Sunday, September 19, 2004

NNA conference report 5

More or less to wrap up: in more than one session I picked up on a sense that there is, indeed, something amiss with contemporary journalism, something that keeps it from being really connected to its readership in the way that it should (given its important function in a democracy). It has to do with a felt distance between reporters and their audience, which in turn seems to be implicated in the polarization of everything.

According to Arthur Sulzberger, the bloggers are at fault: "too many [bloggers] simply contribute to the sense that we're in the midst of an opinion-ridden free-for-all." But some journalists recognize that their own learned habits might have something to do with it.

In "Community-Building through Interactive Mass Communication," Jack Morris of Loyola hit on the subject. Unhappily, his paper was so full of communications theory jargon that I doubt it got through very well. He did cite the right sources, though--standard texts like Daniel Yankelovich's Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy work in a Complex World (Syracuse 1991)--to argue that objectivity might itself be part of the problem:

In their professional competition to be the most objective, . . . many journalists apparently have objectified their readers, too, even though in most cases they are not observing their readers but trying to communicate with them. Journalists systematically overlook readers' values because they are systematically trained to be concerned only with objective facts.

And further,

to remain detached from sources and readers, journalists routinely rely on experts, who also tend to objectify the public. Every side of an issue has its own experts, and every side tends to overstate its point of view so that public issues often are presented in the media as polarized conflicts. . . . [Objective journalism's] preoccupation with conflict has led to reporting dominated by extremists.

This analysis sounds a lot like what Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review has to say about objectivity, which I cited in an earlier post on the subject. It is not enough for a journalist to quote on authority ("he said") and turn to a competing authority ("she said") and stop there. This is lazy; and yet it seems that journalists fear going any further, for fear of sounding biased. What's missing is real news analysis. Writes Cunningham, "[W]e need to free (and encourage) reporters to develop expertise and to use it to sort through competing claims, identify and explain the underlying assumptions of those claims, and make judgments about what readers and viewers need to know to understand what is happening."

That's exactly what the best bloggers I know are doing.

But in two and a half days of conferencing, I didn't get much of a sense that the member papers of the NNA were interested in this other world. What little attention there was to using the web was almost all from the top down. It was not reassuring that the man who seemed to get it the most, Dean Singleton, is a media mogul.

Dan Gillmor, whose book I finished on the plane home, should be a must-read for all newspaper folks. (The entire book is downloadable for free.) I wish he had been at the NNA conference rather than where he was, at the Journalism Professors Conference in Toronto. Isn't that preaching to the converted? Maybe not yet entirely, but surely there are fewer in need of conversion there. Gillmor writes,

Technological advances always threaten established business models. And the people whose businesses are threatened always try to stop progress. Cory Doctorow is an online civil libertarian and science fiction author who published two novels and also made them freely downloadable online the day they were in bookstores. "The Vaudeville performers who sued Marconi for inventing the radio had to go from a regime where they had one hundred percent control over who could get into the theater and hear them perform to a regime where they had zero percent control over who could build or acquire a radio and tune into a recording of them performing," he told me. The performers, in other words, wanted to prevent new technology from disrupting a successful old business model.

The winners in the future of journalism will be the ones who understand that the old business model won't do.

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