When They Spoke, People Used to Listen.
History before the Internet was about pillars.
- pillar: there were only a handful of newspapers, and everyone read them.
- pillar: there were only a handful of TV channels, and everyone watched them.
- pillar: there’s only one Hollywood, and everyone watches its movies.
These pillars are collapsing. The question is what those pillars were holding up. Was the roof “an informed populace capable of productive democracy?” Because that’s certainly what a lot of people in the news-making and media-creating world believe.
But maybe the roof that those pillars were holding up was, “a captive audience led by the nose to the facts and conclusions we want them to have.” Some creators and thinkers are suggesting that the collapse of a singular narrative could be a good thing.
In Defense of A Collective Narrative
However, I believe that there are two key reasons to think that television news is still of value to society; it has relatively high levels of trust, and, by (theoretically at least) appealing to a mass, general audience, it helps to define public debate.
For Tobias, television news is a pillar holding up a roof that is made up of citizens with the same talking points. For Tobias, it’s a good thing if the populace can be guided toward the biggest, most significant events of the day. They don’t have to be told what to believe or think, but they can be pointed to what’s most important so that everyone’s on the same page.
At its best, the TV news bulletin offers a contextualisation of current events, with a curated rundown and high-impact storytelling helping the viewer to make sense of the world around them.
Richard Sambrook, the former Director of BBC News, sees television news as a way for viewers to make sense of the world with the help of professional editors.
Television news has a role to play in guiding consumers towards relevant and genuinely important information.
An Attack on the Pillars
Rob Wijnberg, meanwhile, would probably disagree. Wijnberg is the founder of De Correspondent, a journalism outlet focused explicitly on not following the news. He wrote critically of the news media’s fixation on what is happening right now.
News is all about sensational, exceptional, negative, and current events.
And those five words capture precisely the problem with news.
He advocates for “reporting the climate, not the weather.” In other words, Wijnberg thinks that the pillar of singular news media was holding up citizens who were incorrectly under the impression that they were well-informed, just because they happened to know the most sensational piece of news happening somewhere in the world.
Not only does he look forward to that pillar coming down, but he thinks that journalists have actually created a negative impact by chasing the news.
Excessive news consumption predisposes journalists to believe that what’s happening in the world right this instant, and what’s the most important story to tell right now, is whatever’s getting a lot of airplay in other media.
It’s almost as though “news” is an ugly word for Wijnberg and De Correspondent.
Keep the Pillars Up, or Tear Them Down?
The public’s fascination with “news” is problematic. Most consumers know they should do better about their news sources in the same way that most know they should eat their vegetables. They’ll say it’s good to be responsible, and not enough people are responsible, and they’ll ask for “slow news” and better understanding.
But dangle a cookie, and they’ll go for it. That same public will want to be updated every three minutes about an unfolding news story about a terrorist bomb going off on the other side of the world with children and Americans in danger.
I think it’s bold for Wijnberg to say that his platform is going to provide nothing but vegetables, no matter how much his audience (and his own journalists!) want cookies. I hope it’s the way of the future.
Only Us Eggheads Wonder About Ethics
Meanwhile, the world is changing rapidly, and it’s hard not to despair that the people making the decisions about what the pillars are, what those pillars hold up, and whether or not we’ll move in an ethical direction are the ones who are thinking least about it.
Reeves Wiedeman writing for the New York Magazine wrote a pretty harsh take-down about the (lack of) ethics (journalistic or otherwise) at Vice magazine.
Wiedeman lays out how Vice basically conned Intel into funding a content studio which turned out journalism funded by the subjects of its investigation.
Vice, now settled in its new office, demonstrated to brands that rather than simply place ads next to its journalism, they could be a part of it — and that while this arrangement dissolved the traditional boundaries between publishers and editors, the audience might not even care.
Later, when Vice went for more funding, the question of ethics and propriety in journalism wasn’t carefully considered by the people in the driver’s seat. A potential investor was warned not to invest, that it wasn’t a safe investment.
In 2011, … the potential investor had in fact joined a round of investment in Vice… “He told me, ‘You were totally right, but the story is good, and we’re just gonna pass it on to the next guy,’ ”
Vice represents the reality of the facts on the ground: the internet is changing everything, and people are sprinting at top speed to get their hands on it. Those of us with the time and privilege to consider impacts, actions and ethics should remember that many of the real movers and shakers don’t appear to be as thoughtful.