Journalism: What Value Does It Have, Anyway?

Unlike the readings from last week, week seven, these articles did not require the literary equivalent of a machete to slash a way through pages and pages of impenetrable prose in order to arrive at the sacred temple of understanding. This week’s readings were relatively straightforward. Yet they still left me feeling bewildered, not knowing which way to go, in a metaphorical sense, and despairing of ever finding my way.

The more I know about the wonders and miracles of the new media and its Internet connections, the less I seem to understand. There are so many shiny bells and whistles and distractions, all clamoring for my attention. And it seems the shiniest ones with the latest technical gadgets are often the least important. For example, watch the video promoting Flipboard for iPAD. Note how the guy using Flipboard is so intent on seeing what his friends have sent him to read or view on his iPad, that he ignores them when they walk up to him.

My bewilderment began with the article by Legrand (2010) on how to make videos more interactive. Some of his suggestions are quite simple, such as allowing viewers to comment on a video and then responding to their comments. But others involve building a virtual studio in Second Life – a virtual reality site – or using wikis or a “collaborative mindmap” (???) to ask for help from potential viewers when preparing a video interview. It seems the ways to interact with your audience are limitless, but the time you can devote to mastering them is not.

And will the content that is communicated matter to anyone? So much of the focus in new media is on the channels of communication, not the content. There’s also a tendency, I think, to “dress up” the content to make it as dazzling as the channels it’s flowing through. Scandal, gossip, and titillating revelations lend themselves to bells and whistles. The danger is that the “information” or “news” may be the new media equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: when you look at it closely, there’s nothing there.

Social movement organizations and alternative media

Photo of the 1976 Philadelphia Bicentennial Celebration, by Jim Ryan

No one talks about all the time spent perfecting how your content is presented and communicated, how it looks and sounds. We only have so much time, and time spent creating a stunning presentation is time not spent creating meaningful content.

Stein (2009) discusses how – and if – social movement organizations (SMOs) are using the Internet to communicate their messages to potential supporters and donors and to receive feedback from these audiences. In her research, conducted from February through May of 2006, Stein doesn’t mention social media, per se. Rather she focuses on how the SMOs’ use their websites to interact with their audience.

[C]ommunication scholars have suggested that the internet can serve as an important resource for social movement communication, providing movements with communication opportunities not available in the mainstream media or alternative forms of movement media. Social movements can use the internet to bypass mainstream media gatekeepers or repressive governments and communicate directly with their constituencies and the broader public. (2009, p.750)

Stein (2009) cites research that equates movement media with alternative media, in that the goal of both is social change and the undermining of the power structure.

Logo of The Rag, an underground newspaper in Austin, Texas, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

When she mentioned alternative media, I thought of The Rag, an underground newspaper that operated in Austin in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was definitely alternative media, featuring news coverage and commentary on the Vietnamese War and the peace movement, as well as civil rights issues, student freedom issues, and the ‘60s counterculture.

And it was influential, as I know from my own experience as an Austin High School student at the time. Some college-age kids tried to sell The Rag on the Austin High campus one day and were summarily escorted off the property. It was a subversive newspaper, and the Austin power structure at the time didn’t like it. The Rag was published on cheap newsprint and the layout wasn’t very attractive; it was very old media. But its content could motivate people to action, and that is the point of social movements.

The results of Stein’s analysis of a random sampling of websites run by national social movement organizations in the United States reveals that most aren’t taking full advantage of their websites’ potential. While most do provide information about their social movement or cause, only about one-third frequently use their websites to coordinate actions and mobilize their supporters. Just one-third commonly use their websites for fundraising and resource development. And almost half frequently link to other organizations and resources that support or benefit their causes. Very few use interactive techniques or encourage dialog on their sites, or allow for creative expression from their supporters. It may be that they lack the resources needed to fully exploit Internet technology, or their goals and strategies may not fit this technology. For example, some SMOs may not feel that computer-mediated communication is the best way to build trust and reinforce the commitment of its members.

Social movement organizations and social media

This research was done in early 2006, before Twitter and before Facebook was open to the general public. I wonder how the SMOs are using social media to communicate and inspire their followers. Social media seem very well-suited to organizing people, promoting feedback and dialog, and keeping people in touch with what is going on. And a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t cost anything to keep up, except, once again, time.

Finally, Wilkinson (2009) attempts to outline what “our field” – journalism – is, and what unique value it brings to the world. Sadly, much of what he discusses implies that it’s not really worth all that much, and other fields are rapidly invading “our” territory. He examines four professions that are content providers and manipulators in the new media world: art and architecture, law, medicine, education, and government. These areas are developing their own “media specialists” (full disclaimer: I am a media specialist in the medical world). “Practitioners in these fields are also creating messages for mass audiences. By creating content with entertainment and information value, using digital technologies and delivery systems, we have entered a period of social and economic Darwinism” (p. 99). I fear this evolutionary struggle will result in survival of the most entertaining – in other words, the news and information decked out in the trendiest media fashions. And that is probably not a good thing.

Then Wilkinson composes two daunting lists of qualities and expertise that a journalist needs today. No one could possibly master all of these skills well enough to do the associated tasks. And, again, the focus is on the form the information takes, not the information itself. But the form is useless without the content. Wilkinson throws journalists a sop, when he says, “The tools of journalism are the critical thinking and interpersonal skills – dealing with people that journalism educators have championed since the beginning” (p. 110). The problem is that fewer and fewer people seem to understand “critical thinking.” They don’t use it to evaluate the information they receive, so how can they value it in others?

References

Legrand, R. (2010, Aug. 17). 10 Ways to make video a more interactive experience

[Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2010/08/10-ways-to-make-video-a-more-interactive-experience-229.html

Stein, L. (2009). Social movement web use in theory and practice: a content analysis of U.S. movement websites. [Article]. New Media & Society, 11(5), 749-771. doi: 10.1177/1461444809105350

Wilkinson, J.S. (2009). Converging communication, colliding cultures: Shifting boundaries and the meaning of “our field.” In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 98-116. New York: Oxford University Press.

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3 responses to “Journalism: What Value Does It Have, Anyway?

  1. Your point is well made about how everyone is trying to make their electronic data so attractive that people forget about each other with the ipad reference and the underground magazine The Rag. If the content is what we desire how can we whittle down our world to only the worthwhile information?

  2. When you said “we only have so much time, and time spent creating a stunning presentation is time not spent creating meaningful content,” it reminded me of mediatization. The time spend mediatizing content results in the message being altered and diluted.

  3. “Note how the guy using Flipboard is so intent on seeing what his friends have sent him to read or view on his iPad, that he ignores them when they walk up to him.”

    Do you ever see people who are with other people constantly on their cell phones? When I went to dinner this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice how many individuals I found looking down and doing something on their phone versus having a conversation with their companions. Its as though they are dividing themselves between multiple places to better enrich their social experiences, but I feel they miss out on the organic relationships in their lives. I, like you, feel that after messing with some of the interactive elements on the Internet and social networking websites for this class I am now more lost than before because I can’t keep up with the needs of each as well as the demands outside of the digital realm.

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