North Country Public Radio‘s Ellen Rocco recently posted a discussion item on their station’s blog pointing to a Slate.com story by David Sirota that “makes the case that we are on the verge of having journalism-free news and media industries.” Sirota writes that “the real crisis presented by journalism-free news media is the now-imminent potential for a total information vacuum devoid of any authentic journalism outlet. If that happens, we will be deprived of an ability to make informed, preemptive decisions about our world.” To be fair, he lays much of the blame on the corporate news media.
Regular readers probably already know I’m a believer in the idea that journalists are mostly people who get between what actually happened or what someone actually said, and the person who wasn’t there to see or hear it. One problem is reporters pretend to be unbiased observers, which anyone who has studied psychology, sociology, anthropology or history knows is nonsense.
For example, if a major research university releases a report, say on the population of Hamilton County. Where do you go to learn about their findings? Do you find a journalist’s interpretation of the findings, or do you consult the actual study itself.
Journalists would like us all to read their interpretation, but any serious person (including journalists) looks at the study itself and draws their own conclusions.
And therein lies the problem with journalism today. It’s too easy to find the information directly from the source. Like it or not (and people who are paid to be the middle men really don’t want us to like it), we don’t need journalists as much as we did.
As Mark Wilson recently noted in a comment here, “A whole spectrum of routine information from both public and private sources is now available immediately and for free (without the services of an intermediary)…”.
Don’t get me wrong, journalism is not going away, there will always be room for journalists to be places and see things we can’t, or to report on things which are not readily available in the original. But even those roles are being reduced by the ubiquity of smartphones, Twitter and Facebook. Those news distribution systems are not perfect, but given the multiplicity of the sources, their extraordinary reach and increasing importance in the marketplace of ideas, they often outpace traditional journalism. This kind of direct journalism is devoid of the top-down approach of today’s corporate media.
Is this a good thing? Well, people in places like Egypt, Syria, Russia, and Iran which are burdened with lousy journalism think it is. Shouldn’t it be good for America too, where a long history of corrupt journalistic practices haven’t disappeared overnight?
Ellen Rocco, in another comment, hints at some of the causes in the decline of corporate journalism: “…failure to respond to a changing media environment, greed, insidious disregard for the mission of journalism, and so forth. But, I think each of us must take some responsibility: so many people expect to receive news and information for free, while others expect their news to be delivered as bits of entertainment.”
This dovetails with what has become a constant drumbeat from journalists that their vocation is under threat, their audience is at fault, and we’ll be dumber for it. It reminds me of the debate over Wikipedia. Since the online encyclopedia was founded in 2001 it has faced a barrage of criticism from the keepers and distributors of our collective knowledge, not unlike that faced by new media from the keepers and distributors of our journalism.
Wikipedia‘s volunteers, mostly experts in their fields and vetted by a community process, have assembled an encyclopedia vastly superior to the industry standard Encyclopedia Britannica.
Here’s how William Cronon, President of the American Historical Association recently described his experience with Wikipedia:
“Like most scholars, I was skeptical about Wikipedia when Jimmy Wales first launched the site back in 2001. The notion that unvetted volunteers cooperatively contributing to an online encyclopedia might produce a reference work of any real value seemed at best dubious—and, more likely, laughably absurd. Surely it would be riddled with errors. Surely its coverage would be ridiculously patchy. Surely it would lack the breadth, depth, and nuance of more traditional reference works like the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica.
“My initial skepticism is now proof of how little I understood what Jimmy Wales grasped far better than I. Wikipedia exploded from an initial 20,000 articles in 18 languages during its first year to more than 19 million articles in 270 languages (3.8 million of them in English alone) written or edited by 82,000 active contributors. Whatever reservations one might still have about its overall quality, I don’t believe there’s much doubt that Wikipedia is the largest, most comprehensive, copiously detailed, stunningly useful encyclopedia in all of human history.”
Cronon goes on to argue that academics need to “ponder the ongoing role of professional authority when traditional disciplines can no longer maintain the kind of intellectual monopolies that [they] once took for granted.”
That’s good advice for journalists too. They still have the opportunity to contribute objective reporting on the stories of our time, only now they have to compete in the marketplace of ideas with those they traditionally marginalized through editorial policies or just plain bad reporting.
Although many journalists like to blame their audience, who are the beneficiaries of a wider, deeper, and more readily accessible marketplace of ideas, it’s always been the journalists’ war to win or lose.
Changing the way they do business to provide more balanced and inclusive coverage is one way to win that war. Ad hominem attacks on their audience as the cause of their troubles, is surely one way to lose it.
Photo: The Honolulu Evening Bulletin, gets it wrong on April 15, 1912.
John Warren is founder and editor of Adirondack Almanack and also New York History, the online magazine of New York state and local history. His weekly Adirondack Outdoor Recreation Reports can be heard on Friday mornings on WNBZ (AM 920 & 1240, FM 105 & 102.1), WSLP (93.3) and the stations of North Country Public Radio.