The difference between what is urgent and what is important

How do globalization and the Internet change journalism? The current debate about the tectonic shift in the media sector tends to focus on the analysis of outdated and emerging business models, but frequently neglects the essence and self-conception of journalism – or its public function, for that matter. In a keynote delivered at the 2010 annual conference of the German association of investigative journalists, Netzwerk Recherche, journalist Carolin Emcke set out to remedy this shortcoming. Since the talk is available in German only, I would like to briefly go into some of her observations in this article.

Emcke’s professional experience, reporting the Middle East conflict and covering many wars worldwide while also looking into cultural topics, has led her to demand that journalism should respond to globalization by adopting a new point of view. Many times, journalism embraces clear-cut, polar angles simply because they attract attention more easily and lend themselves to schematically balanced reporting. Today, however, this kind of black-and-white attitude does not cut it anymore; rather, there are usually dozens of shades of gray in between, which must not be ignored.

According to Emcke, “ambivalence is the big winner of globalization”: Cause and effect in an interconnected world have become way to complex to be reduced to simple alternatives or to a single reason. What is more, the current media culture even amplifies existing stereotypes and antagonisms through its selection of interlocutors: Too often still, migrant interviewees are confined to talking about migration issues, gays to gay issues, Muslims to religious ones, or women to feminism, thus creating the impression that we live in a society of one-dimensional, mono-thematically driven lobbyists. “Could it be”, asks Emcke, “that this acquired perspective of religious or cultural differences inhibits us from recognising similarities?”

She also criticizes journalists who all too easily adopt the prevailing opinion without asking whether that is tainted by particular interest or ideology – a frequent flaw of financial journalism, but of many other subject areas as well. Instead, journalists should constantly challenge ideologies and uncover what is behind them. This is important, as Carolin Emcke diagnoses a growing democratic deficit brought on by globalization: “Infinitely more people are affected by political, economic, ecological, or social decisions than are involved in making them.”

Global journalism and democracy

Accordingly, she feels it is fortunate that the Internet has at long last opened up an opportunity for global exchange of information and opinion. In a similar vein to what I discussed in another article as an intra-European challenge, Emcke calls for “journalism that discusses a globalized world even though that world does not have democratic legitimacy yet; journalism that asserts the utopian ‘we’ of a public sphere which so far remains stifled by the political system.”

For the time being, she does not think that the fragmentation experienced on the Internet creates too much of a drawback for this vision. She likens today’s globally-aware online journalism to 19th century salons which provided a semi-public forum for debate that eventually achieved full public impact, and hopes that in time, many individual and small-scale activities will come together in a functional network and thus develop the critical mass necessary in order to become mainstream.

Emcke concludes her speech by invoking “a kind of journalism that does not behave in a know-it-all manner but asks questions; stories which are ambivalent and open, yet not unambiguous and closed; and journalists who are passionate and thoughtful at the same time.” She urges her peers to remind themselves of a Henry Kissinger saying: “You have to know the difference between what is urgent and what is important.”

Episodic vs explanatory coverage

Of course, Carolin Emcke’s vision is pretty far-reaching, but she has several points. Jay Rosen and Matt Thompson, for instance, recently criticized that the Web’s fixation with real-time coverage has even increased journalism’s innate tendency to be merely episodic, usually reporting only on the latest increment in a development rather than offering a deeper analysis and explanation. As Rosen puts it: “All the day-to-day rewards go to breaking news. Productivity is measured that way“, and Thompson adds: „ This approach to information is actually totally debilitating. Faced with a flood of headlines on an ever-increasing variety of topics, we shut off. We turn to news that doesn’t require much understanding – crime, traffic, weather – or we turn off the news altogether. (…) The only way we knew how to tell the story is in terms of ‘What happens next?’ not in terms of ‘What’s happening.’”

Emcke’s observations also match with a trend that has become noticeable in the blogosphere. Since the advent of social networks such as Facebook, these services have become the most popular platforms for direct personal exchanges and led to people abandoning their blogs en masse. In the early days, blogs were often described as online diaries – something rather private and of little relevance to anybody but the closest friends and relatives of the author. But a great many of the blogs that remain today – i.e., in times of the Social Web – are fairly professional, and a lot of them are actually written by committed journalists.

Balance in the blogosphere

In the course of an ongoing research project called SYNC3, which is supposed to track opinion-forming processes around current affairs in the blogosphere, we found that most relevant blog posts are actually pretty balanced and well-informed about their respective topics. Only few are raving or fiercely one-sided; even the ones which strongly advocate a particular opinion tend to be friendly and supportive of an open debate.

And there is another observation emerging from the project: Only the smaller share of all blog posts seems to respond to breaking (a.k.a. episodic) news updates, while the great majority deals with topics of lasting, long-term interest, and frequently gives elaborate arguments you would have a hard time finding in legacy or otherwise conventional news media. Such posts are rather a kind of intermediate step between news and scientific essays.

Therefore it might indeed be the case that a public sphere with a different journalistic style, as envisioned by Carolin Emcke, is already forming on the Internet. Freed of deadlines, rid of column space or air time limitations, relieved of conventionalised news formats and oversight from commercially-minded media executives, and well mixed with a peer group of non-journalistic stakeholders, experts, and passionate semi-professionals, a lot of blog-writing journalists can finally relax and discard the bad habits of their ilk in the process. They can drop the know-it-all attitude and show the public why they became journalists in the first place: For the joy of thoroughly researching, exploring and explaining matters which are in the public interest.

Thanks Flick user boliston for the photography.

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