Thursday, February 3, 2011

O tempora o mores; Oh Times, Oh Daily Mirror

Until a very few years ago the professional news media: owners, editors, and journalists had a huge power to limit the information that was available to the ordinary person. If any step in the chain didn't consider a piece of information was "fit to print" the ordinary person never got to hear about it. More subtly the professional news media had the ability to slant the news according to their prejudices (as we all do) but unlike today the other slant often didn't get a chance to get out.

In the 1940s and to an extent the 1950s Britain (in reality England) had the largest empire the world had ever seen and considered the world to be their oyster. The ordinary Briton was regaled by tales of the colonised people, admittedly not a very nice picture of them, but a picture none-the less.

We left Britain in 1959 when I was under 2. In the mid 1970s my father took me & my younger brother back to Britain to meet the relatives and see the home land. He was socked by how insular the British press and local TV news had become. In retrospect, the loss of empire and the adjustments to being a part of Europe had simply changed the views the news media chose to present. For the locals this had been a gradual change, for Dad Britain was frozen in his mind at 1959 and it was a sudden wrench to bring his world view forward 25 years in a couple of weeks.

New Zealand media have always been focused on the world. We know we're a small and relatively unimportant part of the world and so our press has always covered events in England, USA, Western Europe and Australia very well. In recent years it has expanded its coverage of Asia and Africa.

The United States is an interesting case. Despite being the strongest nation on Earth militarily and first or second economically, they have retained an incredibly insular media, and most people in the United States are woefully ignorant of the world outside their country; and what they do know is horrifically slanted by the views constantly trumpeted by their news media. Americans are no more stupid than any other nation, and if given better and more honest coverage of the world would be much better able to use their democracy to make far better choices. The keeping of them in ignorance by big media is almost a crime.

Also in today's world I can choose where I take my news from. 25 years ago I had a choice of 2 newspapers; today I can read the on-line version of any newspaper on earth. If I want an English daily I can read it, if I want a US paper I can read it, I can read the Chinese government news ... typically I don't but I have that freedom. I can choose the slant I want.

Things are changing though, and what is changing it is that big media is losing control. In 1975 it was incredibly expensive to have a voice. Today a home PC and Internet connection and anyone can. I'm currently "following" an obscure Icelandic politician on twitter and commenting on world events. Sure, there are a huge number of differences between me and a professional journalist, but I have the freedom to make my voice heard and an increasing number of independent voices are out there being read. So where is the journalist today? At least in theory I'm free to be as slanted as I like while journalists are supposed to give "unbiased reporting" ... the reality is both the journalist and myself can only report what our internal filters let us see ... I think I'm fairly open about my biases and I would like to see big media and professional journalists come out about their biases and prejudices, so when we read their words we have the ability to know where they are coming from.

I'm picking that the future of the professional journalist is going to be interesting. The independent commentators and amateur reporters in places like Wikinews are going to be increasingly pressuring them and they are going to adapt to survive. I can see a few futures that don't really work out. I'm sure that the professional journalist will survive, but I don't have a good handle on what that survival will mean ... it could be raw news feed with an ability to get to the right place at the right time ... it could be the ability to conduct interesting penetrating interviews with the key people ... it could be a slanted journalism that would make today's US media look unbiased ... it may well be something else.

Whatever professional journalists become, they won't have the ability to filter information in the way that their predecessors in the 1970s and earlier enjoyed. 

[The title of this blog entry is a quote from Michael Flanders, who in turn was quoting Cicero.]

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