Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Tech Media Now Must Take Role of Journalists

As the media shake-up continues, it seems that the role and responsibility of "journalism' is shifting from conventional news organizations to the modern digital companies responsible for the changes.

Consider the confluence of recent headlines.

Today I read that the Detroit News is offering buyouts to all journalists on staff, no matter the role or length of service, in order to meet new budget guidelines as the economic model of traditional journalism continues to struggle. This is just the latest in a long list of news outlets reducing reporting  and editing staff.

The shrinking of conventional journalism means an erosion of the role journalists should play in our society in several ways.

One is the role of providing a public forum. For years the letters to the editor and op-ed pages were what the taverns and coffee shops were modern communication--a place for what German scholar Jurgen Habermas called the "public sphere", where citizens discussed and informed themselves about politics and other news of the day.

But these days, people don't need the op-ed pages and letters forum to engage in public debate. Even the online comments sections on mainstream news organizations' apps and websites are losing traction, so much so that some news sites are eliminating comments. People talk about news on social media. Traditional media don't host the conversations, they participate.

Another journalistic function being taken away from journalists is the editing and verification role. Sure, the digital revolution made communication more of a democracy, but it also made it more of a cacophony. Tech companies like Facebook and Google--where much of the control of society's information has shifted--are being asked to vet content they allow into the public realm after reports of fake news appearing along side legitimate information. Facebook and Google don't want to take on this function. It means moving from what the law would call providing access to providing content. Essentially, it means they are being asked to move from being a technology company to being news organizations, going from algorithm to journalism.

In a similar way, Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversy over targeting ethnic groups in Facebook advertising. Micro-targeting is a huge advantage in digital advertising, particularly on Facebook, as a speaker to the GVSU Advertising Club recently shared. This is largely an ethical issue, since in some cases--such as housing ads--certain ethnic groups have been excluded. It raises the old question of do we mainstream all minorities in our communication? Is targeting them a positive way of reaching out to them or is it a negative way of marginalizing them? A lot depends on intent, and requires human oversight.

So even as our technology changes, the issues in our society--and our need for a professional class that can report, monitor, verify, curate and edit content--will be needed.

Advertising and public relations professionals who understand ethics and have integrity can and should fill some of this social role.

But I also wonder if certain former employees of the Detroit News and other "old media" will be snapped up by tech companies like Google, Facebook and other companies who realize the formulas of technology can't fully replace the art and wisdom of actual human agents.

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