The Death of Legitimacy

If you have been following my weekly posts you will know that I last discussed the idea posed by Eric Raymond that networked systems always beat hierarchical ones because more is accomplished at a faster rate due to mass participation… “Given enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. Last week I was referring to this in terms of Apple vs Android and the concept of a single closed source entity vs a collective open sourced network. Well today I would like to revisit that concept from the angle of traditional legacy media channels vs illegitimate citizen journalism.

Traditional Legacy media channels are your television networks, radio stations and newspapers (so basically anything owned by Rupert Murdoch). This model operates on a one to many archetype where information in scarce and value comes from the production and distribution of content. In this media paradigm the News Corporations become the authority on what is considered news and the selection of content is as simple as deciding what information might be interesting. As New York Times proclaims they are “All the news that’s fit to print” and you don’t really get much say.

Axel Burns makes a point that correlates well here “while the audience retained the right to buy or not by the paper and to switch on and off the television this amounted to a choice between news as it was offered or a self-imposed news blackout”(that’s not the exact quote but it’s something along those lines).

These days the Legacy media model still exists but is arguably on the cusp of becoming obsolete. When millions of web users create content every day that can be freely accessed, the creation of content becomes valueless and instead attention turns to the aggregation of content- the sorting, tagging and packaging of information into personalised bundles of interest. This has given rise to new media model where news is collectively generated and shared by individual users over social platforms. Instead of seeing a story from one news giants perspective who is limited to time and space you are able to gain the full perspective from the hundreds of snippets of the same story from all over the web. Think of it in terms of footage, when a news team cover a story they have one camera man capturing from one angle and that is all you will see on the television but if you search the hashtag of the same story you may find hundreds of videos from countless angles filmed by people who were there on their smart phones. The value in this instance comes not from the individual videos uploaded by the users but in the platforms ability to group them under a unified tag.

“Yes they were built entirely out of 140 character messages but the sum total of those tweets added up to something truly substantial like a suspension bridge made of pebbles” (Steve Johnson).

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News giants would have you believe their dated model still holds value in the authority. They argue that citizen journalism is ‘illegitimate’ journalism and that the only shinning beacon amongst the dark depths of the information avalanche is highly produced content that guarantees quality and validity. While there is truth to this ideal (the internet is a disturbing place), it is not always the case and I don’t just mean because every week Channel Nine runs a story on why sugar is bad for you (Goddammit that’s not news!). I am talking about what I mentioned earlier when I said all bugs are shallow given enough eyeballs.

Participatory news platforms like Twitter and Reddit are always on and moving so fast through iterations that inaccuracies are weeded out by the enormous public faster than a singular news entity could even dream of. Meanwhile having such a small amount of staff working as hard as they can to pump content out as quickly as information arises results in errors slipping through the cracks. Remember the time that Danish news channel accidentally thought Assassin’s Creed was real and used it as backdrop to their news story. To illustrate conflict in present-day Syria, TV2 used an image from Assassin’s Creed digitally depicting Damascus 720 years ago. While that little mistake managed to make it all the way to air it was picked up and shared all over social media within minutes. What was that argument about legitimacy again?

 

 

On the other hand the concept of citizen journalism does bring froth a debate about privacy in the public sphere. The thing about legacy media is they are slow but by being legitimate they must go through all sorts of legal steps ensuring they have permission to film people before sharing it on television. Whereas citizens on the street record who ever, whenever and with very little regard for privacy. If we think back to the Vietnam War, that was the first time real footage of war was shown on public television and is a major contributing factor for opposition to the war. These days war is painted differently to prevent opposition, its ‘Nintendo warfare’, showing only soldiers behind computers pushing buttons. Citizen journalism gets around this being real people sharing real footage as it is, uncensored and raw.  This also means however that in delicate situations like war we are seeing videos surface the net of mothers crying over dead children, with their mutilated bodies open for public display. While this is necessarily for revealing the true nature of war and stopping people from turning a blind eye to it, it generates the question where do you draw the line between truth and respect?

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When Feeling Bad Feels Pretty Good

A Journalists’ first obligation is to the truth and as many journalists will tell you it is their sworn duty to aid in the creation of informed citizens by representing the world for what it is. By this rule it can be said that it is indeed the role of the journalist to paint a picture of human suffering, as it is a truth that can often be forgotten. And when it comes to painting pictures, a photograph is worth a thousand words. Throw back to the Vietnam War, this was the first war ever fought where society had the technological means of broadcasting the true nature of war to the general public. This was the first time everyday people were witnessing the horrors of conflict; being exposed to an undeniable experience of human suffering. This revelation of truth has been credited as a leading motivator for opposition to the war. Graphic footage of casualties on the nightly news generally tends to eliminate any myth of the glory of war and allows people to see war for what it is… Horrendous.

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The thing with the depiction of human suffering these days it that it seems to have a genre about it and that genre is ‘Poverty Porn’. What is poverty porn you ask? Put simply it is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which uses the poor’s condition as a tool to generate the sympathy necessary for a desired outcome. Outcomes such as selling newspapers, harbouring support for a cause and even gathering charitable donations. When it all boils down to it these kind of depictions stem from basic marketing and being a student of marketing myself, I know just how exploitative the practice can be.

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As Emily Roenigk explains “Poverty is a result of both individual and systemic problems, involving not only personal circumstances but the social and justice systems in place that either work to empower the poor or perpetuate their condition” ‘Poverty Porn’ has the ability to over simplify these kinds of issues giving people a warped perception of reality rather than the truth it arguably portrays.

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So why do we use this type of advertising? Because it works!

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It is in fact a successful method of sharing information with a public that may, otherwise, ignore the problem and evoking emotion is the best way to induct a positive response. However, “In the long run, it does not encourage people to think about the systematic challenges of ending extreme poverty…The use of these inflammatory images of the poor in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude us and them divide to the wider public, namely, that they are entirely and utterly dependent on us” (Julie Ulbricht and Hugh Evans).

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We need to stop and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of human suffering for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience. The people in these images are human beings in need of help not pity and who is it that really benefits from these images considering it is human nature to feel good about yourself for feeling bad about others? On the other hand as Time magazine editor Richard Stengel states “Bad things do happen to people and it is part of our job to confront and explain them”. Without depictions of human suffering would western society ever be exposed to this reality and would the general public ever feel compelled to confront the issue? I’m leaning towards no. The issue becomes not should we be depicting suffering but rather how we should be going about it.

We Are Media

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Journalism is changing. Journalist traditionally considered ‘the gatekeepers of the public sphere‘ are now forced to work within a society in which gates no longer exist. There are literally billions of internet users all over the world, who all have the ability to produce, upload and share information globally every second of everyday without any restrictions.

Citizen Journalism is rising dramatically with more and more people producing content and more and more consumers turning to amateur journalists for their primary sources of information. Thanks to citizen journalism massive caches of previously hard-to-come-by or entirely secret information can be released into the public sphere. News is now a collective of information created by a mass of individual content creators. Take the ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous for example they can be described as a community of users simultaneously existing as an anarchic, digitized global brain and together they are responsible for some of the biggest instances of information leaking ever seen on such a mass global scale.

There are some who say professional journalism and the printed media is a dying industry. Traditional media relies on the scarcity of information in order to sell it. In today’s society, however, scarcity of information is practically non-existent and consumers have the ability to pick and choose what information they want to find out about. Why would you pay for a bundle of news, when you can search the internet for niche news catered to you for free? The answer quality.

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let’s face it there is a lot of useless information floating around in cyberspace, how are we as consumers supposed to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and opinion, important information and nonsensical gibberish? This is where the future of professional journalism still stands. Everyday people still look to legitimate news producers to distinguish news from information.  As the New York Times states its “All the news that’s fit to print“, so you see professional journalism still has an important role, this role, however, has changed.

It would be crazy to think that traditional forms of journalism, such as print media and television news networks, could compete with citizen journalism today. Its faster, citizens often producing first hand content literally moments after an event has occurred, well before news reporters even have a chance to get there. It’s cheaper, at practically zero entry costs more news content can be created than newspapers or news networks could even dream of producing. It’s easier to access, citizens can upload and share information all over the world, giving citizen journalist a greater reach, when it comes to audience, than any news media could hope to extend to. And it’s free.

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The role of the journalist now is it not to produce information but rather to sort it. They have become curators not gatekeepers.  “A curator-journalist makes sense of the chaotic digital publicity for an audience that suffers from an information overload. Curators find, digest, fact-check and repackage information that thousands of others have published on blogs and social media sites”.  The future of professional journalism hasn’t died, it has merely evolved.