Thursday, December 10, 2009

Changing Journalism -- and Knowledge

Leonard Witt, who does cool stuff down the road from me on sustainable journalism, is conducting a series of interviews about the future of journalism.  So there's this interview with Jay Rosen, esteemed NYU j-prof and Master of the Universe when it comes to changing media.  The text is here or you can listen to the interview here.

Below, the part that touches on this blog's theme:
Witt:  So do you think the people will be better informed than they are now? The public and the public’s fear,  or less informed or you just don’t have a clue?
I think it’s going to be better.
Why is that?
Because we don’t have to depend on  a single elite for our information.
So do you think that’s already happening? Or do you think….
Yeah it is already happening.
My gut reaction?  This is absolute crap, the idea that people will be better informed because they no longer "depend on a single elite" for information.  But it's possible my gut reaction comes from bad sushi or my previous life as a journalist or my years of studying and doing research on how people learn from the media.

In fairness, the bulk of this interview is not about how and what people learn from the news.  Neither guy is an expert on the topic.  It's more about where journalism is going and what it all means, and neither dislike the old mainstream media, they're just pointing out the obvious changes driven in a large part by technology.  So let's give 'em both some leeway here.

And then again, let's not, otherwise I'd have nothing to write about.

First, there is some evidence that political knowledge has been decreasing, not increasing, as all these new media non-elite sources come to fruition. Cause-and-effect?  Too early to say.  A lot of political knowledge comes from incidental learning, the inadvertent exposure to information, mostly from TV for people with little interest in public affairs.  In this brave new world, with so many choices, these are folks most likely to go elsewhere for entertainment rather than consume -- even if half-heartedly and accidentally -- the news.

So our brave new media world in which a million information sources bloom, for a large chunk of society that might as well be happening on the Moon.

Now, if we're talking about the chattering class, the political junky, that sliver of Americana who find politics not only interesting but as necessary as oxygen, yeah I think you've got something here.  But this is a mistake these folks often make, of generalizing from their own interests or those they hang out with over lattes.  A metro-centric viewpoint.  My own reading of the vast literature of how people learn from the media and what they do with that knowledge suggests the more you fragment the media world, the less learning that will occur, and an awful lot of that learning will be dysfunctional and misinformed.

People will feel they are informed, even when they are not -- the empty-calorie hypothesis.  

So I'm not sure exactly where Rosen comes up with the idea that people are, or will be, better informed in this new media landscape.  You could fashion an argument that younger people might be more drawn into this fragmented news environment.  Given they tend to be the least informed, we might see some improvement there, and any improvement among young citizens will help.  But I'll be honest, other than a blip in the 2008 election, the data don't really support this conclusion.  Yet.

You might also argue that people will be become better informed about what they're truly interested in, which is a riff on the V.O. Key/Doris Graber/etc. argument about the public's knowledge being greater than what we give it credit for, if we only asked the right questions.  But such balkanized knowledge and issue publics (which may or may not exist) do not serve a democracy well, so maybe new media will increase some knowledge for some people about some things, but the outcome isn't pretty, at least according to most political thinkers.

Of course, it may mean no change at all.  The public's knowledge about public affairs remained largely unchanged for decades.  And while it seems to be inching down a bit of late, that may merely be a statistical blip and nothing to do with the changing news landscape.  But it most certainly does not mean that people will be better informed, not from what we're seeing so far.


Jay Rosen said...

Hypothesis you didn't consider: when giving answers in a five minute interview to ridiculously broad questions like, "are you an optimist or a pessimist?" or "is it going to be better or worse?" one does not produce the most nuanced answers. So blasting away from the library stacks at the statements on offer in such an interview is maybe not the fairest assessment you could offer.

I interpreted Len's question as, "for those seeking to be informed, is it going to be better or worse?" You interpreted my answer as "Rosen says the population will be better informed."

Hollander said...

Jay: I didn't blast away from "the library stacks" (I assume this is an Ivory Tower reference, which is kinda ironic) but rather from my crappy little office where stacks of student stories still need grading.

"For those seeking to be to be informed" is an interesting point because it gets muddled with motivation (oops, library reference, must stay anti-intellectual here). Lemme try again. Yeah, people who actively seek out information will probably come out better with all the sources available to them, no argument there, but honestly you're talking about a damn small sliver of the population. Since I'm not supposed to get PhDweebish or "library stacks"-ish, I'll estimate that's roughly 10-25 percent of Americans, depending on how optimistically you measure it.

So, will "the informed" be better off? Probably. But being PhDweebish I'll qualify with probably because frankly we don't know for sure. My hunch is yes, depending on what you mean by informed.

Oops, getting stacky again by trying to define terms, but there are real differences even in how people learn from the same story printed on paper or read on the screen.

Back to grading. Bah.

Hollander said...

Oh, and if you see Dan Fagin in the hall, tell him I said hi.

Leonard said...

So Dr. Barry Hollander, just a few quick questions. Let's take the discussion about the future of journalism. Where is the best information coming from? Newspapers? Television? Books? Magazines? Or is it an aggregation of those places, plus your comments, Rosen's thoughts, my interviews, Jarvis's posts, Alan Mutters insights etc, etc.?

Hollander said...

Leonard: you guys all operate at a higher level than poor little me when it comes to discussing the future of journalism.

But in asking where "the best information" comes from, I suppose that's in the eye of the user. For original local news, obviously the newspaper still generates the most information, of varying quality sure, but the most information. If we're talking how people learn from media, that's a very different question.

There's a neat idea that people approach a medium with certain expectations and those play a big role in how much learning takes place. TV to most people is an entertainment medium, so we approach it that way, so we don't really learn much. A little, but not much. The question is how people approach the Net. Early on we thought they approached it like print media, an active user approach which is good. But now there are suggestions that people are beginning to approach the Net like they do TV, to be entertained. Subtle differences like this can affect learning. But that's kinda conjecture because I don't know of anyone who has actually tested this, other than some experiments on reading the same news in print and online (print wins, for some reason).

Jay Rosen said...

Who said you're not supposed to be intellectual, or use research, or be dweebish? Those are all good things in my book.

I was trying to point out that I wasn't asked what the scholarly research showed about how well informed people are in the age of the web, and if I had been asked a question like that, which can only be answered by reference to material in the library stacks, I might have had a very different answer, which would not strike you as "pure crap"...

Hollander said...

Yeah, the "pure crap" thing was over the top. Sorry about that. Thoughtless writing.