I suppose I'm a wee bit different than many of those who meta-blogged this weekend (blogged about blogging) in that my background is very much in the field of communication and specifically, mass communication. I spent a great deal of time soaking up the perspectives of those in attendance at the conference and allowing those articulations to mix with what I know to be true, my own assessments of the mainstream and 'alternative' media, and the impact milblogging is having on the exchange of information.
As my students prepare for finals, let this stand as a bulleted "things you should know" about mass media, particularly the news media. Historically, the 'media' stood as the watchdog of government. In many instances, you may hear media referred to as the "Fourth Estate" or 4th branch of government because, if functioning properly, media should exert checks and balances on the other three branches as the other three branches do on one another. More recently, media had adopted a code of behavior based on the findings of the Hutchins Commission. The Hutchins Commission was commissioned in 1947 to look at the functioning of the news media. Henry Luce, then editor of Time magazine, was interested in how best to use the press' freedom to its fullest. What came from the Hutchins Commission were four tenets by which most responsible news organizations have operated for the decades following the Commission's report.
Those four, very basically, are:
1) The press shall provide a truthful, intelligent and comprehensive account of the day's events in a meaningful context.
2) The press shall act as a forum for the exchange of ideas.
3) The press should provide a representative picture of society's groups.
4) The press' coverage should challenge and clarify society's goals.
The times in which these findings were released resemble the times we're living in today in a few ways. One of the most telling is the steep decline in consumer patronage of traditional, stalwart news media powerhouses.
Many bloggers over the weekend expressed distrust of the mainstream media given its apparent inability and unwillingness to put things into a "meaningful context" or to present information in a way truly representative of society's groups. After all, how many car bombs have you heard about in the past 72 hours? And, how many of you think that the military isn't reaching its recruiting goals and that those in the military are undereducated, knuckle-dragging, mouth breathers who couldn't function outside the friendly confines of Uncle Sam's reach?
Still other bloggers wanted to see more government involvement in telling the story of what's happening in Iraq. This was countered by those like Bill Roggio, who quite astutely pointed out that seeing Department of Defense (DOD) in a story's byline would put up some people's BS meters the way seeing (AP) or (Reuters) does for many of us. The room was deeply divided over things like national service requirements and how much "live feed" from the battlefield is too much. One thing that brought on thunderous applause was when Steve from Threats Watch said something to the effect that rather than having someone schooled in journalism delivering the news about the military, he'd like to see someone schooled by the military fulfilling the duties of a journalist. It is, after all, possible.
These snippets from the conference along with many others led me to come to some conclusions of my own about the state of media today and what that means for the American media consumer in war time.
The symptoms of what is happening in mainstream media grow more obvious with each passing day. To offer a comprehensive diagnosis and decide on successful treatment measures, one only need look at the "patient's" history.
Current Issues Affecting Media
1) Immense amounts of information and very few equipped to decipher what is factual, important and useful.
It isn't uncommon for journalists in the green zone in Baghdad to gather for a press conference which involves press releases from the DOD. These press releases have already been sent via the wire and, in many cases, picked up by bloggers, analyzed, written about and commented on by their readers by the time the mainstream press delivers them on-air.
The problem? Many of those receiving the information in the green zone have no clue what it is they are hearing. Worse, many try to take the information and make it "their own". In doing so, they can alter the spirit as well as the actual information being presented and not even realize it. Their words are heard, altered, and repeated by other reporters until what you have is a very deadly game of "telephone."
This isn't solely a problem with media and the military...take a look at reporters trying to understand and report on gas prices (economy), drilling in ANWR (environment issues), immigration law or other issues requiring a depth and breadth of knowledge they do not possess.
2) To supplement their deficiencies and increase their credibility, media surrounds itself with experts.
Routinely, experts dissect news stories until the skeletons of the stories are but dust. Experts aren't asked to be neutral. On the contrary, many are relying on their knowledge and experience to create an opinion or counteropinion. Many experts' qualifications are not even spelled out for media consumers so they can have a context in which to understand the content being presented. This results in a scatter pattern of opinion that may, or may not, be valid for consumers to add to their vast store of general knowledge.
3) Many who are studying to be journalists want to "change the world."
This, in an of itself, isn't a bad thing. A wee bit idealistic and over-reaching, but a laudable goal for many careers...just not journalism. However, those in positions of authority at schools offering journalism degrees seldom, if ever anymore, dissuade students from this path. It is easy to connect the dots from starry-eyed, advocating student with an enabling professor to working journalist who thinks that "objectivity" is the job of his/her gatekeeper (editor, publisher, producer) and not something for which to take personal responsibility.
Being able to clearly decipher facts and present them in an unbiased, objective fashion is nearly impossible for a human being. But, simply because you're human doesn't mean you cannot try.
Mix with this trio the overwhelmingly prevalent elitism that pervades the institution of news media and you have quite a mess. Because now along with everything else, you've mixed in a variable in which seeing the error of one's ways, listening to non-journalists and following the Hutchins' Commission's advice is a foreign concept. And, since many bloggers are common folk (or worse, knuckle-dragging, mouth breathers in uniform), the disdain and disregard the mainstream media expresses while circling their wagons is palpable.
So...what to do?
Milbloggers today remain as rogue and non-conformist as those "radical" colonists who refused to bow to the demands of the crown in their writing and information dissemination. In a world where the "Fourth Estate" has become almost an extension of at least one side of the political spectrum, bloggers offer a fresh perspective, unfettered by gatekeepers and pretense. That refreshing look at what is happening in our world is well received by those reading blogs and those who have yet to discover the bounty of information available.
I'm not sure what the saturation level of blogs would be or if we're truly nearing a tipping point where mainstream media is concerned. What I do know is this: I learned more and thought harder in our conference Saturday than I ever did in any of my journalism classes in college or during the half a decade I spent in the news media. And, it wasn't because I wasn't busting my arse back then to get the story either. It's just that the folks I met this weekend are that good.
Be a critical consumer of the media available to you. Seek the truth and the facts. You'll be glad you did. Other round-up posts on the conference are being posted. Check out B5's latest as well as what's going on in Andi's World. Interested in some good photos? ARGGHHH! has a round-up.