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Social Media: Challenging the News Paradigm

A uni report written in 2014 that is becoming increasingly relevant:

The capacity for digital platforms to provide unrestricted spaces of catharsis and opinion has realigned the news media paradigm. As the democratization of production bridges the “polarity between information providers and receiver” (Craig 2004, p. 16), social media has allowed individuals to challenge, and often establish, the agenda imposed by the top-down news media model operating under self-serving economic and political interests. This report explores the foundations of the news media and the theoretical implications of the “new ecosystem” (Shirky 2008 p. 55) created by the online social media in redefining the traditional concepts of news media and role of journalists as espoused by the fourth estate ideal.

The birth of the media:

The impact of the social media revolution on news media can be understood within the context of the press’s evolution from its historical roots to a powerful commercial enterprise. The origins of contemporary mass media can be traced to the invention of the printing press in the mid 1400’s. By the 16th century, this method of mass production and information dissemination had spread to Western Europe, and by the 18th century industrial revolution would further evolve to meet the demands of rapid urbanisation ushered in by advancements in mass transportation and technology that would redefine the geographic and cultural boundaries of nation states (O’Shaughnessy 2004, p.2).

The Fourth Estate Ideal:

Since the institutionalisation of the press in the 18th century, the idea of the news media as a conduit for truth and an agent of democracy (Schultz 1991, p.8) have been fundamental to the perpetuation of the media as a cornerstone of contemporary society. Functioning outside the political and commercial realms, the abolition of censorship allowed the press to transcend its inception as a mouthpiece for the elite to scrutinise the decisions made by those in power and its implications on the wider population. The ‘bastard’ estate became the “main artery between the public and private institutions and the citizens” (Conley 1997 p. 20) and “intimately connected to the concerns and preoccupations of its readers” (Schultz p.1).

The Paradox: Idealism vs. commercial realities

Despite the idealized vision of the media enshrouded within the “Fourth Estate” rhetoric, the media remains one of the most maligned professions in the eyes of the public. The development of satellites, cable communication and digital television in the 20th century has further diversified the mediums available to the mass media, which has now grown into “the most pervasive global industry” (Schultz p.1). Yet underpinning this growth is the monopolization of media ownership by multinational corporations who are able to generate the vast amount of capital required to sustain these networks of information.

Assertions of the media as a mechanism against the arbitrary abuses of power are cynically dismissed amidst the reality of the current capitalist hierarchal media organisations. The ubiquitous presence of the media on daily life has become a mechanism allowing the self-serving political and commercial interests of media corporations to influence content and define the status quo, naturalizing contrived values and agendas in the process. The manipulation of the media as a means of disseminating contrived messages by political and commercial entities threatens to compromise journalisms existence as a conduit for truth and an “immanent power of consecration” (Champagne 2004, p. 58).

Web 2.0 and democratizing production:

Amid growing concerns over the business-centric media model, the emergence of online digital environments is challenging the traditional framework governing information dissemination. Bypassing the financial capital required to access audiences under corporate owned mediums, the Internet has “created new modes of organizing knowledge that rely on large, loosely organized groups of people working together electronically” (Hermida 2010 297,298).

The rise of participatory journalism, where members of the public are increasingly getting involved in the news making and disseminating process, is seen as “a hybrid between institutional or commercial support and community engagement (Dueze 2006, p. 325)”. The use of social networking platforms and online tools such as twitter and blogs allows once passive consumers to directly critique instruments of information dissemination and communicate with each other, allowing social media to become an expression of collective intelligence (Hermida p. 298).

The networking of public opinion via the digital world has also allowed diverging attitudes within society to be expressed, a foundation of the democratic responsibilities of the media. This has given the opportunity for minority voices, overlooked by the interests of mainstream media, to challenge established networks whist facilitating the rise of subaltern publics, “arenas where subordinated groups can establish identities and arguments, arenas from which action against the wider public can be launched” to impinge upon the commercially and politically driven mainstream media (Craig p. 64).

By decentralizing the power base, blogs, online opinion discussions and social media platforms help facilitate deliberation amongst the populous whilst “challenging the control of the news agenda by multinational news corporations” (Craig p. 89), creating a world of interactivity that “can change fundamentally the relations between the media producers, public figure and the public” (p. 10).

Challenging the newsroom:

As the divide between production and consumption is bridged, there are growing fears within the media industry that the social media revolution will eliminate the need for traditional newspapers. As Craig notes however, this fear “ignores the history of mass communication and previous evidence about media innovation”, where “the introduction of a new medium does not result in the death of older media, rather, the older media adapt to the new media environment” (Craig p. 90).

An emerging new interface for communications between news organisations and the public illustrate this adaptation between mainstream media and the feedback mechanisms provided by social media. As Farhi and Poseitti (2009) point out, “Twitter has been rapidly adopted in newsrooms as an essential mechanism to distribute breaking news quickly and concisely, or as a tool to solicit story ideas, sources and facts (in Hermida p 299).

Unable to fight the dominant trend of inter-connectivity ushered in by the internet, news organisations have proven their ability to adapt, with Hermida arguing that “one of the future directions for journalism may be to develop approaches and systems that help the public negotiate and regulate this flow of awareness information, facilitating the collection and transmission of news (p 302)”.

Redefining journalism:

With the Internet transforming consumers into information producers, there are also concerns that the removal of “older obstacles to public expression” such as the cost of information distribution will lead to the “mass amateurization” of the journalism profession (Shirky p. 55). In a cyber world populated by individuals operating outside the conventions of accountability and accuracy that govern professional journalists, Shirky and other academics have questioned whether non-trained professionals will compromise the role of journalists as gatekeepers of factuality that is fundamental to the integrity of the press.

The adaptation and integration of opinions expressed through social media across all mediums however illustrates that “for all its successes, citizen journalism remains dependent to a significant extent on the mainstream news organisations [..] at the same time, increasingly mainstream news is taking note of what the citizen journalists are saying, and uses content generated by users as an alternative to vox-pops, opinion polls, or in some cases, indeed as a partial replacement of editorial work” (2006, p 335).

The creation of a information collective has created a dynamic, collaborative definition of journalism, with professionals and amateurs “working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas and perspectives” (Dueze p. 322). By focusing “on the process more than the product” (322), social media is allowing the “bottom-up process of individual and collective-self expression” to define the interactive and digital space.

The road ahead:

The ability of journalism to adhere to its fundamental principles as an independent and arbitrary watchdog is under siege from an increasingly commercialized, globalised and politicised reality that has turned the media into a “vast international business increasingly suspected of exercising self- political and economic power” (Schultz, p. 4).

Yet as the bastard estate mutates towards its current incarnation, social media and other digital platforms have ushered in “radical changes in the overall ecosystem of information” (Shirky 56), decentralizing the sphere of power once privileged to those who controlled the manufacturing and dissemination of the news.

Citizen journalists, by the very act of expression, are forcing the news media to listen, reflect and act as conduits of public deliberation. From twitter to Facebook, social digital platforms are reclaiming the news media from its position as an “institutional prerogative” owned by those in power to “part of a communications ecosystem” (Shirky p. 56) populated by individual opinions, values and beliefs from across the globe.

Through the globalisation ushered in by web 2.0, social media continues to traverse geographic and cultural divides, creating a virtual public sphere where diverse voices are able to converge, form opinion and express views without coercion whilst bypassing the “censorship of authoritarian regimes” and the economic hurdles of production once wielded by the powerful (Habermas 2006 p. 423). In doing so, society has been given the ability to reposition the moral compass of the media whilst helping journalism gravitate towards its traditional role in “amplifying the conversation society has with itself” (Carey in Dueze p. 327).

 

Bibliography

Champagne, P 2004, ‘The Double Dependency’: The Journalistic Field Between Politics and Markets’ in Benson, R and Neveu, E, Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field, Sage, pp. 49 – 63

Conley, D 1997, “The Daily Miracle: An introduction to Journalism” 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Victoria, Australia

Craig, G 2004 The Media Politics and Public Life, Allen and Unwin

Deuze, M., Bruns A., Neuberger, C. 2007 “Preparing for an Age of Participatory News”, vol 1, pp 322-339

Habermas, J, 1997. „Institutions of the public sphere‟ In C. Newbold (Ed.), Approaches to Media: a Reader (pp. 235-244). London

Hermida, A. 2010 “ Twittering the news: The emergence of ambient journalism”, Journalism Practice, pp 1-12.

O’Shaughnessy M. & Stadler J. 2002, Media and Society, Oxford University Press, Australia.

Schultz, J. 1998, ‘Reviving the Fourth Estate’, Cambridge University Press, Australia

Shirky, C 2008, The Power of Organisation without Organisation, Allen Lane, London

 

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