Battle in Print: Spectres haunting journalism: the 'what crisis?' crisis

Andrew Calcutt


Job done. The global economy requires it; readers and advertisers demand it; professional journalists do their damnedest to meet and even create demand; and somehow the re-design is completed (almost) on time, the circulation figures don’t fall that far, and the paper we routinely put to bed still has some exciting stories in it.

Job (reasonably well) done.

But when we journalists get up in the morning and reflect upon the job we are doing, either the mirror’s cracked or we are. Prime ministers (even the ones who are not Scottish) refer to us as feral beasties and half of us agree. Creeping doubts about the veracity of broadcasting (previously the medium most closely associated with verisimilitude) stretch from news to entertainment and back again. And just when you think it’s safe to go back into the office, the whole idea of professional journalism is undermined by Web 2.0, user-generated content and the prospect of every punter providing content that clocks more eyeballs than we do.

Confused by the contradictory examples I’ve given? That’s the idea. The co-existence of business-as-usual with scenarios of the collapse/death/resurrection of journalism is confusing. When there is widespread perception of journalism in crisis but no consensus on what the crisis is, and in any case the professional world of journalism keeps turning over much as before, how could it be otherwise?

But we journalists should be able to extricate ourselves from this confusion and abstract what’s really going on from messy developments, unfinished events and proliferating interpretations thereof. It’s called getting the story right - in this case, our own. This is what we were trained for (once), and if we are going to see clearly how much of a mess we are in (or how little), we’re going to have to learn again what it means to aspire to objectivity.

Objectivity is an old-fashioned term and it’s no good trying to resuscitate it as once it was. But the ambition to come up with an objective account of events is no more and no less than the attempt to correctly identify the subjects of those events (the active persons or forces that made the events), and the determining relations between them. Who is doing what to whom, when, by what means - and from these lower case ‘w’s’, the big one: Why? This is what journalists have always continued to do, tacitly. But in the elaboration of what we do, in the stories we tell of our own exploits, we have followed in the footsteps of Marshall McLuhan by confusing medium, message and messenger.

Web 2.0 is a case in point. In the telling of its story even by some of the most eminent journalists, the message is that the medium is coming, and threatening to take over us messengers. But this is to endow Web 2.0 with a life-force of its own - surely unconvincing to anyone who does not see ghosts in the machine.

‘The internet has ended the protection of the news species’, warns John Lloyd, director of journalism at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The Guardian‘s Alan Rusbridger is concerned that ‘various technological and economic forces are bearing down on what we do so forcefully, and frankly, so fast, that the very nature of journalism is being challenged’.

‘Forces….forcefully’: the Grauniad lives.

Sage Raymond Snoddy foretells ‘journalists…will become mere processors of words….people who never get out and are attached to a computer screen’. Not only attached to it; in describing journos as word processors Snoddy’s formulation has it that the machine has become us. Meanwhile Telegraph editor Will Lewis is comparatively upbeat. In Press Gazette coverage of the recent debate at St Bride’s on the future of Fleet Street, Lewis was cast as ‘dynamic’ where others were disheartened. But even he ascribed godlike force to the digital machine. Likening to ostriches those editors who all but ignored the internet first time around, Lewis noted the violence with which ‘the advent of widely available broadband ripped our squawking heads from the sand’.

Perhaps this is in keeping with the visceral way that many of us have experienced Web 2.0, with blood and guts - other people’s, hopefully - on the managing editor’s floor. But isn’t it the role of journalism to question personal experiences - even our own?

Put another way, Web 2.0, the accelerated version of the internet, offers journalists a faster and more extensive way of being in touch with those people formerly known as ‘readers’ and ‘sources’. That ‘sources’ and ‘readers’ have become ‘users’ who ‘generate content’ which journalists feel threatened by, is a phenomenon which cannot be ascribed to the technology alone. Instead, Web 2.0 should be identified as a medium for extra-technical changes - in society, in journalism - which are expressed in user-generated content and which user-generated content itself accelerates. These changes are political and professional, not primarily technical; thus the technologies known as Web 2.0 are the medium but not the message, or its source.

Perhaps the source of the problem is that journalism is no longer for anything in particular. Or rather, it is there for particular groups of readers: it has particulars (plural); but for society in general, for the first time since its original development, it has less sense of a specific purpose. When the political realm was oriented towards the transformation of society - are you for or against, left or right? - it was the lifeblood of journalism. The relationship was reciprocal, since journalism was the essential means for citizens to know how to end the existing state of affairs and the surrounding politics - to act in the attempt to resolve the political contest in their own interests. In that all stories are ultimately people stories, in the era of modern politics all people and thus all stories were in some way related to this big one.

Similarly, the very idea of news is that people are doing things they have not done before. Our news sense was derived from unprecedented history-making events - people doing things decidedly differently - such as the English Civil War, the French Revolution of 1789, two worlds wars, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. These events required billions of people to take sides and to act accordingly, which in turn did much to create a huge appetite for the shock of the news. Conversely, in an era comprised of such events most people thought there were more important things in life than generating media content: they had the world to win or lose.

However, since 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, social transformation - doing things wholly differently - has been largely off the agenda, leading to a kind of zombie politics (it had already been de-centred, but that’s another story). The great expectations which previously constituted the political agenda and brought it to life, have been snuffed out. Politics refuses to die outright; it lives on as a kind of shadow, but without the substance which it once reflected. There are fleeting signs of vestigial life - signs which also show that political conflict is not over for ever. But in recent times, even these have a strangely fatalistic character (things can only get better; the war in Iraq will carry on but not in my name). This widespread fatalism is at odds with the earlier assumption that the future remains unwritten - an assumption previously written in to modern politics and the journalism which reported and disseminated it.

For today’s majority, most of the time, Westminster has become a shadowy village without leading lights, and the future reads like a closed book. Instead of political representation, ‘the people’ have become more interested in media representation. Now, with the advent of Web 2.0, they have the opportunity to represent themselves, to publish their private existence in shared places (‘social media’) such as MySpace and YouTube. Here they can be Diana and the paparazzi rolled into one.

This is where people go for mutual self-recognition. Manifesto ergo sum is the motif of the moment: I show myself to you (and you to me); we show ourselves and recognise ourselves in each other, and because of this recognition we become real. By contrast, to have no media presence, to go without MySpace, is to be disenfranchised as was once the condition of those men without property (to say nothing, because next to nothing was said, of women and servants).

The slogan seems to be: all that is represented is real; all that is real is represented. And the increasingly widespread pursuit of self-presentation and self-recognition is what underlies the attempt by ‘big media’ to incorporate it in the form of user-generated content. The understandable aim of press proprietors is to maintain a commercial relationship with the public as the latter becomes increasingly distant from the politics which used to be central to both of us (press and public).

In these circumstances journalism could hardly be expected to devote itself to the lost cause of the political undead. Instead, it resurrected itself. We ourselves galvanised the celebrity coverage which, as Tina Brown puts, it ‘has now crowded out almost everything else in the newspaper’. She should know. Not only taking our lead from the public, we journalists have done much to lead readers onto the ground of lifestyle, celebrity and now the DIY celebrity which is user-generated content. Thus in the nineties the output of professional journalism started to prefigure that which users would subsequently generate about themselves in the noughties. Hence professional journalism must bear partial responsibility for what Andrew Keen has dubbed ‘the cult of the amateur’ - the elevation of user-generated content which many of us now feel threatened by.

When journalism moved on from political news, in large part it stopped being news. Although issued daily or even hourly, celebrity coverage is less like news (where the latter is an account of the unprecedented). It is more akin to recurring, timeless myths. As in pre-modern mythology, so too with much of this new media content. It exists largely for people to recognise themselves in it; not for readers to use the information it contains in order to act decisively on a world which is constantly made new (and therefore demands news) by their own actions.

Some editors still claim that their journalism is the platform upon which citizens can come to informed decisions. But decisions about what? In the past readers might have expected to decide who would rule the country and how it would be ruled, or maybe they read newspapers as part of the struggle to win the franchise and become part of this decision-making constituency. Now the Telegraph’s editor sees his ‘mission’ as helping readers decide ‘which hospital to have their knee operation’.

Politics was once a battle between sides both claiming to act in the objective interests of humanity. Likewise, the journalism of the political era laid claim to objectivity in reporting what was happening to human beings. These two preconditions of the political were encompassed in a Latin motto and the resonance for it: Veritas non auctoritas facit legem (Truth not force makes law).

But few of today’s journalists continue to claim a disembodied subject position outside the events which we witness. Instead our journalism tends to be embedded or embodied. In the journalism of attachment, we are embedded either with the military or the victims (sometimes with victims of the military, other times with the military as victims themselves). Or else our journalism is the world made fleshy, as in celebrity coverage measured by pounds of cellulite - not according to anything so abstract as the public interest.

Without objectivity, even as an aspiration, we cannot presume to be definitive. Instead, the new orthodoxy is that there’s always a user out there who knows more about the story than we do. Of course, there is always another detail which we’ve missed. But until recently the recognised role of the reporter was not to expand the story indefinitely. The role of journalism was to nail the story. This was taken to mean knowing what to leave out as much as gathering stuff to put in. This in turn implied hierarchy: the elevation of some facts above others (hence the Pyramid) which then become a structured, constructed story. And the prioritisation of one story over another in a professionalised pecking order - the news agenda.

We ourselves have cast doubt on such judgements and the means by which we arrived at them. While it’s good that we question everything, including the grounds on which we stand, it’s no good claiming to maintain the distinctive character of professional journalism while undermining the position of disinterested observer without which there is little to distance us from user-generators.

To reject this position is to enact the deconstruction of journalism from within the profession (oddly reminiscent of what academics were doing to ‘the media’ 20 years ago, to the howls of our derision). Even senior journalists mistake this deconstruction for democratisation. Much of the welcome for ‘citizen journalism’ makes this error. Others are wary of the relativism it entails. Thus John Lloyd is unhappy with ‘TV news and current affairs, where there is a determined flight from a journalism which seeks to rank stories and current affairs programmes by world or national importance’. But Lloyd would ascribe this debilitating message to the medium, the internet, which by ending the protected status of news has contributed to the non-uniform but ‘unmistakable’ lurch downwards on the part of ‘viewers and readerships’.

If ‘viewers and readerships’ are lurching downwards, they are following in the footsteps of the professionals. In the content of what we have produced (celebrity coverage for self-recognition; consumer information for highly individuated lifestyle choices) and the subject position from which we produce it (attached, embedded, embodied), we professionals have dug deep and sowed the seeds of user-generated content.

Web 2.0 users do not spring fully formed from the internet alone. Instead, we professionals helped generate them in the image of our own deconstruction. Today’s user-generator is the form in which a diminished press gets the public it deserves. It’s time to stop digging and reconsider what constitutes our professionalism. We should stake a renewed claim to objectivity, before the hole we’ve dug for ourselves looks more like a grave.

‘Hackademic’ Dr Andrew Calcutt convenes the MA in Journalism and Society at the Docklands Campus of the University of East London. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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