technology.” Not just based on availability or technological sophistication. Because they’re truly useful for things that people already do. For instance, most people around The World tend to be very proficient at networking (North Americans are now learning this, but many people still aren’t that skillful at it). Also, cellphones require very limited literacy.
    Journalism packages information in such a way that it requires decoding, even it’s from news programs on television or radio stations. Information transmitted through “narrower” channels make it possible for people to gain knowledge and discuss information in a context of mutual understanding. In this sense, traditional media technologies are more likely to maintain divides that to bridge them. Especially since they’re asymmetric by default.
    What I’ve noticed in Mali was that journalism tended not to be that prominent (in fact, many people don’t know French, the official language in which the national television and radio, as well as most newspapers, were set). Yet people were rather engaged in current events, had deep insight on several topics from the rest of The World, and could carry extended, thoughtful conversations regardless of social distinctions. Sure, some people made statements which sound quite awkward to foreigners, for instance perceiving China as a part of “Europe” (which isn’t inaccurate since Eurasia constitutes one continent). (I’ve also met people in the US who thought Nicaragua and Mali were neighbouring each other.) In Mali, I could have conversations (in Bamanankan) about very deep topics (theology, philosophy, politics, etc.) within five minutes of meeting someone. In the US, I’ve had a hard time getting to the bottom of some prominent issues after knowing people for several years. Not because people in the US aren’t able to have thoughtful conversations: because conversations are filtered through media coverage.

    On to the second point.
    First, I’m very honest when I say that this perceived “need” to have information presented in “an easily understood and entertaining form” is a creation of journalism. Like the “need” for chocolates on Valentine’s Day, it’s a created need. It can affect anyone, regardless of background. In fact, those who are so affected tend to think of themselves as media-savvy. On a deep level, news junkies aren’t literally “addicted” to news media. But they do act like cigarette smokers who maintain that their cravings are a rational matter.
    The second part of this second point, about skills, touches on a point I wanted to make: what journalists could do is help others apply media criticism. Not that journalists are usually as proficient as they say they are at going beyond information toward knowledge (using, you guessed it, critical thinking). Still, they could “share the wealth of knowledge” instead of using their training to separate themselves from what they seem to perceive as “a lot of people that need information presented” in a certain way.
    Nothing personal but that point does connect, in my mind, to what has been described as arrogance. I’m assuming you’re not arrogant as an individual (I don’t think I know you, but I always respect people). But the embedded position seems quite troubling, to me.

  3. @Juliet And thank you for dropping by here! Nice to meet you on the blogosphere.
    Your blog seems quite interesting and it might provide some insight into Filipina perspectives.
    One of my posts was tagged as “Possibly Related” to your privacy post. WordPress now shows these as trackbacks.

  4. You’re welcome Alex, and I’m glad that you find my content interesting, that’s my objective that’s why I created my title “A Glimpse to the Pearl”. I want to give the world a glimpse to the ordinary Filipino way of life, not just the bad side of politics and economic glitch but also the cultural beauty and Natural wealth 🙂

  5. @Juliet You know, I even mentioned you to my friend Felma, a Filipina who is married to my friend Tico (a homebrewing friend from Iran). Felma was watching the Filipino version of Family Feud so we were learning a few words in Tagalog. But I already forgot them. 😉

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