Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
5 September, 2017
Fecha de publicación original: 21 julio, 1998
A sin confessed is a sin half-forgiven
Over the last few weeks, a number of surveys in different countries have revealed something that has been repeatedly alluded to all through the nineties, namely the public’s increasing loss of confidence in the mass media. The two most recent polls, one in Spain and the other in the U. S., have shown that this feeling is steadily on the rise. The reasons are many, although, in general, it seems journalistic malpractice in an increasingly competitive world is to blame. But now other actors have come onto the stage and they are also coming in for a large share of that blame. Particularly the Internet and so-called Web journalism.
On April Fool’s day this year, the editor of the Portland Oregonian, Sandra Mims Rowe, speaking at the annual conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), summed up her year as president of the association with this lapidary sentence: “These are grim times for newspapers” and attributed this to their use of anonymous sources, the negative consequences of newspaper management driven by Wall Street and the “degenerate” influence of the Web. Ms Mims is not alone in her opinion. On Saturday 18 July, the Spanish daily El País dedicated a leading article to the credibility crisis in journalism which “affects countries all over the world and media of all kinds”, according to the writer. Looking for an answer as to why this growing divide between the media and its audience is opening, the newspaper said, and I quote, “Growing, and often fierce competition among them (the media) has a lot to do with the relaxing of professional criteria and ethics amongst journalists. But it also has something to do with the appearance of new media, such as the Internet, where anybody can spread unconfirmed rumours and draw other media behind them”. In other words, this is the real bone of contention, or at least one of them. Readers desert large and prestigious mastheads who publish stories based on unconfirmed sources (Mims “dixit”) or where the professional criteria and ethics of their journalists have been relaxed (El Pais “dixit”) and go off to root around amongst unconfirmed rumours in the Internet which, it seems, represent some kind of higher form of journalism to these ill-informed readers.
Simplistic explanations of this kind do not get us very far. I would suggest a two sided approach to try to understand what is happening. One belongs to the mass media itself and the growing competition within it. The other has to do with the consequences of the Information Society. In the first place, the traditional media operate within a “fixed” structure as far as their format is concerned. There are only so many pages per newspaper, so many minutes per news broadcast, whether on TV or radio, here or in Beijing. Operating within this format, in an increasingly aggressive environment dominated by the need to maintain their position in the market, the media tell their readers what is going on in the world by selecting news items according to a set of criteria, in which there are three objective factors and a subjective one. The objective ones are scarcity of available space, competition among different news stories to get published and the need for variety. The subjective part is, of course, the editorial line of the particular media in question which permeates the previous three.
This combination of factors gives rise to a vision of the world which is very poor and clearly inadequate for those who pay for it. The importance of these criteria may be of little concern to readers (except for the subjective factor, of which they are fully aware due to its ideological content). But the end result is a daily inexplicable mish-mash which sheds no operative light on reality and there is very little they can do with the information that finally reaches them. There is no continuity of events because of the need to “sell” a new product every day and promote the media itself by relying on elements of surprise and self-promotion more than on the quality of content. The world as it is represented one day does not exist the next, it has been replaced by another set of headlines which, often without any apparent reason, reach centre stage only to get scorched by the spotlight and disappear again. On the other hand, they – the readers- are themselves the subjects and objects of events that could get into the media on their own merits but don’t make it or, when they do, readers’ proximity to the source of information immediately makes them only too aware of the superficial way the story has been dealt with by the media. The suspicion that a significant part of reality is being left out, perhaps systematically, begins to grow.
This last feeling is reinforced by the Information Society Age, with its multitude of electronic media and new channels of information, alternative means of obtaining much more specialised (from special) information, more segmented and more suited to the particular interests of a specific audience. And these new media do not operate in a vacuum filled by themselves. Instead they interact and interrelate with all the other media. Up until a short time ago it was possibly true to say that most news of any significance reaching people all over the world came from the mass media. That is no longer the case, or, at least, not quite so much. Cyberspace (the Internet, digital radios, thematic TV channels, digital TV, etc.) has become a bridge from the large media, the content of which is fairly similar all over the world, to a growing differentiation of media sources which are more diverse, specialised and rooted in other realities. While technology pushes us towards the global, information reaches its full meaning by being local where it operates in the more general context generated by the electronic environment. It is in this relationship between the “generalised” mass media and the specific “segmented” media, that the main focus of tension lies in the communications world of today.
The relationship between them also introduces another notable distorting factor that we have not yet learned to live with: velocity. While the large media corporations, who have been seen as the public opinion makers thus far as a result of their preponderant social presence, remain shackled by enormous investment in physical infrastructures, the new media quickly proliferate like troops disembarking for an apparently disorganised and aimless invasion. The result is not just the rapid creation of new emitters of information, but also an increase in the speed of information turnover. Competition between them, combined with the dynamism of electronic systems for the gathering, processing and distribution of information content, raises the question more and more of a new kind of journalism, a real-time journalism exercised jointly by professionals and by thousands of new news emitters armed with a battery of commando-like new technology. But in this case they are communications commandos, specialists in dynamiting the process of information turnover. CNN was the first example of this kind of journalism from the field of large traditional media. The Internet has created the territory for the deployment of the new media.
This situation gives rise to a whole range of new problems (as well as posing many of the perennial ones from a new perspective) that can simply not be dealt with by the classic communications model which was the legacy of the Cold War. Specialised information markets emerging in all societies goes hand in hand with a growing distrust about the role played by the traditional communications media. Appealing to ethical codes created by the journalistic profession (and sometimes by the media companies themselves) is to claim that the past should solve the problems of a future that is already with us. Reality as we see it and recreate it these days demands much more imagination than that and a profound knowledge of what is going on.
It is simply not enough when CNN or Time magazine apologise for their penultimate blunder or that in Spain “media war” is blamed for the lack of credibility in its political information. Neither of them will have time to regain this credibility before the next slip-up. Because the velocity of present day information turnover will just become another banana skin in their path at any minute. They will have to get to the point where they accept that in this changing world there is also a changing audience guided by other parameters. Those that pertain to the big media factory mass production line will become increasingly less attractive to a growing section of this audience. For them, what has been broken is the traditional relationship between emitters and receptors of information, because the latter are now also emitters, or potentially so at least. And the longer the media take to recognise this new state of affairs and act accordingly, the greater the tension generated in the communications world will become. Which is the same as that in the world of politics.
Translation: Bridget King.