This essay by Regan Burles is the winner of the 2012 Dalton Camp Award for commentary on the link between democracy and the media.
On July 7, 2011 journalist Kai Nagata quit his job as CTV’s Quebec City bureau chief. His departure, and the article in which he explained the reasons for it, drew significant media attention across Canada. The essay garnered more than 100,000 views in a month, and by that time over a thousand online comments had been made on the piece.
In the essay, posted to his blog the day after he quit, Nagata details the various shortcomings he encountered at CTV, which by now are quite familiar. Essentially, the main problem he identifies is the conflict between the private interests of corporate-owned media and the public good of high-quality journalism. In his opinion, there was too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. Despite the various regulatory bodies that police the journalistic community, he argues, “information is a commodity, and private TV networks need to make money.” Profits, more often than not, trump meaningful news stories.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for another conflict, the conflict between peoples’ desire for relevant journalism and their often competing desire for entertaining, palatable news stories. As Nagata puts it, “there is an underlying tension between ‘what the people want to see’ and ‘the important stories we should be bringing to the people.’
“Because of their primary goal of remaining profitable, news organizations will prioritize popular, if unimportant, news stories over significant, if less entertaining, journalism. These conflicts feed one another in a cycle that produces poor journalism: people like low-nutrition TV . . . and that shapes the internal, self-regulated editorial culture of news.”
These problems obviously do not exist only at CTV, but extend across the entire spectrum of media organizations, from newspapers to television. Nagata identifies two significant consequences of these problems, both of which compromise the role of the media as a vital organ in a healthy democratic body.
First, news organizations have no incentive to produce material that is challenging or uncomfortable to its viewers: what people like, the networks are told, are “easy stories that reinforce beliefs they already hold.” And second, there is a lack of debate and exchange of competing ideas in the public sphere: “I don’t see any true debate within the media world itself, in the sense of a national, public clash of ideas.”
Nagata — and a host of others — offer an alternative to the model of journalism described above. Whatever its particular name — new media, citizen journalism, crowd-sourcing — the new model tends to be sold as a panacea for the diseased hulk of traditional journalism. Whether it’s crowd-sourced news sites like Digital Journal, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or independent bloggers, “citizen journalists” are portrayed as the freer, faster answer to the problems posed by the quickly eroding monopoly that traditional media had on the flow of information. No longer needed are the organizations that set the standards for the profession and mediated its content: “what all of these experiments are pointing to,” Nagata writes, “is that it’s possible to do your thing, eat well and build your audience — completely independent of existing institutions.”
Yet the rise of citizen journalism presents both an opportunity and a danger. Much ink has been spilled over the potential value of such unmediated forms of journalism and clearly they do permit experimentation that has the potential to greatly improve public discourse. However, citizen journalism is in danger of reproducing the very difficulties that exist in traditional media, and that it purports to eliminate. This point is best illustrated by a comparison with another modern phenomenon involving technology and the flow of information: filter bubbles.
The term was coined by Internet activist and author Eli Pariser to indicate the now pervasive activity of the “invisible, algorithmic editing of the web.” Google, for example, tailors its search results to individual users using 57 different indicators such as their computer model, location and browser. With these algorithms, each user receives specific search results geared to what the algorithm calculates that person wants and expects. The result, Pariser explains, is filter bubbles: “your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online.”
This phenomenon is not just limited to search engines. In fact, a range of news websites have begun experimenting with personalization, including the Huffington Post, the New York Times and Slate. Readers now have total control over which authors or topics reach their eyeballs — no longer any need to bother with articles or opinions they don’t care for.
The problem can be glimpsed elsewhere in the media universe, too, as even traditional news providers seek to narrow their perspective in order to please a target audience. Openly partisan news outlets such as Sun TV News in Canada show that this sort of pandering to a particular set of views is becoming increasingly common. Furthermore, as independent bloggers who report on the news proliferate, it is becoming significantly easier to limit one’s engagement with the news to stories and commentary that simply reinforce previously held views.
As media becomes increasingly personalized, the very problems that afflict traditional journalism that Nagata identifies are replicated in different ways. Pariser anticipates the Canadian journalist’s criticism of traditional media with his description of the consequences of filter bubbles: “the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.” This reflects almost to the word Nagata’s concern over the profit-driven model of journalism he experienced at CTV. Just as corporate-owned media outlets, in a bid to remain profitable, offer easy, entertaining forms of journalism, so an increasingly differentiated and personalized media landscape offers such control and variety that avoiding challenging or controversial news stories is simply a matter of choice. We can now construct our very own media echo chambers where the only stories and opinions presented are ones that reinforce our dearly held beliefs, and even fellow readers simply parrot back to us our own sedimented perspectives.
Yet it is not just a matter of a lowering of the journalistic bar. It also means that possibilities for meaningful public discourse are severely limited. What unreserved proponents of new media often miss is that meaningful debate is about more than just self-expression; it’s more than simply yelling an opinion into the void. Rather, it requires an openness to new and opposing viewpoints and a willingness to consider novel and potentially difficult ideas — qualities that cannot be fostered in an environment designed to keep the original and the challenging at bay. Just as traditional media organizations often refrain from fostering meaningful public debate, so too do the filter bubbles induced by new media limit possibilities for genuine democratic discourse.
Nagata is excited that journalism can now take place outside of existing media institutions, and to a large degree that excitement is valid. The ways in which traditional media institutions often constrain journalists in terms of what stories they cover and how they cover them are well-documented. What institutions are able to do, however, is act as mediators for both agreement and disagreement: agreement on the basic presuppositions about society and the world that underlie — and are necessary for — almost all public discourse. And disagreement about what does — and ought to — go on within those agreed-upon parameters. The most frightening consequence of the vast multiplicity of available media that exists today is that we seem less and less capable of determining those crucial presuppositions that a society must hold in common for democratic discourse to take place.
Yet even the traditional role of institutions as crafters and guardians of agreed-upon standards appears to be eroding. In July 2011, for example, Sun Media announced that it was pulling its chain of newspapers from the Ontario Press Council, an organization that adjudicates complaints and acts as a watchdog for 191 different newspapers. The council’s decisions, according to its website, “represent a consensus of a broad cross-section of Ontario society and active journalists.” Sun Media made the decision to withdraw from the group because of concerns over its “politically correct mentality.” This is one small example of the way in which consensus over the foundational beliefs and assumptions that make the exchange of ideas possible is becoming more and more tenuous. This is not to say that those assumptions and beliefs that currently exist are necessarily the best ones, or that they should remain fixed. It is to say, however, that without such a foundation, any hope of a public sphere in which ideas and opinions are exchanged and considered across a broad spectrum of Canadian society is a faint one.
Admittedly, the situation may not seem so dire. Tens of millions of Canadians still rely on traditional media for their news, whether it’s on TV, in the newspaper or online. Furthermore, our media sources have not yet become so differentiated and narrowly targeted that engagement between individuals and groups with competing views has completely broken down. But what will happen when the range of media resources available to us becomes so vast, our control over them so complete, that we lose that most basic type of consensus that renders even the most alien viewpoint comprehensible? What will happen when stray opinions or bits of information can no longer pierce the thick film of the bubbles we’ve so carefully constructed around our media-consuming selves? As the volume of discourse increases, its comprehensibility will decrease. As our access to diverse media grows, our ability to discuss it with our fellow citizens will diminish. We’ll no longer be able to talk to one another.
Popping the bubbles
In his essay, Nagata writes that during his time at CTV “every question [he] asked, every tweet [he] posted, and even what [he] said to other journalists and friends had to go through a filter, where [his] own opinions and values were carefully strained out.” Even outside of existing institutions, though, filters abound: they are the ones we place around ourselves, aided by the ever-advancing capabilities of modern technology. If new media is to fulfill its promise, if it is to escape the constraints of traditional institutions without reproducing their failures, recognition must be given to the ways in which new forms of media are filtered to conform to our existing preferences and beliefs. Those involved in its production and reception — that is, all of us — must attempt to extricate ourselves from these moulds, to seek out new and disquieting information and opinion, and to find among ourselves the common threads that unite our varied outlooks and unique experiences in the world. If we can do that — break the bubbles that so narrowly limit the scope of our access to media — then certainly a public discourse that is genuinely democratic will be possible.
Regan Burles completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts in political science and history at the University of Ottawa in 2011. He will commence a Master of Arts program in political science at the University of Victoria in September 2012.
© Toronto Star