Liquid and Zombie Journalism (Studies)

UPDATE (29 May 2006): The essay was published in the newsletter of the Journalism Studies Interest Group, which publication also features an excellent rebuttal and critique by JSIG Chair Thomas Hanitzsch.

REMARK: In my identity as board member of the 'Journalism Studies Interest Group' of the International Communication Association, I am working on a brief essay on a proposed future of journalism (practice, studies, and education) for our newsletter. It is intended to be polemic - so here goes. Comments are appreciated!

Liquid and Zombie Journalism (Studies)

If the object of journalism studies is journalism, it becomes inevitable that we, like reporters and editors all over the world, question the legitimacy and credibility of our field. Because why would society today still need a journalism? It is an industry without a public support structure (other than advertising), it delivers a product without consumers, and serves a (model of) society that, for all intents and purposes, is dead.

Journalism is, paraphrasing Ulrich Beck, a zombie institution. In its traditional ways of doing things, as a modernist interpretative community and sense making practice it has been dead for a while now, yet it is unable to fully come to terms with its own demise. In our contemporary post-national constellation an autopoietic social system pretending to offer a public service by "hineininterpretierung" of global and local events into the framework of the nation-state is largely redundant.

In a digital age, the vast majority of people in overdeveloped nations actively engage in practices of disintermediation, bypassing cultural intermediaries like advertisers and journalists to produce and consume their own public information - a public sphere where, as Zygmunt Bauman argues,
"the way individual people define individually their individual problems and try to tackle them deploying individual skills and resources is the sole remaining 'public issue' and the sole object of 'public interest'."
We cannot, not even implicitly, assume that mainstream, corporate, and national or even global journalisms can or should somehow be held responsible for bringing everyone back into the fold.

Today's societal context of journalism is one of a networked hyperindividualism slowly but surely replacing what is commonly understood as 'community': an oppressive notion of living in a place where there are no strangers - where social cohesion is determined by an absence of difference. Examples are sprawling middle class exurban neighborhoods in the United States and Australia, or (guard-) gated communities in countries like South Africa, Brazil (“condomínio fechados”), Mexico and China. Do we really want to reify a journalism that provides the social cement for these kinds of ethnic enclaves, for such horrendous examples of publicness?

Liquid modern togetherness gets particularly expressed in the single-issue, voluntarist and monitorial social networks emerging in the in-between space of online and offline interactions, as well as in the practices of what Henry Jenkins calls a globally emerging convergence culture - a liquifaction of the cultures of production and consumption in the way people mesh their media. In journalism, this trend takes root in so-called 'citizen journalism', as in the case of blogspace offered to readers by Le Monde in France, the Rheinische Post in Germany, or the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, or at the user-generated news pages of Jan-Jan in Japan, Backfence in the United States, and Nieuwslokaal in The Netherlands. However, among the professionals in the newsrooms of these organizations such initiatives or experiments are generally met with fear or disdain. Why? Because an outright embrace of the complex prosumption process of convergence culture forces the zombie institution of journalism to admit its culture, its consensual ways of doing things, its formula, is dead.

As scholars of media and society in our studies of journalism, I strongly believe it is our responsibility to dismember the pervasive rhetoric of solid modernity in our assessments of newswork, thus letting journalism die in peace. In its place, we must reconstruct a professional identity for media practitioners that is liquid: a liquid journalism. This journalism truly works in the service of the network society, deeply respects the rights and privileges of each and every consumer-citizen to be a maker and user of their own news, and enthusiastically embraces its role as – paraphrasing James Carey - amplifier of the multiple and concurrent conversations post-national society has with itself. A journalism studies that fails to acknowledge the evolutionary changes expressed in tomorrow's new media ecology will become a zombie journalism studies - alive, but dead at the same time. Let me make it clear that I am not arguing that this 'new' social context for a liquid journalism is in any way preferable or 'better' than anything that came before - it just connects more profoundly with most people's everyday lived realities.

On a final note, I would like to offer into anecdotal evidence some remarks regarding the often-voiced argument that it still makes sense to exclusively study the 'hard' news coverage of national newspapers and television newscasts, because those are the media preferred by the powerful, the intelligentsia, the decision-makers, the 'elite'. Perhaps we should remember that the most powerful person on the planet, U.S. president George W. Bush, in 2003 proudly announced not to read newspapers, in fact not relying on news reports at all to make any informed decisions. Maybe we should take into consideration what Roh Moo Hyun, president of South Korea, did after winning his country's 2002 election: he gave his first exclusive interview to the citizen journalism website Ohmynews. If these are our society's examples, we are not helping by trying to rhetorically whiplash journalism back within its definitional, institutional, and ideological boundaries. No, we have to set the undead free. We have to liquefy journalism studies, and - respectfully taking my cue from social theorists like Bauman, Beck, Sennett, and Bourdieu - open it up to people's lived experience of permanent revolution, constant change, precarity, risk and uncertainty in what has become a liquid life. Ultimately, I would like to argue that a liquid life needs nothing but a liquid journalism, and thus: a liquified journalism studies.