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The Future of Journalism: Unpacking the Rhetoric

Panel # 4: Tenet = The Web Has Eroded the Quality of Public Discourse

Streaming video from this panel is now available | Watch Video

James Fishkin frames the discussion: has the internet served public discourse or not? Has it enriched, fragmented, or destroyed public conversation?  Are we becoming more self-reflective or using this medium to find information that simply reflects our selves?

Jaron Lanier gives a historical view on the current crisis facing journalists, tracing it to the rise of mechanized labor in the 19th century.  Over the past 15 years, technology has changed the role of journalists.  But, this problem will not remain limited to groups like journalists and musicians.  Rather, these groups are an early sign of coming changes in the relation between technology and labor that will eventually affect everyone.  Although we have historically believed that technological advances will lead to knowledge work that is more cerebral and humane, Lanier argues that our current model of monetization through advertising will not yield this result.  Instead of allowing people to be paid for their creativity and mental labor, it has led to new forms of physical labor – such as making t-shirts, playing concerts, or giving talks – which will also eventually be displaced by new technologies.  In addition to these economic challenges, journalism substitutes make it harder to distinguish fact from fiction and create self-reinforcing echo chambers that divorce groups from reality and foster a mob mentality.

Joshua Cohen sets forth a framework of four qualities that journalism must have in order to foster a healthy public sphere: (1) It must be deliberative, in the sense that it leads us to look at new information rather than cloister ourselves.  As an aside, he notes that merely studying links is not good enough because blogs are not just nodes and readers are not just link followers, so, a good understanding of blogs would require attention to discussion, not just tracking links. (2) It must be accessible, in the sense of providing equal and low-cost access to information. The outlook here is basically good. Costs have definitely gone down.  (3)  There must be equal opportunities for people to present arguments to others.  We are still nowhere near the Jeffersonian ideal where it would be as easy to provide a service as to consume it.  But the cost of one-to-many messaging has gone down. (4)  It must be based on high quality information. This is in danger because there is not yet a viable alternative to the old business model.  Blog discussion, Cohen argues, is parasitic off of traditional sources, and good investigative journalism can’t be crowdsourced.

Jay Rosen tells a public space/public sphere parable comparing Gramercy Park (the private park near Lexington and Twenty-first that most New Yorkers have never entered) with Washington Square Park (the public park in the middle of NYU’s campus which hosts, among other things, a vibrant chess scene).  His point: if New York made Gramercy Park public it would become noisier and more crowded, but at least it would be open.  If we focus only on the issue of lower quality, we miss the essential fact that it is now open.  Similarly, the internet might have lowered the average quality of journalism but it has increased participation. And, from the Civic Journalism perspective, public engagement is journalism’s core purpose.  So, more openness can only be good, and we don’t need to idealize public places like Washington Square Park or the internet as utopias to believe that they are better for being open.

Elisa Camahort Page addresses the common complaint that forums like blogs and Twitter are responsible for cheapening public discourse.  Agreeing with Rosen, Page argues that compared to 30 years ago, when the average person’s media sources may have consisted of the local paper, three TV networks and either Time or Newsweek, things today are much richer.  Page notes that it is a mistake to think of quality and reliability as binary and thereby assume that professionals are reputable and that User Generated Content is not.  Rather, there are sites where many different types of writing are curated and people are formulating ways of deciding what is and is not reputable.  Page argues that the desires of the public, not of journalists, should guide discussions about journalism’s future. The idea that readers will passively consume journalism is obsolete and journalists must become more responsive.  People want to talk back to the news, and if large media organizations lack a space for this, they should expect that readers will go elsewhere to do their talking.

Fishkin opens up the discussion by asking about the challenges created by greater participation.  Some forms of participation, as the founders feared, may lead to mob violence.  So, what we need is not just participation, but participation based on reliable evidence.

This leads to an exchange between Rosen and Cohen on how openness should be weighed against other essential values.  Openness is desirable, Cohen argues, but not sufficient for the journalism we want.  High quality information and other qualities are just as necessary and require attention.  Lanier adds that from a technological perspective, the internet is neither open nor free.  Under the current model of ad revenue, it is only cost free because large companies use the sites to gather data about users.  The internet may seem like a public park, Lanier says, but to be like the internet, public parks would have cameras and scanners that record your data and sell it to private parties. We need an idea of openness that is more sophisticated than what we inherited from Linux.  Financing everything through ads is not a viable business model.

Audience questions ensue.  Rosen argues that it would be a mistake to idealize the old business model. Back when there were substantial margins, the profits were not getting poured back investigative reporting, they were going to shareholders. The legitimacy was gone before the business model failed.  The underlying media system on which we built the press has been transformed, Rosen concludes, so we need to rebuild the press based on openness as its fundamental value.  Lanier notes that the state of science journalism should be included this discussion. The popular science press has especially struggled with the new media environment and we can see the results of this in popular misconceptions about science.  Page responds to the idea that the internet creates self-reinforcing communities, arguing that finding one’s tribe online does not mean that viewpoint echo chambers are more pervasive now than in the past.  The ills we see online, Page concludes, predate the current crisis. The internet has just channeled and amplified them.

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