Saturday, August 8, 2009

Man vs Machine

It's no secret that journalism, as an industry, is rapidly evolving. The age of the blogosphere has given rise to a society that would rather pull up their favorite web site than shuffle through the ink stained pages of a newspaper for the one article that holds their interest. Along with the rise of online and audience specific media comes the decline of traditional mass media such as regularly scheduled broadcast news and newspapers.

Polls show that many of us would rather watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show than Dan Rather. In fact, those who follow comedy news are more up-to-date on political information than those who follow traditional news (Kuck). But as newspapers continue to cut hundreds of jobs daily and TV news stations begin to convert to computerized production equipment, the evolution of the media has become a multidimensional battle of Man versus Machine. On the most obvious, most discussed, level “Man” stands for verifiable and unbiased, traditional journalism; news that is written and collected by trained journalists. Meanwhile, “Machine” represents computer-disseminated news such as pod casts, blogs and uploaded videos made possible by camera phones, webcams and citizen journalists.

As the argument stands, scholars and journalists in favor of old media argue that these technological advances will result in biased, unverifiable and undeveloped news which will only play into society’s desire for instant gratification and entertainment (Patterson 2-4). On the other hand, those in favor of new media believe that these changes will aid us in staying informed and up-to-date on the latest developments and allow for a greater number of voices to be heard, a democratic marketplace of ideas (Quart 30-35).

While it is easy to believe that these are the main reasons for this current and probably continuous trend towards “infotainment” and new media, I believe that there is a deeper and more important issue at hand than technology and short attention spans. The real issue is not by whom and how news is gathered and disseminated. The real issue is about being open, honest and relevant. Traditional journalism puts so much emphasis on journalists’ objective appearance, even in their personal lives that it seems like they have something to hide. Journalists can no longer be open about who and what they represent. As a result their audience is turning to people like Stephen Colbert and Perez Hilton who have no qualms about explaining where they stand. The news, as it is, is so institutionalized that the voice of the people, the watchdog of society, can barely be heard. From this viewpoint, “Man” represents the individual and “Machine,” the establishment. On one hand we have humans who deny that news should be separate from those humans and on the other hand we have news that denies that newsmakers are human.

According to the book Democracy and the News, people have lost faith in traditional journalists (Gans). Old media has become too lofty and is, therefore, seen as untrustworthy (Cline). Popular opinion puts journalists on the same level as politicians and lawyers, which we all know are on a pretty low level (Gans). Instead of championing the concerns of the public, journalism seems to deal mostly with top down information and people are tired of hearing the public relations spin.

In other words, when it comes to the big stories, people believe journalists are simply reiterating the latest press release straight from the President’s press secretary or Britney Spears‘s agent, which brings me to the next issue: Traditional journalism legitimizes every subject that it touches upon (Gans). Because “objective” journalists aren’t allowed to make judgment calls, every topic becomes equal (Cline). It is almost insulting people’s intelligence when Miley Cyrus’s wardrobe receives the same amount of coverage as the War in Iraq or the presidential campaign. Meanwhile, shows like MadTV, Saturday Night Live and the Late Show are allowed to use their common sense and differentiate between right and wrong or puff pieces versus serious news. As in the golden age of journalism’s muckraking days, people appreciate news that highlights their thoughts and concerns. Whatever happened to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?”

Furthermore, in an attempt to be fair and objective, journalists are forced to lie, even if by omission, about who they really are. As it reads in the New York Times’s “Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism”, journalists, even when they’re off the job, are not allowed to participate in politics, fundraisers or protests (New York Times Company). They cannot serve on boards, without special concession, own stocks that are not approved by the paper or write blogs or works of fiction, if those works mention anything they might have covered in their reporting (New York Times Company). Even family members’ jobs are a liability if they work for anyone the reporter may have, or will be, covering (New York Times Company). Since there are no set limitations to these rules, they may even extend to things like political buttons and bumper stickers and community organizations, in the extreme they could even prevent journalists from voting.

The code goes on to explain that:
Our fundamental purpose is to protect the impartiality and neutrality of the company's newsrooms and the integrity of their news reports...simply wondering whether a course of action might damage the reputation of our journalism is often enough to gauge whether the action is appropriate…

Nothing in this policy is intended to abridge their right to live private lives to educate their children, to worship and to take part in community affairs. But like other dedicated professionals, we knowingly accept disciplines – in our case, with the goal of ethical and impartial journalism (New York Times Company).

However, it is extremely difficult to think of another career that requires so many restrictions on one’s personal life and hobbies. If journalists are forced to falsely represent themselves as unopinionated, it’s no wonder that the public has a hard time trusting them. You may have heard the saying “the lady doth protest too much,” well, similarly, the more journalists go out of their way to prove that they’re unbiased, the more suspicious they begin to seem. In contrast, bloggers, comedians and citizen journalists make no attempt to hide their outside interests, in fact, these interests can even enrich their material. Ironically, by admitting their possible biases, they appear less biased.

Besides transparency, another issue is how the news is “made.” Everyday, so many newsworthy events are occurring that journalists constantly have to decide what makes the news or not. They choose what and how much the public needs to hear and when they need to hear it. Sometimes, like in the case of Fox News, those who have the money, like investors, owners and publishers, are the ones who tell journalists what to cover (Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch‘s War on Journalism).

Other times, stories are excluded just because of time or space constraints. Because of the way journalism works within the system, many feel like it has become just another cog in the machine rather than a voice for the underrepresented (Cline). On the other hand, on the Internet, new media has no limits; you can post as much as you want, whenever you want. Since there are theoretically no financial or editorial bounds to what you post on your web site, there are practically no controls on these types of new media, which is exactly what scares the opposition the most.

According to Brian Leiter, author of “Why Blogs are Bad for Legal Scholarship,” “(Blogs) make possible the repeated and systematic broadcast of non-expert opinions, opinions that can be picked up and amplified…” (Leiter). He, like many other new media resistors, worries that anyone can write a blog and disseminate a lot of very wrong material, to a very wide audience, in a relatively short amount of time (Leiter). Leiter also argues that bloggers can over-emphasize trivial issues, resulting in a dangerous snowball effect he calls the “availability cascade” (Leiter). In addition, unbalanced new media can cause the public to ignore other important issues or opinions (Leiter).

Others worry about the fact that as an anti-tradition, anti-institutional organism, new media does not hold itself up to any literary or journalistic standards (Quart). With an emphasis on personality, new media could result in a loss of in-depth, groundbreaking journalism and quality writing (Quart). Jon Stewart, who is often lumped into the infotainment category, said he does not consider himself a journalist (Kuck). Therefore, he, and others like him, don’t feel a responsibility to provide proper or full news coverage, even though many of his viewers rank him among their favorite journalists ( As the old maxim goes, “with great power, comes great responsibility,” if those who have the power to influence don’t take the matter seriously, it could be detrimental to a society who looks to these figures for answers.

Another strike against new media, especially infotainment, is that it places commercial success above journalistic integrity (Patterson 7). Thomas Patterson, a critic of new media, writes that “soft news” plays up the superficial and sensational in order to increase market attention (Patterson 7). In his opinion, it’s not about informing or relating to the public, it’s about ratings (Patterson 7). According to Patterson, when journalists don’t do their job of informing society by telling them what they need to know, not just want they want to know, it only strengthens society’s belief that journalists can’t be trusted (Patterson 3). Other critics agree with Patterson that, among other things, new media is a form of cheap entertainment produced by the “punchy intellectual” (Quartz). As for the “punchy intellectuals” themselves, they agree that they are in the entertainment business.

Frank King, a John McCain impersonator said that he’s stuck between voting for his political interests and his economical interests (King, Mason and McInnis). A Bill Clinton impersonator for 14 years, Damion Mason said his job is “pure comedy and entertainment. There is no redeeming value” (King, Mason and McInnis). While both performers said that they base their characters on the current news, they agreed that they focused on what they could exploit for entertainment value (King, Mason and McInnis). But as Hillary Clinton impersonator Jan McInnis said, “many a truth is said in jest,” (King, Mason and McInnis)

While it’s true that literary quality and journalistic integrity are at risk in an infotainment-centered industry, the fact remains that relevance, transparency and honesty are at a loss in traditional, institutionalized journalism. Not to mention, since journalists are in the news business, money does matter (Kovach and Rosensteil). Which means that traditional journalists need to realize that their audience wants more relevant facts in order to make informed decisions about the world around them. The common ground in this debate about old media versus new media is that, in different ways, both sides are trying to find the most honest and open way to represent the facts. Traditional journalists understand that the future lies with new media, even if they don’t trust it, and new media followers recognize the public’s need for trustworthy information, even if they do enjoy biting commentary.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosensteil, who have studied the recent media trends believe that in order to “reclaim the theory of the free press” journalists need to find a way to appeal to their audiences wants and needs while still practicing ethical journalism (Kovach and Rosensteil). While most traditional journalists acknowledge the benefits and popularity of new media, the loss of standards is still their biggest concern. Some, like critic Alissa Quart, argue that for quality journalism to survive at all, the only answer is to break into the new media market before traditional journalism becomes obsolete (30-35). After all, their can’t be any watchdogs of society if there aren’t any dogs at all.

In order to shake off the cobwebs of the establishment and regain the public’s trust, journalism is going to have to climb out of the ivory tower and rejoin the masses. Being relevant and attention-grabbing doesn’t mean that the news has to be low quality puff, it means that journalists have to remember that they are supposed to be of the people, for the people. Presenting facts with a purpose does not automatically mean that they have to resort to spin. In this country’s formative years, journalists were at the forefront of social reform because they weren’t tied down by red tape. If you’ve read The Jungle, you know that fact and fiction, in the hands of a responsible journalist and writer, can be beneficial to society.

The problems with old media and new media can both be solved if journalists and scholars stop focusing on tangential arguments over technology and infotainment and realize that the real issue is the public’s need for an honest and relevant voice. The audience would not have turned to new media so quickly if it were getting what it needed from traditional journalism. It is the journalist’s job to reclaim the audience’s trust, not to transform journalism into an elite institution. By whom and how the news is delivered is not as important as what is being delivered. As history has proven, Machine usually works best under Man’s operation. Journalists, whether worshipers of old media or cult believers in new media, need to realize that they are not just filters for top down information, not just sources of intellectual entertainment, but the eyes, the ears and the voice of a society that would be blind, deaf and dumb without them.

Works Cited

Cline, Austin. “Journalism, Legitmimation, and Control (Book Notes: Democracy and the News).” Austin’s Atheism Blog. 5-16-06. 7-18-08.

King, Frank, Jan McInnis, and Damion Mason. Personal Interview. July 2008

Gans, Herbert J. Democracy and the News. New York: Oxford University Press. 2003

Kovach, Bill and Rosensteil, Tom. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect . New York: Crown. 2001

Kuck, Sarah. “Jon Stewart: Journalist or Comedian?” Yes 2007. 7-18-08.

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Dir. Robert Greenwald. Political Action Committee

Leiter, Brian. “Why Blogs are Bad for Legal Scholarship.” Pocket Part. 9-20-06. 7-28-08.

Patterson, Thomas. Doing Well and Doing Good: How Soft News and Critical Journalism Are Shrinking the News Audience and Weakening Democracy–And What News Outlets Can Do About It. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2000
Quart, Alissa. “Lost Media, Found Media.” Columbia Journalism Review. 47 (2008): 30-35

The New York Times Company. “The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism.” October 2005. 7-18-08.

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