Dear Journalists: Stop Complaining About the 'Net

by Tony Romm
Special to iVoryTowerz

Of the plethora of maladies to incapacitate communications media over the years, the popularization of the phrase "Web 2.0" might just win "most deadly." According to nearly everyone, Web goers today insist on interactivity, ground their desires in some warped definition of "egalitarianism," and shudder at the prospect that "gatekeepers" might somewhere, somehow constrain information flows. They even hold yearly conferences to discuss it, all under the ironic watchful eye of mainstream media (a phrase that suggests the internet today is, somehow, not mainstream). Journalists, of course, respond the only way they know how: by complaining and adapting. As The New York Times and The Washington Post have seemingly done every week for years, newspapers eulogize their professions, pretending for reasons still unclear that technology hasn't always kept the reporting community on its toes.

It'd be a waste of time to deride the internet's utility wholesale. Of course, the Web has offered journalists new storytelling tools, and blogs, including this one, have been at the forefront of many important news stories and issues. But it is, however, a pathetic exercise in narcissism to overstate the news media's gains in their own stated task: their role and duty to inform.

This January, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press surveyed those interested in politics, both young and old, to determine which medium they accessed most frequently for political news. Predictably, the rate at which Americans logged onto the Web for campaign content rose sharply between 2000 and 2004. Specifically, Pew reported that, "Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they regularly learn something about the campaign from the internet, almost double the percentage from a comparable point in the 2004 campaign (13%)."
From the primaries onward, the statistics have made excellent campaign fodder; the numbers (or some variation thereof) have often creeped their way into any discussion of technology and the 2008 contest.

But what's to be said of another Pew study conducted months earlier, the oft overlooked report entitled, "Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions." In a comparison of Americans' public affairs literacy, the Pew study begrudgingly noted:

  • In 1989, for example, 74% could come up with Dan Quayle's name when asked who the vice president is. Today, somewhat fewer (69%) are able to recall Dick Cheney.
  • Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) knew that as part of his revised Iraq strategy, President Bush planned to increase U.S. military forces in the country. But only one-in-four Americans (24%) are aware that both houses of Congress passed legislation to increase the minimum wage and 34% knew that Congress voted to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. (Remember, this poll occurred in 2007, before both policies were actually implemented.)

Pew's landmark conclusion, in their own words: "There are substantial differences in the knowledge levels of the audiences for different news outlets. However, there is no clear connection between news formats and what audiences know." [Author's emphasis added.]

In other words, stop complaining, fearful journalists. Technology has always been the bane of a reporter's existence. Much as the penny press revolutionized print, radio forced magazines into niche publishing and television scared radio broadcasters into a similar arrangement, the internet has altered the playing field. Web 2.0 (and the feelings and terrors it embodies) should be viewed similarly: as a gimmicky name for a process that has always — and will always — make this profession the most malleable.

But to treat it as an insurmountable a wrecking ball that's going to destroy our careers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The journalism community (and its academics) is the equivalent of the city hall beat reporter who sleeps with the mayor; they're the most extreme, too close to the action to view the larger picture objectively. The so-called "experts" overstate or underestimate from the comfort of an ivory tower lined with recent Pulitzers and prized newspaper clippings — yes, printed success stories, fancy that!

Truthfully, the internet is just as ineffective as traditional media forms at communicating the same information. All the videos, niche blogs, interactive Flash reports and messages boards in the world are complements to, not replacements for, the unique kind of enterprise reporting that’s allowed the most basic conventions of journalism to persist for centuries — no matter what new or crazy technology arises.

(The graphic is by Mike Licht from NotionsCapital.com via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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