The Fourth Estate and Social Media

U87 microphone from Wikimedia commonsLast night’s ABC TV programme, MediaWatch, opened a bit of a floodgate on the issue of what constitutes journalism in social channels following the show. This is interesting partly because it was evidence of what the show essentially concluded – that the active social audience is more interested in research and debate than mainstream media is either prepared to support, or capable of delivering.

For those based in Australia who missed the programme, I thoroughly recommend catching up on iView.  For those overseas, you can at least read the transcript online.  For those who don’t have time for either, the programme looked at journalists versus politicians in the age of social media. It considered whether it was a good thing or a bad thing for politicians to effectively bypass journalists in getting stories out to audiences about policies, the activities of governments and elected officials, and the act of communicating directly with the public through digital channels, without the filter of journalism.

Of course, the old guard journalists shuddered at the prospect of giving politicians a platform and a microphone and allowing them to communicate with the public. Who would ask the right questions?  Who would assess on behalf of the people, the merit of political perspectives?

I can’t tell you how irritated this attitude made me. Not only have most so-called ‘journalists’ failed utterly to ask the right questions over many years of popularly-led press, but the unbelievably poor levels of research in evidence among most available journalism has rendered media essentially useless for self-education.  If I want expert advice, I go to blogs and communities of interest for advice.  If I rely on press and broadcasters, my decision making on everything from business to my personal life would be seriously compromised.  Because for the most part, what gets called ‘journalism’ is rarely worth that august label.  It is mostly mere reporting, often inaccurate or at least incomplete, and/or glib opinion.  It is not analysis.  It is not impartial.  And it is not a public service.

Let’s take a step back a little.

Journalism is commonly referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate‘.  The term arose in the late 18th century to describe an independent force designed to act as a balance and check on the activities of the first three Estates, namely the Lords Spiritual (God and His representatives on earth), Lords Temporal (aristocracy), and the Commons (elected or appointed officials).  The press saw themselves as an investigative entity, operating on behalf of the people and for the common good, ensuring that those in positions of power were operating fairly and honestly.  The independence of the press from these institutions of governance was crucial; the press had to be free from the partiality and politics of the traditional Estates in order to assess with fairness, the merit of their activity – or inactivity.

While the constituent elements of the three Estates may have changed over time (Crown, Government and Judiciary; or even the more modern perspective of Governance, Protective Services and Commerce), the concept of the Fourth Estate of journalism was maintained – an investigative force that acted as a filter for political hyperbole, an authority of truth, and a demystifier for complexity.

Here’s the thing.  It may have been perceived as a genuinely independent force, and it even may have acted as such on many occasions historically. But it was never truly independent.  There are always interests in journalism, whether these are the interests of the state (for state-run media), or the business and political interests of the media owner, if  the media is owned by an individual or business conglomerate.

What’s more, journalism over the past 50 years has gradually twisted the concept of the public interest so that it is now closely aligned with what is of popular interest. This is a profound problem, because what is necessarily for the public interest or common good is often decidedly unpopular.  It is in the common good to educate our children, or treat the sick, because society benefits from this act.  We are more productive, and we can improve our standard of living, and indeed extend our lives. But the costs of acting so altruistically are substantial. The capital investment is high, and the return can take generations to observe.  Further, there can be a high degree of effort required from an entire society to generate observable improvements.

What is of popular interest is merely what >50% of the population may like at any one point of time. Long term goals and community collaboration are usually irrelevant, except in terms of rationalising effort and generating the most satisfactory return for the least effort.  Popular interest is intensely selfish, even when influenced by peers. Public interest is inherently selfless.

Because commercial media organisations are run as businesses, it is necessary for them to make a profit year on year, if not edition by edition.  Goals for profitability are always short term. And in order to make a profit they need to reach the widest potential market to attract advertising and sales.  This means that media titles need to create content that will appeal to popular interest, not public interest objectives.  Some may argue it is possible to create sufficient popular content to help subsidise the public interest content.  But over the past half century the story of journalism has been the gradual decline of public interest content in favour of ever more popular content, and for journalists to take short cuts in public interest oriented research to reduce costs of operation.

But it is crucial to understand that not only do commercial interests drive the media to popular interest. It’s also journalistic perspectives on ‘what the public want’. Because space is limited in papers, and time to engage is limited, it’s not possible in a single publication to meet the needs of all interests.  So editing needs to take place, and content is selected on popular relevance. Issues are lost, research is limited, because only so much can be shared.

The inevitable result is that media is no longer operating as a genuine Fourth Estate.  It is merely reporting, and providing the limited analysis that editorial opinion affords.

Enter: the digital age.  Suddenly every connected individual is a publisher, every passionate advocate has an opportunity to contribute to the sum of knowledge on a subject matter.

At first, the remaining investigative media are frightened by the concept, then they become more relaxed as the sheer banality of much content available online becomes clear.  Suddenly there’s a new opportunity for media to act as a filter to the garbled and possibly apocryphal information online.

Then at last social media emerges.  It appears to be the genuinely level playing field that the internet originally promised. Now it’s not just that anyone can be a publisher, it is that anyone can be a combatant, a researcher, a respondent, a co-collaborator, an editor.

Journalism shrieks in fear. But the internet is full of poorly informed radicals!  The People are not getting the full story! There will be mass ignorance.

Well yes, in patches there will be ignorance and fundamentalism.  But journalism never eradicated that.

And more importantly, there is clear evidence in public engagement with politicians, public authorities and ideas in social channels, that there is the very opposite of ignorance alive and well online.  Because social media – created by and for the People – is not limited in space and time, and has none of the commercial imperatives that frame publication, it has infinitely more opportunity to inform and investigate than journalism ever had.

I’m no utopian; I do not anticipate that the educated and active debaters in social media channels will rise up and overthrow the peddlers of popular content. And I’m well aware of the opportunities of social channels to act as facilitators of fundamentalism and extremism. But it is fallacious to believe that journalism ever acted as a moderating force against either  triviality or extremism. Those most likely to benefit from historic acts of journalistic analysis and assessment were the moderate majority, not the extremist minority.

So the rise of social is merely the opportunity to engage more audiences in public debate. And because all channels are two-way, there is less of a need for a moderating filter of journalism, research, questioning and assessment of merit.  These functions happen dynamically – both in terms of audience size, and complexity and scope of debate.

Last night’s MediaWatch effectively concluded that journalism had failed public debate in Australia, and that social channels provided politicians with a significant opportunity to truly represent and engage their constituents. But I think there’s another conclusion worth exploring: that the concept of journalism as a Fourth Estate is redundant. Journalists no longer have (and perhaps rarely, if ever, had) the research time and the genuine independence to assess the merit of statements and activities by those in positions of power. Perhaps it is truly time to question the ongoing relevance of (investigative) journalism, and come to terms with the press as a source for simple reporting.

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