The New New Journalism

Nate Silver is probably one of the best popularizers of big data and how effective it can be at understanding and creating meaning. Today, there is a manifesto on FiveThirtyEight which does several things very well – it outlines the need for more data literacy, justifies how journalism needs to embrace big data and understand it in order to effectively disseminate knowledge, and gives a basic “how and why this works” guide on rigorous data collection and analysis for journalism.

It’s a really good article, with lots of great points. But there is something there between the lines which I think reflects a contemporary paradigm shift. First, there is the “condition of virtuality.” N. Katherine Hayles described virtuality as “the cultural perception that material objects are interpenetrated by information patterns.” There is a dualistic conception of information/matter and a relationship where control over the information leads to control over matter. Coding is an act which invokes new realities, as in the case with computer programing and gene sequencing, but it can be performed wherever there is access behind the user interface.  Continue reading

The Propaganda Model and Independent Journalists

I recently completed an essay as part of a midterm assignment for my theory class about whether or not the five filters of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model apply to “journalist bloggers.” It’s an interesting question. When Manufacturing Consent was published in 1988, media concentration was arguably an even larger issue than it is today. While ownership is more concentrated, there were fewer economically viable options for alternative news outlets to publish to a global audience. The internet, of course, makes it possible for a journalist to function more independently and not just as a freelancer working for some larger organization. But all news organizations have blog sections and most encourage journalists to run a blog of their own for easy additional content.

In the documentary based on the film, there’s a segment where Chomsky talks about independent and alternative media being absolutely necessary, or something to that effect. I can’t remember precisely what was said, but when we try to apply the 5 filters to independent media, we have some very different results. For a quick review, the five filters are

  1. Ownership
  2. Funding
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Anti-communism (read “anti-ideology/fear”)

It’s easy to see how these work in theory, but Herman and Chomsky took the trouble to actually detail the reality of it at the time they wrote the book. News outlets are for-profit ventures which owe a commitment to positive return for stockholders, gaining those revenues from advertisers who have a legitimate business interest in the content produced by the news org, content which must be sourced reliably from establishment (corporate and governmental) representatives who do not appreciate criticism, all of which runs the risk of generating flak to interfere with the professional relationships and reputation of the business (phew!). Then there is the pervasive ruling ideologies which seeks to frame threats to its stability as an out-group, some mysterious other which must be feared (whether they are communist “pinkos” or “islamist jihadists,” depending on what xenophobia is in style).

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

While independent journalists deal with the fallout of the major media’s propaganda wars and all the influence generated by agenda setting between CNN/ABC/NBC/CBS/etc, they have a bit more freedom to do things outside the filters described above. I’ve been interning at Democracy Now! for the past two months, and heard a few stories from this perspective. During the press conference after the other American hikers were released from prison in Iran, it sounded like there was a pretty tense, adversarial attitudes towards the DN! crew and Amy Goodman, from where they could set up the camera to whether or not they would be able to interview Sarah Shourd (although they clearly were on the schedule). There was also the fact that when Ms. Goodman was arrested in 2008 at the RNC convention, a news producer asked her, “why wasn’t I arrested?” and she told him he had to get out there and not stay in the production room (IE, do your job).

I think the best example though is illustrated by this 2004 article, about the interview that Goodman did with then-president Bill Clinton in 2000. During the interview, she “strayed” from the topic that aids had determined for the president, went over the time that was allotted for the phone interview, and drove the staff furious. They called the next day to let Democracy Now! know how they felt:

…the Clinton administration threatened to ban me from the White House and suggested to a Newsday reporter that they might punish me for my attitude by denying me access — not that I had any to lose. The White House spokesperson said, “Any good reporter understands if you violate the ground rules in an interview, that it’s going to be taken into account the next time you are seeking an interview.”

Amy Goodman

This is a clear example of flak and sourcing. The establishment intended to let DN! know that they would not tolerate deviation from their expectations in dealing with the press. In that sort of atmosphere, how is critical journalism supposed to take place? Now, the difference between corporate media and independent media, is this: for a major news outlet, these threats would have worked. The offending reporter would have been in big trouble, and the network would be in serious jeopardy of the effects of those threats. But Goodman’s reaction is telling of the liberties alternative/independent media enjoy:

“President Clinton is the most powerful person in the world,” I said. “He can hang up if he wants to.”

…we hadn’t agreed to any ground rules. Clinton called us. Second, we wouldn’t have agreed to any. The only ground rule for good reporting I know is that you don’t trade your principles for access. We call it the “access of evil.”

Unfortunately, access is often more important to reporters than principles.

Addressing Belief Perseverance

People don’t like being told they’re wrong. Most of us want to believe what we like, and we fall prey to various forms of confirmation bias in the hopes of sheltering our tender ego. One these phenomena that happens is belief perseverance: “the persistence of one’s initial concepts, as when the basis for one’s belief is discredited but an explanation of why the belief might be true survives” (Social Psychology, Myers).

Mass media can lend itself to such  incidents regularly. Bad journalism happens when news organizations rush to release incomplete and even inaccurate information to “break” the story. Meyers uses the example of a study which demonstrated how misinformation persisted in the memories of Americans. When we hear something in the news, if we feel it’s something that we can explain and understand, and if we aren’t skeptical to begin with, we’re more likely to retain that misinformation and even adhere to it.

The researchers also classified people as sceptical if they disagreed with the official reason given for war, ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).

The results showed there were far fewer sceptics in the US than in Germany and Australia. And that such sceptics were less likely to believe statements that they knew had been retracted than those people classified as non-sceptical.

Most people in Germany and Australia opposed the Iraq war in the first place. But non-skeptics in America were more positive about news on the war. As Lewandowsky said, “People do not discount corrected information unless they are suspicious about it or unless they are given some other hypothesis with which to interpret the information.”

Alternative frameworks and points of view become important  for critical thinking – not just for summary opinion, but as part of the process by which we form those opinions. But this isn’t how we address that problem – for the most part, we depend on objectivity and a supposed lack of bias. But this is impossible. Still, a slavish devotion to that illusion creates a uniformity among most news organizations (Uniformity in message control is also an extremely effective way of managing propaganda campaigns).

Lord, Lepper and Preston (1984) found that  “the cognitive strategy of considering opposite possibilities promoted impartiality.” Myers also points out that explaining why opposite theories might be true addresses belief perseverance positively. Even imagining any alternative outcome will help people in solving their belief perseverance. (Hirt & Markman, 1995; Anderson & Sechler, 1986)

This means that news organizations are actively remiss in not pursuing “alternative outcomes” or other hypotheses by submitting to existing frames. The abstraction of providing those differing scopes and shielding the public from misinformation is apparently not worth the effort it takes to invest added effort to each story that runs this risk.  Or, from an even more cynical perspective, it interferes with message control.

Journalism And Other Popular Misnomers

Communication can be perceived as a process occurring from the manipulation of agreed upon signs, symbols and sounds, etc. A typical goal of communication is to express or transmit some specific concept to another party, to achieve some goal of our own.

Communication (as a discipline) has several sub-fields, the most relevant to the big picture being “mass communication.” Even if one person is responsible for a policy of information dissemination, that individual’s thoughts are not their own; they are the product of various group decisions and organizational culture. In an traditional establishment where the status quo rules, people who reach a position of authority where they can easily affect a change are already conditioned against doing so. We call that groupthink, and people who reach the top are the most exposed to it.

Anyway, mass communication (as a practice) has three basic functions: public relations, advertising, and journalism. All of these are means by which one motivated party communicates some information with another party. Whether that information is narrowcasted or broadcasted to small or wide audience, there is one intention, which roughly sums up the purpose for what’s happening whenever someone does “journalism” or “marketing” or “public relations.”

Communicators are involved in Image construction when they engage in mediation or discourse with others. I don’t mean that they’re building an image of themselves in their audience’s perception. Rather, I mean they are building the audience’s perceptions so that it can properly receive the right images.

To explain, traditionally we imagine public relations as an industry which massages the existing image of a public entity. Damage control, bettering business to business relations, raising consumer profile through alternatives to advertising, public relations is commonly understood to improve upon the existing conception of the client so as to improve their standing (or destroy it, in the case of negative PR). But couldn’t PR also operate in a backwards manner? Say for instance, prospective clients already have a neutral image of a company. They don’t have any strong feelings about it because they don’t feel as though it’s services apply to them. Then, a PR firm works to clarify and communicate how that audience needs the services offered. Now, their perceptions can further be conditioned so that that company appears very appealing to them.

Marketing is all about image construction. What do you think of when you think about gas and gas stations? Dirty, expensive necessity, gross road food, etc? A great spot can evoke larger themes of freedom, excitement, and even patriotism and nationalism, which are associated with the gas station and prime the customer not only to buy the product, but like it too.

Journalism is probably the most elaborate  form of image construction. Currently, a lot of information production falls under the umbrella of this craft which failed to create a professional identity for itself partially because of this idea. It’s plagued with VNRs and press kit materials, with profit-motivated managers and ideologues, all corrupted by their natural tendency to frame communication in a preferred  light.  But whether journalists decide to adhere to objectivity or transparency, they are ultimately pursuing a form of image construction – whether they are following someone else’s agenda, or encouraging the more democratic perspective of making up your own mind. While the more crude attempts at the latter fall squarely under the banner of “propaganda,” sophisticated attempts at promoting critical thinking are still attempts to shape the perspective of the audience (by allowing them to do it as they please, “freeform” image).

All of these attempts at image construction are merely manifestations of prevailing orders and patterns of belief and thought. As Hans M Enzensberger described it,

“The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness – in order to exploit it.” – Industrialization of the Mind, 1962

Enzensberger attributed these practices to advertising, but I believe they apply to all forms of mass communication, however with less ominous overtones as they represent diverging causes and motivations.

To reiterate once more, image construction is a part of the process. The motivations come from various goals on behalf of the party where mass communication originates. As such, image construction itself is not inherently “good” or “bad,” it’s merely a way to describe some media effects.