Journalism has been called the Fourth Estate because it viewed its role as an independent voice, and as a bulwark against corruption and abuse by unchecked government and corporatist control. Edgar R. Murrow stood up against McCarthyism, Woodward and Bernstein reported the Watergate break-in that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the White House, and Katie Couric exposed Sarah Palin as apparently unprepared for the presidency.
Within this context, big city newspapers competed ideologically with each other in disparate editorial voices. For decades in Boston, for example, the Boston Globe catered to the educated and professional classes and was openly left-leaning in its reporting. The Boston Herald billed itself as a blue-collar tabloid with a somewhat anti-intellectual and socially conservative approach to news reporting. The bias of the Boston Business Journal was fiscally conservative and pro-business. When media consolidation occurs, as it did in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi’s Mondatori or in Australia under the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, the pluralism of editorial voices in the marketplace tends to disappear. In its place, consolidated news media have claimed to provide “fair and balanced” reporting. This invites criticism in that bias in journalism is never completely absent. The approach of openly professing an ideologically based editorial voice seems more honest.
While consolidation has tended to reduce the number of differing perspectives in the mainstream news media, the emergence of digital news distribution via the internet has made independent and even individual contributions to news coverage as affordable as a laptop computer and as easy to publish as making a phone call. This process has taken may forms. The best known are blogs, video blogs, podcasts and wikis. Newer forms are emerging as well, from the bare-bones blurbs on Twitter to full-fledged citizen reporting websites such as NowPublic, AllVoices and GroundReport.
Citizen journalism, also known by various names such as “user-generated content,” “consumer-generated media,” and “user-created content,” was first used by mainstream media in 2005, when the BBC received over 5000 photographs of the Buncefield Depot fire from audience members, and used some of them in its coverage of the explosion. In that same year, YouTube launched on the internet as a means for users to post their own video content. The next year, CNN began to incorporate content from its audience. Along with the increase of public participation in news gathering and reporting, three major trends have emerged, reshaping the news media and the role of its audience at the same time.
The first major trend is that of audience feedback. Since blogging and video blogging venues are so democratic—essentially open to anyone—there is no orchestrated editorial voice. One may elect to “subscribe” to a single author, but the venue overall is generally devoid of any unifying perspective. It is thus more difficult to identify the bias of the contributor. Instead, various forms of user feedback serve the purpose of providing context and evaluation of a posting’s newsworthiness. What makes a story newsworthy is what makes a world religion great—namely, headcount.
The initial form of feedback was so-called pull technology, whereby the user had the means to determine what types of news stories they wanted to receive. The metaphor for this approach was that each user could create a personalized “front page of the newspaper” from all the articles that were published that day. The next development in the process was the comment trail that became a signature feature of user-generated content sites.
Comments to news stories can add clarification, but very often they express highly judgmental views that can be summed up as being either “for” or “against.” This was recognized by YouTube, which allows users to further polarize comments by voting for or against them, absent of absent of nuance and pluralism. YouTube also added the additional option to reply directly and “comment on the comment.” In contrast to this elaborate form of discussion, a more simplified approach was subsequently introduced by mainstream content providers such as CNN and Yahoo, the latter receiving much of its news content from traditional sources such as the wire services Associated Press and Reuters. This newest approach is called the buzz meter, which bases how prominently a news story is featured on how many times it is viewed. In this case, newsworthiness is decided by a popularity contest.
Jóhanna WHO? Sigurdardóttir on the campaign trail.
Newspapers, radio and television networks have always found that celebrity sells, but now it is quantifiable. A story about the 1980’s sitcom actress Meredith Baxter coming out as a lesbian generated 690,000 hits on a Google search that week, while the more historically significant coverage about the taking office of the first openly gay lesbian world leader in modern times, Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir of Iceland, generated only 7% as much interest. When one opens the Yahoo homepage, these numbers determine the news stories you will see. Audience feedback even shapes what is covered, making the process of deciding what is newsworthy distinctively populist. Such polarized feedback can turn into digital warfare, with shill commentators trying to win the race of “thumbs up” versus “thumbs down.”
The second significant trend is the ease with which one may compare different versions of the same story. For example, in 2007, ABC news in the U.S. reported a security breach into the White House off-switchboard telephone system, when an Icelandic boy called a classified number that was reportedly a direct line to then president George W. Bush. ABC had a direct source to confirm the breach. The BBC in Britain reported a whitewashed version of the story dictated by the White House press secretary that described the call as having been made to the main switchboard’s public number for the West Wing, thus denying any failure in security. Likewise, electronic translation technology, when combined with digital publication of news media, allows the user to compare how a news story about Palestinians is covered by Islamic media, in contrast to Western journalism.
Third, journalism now features a non-linear news cycle. A story from a year previous may be just as newsworthy as one from the current week. For example, the Salahi gate-crashing at the November 2009 State dinner for India renewed interest in White House security breaches under the previous administration, such as the four such breaches made by Rev. Richard “Rich” Weaver, who on two occasions shook hands with President Bush whom he was not cleared to meet. One can now search for news not only based on how recent it is, but also alternatively sorted by popularity, or relevance to a search term. The news cycle is also non-linear when is comes to feedback. An event as far back as the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales still generates comments in September of 2011, and the tenor of those comments changes with the hindsight of history. The comments posted in 1997 were mostly expressions of sympathy and admiration for Diana. In the post 9/11 context of 2011 however, a great number of recent comments are overtly racist anti-Arab remarks centered on Diana’s romance with the Egyptian millionaire Dodi Al-Fayed.
The Andalusian poet, Federico García Lorca, once wrote that the dead in his country were more alive than the dead in any other nation, implying an overlap between the present and the past. Now that news can be read weeks or months after that fact as easily as the date of publication, people are capable of reading older news stories when current ones peak their curiosity about related events of the recent past. This would seem to blur the lines between news content and archives. The participatory nature of digital journalism, together with its shift toward non-linear cycles, may do more than redefine what is news—it may also redefine what is history.
As always, I welcome all comments!