Media Panic

Essay for Cultureweek, dated April 28, 2005.

Yes, there is widespread panic in the world of Journalism. In boardrooms of news media corporations all over the United States (and elsewhere) old white men are huddling together, looking at each other through red-shot eyes, hoping that somewhere, somehow, the trend they all have known about since the late 1970s will dissipate. But it didn't. It doesn't. If you are younger than 40 years, you are the problem. You cause the panic. Why? Because, frankly, you could not care less about anything these old white men are doing with their media. Because we have stopped consuming news - and even if we still do, we simply don't believe any of it is true. That is, unless it is said by Jon Stewart or David Letterman.

In the space of a couple of months (during 2004/2005) several reports have been published that all document essentially the same phenomenon - even though all of these reports are based on research using vastly different methods. If anything this means the findings from these projects, reports and books are on to something.

In no order of importance, let me list my sources: First, the 2004 book by David Mindich (chair of the journalism and mass-communication department at Saint Michael's College) called Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News. Second, the so-called Middletown Media Studies of 2004, conducted by researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Third, the Trends 2005 report by the Pew Research Center, and fourth the latest Carnegie Report, titled Abandoning the News. Of course, there is more. And yes, you could read all of these studies - but you won't. And this is exactly the point.

To put it simply: young people in the 21st century are growing up spending most of their time with media (on average 12 hours a day), and save a couple of odd couples with PhDs who seem to living somewhere in central Kansas, none of these youngsters (those between 18 and 34 years old) reads, listen to, or watches the news produced by mainstream journalism organizations. And those people in Kansas who still subscribe to one or two newspapers, regularly read Time and Newsweek and even check out the nightly news on NBC? To quote Pew: "Americans find the mainstream media much less credible than they did in the mid-1980s. They are even more critical of the way the press collects and reports the news. More ominously, the public also questions the news media's core values and morality."

The fun thing about all of this is, that young people today engage more with media than ever before in history. The change is, they do not do this as 'consumers', but as producers. American media critics like MIT's Henry Jenkins and NYU's Douglas Rushkoff are at the moment (Spring 2005) finishing their new books, in which they document this massive shift in the mediasphere from hapless passivity and dependency on whatever 'The Media' would distribute to empowering interactivity, bottom-up P2P networking and open sourcing of media. For journalism, journalists like Dan Gillmor (2004) or Chris Willis and Shayne Bowman (2003) of the American Press Institute did the same before them.

None of this is new: news has been losing audiences steadily since the second half of the 20th century, and roughly about the same time people have increasingly started to make their own media. Think about the photocopier ('the people's printing press'), pirate radio stations, videotext bulletin board systems in the 1980s, e-mail newsletters, group weblogs, and so on. (update) one could argue that the ongoing convergence of media - the merging of telecommunications, computing and media coupled with the increasingly private and individualized ways to access and engage with plug-and-play type of devices and connections - serves as an amplifier or accelerator of such trends.

The point to all of this is, that (young) people only consume when entertained, and for the rest of their mediatime just produce. And this is the deeper element in the current wave of panic in the news media industry. Because what is the bottom-line, the ultimate slogan of contemporary journalism? Telling people what they need to know. What if people stop listening, and start telling journalists what they need to know? The world turns upside down. Not only the economic basis is moved from under the feet of news media companies, the legitimacy of their professional identity might even disappear - as it is based on the assumption that people need journalists to explain them what is going on in the world. And even if we accept for a moment that most people do need journalists, it is telling that the Carnegie Report finds that "being trustworthy" is critically important for Americans when selecting a news source and that the Pew study concludes that almost half of all Americans believe almost nothing of what they see or hear in print or on tv (the other half is still thinking about it). Among young Americans only 9 percent describe news media as trustworthy.

I do not know whether to welcome or to lament these reports and their conclusions. I do know, however, that this shift towards a highly individualized, skeptical, ironic and participatory media culture is real, and is meaningful. I am not sure whether a media ecology where everyone is shouting at everyone is particularly helpful in solving some of today's most pressing problems. On the other hand, a world where we all read the same paper, watch the same television news show and silently accept whatever these reporters and editors tell us is even more scarier. It is clear that in a world where we rely less and less on traditional authorities - the government, the school, the church or mosque, our parents, the media - to provide us with a moral compass, the youngest among us are taking matters into their own hands. And perhaps that is the ultimate form of democracy: nobody believes anybody, anyone can be an authority, and those who manipulate this situation the best will be victorious. So, who is the one-eyed King? I sure hope it's not Bill Gates.

Read more:

David Mindich, “Tuned Out”

Middletown Media Studies

Pew Trends 2005

The Carnegie Report, ‘Abandoning the News”