Is This the Golden Age of News?
Some say journalism is on the decline. Others, however, think this may be a golden age of journalism: the New York Times’ Bill Keller is belongs in the latter camp. In his Sunday column, he said he believes modern media prevents dictators from getting away with with propaganda and deception. New technology like auto-translate software has made foreign news even easier to procure. But there is a downside to this new media world, as well:
When practitioners of global reporting get together—as some of us did last week for a stimulating conference on the future of foreign news at Boston College—one question on the table is whether, for all the moaning, we are now enjoying a golden age of global news. My own view is: “yes, but.” I’ve already explained the “yes.” Now the “but.”
The problem with the cutbacks in professional foreign coverage is not just the loss of experience and wisdom. It’s the rise of—and exploitation of—the Replacements, a legion of freelancers, often untrained and too often unsupported. They gravitate to the bang-bang, because that’s what editors and broadcast producers will pay for. And chances are that nobody has their backs.
This new journalism reality is one in which freelancers risk their lives with no backing or safeguard, and often without a contract or formal assignment. Bill Keller cites Emma Beals, a British journalist, who believes that of 17 kidnapped foreign journalists being held by Syrian rebels, the majority are freelancers. This is the dangerous and unsavory side of modern reporting, Keller posits.
Keller pinpoints another disadvantage of modern media, more inhibitive to the reader: “My other caveat about this time of abundance is that while it’s great for a foreign-news junkie, I’m not sure how well it serves the passive reader. The profusion of unfiltered information can overwhelm without informing.”
But when Keller talks of a profusion of “unfiltered information” in news, he is only partly right. One of the dangers of our current news era lies in its plethora of filters. Sites like Google filter their search engines to spit out the results they think you want, according to author Eli Pariser. Sites like Facebook and Twitter have changed our ideas of “relevance” and “connection,” by letting us define those terms according to our preference. If “relevant,” in your mind, means exclusive entertainment news and no foreign policy articles, your social media sites can construct themselves in your image. It will be difficult to break through your bubble.
This is not the fault of journalists, per se, but rather the fault of those organizations that propagate news and information. If readers still pick up a print newspaper, they cannot filter out pertinent front-page headlines without concentrated effort. However, newspapers and news magazines have also increasingly supported the idea of partisan reporting: one should know that The Washington Post and The Washington Times present two different versions of our national and international landscape. Such news coverage propagates the news “bubble.”
It seems a confusing and deluding news world: the amalgamation of information renders some readers overwhelmed and others apathetic, while many retreat into their ideological news bubbles. It’s a world of endless information, but also one of endless blinders. Can we really call this a golden age of news?