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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Can Digital Culture Be Ethical? Some Positive Signs

I was invited to speak to a group of Ontario elected officials and civil servants about the future of reliable information in the environment of "fake news." On the panel with me were two very thoughtful digerati: Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman
 and Tessa Sproule who runs an impressive website called Vubble.
Both Craig and Tessa are powerful proponents for finding a way in which digital culture can co-exist and thrive in the present media environments. That is difficult as media organizations still cling to digital as a solution, when instead the technology is still in my opinion, just another tool and not a replacement culture.

Still I was encouraged to hear how Craig and Tessa are confronting the issue of dis- and misinformation directly. In my remarks (see below) to the group, I expressed a certain skepticism. Thanks to Tessa and Craig, I may have to rethink some of that.

Why Newsrooms Have Become the Digital Sweatshops

Media managers are wondering what went wrong. They are asking why journalism doesn't pay any more. If the solutions are hard to discern, they have only to look at the technology they so eagerly embrace.

It's the digital technology. Digital emerged in the late 90s and early 2000s. It has spread throughout many industries including journalism, like a virus. As ratings and circulation declined, media organizations, pressured by shareholders and desperate to find a way to return to the great profit margins, seized on digital as the silver bullet of transformations. But if ever there was a poison pill, it is the digital culture. It has enlarged our possibilities while offering up cat videos, celebrity sightings and listicles. It is driving journalistic deviance downward, to paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Yet media organizations cling to digital like a torpedoed sailor clings to a raft, hoping that the submarine won't hit them again.

Recently in Toronto, at a gathering sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, three prominent newspaper publishers discussed the future of the business. To a person, they were all bullish on the future. And that future for newspapers, they said, is digital, digital and more digital. I think that’s code for “more layoffs coming soon!”

We live in strange times.
  • We have a lodging system called Air BnB. It doesn't own any actual hotels.
  • There's a food delivery service called Foodora. It doesn't own any restaurants.
  • There's a video service called Youtube. It doesn't own movie or TV companies.
  • There's a taxi company called Uber. It doesn't own any cars.

All of those businesses - and many others - have been transformed by digital. While customers have benefited from the ease, cost-effectiveness and simplicity of digital, there is also a powerful downside: wages for workers in those industries have plummeted, working conditions for journalism are often worse (turning newsrooms into the equivalents of digital sweatshops) and company morale, in many instances is still dropping and not yet hit rock bottom. 

At the same time, profit margins in many industries, have never been greater.

Journalism is also being Uber-ized.  Newspapers have closed or been downsized, broadcasters have cut their more expensive (and usually more labour-intensive) content. Freelancers are being hired while experienced, older journalists are laid off. In the rush to return to the once rich profit margins of the early 2000s, media organizations are being urged by their shareholders to dispense with expensive ventures like international reporting. Instead, news consultants are hired to telling their news clients that weather, traffic and crime (WTC) are what most audiences prefer.  

Not co-incidentally, WTC also happens to be the cheapest and most readily available content. And all three bits of low-hanging journalistic fruit, happen to originate from government sources. So much for independent journalistic inquiry. 

Worse yet, media organizations, especially broadcasters, try to entice their audiences through “clickbait.” This is defined as "an eyecatching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser ("Paid" click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks."

It's rarely newsworthy, but it does attract eyeballs. The assumption seems to be that audiences will stay for the "serious" content after gorging on the fluff. The CBC's website seems to be particularly smitten with "clickbait" even though their own journalists complain and the public resents this waste of the public broadcaster's journalistic efforts and reputation.

No technological change can ever be reversed. Occasionally, it can be slowed, even questioned. Can the effects of the digital culture be made to work on behalf of the culture, rather than against it? If journalism in Canada (and elsewhere) is to survive, then it has to resist digital's worst qualities (listicles, cat videos and celebrity sightings) in order to let the digital culture offer what's best on behalf of the public.

One of the best qualities of a journalist is skepticism. But when it comes to digital, skepticism has been replaced with unquestioning enthusiasm. And the information-starved public is being left behind.

1 comment:

  1. The trouble is that digital media increasingly report on isolated incidents - with no context.
    And the sheep-like people (the masses) extrapolate and generalize as if that one incident represents the big picture.It's similar to when news reports (or Facebook or Twitter) reports a brutal murder in a particular city, and some people conclude that it's unsafe to travel there.
    There is no underestimating the inability of the masses to apply appropriate risk assessment or to analyze political,social and economic realities with anything more than a knee-jerk, visceral, un-reflective response.

    Media literacy for the public is essential. And all platforms and vehicles which pretend to be journalistic need to take their civic responsibility more seriously. Not to tell people what to think, but to give them the background which will help them come to more grounded conclusions.

    Even Trump had to learn that what he initially thought about anything based on Fox news didn't adequately reflect the complexity of local, regional, national or global reality.

    Complexity is reality and reality is complex.
    To not know that one doesn't really know the full extent of the bigger picture or the real and varied implications of events and situations is becoming more and more dangerous. And it's not only facts that are inadequately reported, it's the range of values that people espouse, thinking that only one way of looking at things is the RIGHT way. Appreciating ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity and the inevitability of change is a necessary
    skill for journalists and citizens.