The change in media effects (part two)

First, my apologies in taking so long to follow up. I got the nastiest case of flu that I can remember and ran a temperature of over 103 for a week, for the first time since I was in sixth grade. Needless to say, it knocked me for a loop.

In my previous post, I pointed out that there have been four major changes in the journalism world in recent times:

  1. The elimination of the wall between news and entertainment.
  2. The suspension of the Fairness Doctrine.
  3. The increased concentration of media ownership among fewer and fewer people.
  4. Allowing the disadvantages of high technology to prevail over the advantages.

After focusing on the first two earlier, it is time to look at the final two. According to the Corporate Accountability Project, the number of corporations controlling the majority of all U.S. media has dropped from 50 in 1983 to 5 by 2004. Further merger attempts have been thwarted but, given the signals from Washington calling for the end of the FCC, who knows if these will continue to be stopped. This is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue; the oligopoly on news impacts both sides. Two weeks ago, Reuters, one of the few news giants that has worked hard to maintain objectivity, announced that it was cutting over 40 reporters from its staff. As anyone who took Economics 101 knows, the further an industry moves away from genuine competition, the less incentive there is to root out stories that might otherwise be ignored. This is made even worse by the attempts to discredit anyone whose perspective disagrees with that of the Big Five. And we thought Watergate was bad…

This brings us to the final and, for me, most frightening change of all. Let me very clear; I am not an anti-technology Luddite. In my job, the proliferation of Internet sources has allowed my students to do first-rate work in a region that lacks a full-scale research university, and it has allowed me to create lesson plans that never would have dreamed of trying and doing so in the full knowledge that I can help a student who has missed class time catch up much more easily. I could go on and on with the advantages that the Internet has created.

Unfortunately, unabated love for the Internet is like applauding the automobile without account for the 57,000 people automobiles kill each year and also ignoring the role they play in carbon emissions. The scientific world and the auto industry are taking steps, but the technology industry is changing so rapidly that it simply cannot keep up.

First, there is the problem with credibility. We have taught our students that a website whose suffix is “.edu” has had to pass a number of  fact-checkers before it will be allowed onto the Internet. But what about a website with a suffix of “.com?” Does it come from someone with a PhD from Oxford? From someone who has had six beers and is pushing a besotted agenda? Is it someone whose mental stability should be called into question and is creating conspiracy theories, or someone who has a propaganda ax to grind? We don’t yet have easy evaluation tools for sorting through these.

Second, think back to the book Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler., published in 1970. In it, Toffler argued that, “too much change in too short a period of time” had overwhelmed our social networks, because we have the ability to invent new technologies much more rapidly than societies can adapt.

Is there anyone out there who would argue that Toffler’s thesis is more valid today than ever? Add to this the fact that our technological advances have also given us the ability to respond to stimuli very rapidly. The danger here is that issues grow ever more complex, while our tendencies to respond have become more simplified. Not to pick on anyone in particular, but the best-publicized example is Twitter. Its 140-character limit compels users to simplify data at precisely the same time when we need more complex responses to issues.

In summary, websites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart* do a superior job of attracting readership because they respond so rapidly to events. Unfortunately, since they do not hold themselves to the traditional standards of journalism, they are able to get their stories out faster, which compels legitimate news stories to compete. And, since the Internet occupies that gray area between speech and journalism, there isn’t anything in the near future that seems likely to create standards to be followed, nor an educated public that can differentiate.

We love Twitter because it is fast and convenient, and doesn’t demand much of or attention span. Ladies and gentlemen, that is precisely the opposite of what we need to be doing in response to complex issues.

*Please note that this had nothing to do with the former Breitbart executive who is part of president-elect Trump’s transition team.



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