Is there a difference between Tina Fey and Katie Couric? With the boundaries between news and entertainment getting fuzzier, sources of politically relevant information are coming in many different guises. But, despite reports of the “death of journalism,” this isn’t the first time the traditional media regime has been challenged. In After Broadcast News (Cambridge; Nov. 10), authors Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini put this challenge into historical context, presenting it as the latest in a line of critical fractures between citizens, political elites, and the media.
Michael Delli Carpini, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, answers our questions about today’s media model, Wikileaks, News of the World, and what “the future of journalism” might look like.
What can we learn from the destruction of previous media regimes? How can they guide the formation of our own?
We are at a critical moment when the old media regime of the second half of the 20th century has been dismantled, but a new one has not yet formed; a moment that is rare and that is a tremendous opportunity to “get things right.” There are some very positive qualities of past media regimes that the new information environment, rightly understood and used, is particularly well-suited to reintroducing – qualities such as greater voice for citizens, a better balance of fact, opinion and context, a more healthy and engaging mix of art and politics, a more conversational, even deliberative notion of politics; less hierarchical distinctions between producers and consumers of political information, etc. Making the most out of the democratic potential of new information technologies will not happen automatically, but instead will be the result of a conscious effort to maximize this potential. And if history is any guide, any new media regime that emerges will have winners and losers, and so necessarily involves political struggle. Those who were most advantaged by what came before (i.e., media, political and socioeconomic elites) will not cede control easily.
How has this shift in the media changed the way we hear about and react to scandals, like Anthony Weiner or News of the World?
What the new information environment has done is shifted control from traditional news media and journalists to a much wider array of political actors and even “average” citizens. It has also meant that indiscretions of the sort Weiner was involved in can garner as much or more attention than arguably more serious violations of the public trust such as that surrounding News of the World. Both examples demonstrate how the same technologies (e.g., Twitter or mobile phones) that have incredible potential for enhancing democratic practice and the flow of political information can be used for either frivolous and distracting purposes (as in the case of “Weinergate”) or the kind of surveillance that is anathema to democracy (as in the News of the World scandal).
How do you see organizations like Wikileaks participating in the new media regime?
Wikileaks is a great example of the dilemma brought on by the new information environment. Sites such as Wikileaks have the potential to do a real service by providing citizens around the globe with information that was once only the purview of a handful of elites. But absent any widely-accepted guiding rules or norms for what constitutes the appropriate role of such sites (as we had with professional journalists in the latter half of the 20th century), it becomes impossible to hold them accountable in any meaningful way. This lack of norms not only gives them license to behave in ways that are arguably damaging to democracy, but equally problematic, means they have no protection from critics who may be opposed to them for less noble reasons.
Can you talk about some news organizations or public figures that are adapting well to the new media environment, and why?
There are a number of examples, though none seem to have got it just right yet. Certainly the New York Times online site does a very good job disseminating, translating and enhancing what is contained in its paper version. More exciting, we think, are the uses being made by “semi-professionals” and “average” citizens: citizen-run news sites such as Indymedia and Global Voices; the numerous hyperlocal news sites popping up around the country; the use put to social networking (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) and user-produced content (e.g., YouTube) sites in major events such as the Arab Spring, etc.
How do you see the 2012 presidential race changing as a result of the new information environment?
The development and use of new information technologies is happening at such a breakneck pace that all we can really say is that the new information environment will undoubtedly play a central role, and likely some aspect of it will play an unexpected role. More specifically, it will certainly increase the pace: at which professional journalists are losing their grip as information gatekeepers and agenda setters; at which candidates and parties are able to directly monitor, inform, raise money from and mobilize both general voters and more committed supporters/activists; and at which more fringe players (from average citizens to more ideologically-extreme groups) can influence campaign dynamics. Hold onto your seats – It’s going to be a bumpy ride!