In an age when a U.S. congressman resigned because of a tawdry tweet, and news of the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist first spread online through social networking sites, we have stumbled upon a media landscape of a curious nature.
Today, you can’t even watch the nightly news without being bombarded by requests to weigh in with your thoughts. With the rise of online review sites, your opinions can make or break a business. When the president delivers an address, listeners around the world can comment online, in “real time.” For many of us, tuning in is no longer just about watching a show—it’s about getting online with others to talk about what’s happening and feel part of a community.
Blowing Up the News Business
Everyone knows that newspapers have struggled in the age of the Internet, now the main source of news for most people. In a report released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 46 percent of respondents said they get most of their news online, surpassing newspapers for the first time.
When the first publications offered their content online for free, others followed suit, not wanting to be left behind in the transition to the web. The idea was to build traffic first and make money later through advertising. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Online advertising has never come close to replacing the lost revenue of print ads. Meanwhile, people grew accustomed to getting the news for free. So when some sites started charging, many refused to dish out the dough.
The print-to-web transition has offered some real benefits to consumers. No more waiting on the arrival of the morning paper—you can read about the world’s events in seconds, and stories can be updated as they happen. But the expectation of free news has led to a major problem for professional journalists. Folks don’t expect staff at the Peoria Journal Star to stand on street corners, tossing free newspapers at passersby. Whether printed on dead trees or displayed on a screen, a quality story requires time, hard work and money to produce.
Many publications have instituted online paywalls, a trend which picked up speed in March following The New York Times’ second paywall attempt of the last decade. Days later, the Journal Star offered its own, charging readers $6.95 a month (or $69.95 a year) for full online access after exceeding a threshold of complementary articles. While the success of paywalls remains to be seen, there does appear to be a new willingness on the part of consumers to pay for online content. After the institution of the Times paywall, the paper reported that “early indicators are encouraging.” Time will tell.
Life in the Echo Chamber
As of March 31st, the world has more than two billion Internet users, according to Internet World Stats, a leading source of data on worldwide Internet usage. More people are online, and more news is available than ever before. But is that necessarily a good thing?
Sure, it’s easier to reconnect with old friends, and the Internet has allowed people to become knowledgeable about a host of previously less accessible topics. But the rise of personalization on the Web has some arguing that it’s restricting our world view. “Thanks to advances in personalization,” said Jacob Weisberg, former editor-in-chief of Slate magazine, “we are all getting more of what we like and agree with and less that challenges our beliefs.” Republicans follow conservative news sites; Democrats follow liberal ones. Perhaps this helps explain the increasing polarization of today’s political climate.
Today’s Internet users often see only what they want to see. Everyone has their own customized news stream, crafted just for them by media giants like Facebook and Google. They can block updates from specific people or groups, while opting for more exposure to others. Software applications like Flipboard create personalized magazines for the iPad based on the user’s interests. And it speaks volumes that general newspaper sales have plummeted while specialty niche magazines are thriving. “It creates the impression that our narrow self-interest is all that exists,” wrote Eli Pariser in The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.
This so-called “filter bubble” is also perceptible under the covers of the world’s largest search engine. Pariser notes that Google personalizes its search results according to at least 57 different factors—whether you’re logged into the site or not. At the height of last year’s oil spill, he asked two women to search for the term “BP.” One received investment information at the top of her search results, while the other saw news about the oil spill. Such a discrepancy may seem innocuous, but the potential implications of Google’s algorithms deciding what you see (or don’t see) are obvious.
Weisberg, on the other hand, thinks these concerns are overblown. He says that Pariser is “dead wrong…in assuming that personalization narrows our perspectives rather than broadening them. Through most of history, bubbles have been imposed involuntarily. Not so long ago, most Americans got their news primarily through three like-minded networks and local newspapers that reflected a narrow consensus.”
Weisberg believes that access to more options expands people’s worldviews rather than constricting them. “Why assume that when people have more options, they will choose to live in an echo chamber?” he asked.
Lining Up the News
As with online personalization, the unifying aspect of today’s media landscape seems to be a focus on the user. This can also be seen in the practice of citizen journalism, in which “regular” people become the reporters, presenting information to the public via blogs and other outlets.
One local example caught national attention in June as people around the country clicked on a Drudge Report link that read, “Pandemonium in Peoria.” The link took readers to a post on The Peoria Chronicle, a popular local blog that crashed temporarily after receiving so many hits. The post in question was an account of one local activist’s description of a supposed racial mob incident in his neighborhood.
The ensuing controversy over what actually happened that night clearly illustrates both the positive and negative aspects of citizen journalism. On one hand, if this account had not been posted, the public might never have heard about the incident at all. On the other hand, it’s unclear exactly what occurred, as the post was based on a single eyewitness account—and one that has been called into question by others.
“How does an unvetted blog post in Peoria trigger national attention?” asked the Journal Star’s Phil Luciano. “It is very possible that after the account left Peoria, no human was involved. Think about that. Say a story—not this story, in particular, but any story—is false, either by mistake or malice. Yet it gets picked up automatically and earmarked for national exposure—all without any human input.” Sound troublesome? In this case, the opinions of tens of thousands across the country were impacted by a story that may or may not have been accurate.
Dr. Sara Netzley, associate chairperson of Bradley University’s Department of Communication, notes that citizen journalism often lacks external facts to back up the writer’s perspective, and it can be difficult for readers to tell whether the information presented is incomplete, inaccurate or one-sided. “With [professional] journalists, you know that information has been collected from reliable sources, the facts have been verified, the story’s been checked by editors and so forth,” explained Netzley. Or at least that’s how it ought to be.
According to a Gallup poll conducted last September, 57 percent of Americans have little to no trust in the media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly—the highest reported number of the 10-year poll. The ongoing News Corp. phone hacking scandal, which brought down the 168-year-old News of the World, only seems to validate these doubts.
With deep cuts at newspapers across the country, reporters no longer have the time or resources to conduct investigative journalism as they once did. So who’s to play that vital watchdog role, holding public figures and institutions to account?
While the “Peoria mob” story highlights some of the problems with citizen journalism, it also illustrates its benefits. “A citizen in the right place at the perfect moment will be able to snap a photo that no one else could’ve gotten…police arresting the person next door, a tornado touching down two streets over,” says Netzley. “It helps tell the story more fully…Citizen journalism can fill an important gap in news gathering.”
In any case, no matter where people get their news, they should be cautious. “It requires a bit more skepticism and consumption of multiple news sources to be sure that the news lines up,” adds Netzley. “Citizen journalism shouldn’t be the lone source of information, but one of many that people turn to as they examine the story from many angles.” This is sound advice to consumers of any type of news, no matter how reputable the outlet.
Empowering the People
One of the benefits of citizen journalism is that it puts the people in control. The Internet is the key driver in affording them that power—from finding the best hotel deals to selecting the right doctor. And this power doesn’t just lie in finding the best deals, but also in our ability to affect change, large and small.
There once was a time when a retail clerk could be rude to a customer and never see a negative impact on the store. Today, with the rise of online review sites and other modes of interaction, such an incident could cause customers to take their business elsewhere. Here, the Internet offers a strong motivation for companies to improve their services.
On a larger scale, online petitioning and social activism sites offer outlets for those seeking to affect change, allowing them to join forces in ways never before possible. When Libyan forces captured several journalists in April, more than 35,000 online signatures and a worldwide push led to their release. In June, a famous Chinese artist was freed from unjust imprisonment when activists around the world rallied to his cause. Closer to home, online activists played a role in taking controversial pundit Glenn Beck off the air when more than 300 companies pulled their ads from his show.
Without digital technologies, the pro-democracy uprisings in many Arab countries earlier this year might never have occurred, let alone succeeded. Had the “Arab Spring” occurred just several years earlier, aggressive military action would probably have quelled the demonstrators, but because of the ubiquity of smartphones with built-in cameras and the ability to connect online via social networking, the world was watching.
As the Syrian cyber-activist Rami Nakhla explained to Time magazine, “You can’t quash an uprising if millions of people are acting like their own independent news stations.” Worldwide pressure prompted these autocracies to act much differently than they would have otherwise. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously expressed, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
New Habits Die Hard
While many people don’t have a higher purpose in their online usage, they’re still connecting online more than ever. First there was Friendster and MySpace. Then came Facebook, Twitter and now, Google+.
Social media has become so ingrained in our habits that some people now comment on everything—from what they’re eating for lunch to their thoughts on the latest reality show. In an article for Fast Company magazine, Ellen McGirt wrote, “If you’re not watching live—and reading the comments from friends, your favorite celebrities and even total strangers via Twitter—you’re missing half the show.”
“Observing events and then commenting about them on social media has become our national religion,” wrote comedian Dean Obeidallah on CNN.com in July. “We anxiously wait for the next celebrity to screw up, another politician to be caught in a sex scandal…or simply a friend to do something stupid so that we can quickly begin worshipping at the altar of the social media platform of our choice to offer our (or read others') opinions, jokes, jibes and the occasional insightful thought.”
Obeidallah worries that the Internet is making us lazy. “In the 1940s and ‘50s,” he wrote, “there was the “Greatest Generation,” a generation of doers, not watchers, who through their dedication, work ethic and sacrifice, built our nation into an economic superpower. They were followed…by a generation that took to the streets…causing American policy to change on both the foreign policy and domestic fronts.” In contrast, he suggests, “many of us are only engaged in slacktivism: clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, digitally signing an online petition or re-tweeting someone else’s thoughts on Twitter. That’s a good start, but it will take more than that to cause meaningful change.” And yet, in spite of that critique, the events of the Arab Spring demonstrate that digital tools can indeed spur meaningful change.
Why does a comedian’s opinion on the news matter, anyway? Well, this is the age in which comedian Jon Stewart is the foremost source of news for more than a few young people, who often lack the patience and background knowledge to sort through today’s confusing media landscape.
When it comes to the media, the rise of digital technologies has been a game-changer, for good and bad. The old days are gone, and they’re not coming back. No one is really in control anymore—witness Rupert Murdoch, forced to testify in front of British Parliament for the first time in his 80 years. The future holds great promise, and the Internet has put powerful tools into the hands of the many. But “with great power comes great responsibility,” as the old saying goes, and that is an outcome that is far from assured. iBi