For just a few moments, this article will bring you, the reader and I, the writer together. We don’t have to agree, and that’s fine by me. It’s called opinion. It’s a nice notion.
It’s always been this way: historically people read a diverse selection of local and national newspapers that allow us to see our world from a wide range of viewpoints, at both global and local levels. The very concept of journalism was born from two key values: democracy and citizenship.
Does content really matter any more? What are we reading every day in our headline stories? News is here today and irrelevant tomorrow, hopefully vanished down the mass-information, electronic-archive black hole. But content does matter. As an individual, you are an inherent truth-seeker, trying to source information that fits with your personal values in order to gain understanding.
We all have our truth-seeking habits – a quick glance at our selected news homepage and skimming our specialised RSS feeds and news alerts first thing in the morning; following Twitter or Facebook while at work; listening to the radio headlines as we cook dinner.
How we consume news is far more of a multitasking activity that it once was. The creation of social media platforms suggests we are interested in current affairs and that we want more information.
But are we listening to the right voice?
Increasingly information-hungry, most of our media is free for us to gobble up. But free at what cost to true reporting and to our knowledge? So on to the depressing facts: local, independent and relevant media voices that held communities together are disappearing. No more do we read the whole of a daily newspaper, particularly if our daily newspaper is a never-ending digital labyrinth.
‘Will they publish our response? Don’t hold your breath ...’
This comment was the final sign-off from animal rights campaigners complaining about the bias shown in the media covering vivisection issues.
The child of corporate mergers, our mainstream news resources today are twisted with political and biased viewpoints, with the majority of media titles owned by just a small handful of companies. It decides which news will be viewed, which opinions and musicians will be heard and what aspects of our multicultural society are portrayed – or not. In the meantime, broadsheet newspapers are haemorrhaging profits, unable to pay journalists for decently researched articles, and the BBC is about to slash its public services (including, possibly, 6 Music and the Asian Network) as a means to appease its commercial rivals.
The challenge with the switch to what is becoming fast-paced ‘online content provision’ compared with traditional, well-researched journalism is that a lot of this value is lost. The new media struggle to keep up with the demand for news. The internet may have provided a boom in the provision of multiple sources and inspiration for the contemporary journalist, yet the gold we think we’ve found is just as likely to be fake and feckless nuggets of mere gossip.
This is worrying as, according to a study by GlobeScan, most people trust the media more than their governments, particularly those in developing countries.
The media are short on time. This is why you are likely to hear the same stories time and time again through the power of recycled reports from global news wires, which often lose context by the time they reach you. Just ask the celebrity; one day an unsung human, the next an applauded hero, the week after, hung out to dry and wondering what they did wrong. You only have to watch the recently released British film Starsuckers to see the end result: confused, slogan-embellished six-year-olds shouting, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ But the celebrity story is cheap and simple.
It would be of no surprise to me if journalism schools were to begin major modules in ‘churnalism’, teaching students the easiest approach to rehashing those product-focused press releases that clutter their inboxes. Actually, a friend of mine ominously confided that they already are – they just don’t have a name for it yet. This is what award-winning journalist Nick Davies describes in his exposé of the industry, Flat Earth News. ‘A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.’
All this ensures that the media is a perfect wheel for apathy, where real news right under your nose might not be documented, and that what is documented simply doesn’t have the same reach as the might of the mainstream media.
Bestselling Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, from a nation that places huge trust in its media over its politicians, describes this as the ‘danger of the single voice’, as she highlighted at the TED Oxford conference in 2009: ‘Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’
A new voice
It was a Humpty Dumpty moment when the majority of newspapers and broadcasters decided to place all their content online for free. The new media are still dabbling with glue as they considers way to re-commercialise the industry in order to ensure a more sustainable economic model.
In the meantime, fresh voices have emerged that serve the interests of many: ‘me journalism’, where individual blogs are voted on with the help of Delicious, Reddit and Digg. Story verification comes from the wisdom of the crowds.
The media monopolists can no longer own everything, challenged as they are by anyone who can write or snap and post a story or image, cutting out the traditional hierarchical structures.
They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change. (Keri Hulme, The Bone People)
We are going back to local media at a grassroots level, where profits are kept low and civic responsibility ensures considered and relevant truth-telling, where the people deliver the news because they are there, unlike the overstretched foreign bureaus of multinational news networks. Independent and public media can focus on what it knows; specialising rather than sweeping across the globe, where the reader is part of a community. Al Gore’s Current TV and the Media Trust’s Community Channel are already opportunities for individuals to come together and have influence.
And how interesting that, as we claim the online media for ourselves, we have decided to shine a light on the positive accounts taking place in our world! Sideways News, Positive News and the Good News Network, aiming to provide a ‘daily dose of news to enthuse’, are just a few models.
It’s our opportunity to ‘give a voice to the voiceless in our world’ as the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, declared at London’s One World Media Awards in 2009. It ‘represents a light that shines, like a city on a hill, and that offers an alternative path to those who would be seduced by celebrity, trivialised by gossip and depoliticised by cynicism’.
We can reignite our own politics and determine our agenda. We can embrace humour and not take ourselves too seriously. But we need to equip isolated voices with the appropriate tools to ensure a fairer playground, with open internet access for all, so that we can all share the bad jokes. The social media in Africa are already being driven by mobile technology. New Voices, a project from J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, aims to help fund innovative micro-local news projects within the United States, and spotlight independent citizen-media initiatives, grounding them in ethics.
Quick world, slow news
The only concern is the oversaturation of the blogosphere. Will the reader be able to keep up with the amount of never-ending news and sources? What we now need to improve on is our information accuracy, through helping individuals to think laterally and employ evidence-based research, aspects that are missing from many education systems across the world. It takes time to write a good story. Acclaimed writer Natalie Goldberg once wrote: ‘The deeper you can listen, the better you can write.’
San Francisco’s Long Now Foundation has set itself an interesting challenge with its Long News blog, as its seeks to focus only on the stories that might still matter fifty, or a hundred, or ten thousand years from now. Of course, who is choosing these stories and why, and whether that has an impact on making the news more newsworthy, is something that should always be considered.
As readers, we also have a responsibility. How about slower news delivery, and focusing on what is relevant? Leo Barbuta’s book The Power of Less signals to us to reduce our incoming stream of information and to focus our attention on one task alone. It worked for the oral storytellers who carried tales brimming with morals that travelled and helped us to understand our world for centuries before the internet or the written word was born. Go to India for the Hindu epic Mahabharatam, said to contain all the wisdom and explanation of the problems and solutions that human life will ever experience. Go to Tibet, for the folk tale of King Gesser. These stories were told to a village over many days and nights. Stay awake and listen, and think about who’s delivering your news.