Is the news environment being confused and intentionally bombarded? Have the monumental changes in communications technology that empowered citizen journalists also undermined our staple of opinion leaders?
By RA Monaco
The body of an email pushed to my mobile phone on November 4, 2014 at 12:17 PST read, “Democrats say a crowded news environment made it hard for the party to drive its message on the economy and other matters.” The Wall Street Journal editor’s lede opened, “Welcome to the special afternoon edition of the Capital Journal newsletter focusing on the midterms.”
I knew that the polls would be open for several hours and wasn’t surprised to read that both parties had acknowledged the “public’s already gloomy mood” or that it was fueling the GOP narrative. The acknowledgement—that neither party was particularly popular with voters—had come by way of a mid-October Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll according to the email.
News or Partisan Clutter Pushed To Mobile Phones
But was this information I needed to know to engage in self governance—to vote? Was it even news? After all, this message was being pushed to my mobile phone as a “special afternoon edition…focusing on the midterms.” The idea that a “crowded news environment” was to blame for a political party’s difficulty in making clear its message on the economy at first seemed trivial—an excuse. But was the message just partisan clutter, intended to marginalize this party on Election Day—a conclusion that could easily be defended given the current ownership of this once flagship publication?
As I thought more about the “crowded news environment” idea, the email pushed to my phone itself began to seem like a good example of the claim. Anyone who still reads a newspaper, has walked passed a television or turned on a radio wouldn’t have needed a “special afternoon edition” email telling them about the “public’s already gloomy mood.”
Is the News Environment Really To Blame
The last six years of increasingly vicious and empty politically manufactured crises like government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, endless partisanship on healthcare has cluttered our media landscape to be sure—print, broadcast and social media. Has any politician missed an opportunity to comment on Ebola in the last two weeks?
At this point people long for adult conversation about real problems in their lives. Is the news environment really to blame when a party can’t articulate its own agenda? Was a “crowded news environment” even a factor to people who no longer care who runs a government that has stopped working?
All over the world an unbounded participatory network of citizen journalists—formerly the audience—is challenging traditional journalistic practices as well as governments and politicians. But have the monumental changes in communications technology that empowered citizen journalists also undermined our staple of opinion leaders? Or, is the news environment being confused and intentionally bombarded?
A Fundamental Shift in Journalism’s Established Mechanisms
Millions of topical conversations through discussion forums, comment threads and blog posts have begun to take on functions that seems a lot like, well,…journalism. This discordant world of citizen journalism is an exciting digital-news space though largely unfamiliar to journalists, politicians and the public.
The Internet’s participatory potential may be instigating a fundamental shift in the established mechanisms of journalism by bringing new voices into media. But is this shift crowding the news environment? For several years now, established media—newspapers in particular—have been exploring participatory forms of newsgathering and content production, hoping to “connect” more effectively with changing usage patterns and the actual needs and preferences of their public.
Ordinary people have captured and published in words, pictures and videos, stories of global impact—terrorist attacks, devastations caused by tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. But has this same “participatory” volume of citizen transmitted information swamped the authoritative role of our newsrooms—providers of our “news of record?” Has technology made our ability to understand the world—so that we can engage in self governance—more dependent on the traditional gatekeepers of information?
Filling All the Googles to Disrupt
Technology has accelerated information and enabled our self determined attempts to drive social change. Evidence of this is reflected by the proliferation of Web forums devoted to declared points of view and discussion threads around online newspapers.
Importantly, one evolving practice is filling all the Googles with misinformation while crowding the digital landscape with outrage independent of facts—force people to invest time sifting for the truth. Just confusing people and getting them worried has become a primary evil of internet journalism—skip all the steps of Journalism 101 and you’re on your way to becoming the “King of Clutter.”
Also, in the vernacular of Internet-speak a parallel trend has earned the label “concern troll.” It’s a sympathetic or concerned approach to swaying the shared goal of a group’s opinion. But the intent is simply to disrupt genuine discussions that are otherwise essential to civic discourse. The practice undermines a shared point of view and insincerely crowds the digital landscape.
While the “concern troll” engages the topic claiming a shared goal their primary purpose is to disrupt, sometimes posting off-topic messages to frustrate or simply provoke online readers in the forum or newsgroup.
Traffic to Newspaper Websites Has Grown Enormously
While revenue from online news has not boomed, its usage has. Journalists who write for newspapers these days have far more readers than at any time in the past. In fact, traffic to newspaper websites has grown enormously in the past few years. National papers routinely attract tens of millions of readers every month—exponentially more than they have in print.
According to a 2009 report from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, significant changes in newsroom structures, organizations and working conditions for journalists didn’t occurred in an industry vacuum—a severe economic crisis put the entire newspaper industry in a near free fall. Surely the open revenue-faucets of the 2014 mid-term election campaign weren’t ignored by the industry, but did this increased revenue create an over-crowded news environment?
More Voters Used Cell Phones to Follow the Campaign
Keeping tabs on political events using a Smartphone has increased dramatically—a trend likely to continue. As I experienced firsthand, cell phones played a prominent role in how voters get political information during the recent campaign. In this election some 40 percent of voters ages 30-49 used their cell phones to follow the campaign with 28 percent of all registered voters following election related news on a cell phone.
The new Pew Research Center survey also found that voters of all ages were more likely to follow candidates and political figures on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter which, not surprisingly, also played an important role in election cycle news for supporters of both parties.
Getting News Quickly Was Important
Finding out about political news before other people did was a “major reason” to follow a political figure on social media according to the survey. Also, getting what they perceived as being more reliable information than what was available from traditional news organizations. But finding out about news quickly was apparently more important to those with right-leaning affiliations.
The recent Pew survey determined that 78 percent of Americans who followed candidates or political-pundits on social media found the information posted was mostly interesting and relevant. So, was it the message people identified with politically that people wanted to hear? Or, was the news environment crowded for some and not others?
Interestingly, following a political figure on social media suggests a demand for unfiltered or raw information—content not vetted by traditional media sources. Logically then, it could be reasoned that it wasn’t traditional news organizations cluttering the news environment.
Readers may want to pause here to reflect on our recent discovery of Facebook’s mood experiments and what voters might later learn about manipulation of the news cycle on social media—would anyone be surprised if money could purchase the manipulation of election news?
Political Lying is Religion
Earlier this year, in a landmark decision that struck down an Ohio law that would have made it harder to lie in political ads, Chief Justice John Roberts writing for a Supreme Court majority argued, “For politicians, lying is a religious observance akin to attending a church or synagogue, except that they do it seven days a week.” Apparently, the Court’s 5—4 majority decision had been “long overdue,” winning praise from politicians of both parties.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this blessing from Chief Justice Roberts complicates the dynamic evolution of our news environment—particularly in the most protected stages of the news production process, selection and filtering.
Demand for Unfiltered News Signals Potential Danger
The notion of enabling readers to decide what is news has been generally taboo from the perspective of professional journalists and traditional news publications. The act of a citizen or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information reflects a redefining of our news environment.
Importantly, the recent Pew Research Center survey has alerted us to the priorities of the public and their demand for rapid unfiltered news now. The idea of a citizen or group of citizens, playing an active role in the agenda-setting of news also signals potential danger, particularly when rapid interactive surges of information circumvent traditional journalists and crowd the news environment.
Citizen journalism may hold genuine promise for our democratic values but it may be too soon for journalists to surrender their traditional position as gatekeepers now that “lying is a religious observance” and legally sanctioned in an increasingly crowded political news environment—public beware.