Journalists on the wrong side of history when it comes to social media

April 26, 2019

In the last week or so some fairly senior journalists and journalism academics have launched a defence of mainstream reporters and reporting by suggesting that most, if not all, criticism of journalists is coming from a Trumpian perspective. This perspective has appeared in several tweets by senior journalists and it has been given a more ‘respectable’ form in a column by ABC talking head Michael Rowland.

In a piece published on the ABC News website Rowland lamented that he – and other reporters – have been on the receiving end of some insulting and even abusive tweets.

Now, journalism isn’t exactly the profession for shrinking violets.

If you cover the brutal game of politics you have to be particularly robust, but the level of muck being hurled around on Twitter at the moment would test the toughest of souls.

Personally speaking, I have noticed a huge increase in abuse and petty name-calling since the election campaign began.

The free character references I’ve received have often been quite inventive.

He wasn’t the only member of the journalistic elite to give voice to such views. Academic and Nine commentator (she’s published in what we used to know as the Fairfax mastheads) Jenna Price went into bat to defend Patricia Karvelas who also copped some flack over an incident on Insiders the previous weekend.

Social media has become an incubator for hatred of journalists, led by President Donald Trump after learning from the best, the troll armies of President Rodrigo Duterte, says senior research fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti.

Chris Uhlmann takes his complaint against the cultural Marxists a step further. He claims we are worse than the far-right. His former ABC colleague Leigh Sales has also publicly attacked what she calls “far left bias” against the ABC in general and her program in particular.

Far Left Fury

This is a misleading claim that attempts to delegitimise progressive critiques of the mainstream news media by lumping all critics of journalism into one ideological pigeon hole.

How would Leigh Sales – or Chris Uhlmann for that matter – identify someone as “far left”. They wouldn’t know from any position of nuanced reading or understanding; all they have to go on are their own prejudiced and stereotyped views from a position of privileged elitism.

However, what really annoyed me was this tweet from Miriam Cosic who has been a journo for a while and who also makes much of her postgraduate qualifications in philosophy.

Miriam got upset with me when I described this thinking as “lazy”, but it is intellectually lazy. There is a world of difference between a progressive left critique of journalism and the news media and Donald Trump’s Fascistic demonization of journalism he doesn’t like.

However, I guess these same ‘very fine’ people might dismiss my views out of hand. After all, I am a fully paid-up card-carrying life-long member of what Chris Uhlmann has derisively labelled the “post-Christian left”.

Chomsky, not Trumpski

I think there are two distinct political positions on media criticism, and it is wrong to conflate them.

One is certainly a neo-Fascist view that has been thoroughly discredited but that is espoused by Trump and his supporters and originated with the Nazi regime’s propaganda trope of the Lügenpresse or “lying media”.

The other is diametrically opposed to this and, as a form of shorthand, I’m going to call this the Chomskyian view.

The Chomskyian view is based on a long history of progressive, left-wing and anti-capitalist critiques of the news media and it is summarised rather well in Chomsky and Herman’s classic phrase about the “manufacture” of consent.

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman described the media in capitalist society as a propaganda machine. They were right then and the same holds true today.

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

The problem for the ruling class and its media allies is that the machine is breaking down and they’re fresh out of spare parts.

I’ve tried before in IA and in many of my other recent writings, including this book and this journal article, to explain the important differences between a Trumpian view of “fake news” and a more sophisticated analysis of journalism, journalists and the news media that situates the whole “fake news” discussion into an historical and theoretical context which is known as the political economy of communication.

I’ve also written about media issues extensively in IA, including here, here, here, here and here. I also wrote a long review of Katharine Murphy’s pamphlet, On Disruption in which she defends the News Establishment’s approach to the disruption caused by social media.

Here’s one takeaway from that piece:

Murphy raises the important question of the relationship between a media ecology that has begun a descent into what she accurately describes as ‘a febrile, superficial, shouty, shallow, pugnacious cacophony of content, where sensation regularly trumps insight’, and the demagoguery of Trump and his European imitators.

Murphy asks us rhetorically:

‘Did we, the disrupted media, somehow create Donald Trump? Did we enable him?’ 

However, she struggles to provide a coherent answer.

I think the collapse of the old certainties in the news media and the failure of the News Establishment to effectively reflect on its mistakes certainly gave strength to the Trumpian view that the news media is the ‘enemy of the people’.

However, let’s be clear this is a talking point of the Alt Right and its enablers. It is not a view shared by progressive critics of the News Establishment.

A direct attack on democracy and active citizenship

I have no problem with journalists defending themselves on Twitter, but the common tactic from the News Establishment has been to shy away from directly responding to serious critics and, instead, to focus on the minority of idiots who make vile threats.

I want to be clear; I do not support threats of violence, racist, sexist or homophobic abuse against reporters, but I don’t mind a bit of hard-hitting sarcasm.

The world has changed over the past 20 years and as we’re constantly told by the very same Establishment figures when they’re trying to gouge subscriptions from us: engagement is the new normal. There is no going back, social media has changed the journalistic landscape forever.

The problem is the News Establishment wants engagement on its terms. Engagement for them means we take out subscriptions and become unpaid sources for them or allow them to scour material from our social media feeds to pad out otherwise thin reporting.

What the News Establishment definitely doesn’t want is an active Fifth Estate undermining its authority or its cosy relationship with the rich and powerful.

I would go so far as to suggest that the pushback against their serious critics on Twitter reveals the truly anti-democratic nature of their thinking and their true ideological position.

At least that’s how I’ve interpreted this tweet from ABC reporter Matt Bevan.

Maybe he was joking, or at least maybe that’s what he’d say if challenged, but I think it’s telling.

Twitter provides a platform for what we might call ‘monitorial citizenship’, that is the ability for ordinary people to talk directly to the powerful.

This is upsetting for the News Establishment because, for the past 200 years or so, they have been the principal gatekeepers. Journalists were in a privileged position of mediating between the rulers and the ruled.

They were treated to a rare glimpse inside the halls of power – the first Press Gallery was established in the Palace of Westminster in 1803 – in return they were expected to massage the more brutal pronouncements of the powerful and provide for the “manufacture of consent”.

The News Establishment has played a supporting role ever since; agreeing to keep some secrets to protect the State and legitimising the consolidation of the two-party system.

It was his observation of the Westminster gallery that prompted this acerbic jab from Oscar Wilde:

“Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it…But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated.”

Until recently, Establishment accounts of political machinations were not open to direct challenge. The public had to pretty much accept as gospel whatever the journalists wrote.

Now that has changed and now amount of whining from the News Establishment is going to put that genie back in its box.

The monitorial citizen is here to stay.

The monitorial citizen in a democracy is described by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson as a person outside of the dominant political structure who feels a responsibility to monitor what powerful institutions do, and to get involved when they feel power is being abused.

Schudson is no “post-Christian” leftist. He is a respected, bespectacled professor and himself aligned with the most News Establishment New York establishment, Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet he is able to see what many of our own – vastly anti-intellectual in outlook – news media refuse to see or are willfully blind to.

The power of the News Establishment is waning; monitorial citizens are taking to social media to clapback at the mistakes, misjudgements and misleading inferences that mainstream reporters make routinely.

The inestimable Mr Denmore summed it up nicely on his blog, The Failed Estate, in a piece called ‘All media is social’:

The public isn’t stupid. Much of the criticism they are expressing on social media about journalists reflects a sense of frustration that the issues they are their families care deeply about (like climate change or stagnant incomes or our treatment of refugees) are not advancing.

Quite.

 


Social media doesn’t shoot people. Nazis with guns shoot people

March 20, 2019

There’s been an inevitable backlash against social media in the wake of the Christchurch massacre. Mainstream news organisations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon of blaming Twitter, Facebook and sections of the more obscure ‘dark web’ for the radicalisation of young men into the political orbit of white nationalists. However, I don’t think we should blame social media for the rise of Nazi shooters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrrison is among those calling for a “crackdown” on social media supposedly to prevent further terror incidents. However, this is putting the cart before the horse and then flogging the cart even though the horse is, itself, almost dead.

And of course, The Australian is out there whipping away hysterically.

Yes, a strained metaphor, but I think an apt one.
Let me explain.

It’s easy to blame the machines

The idea that social media is somehow responsible for capturing the minds of susceptible people and turning them into homicidal racist monsters is easy to grasp and it’s comfortable; but it is wrong. It plays to a generalised anxiety about the potentially harmful effects of too much technology and it seems to offer an easy solution, but it really means more surveillance for all of us.

If the technology itself is a corrupting force, then why don’t we just ban it or at least impose some proper controls mandated by a responsible authority – the government, for example.

The simplicity of this idea is its major appeal, but there is a secondary appeal in this argument, one that is very useful for politicians, mainstream media and journalists seeking to deflect any blame that might attach to them.

I am not questioning the idea that social media channels and platforms can play a role in ‘radicalising’ some people, particularly teenagers. In fact, there are some forms of online radicalisation I’m in favour of. A good example is the recent global student strike around the lack of serious political action to stop climate change. The fact that hundreds of thousands of school and university students can see their peers take action and feel inspired about joining in is a good thing. However, the real political movement coheres on the street, or as we increasingly feel it necessary to emphasise, in the ‘real’ world as opposed to the ‘cyber’ world.

The climate striking students gain an initial sense of solidarity from being able to connect online via Facebook groups, WhatsApp and other chat forums, but they really only see the real power they have when they come together and march, rally, paint placards, chant and, in some cases, defy their parents and headmasters to cut school for the day.

It is instructive to note that when politicians wanted to attack the climate marches and berate the students into staying in class, it wasn’t social media that they chose to blame it was mysterious ‘adult’ activists pulling the strings and manipulating pliable and suggestible young minds.

Read the rest of this entry »


Graduates take a social media tour – the immediate future of journalism?

November 22, 2009

Two graduating students from AUT’s journalism programme are traveling up and down (mostly up) New Zealand filing stories, video, photos and blogs for the New Zealand Herald website.

Andrew Hughes and Olivia Wix on tour

Olivia Wix and Andrew Hughes were selected to undertake the three week summer tour with a focus on the job market for young people and graduating students.

This is an interesting experiment for the nzherald.co.nz that involves Andrew and Olivia in doing their own VJ work, tweeting and posting updates to Facebook as well as to the news website.

It’s one of the first serious attempts to harness social networking and social media in the New Zealand news market and I don’t know if it will lead to full-time work for Olivia and Andrew, but it could be a harbinger of how journalism graduates might have to work in the future.

Of course, I don’t want to over-sell it and many of my graduating 2009 class are working already in more traditional journalism jobs in local newspapers up and down the nation; in radio and television newsrooms and in trade and niche publications. Though I have noticed a growing number of online-focused positions becoming available, both within the MSM and in smaller publishing houses.

Stuff.co.nz — the online portal for all of the Fairfax papers in New Zealand is in the process of hiring a social media editor for its Wellington newsroom. This is following the lead of several overseas publications, including the New York Times.

One of my 2009 graduating students, Jess Harkins is campaigning hard for this job. “Good luck, Jess”.

On one level hiring cheap young graduates to travel around the country by bus to file quick stories might be seen as a cynical marketing ploy to scrabble back some of the Gen Y audience that has all but deserted newspapers in favour of social media. However,  but you could also defend it as a smart move that not only opens up this demographic and reaches out to them in their own space and language, but one that also creates opportunities for new story ideas, sources and leads to find their way into the news mix.

You can follow Andrew and Olivia from their first Herald story, but also on Twitter and Facebook.


Updating #media140 day two under way

November 6, 2009

An update from the Media140 conference in Sydney where I’ve been for the past two days.

Interesting ideas and discussion and for me very pleasing to see that some journalists and media organisations  actually get “it”, without going overboard to claim that journalism is dead – but doesn’t know it’s a corpse – in the way that many social media evangelists twitter on about.

This is just a holding post with some highlights and a link to Jay Rosen’s speaking notes.

Jay Rosen is a professor at NYU and one of the world’s leading social media evangelists (IMHO). He’s just about to start on a feed via Skype, so I’ll be back with a review when he’s finished.

Rebooting the News System in the Age of Social Media

Here are the ten key ideas I plan to share with the Media140/Sydney conference underway right now in Sydney, Australia. I will be speaking to the conference via Skype in a few hours.  The theme of the event is “the future of journalism in the social media age.”  These ten Twitter-able ideas are my contribution to that puzzle.

1. Audience atomization has been overcome. (Link)

2. Open systems don’t work like closed systems. (Link)

3. The sources go direct.  (Dave Winer)

4. When the people formerly known as the audience use the press tools they have to inform one another— that’s citizen journalism. (Link)

5. “There’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure.” (Clay Shirky)

6. “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” (Jeff Jarvis)

7. “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” (John Wanamaker)

8. “Here’s where we’re coming from’ is more likely to be trusted than the View from Nowhere. (Link)

9. The hybrid forms will be the strongest forms. (Link)

10. “My readers know more than I do.” (Dan Gillmor)

Bonus notion: You gotta grok it before you can rock it. (Link)

 

Media140  Blog – background on conference & upcoming events

Mark Colvin’s speech about Twitter and Iran

ABC News report

Barry Saunders’ blog on Malcolm Turnbull’s presentation


Some interesting thoughts on social media for legacy giants

November 5, 2009

I’m at #media140 in Sydney, the keynote this morning was ABC managing director Mark Scott. He outlined some interesting innovations for legacy media wanting to get on the Twitterverse bandwagon.

 

He started with the 4Ts: Telegraph, Telephone, Typewriter, Twitter. An interesting geneaology of communications technologies.

Scott noted that the 4Ts have always been about short, sharp reports of breaking news; particularly the generation of good headlines. He talked about how the ABC is moving quickly to embrace social media with the appointment of a coordinator of social media to formalise the ABC’s presence across all social networking sites.

The ABC is also today releasing its guidelines for staff using social media. The four guiding principles are really about brand protection and like the NYT are designed not to give guidance for journalists using social media as  tool, but more about social media as a distribution network:

  1. Don’t mix professional and personal social media views in a way that will bring the ABC into disrepute
  2. Don’t undermine your effectiveness as work
  3. Don’t imply ABC endorsement for personal views
  4. Do not disclose confidential information

Nothing here about journalistic ethics.

Scott made a good point about sharing information and allowing audiences to distribute ABC content. Setting up a number of widgets for people to embed on Facebook and blogs etc is obviously good business sense.

The ABC’s also launching ABC Open as a “digital town square” and part of this is training UGC providers in 50 locations to generate content.

This is the pro-am model and as Scott mentioned there has to be journalistic leadership, but also recognising that the audience is often closer to the story – at least in the initial stages.

The catchphrases are collaboration; conversation, communication and partnerships.

More later when I’ve had time to digest this and get my hands on some more notes.

Julie Posetti also argued that this is a revolution, not a war, but no doubt there will be casualties.


Media 140: Sydney social media & journalism conference looks interesting

October 2, 2009

Media 140Top

Future of Journalism in the Social Media Age An international collaboration asks “What is the future of journalism in the Social Media Age?”. Staged at ABC’s Eugene Goossens’ Hall, Sydney on 5th – 6th of November, bringing together Australia’s leading journalists, broadcasters, social media advocates and media academics.

To educate and promote debate within the media industry about Twitter and realtime social media platforms and practices. If you are a broadcaster, journalist, media academic, social media advocate, publisher or student in journalism you need to be at the event.

Register here for tickets. Available now from $145 until 5th October.

EM will definitely be attending this conference; the list of speakers is impressive, but I can’t help wondering if there’s going to be a lot of hype about how wonderful Twitter, etc are. The agenda reads like the table of contents for News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet? which is now “in house” at Allen & Unwin.

It will be a chance to catch up with the publishers too.