Darwin's media: Surviving the info-glut

Book excerpt: In an age of democratized media, consumers need to take some responsibility, too

Published January 10, 2011 5:35PM (EST)

(This is an excerpt from my new book, "Mediactive." With this project, I hope to persuade media audiences to become active users, as consumers and participants.)

The e-mail arrived in early January 2010 via a colleague, who got it from his father, who got it from a mail list. It began, "Do you remember 1987 ..."

The formatting and style were amateurish, and the tone just-folks. It went, in part:

Thought you might be interested in this forgotten bit of information………

It was 1987! At a lecture the other day they were playing an old news video of Lt. Col. Oliver North testifying at the Iran-Contra hearings during the Reagan Administration. There was Ollie in front of God and country getting the third degree, but what he said was stunning!

He was being drilled by a senator, ‘Did you not recently spend close to $60,000 for a home security system?’

Ollie replied, ‘Yes, I did, Sir.’

The senator continued, trying to get a laugh out of the audience, ‘Isn’t that just a little excessive?’

‘No, sir,’ continued Ollie.

‘No? And why not?’ the senator asked.

‘Because the lives of my family and I were threatened, sir.’

‘Threatened? By whom?’ the senator questioned.

‘By a terrorist, sir’ Ollie answered.

‘Terrorist? What terrorist could possibly scare you that much?’

‘His name is Osama bin Laden, sir,’ Ollie replied.

At this point the senator tried to repeat the name, but couldn’t pronounce it, which most people back then probably couldn’t. A couple of people laughed at the attempt. Then the senator continued.

Why are you so afraid of this man?’ the senator asked.

‘Because, sir, he is the most evil person alive that I know of,’ Ollie answered.

‘And what do you recommend we do about him?’ asked the senator.

‘Well, sir, if it was up to me, I would recommend that an assassin team be formed to eliminate him and his men from the face of the earth.’

The senator disagreed with this approach, and that was all that was shown of the clip.

By the way, that senator was Al Gore!

Pretty alarming stuff, yes? Actually, no -- because it’s fiction, in service of outright propaganda. Oliver North never said any of this in any Senate hearing. Neither did Al Gore. I know because, among other things, I checked with the Snopes website, where reality rules.

What was going on here? It’s simple, actually, as many of these kinds of e-mails tend to be. There were at least three plain goals: 1) Turn Oliver North, a right-wing icon of the 1980s, into a modern hero; 2) turn Al Gore, a born-again liberal, into a dunce; 3) use the fictional situation to promote the idea of preemptive military action and state-sponsored assassination. There’s an honest case to be made for 3), but this e-mail’s fundamental dishonesty undermined that case for anyone who’d done the slightest homework.

My colleague had made it clear in his forward that he was skeptical. But how many people along the chain, before it reached his in box and mine, had taken it for granted?

I don’t have to tell you about the information mess, of which that e-mail is just one tiny but toxic piece of flotsam. In an era of media overflow, we’re swimming in the real and the unreal, and sometimes we wonder if we’ll sink.

We won’t -- or at least, we don’t have to. Sure, we find ourselves in a radically democratized and decentralized media culture that’s producing an overload of information, an alarming amount of which is deceitful or just mistaken. But this culture is also responding with important new tools and techniques for managing the flow and determining what’s real and what’s not.

Moreover, even as some people are spreading garbage, whether deliberately or inadvertently, others are giving us genuine hope for a future that’s rich in trustworthy and timely information.

Consider, for example, the Ushahidi project and co-founder Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan lawyer living in South Africa (and who recently joined Google). In the wake of the horrific 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ushahidi -- originally created to track election news in Kenya -- launched an interactive “Crisis Map of Haiti” to track events in the shattered island nation. Information came in from people on the ground via SMS, the Web, e-mail, radio, phone, Twitter, Facebook, live Internet streams and other reports. Volunteers at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy’s “situation room” read the reports before mapping them, discarding items they considered unreliable.

Who was this for? Anyone who needed or wanted it, but the Ushahidi team hoped, in particular, that the humanitarian community would use the map as a guide. That’s exactly what did happen. As a Marine Corps representative in Haiti texted to the organization, via Twitter, “I can not over-emphasize to you what Ushahidi has provided. Your site is saving lives every day.”

Everywhere I turn these days I find people like Okolloh working to build and refine an information ecosystem we can use to make better decisions. Some are media creators. Others are helping us sort it all out. And many, like Okolloh, do a combination of both.

To make the most of what they’re doing, each of us will need to recognize our opportunity -- and then act on it. When we have unlimited sources of information, and when so much of what comes at us is questionable, our lives get more challenging. They also get more interesting.

Information overflow requires us to take an active approach to media, in part to manage the flood pouring over us each day, but also to make informed judgments about the significance of what we see. Being passive receivers of news and information, our custom through the late 20th century era of mass media, isn’t adequate in the new century’s Digital Age mediasphere, where information comes at us from almost everywhere, and from almost anyone.

That anyone can include you and me, and our neighbors and their neighbors. Somebody created that propaganda e-mail about things Ollie North and Al Gore never said in the Iran-Contra hearings. Yet you, or I, or almost anyone we know, can create something as trustworthy as that piece of fiction was deceitful. That this door has opened to us is a powerfully positive and democratizing development. But anyone who steps through it needs to engage in a new kind of media literacy, based on key principles for both consumers and creators, which we’ll delve into starting in the next chapter.

The time to work on this is right now. Our democratized 21st century media are a land of opportunity, and of peril. How we live, work and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on how well we use those media.

How did we get here?

It has taken millennia for humanity to produce democratized media. When early humans started drawing on the walls of caves, they created a lasting record of things that mattered. Stationary cave walls gave way to rock and clay tablets, which in turn were supplanted by papyrus and animal-skin documents, including scrolls. Early books -- single editions created by scribes -- came next, setting the stage for what I think of as Media 1.0: the printing press.

Moveable type and the printing press, taking its early and most famous form as Gutenberg’s Bible, liberated the word of God from the control of the priests. This was humanity’s first profound democratization of media. Printing presses spread the words of individuals to many readers, in books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines and more. Regimes shook, and some fell. Civilizations changed irrevocably.

When the telegraph first moved information over long distances at the speed of light, we’d hit a new turning point. Call it Media 1.5 -- the information moved from point to point but not directly to the people. This led to the next epochal shift.

Broadcasting is Media 2.0: mass media traveling long distances instantaneously. The radio brought news and information, plus the sound of the human voice, with an immediacy that led to the rise of both the great and the wicked. Franklin Roosevelt did much to calm a troubled nation with his fireside chats, while Hitler used radio, among other media, to pull his nation into outright savagery.

Television engaged eyes in addition to ears, adding the moving images of film to radio broadcasting’s immediacy. It was a huge shift (Media 2.5), but not as great as what was to come.

The Internet is Media 3.0, combining all that has come before and extending it across the web of connections that includes everything from e-mail to the World Wide Web. It is radically democratized media, in ways that we are only now beginning to understand well. But with this opening of what had been a mostly closed system, possibilities emerge, literally without limit. And it’s good thing, given what’s happening to traditional media.

The same technology advances that have given us Media 3.0 have been near-catastrophic, at least in a financial sense, for what we now think of as the journalism industry -- the collection of powerful corporate producers of journalism that emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Especially in the past decade, reality has collided -- hard -- with the news business. Publications and broadcasts are hollowed-out shells of their former selves.

What happened? The easy answer is that advertising disappeared. True, but too easy. Let’s look a little more deeply.

The seeds were planted decades ago, when it became clear that newspapers and local television stations were becoming licenses to print money. The reason: The barrier to entry -- the cost of presses and broadcast licenses, among other things potential competitors would need to enter those marketplaces -- was too high. In the daily newspaper business competition was narrowing dramatically; by the latter part of the last century communities of any size with more than one newspaper were rare. So newspapers were monopolies, and local TV stations were oligopolies.

Monopoly meant charging ever-higher prices, not so much to subscribers, but to the advertisers who had nowhere else to turn in their communities if they had something they wanted to sell to the widest possible customer base. Nowhere were profit margins higher than in classified ads, those one- or two-line notices that filled page after page in most papers. In fact, for most newspapers classifieds provided the number one source of profits.

Wall Street loved the newspaper corporations, because monopolies are great fun for owners while they last; you can keep raising prices and no one can stop you. So when newspaper companies sold shares to the public, often to raise capital so they could buy up more papers, investors bid up the prices of the companies. The companies bought more and more papers: Profit margins kept soaring, and so did stock prices.

As Wall Street and private owners alike demanded higher returns, in many (if not most) markets monopoly newspaper managers became complacent and arrogant, to varying degrees -- it’s what monopolists tend to do. Rarely did managers care all that much about their communities; they were really just visiting on their way up the corporate ladders. The chief way they could please their bosses was to pull more profits from the local communities, by not just charging more for ad space, but also trimming back the budgets for journalism.

One thing they trimmed was journalism that aimed to serve people on the lower demographic rungs. Over time, most large daily papers increasingly aimed their coverage almost solely at the top 40 percent or so of the communities they served, in terms of household income -- because those were the people the advertisers wanted to target. So newspapers were losing touch with their communities as they chased profits.

The Internet brought competition for the advertising dollars, as sites like eBay, Monster (jobs), craigslist and others gave advertisers a much lower price for a much better service. It didn’t take long for the classified advertising business to melt, and with it the main source of profits at most papers. It will never come back.

Display advertising, meanwhile, was going through its own evolution. Newspapers depended mostly on big local merchants, notably department stores, for display ads. But economic forces led to consolidation of the retail marketplace -- among other industries that tended to use newspaper ads heavily to reach consumers -- and bang, another revenue source was gone for good.

Television’s unwinding happened in different ways and at a different pace. TV is still a hugely popular medium and will remain so for decades to come, but the rise of cable and satellite gave viewers and advertisers more choices. These shifts were part of an upheaval for local TV, which at one time boasted profit margins that would make the greediest newspaper executive jealous. The effect of competition -- and, I’m convinced, a relentless dumbing down of television journalism to the point that it was pure info-tainment -- pushed audiences away.

And as all these financial storms were brewing, mass media audiences were joining advertisers in exploring the Internet’s vast and diverse possibilities.

Democratized media to the rescue

The Internet didn’t just take advertising away from print publishers and advertisers -- it also brought democratized information to all of us. Actual competition for journalism, not just revenue, began appearing. And here, too, the industry has been ill-prepared.

As newspapers were coming apart at the seams, many traditional journalists began fretting that journalism itself was at risk. Who would do the journalism if the established business model died? How would the public be informed?

The anguish and hand-wringing, of course, raised a couple of questions.

First, by what standard had traditional journalists done such a sterling job that they were irreplaceable? To be sure, there had been some superb reporting over the years; the best journalism was as good as it had ever been. But some of our top reporters had helped lead America into a war started under false pretenses. And they’d almost entirely missed the building financial bubble that nearly ruined the nation. Newspapers increasingly focused on celebrity and gossip. They pretended to find two sides to every story, even when one side was an outright lie. Was this a craft that deserved our unreserved faith?

Second, did the unquestionably hard economic times for the journalists’ employers mean that journalism itself would no longer exist if the employers disappeared? From my perspective, it seemed as though people working for traditional media companies were arguing that their enterprises had some near-divine right to exist. Not in the universe you and I inhabit!

I’m an optimist. I and others like me see renewal amid the destruction. We don’t worry so much about the supply of news and opinion, though we do recognize that a shifting marketplace for information -- from monopoly and oligopoly to a new, competitive mediasphere -- will be messy.

Count on this: Tomorrow’s media will be more diverse, by far, than today’s. We can imagine, therefore, a journalism ecosystem that’s a vital part of our expanded mediasphere and vastly healthier and more useful than the monocultural media of recent times -- if we get it right. That we means all of us. Remember, Digital Age media are broadly distributed and participatory -- broadly democratic.

For sure, we’re headed for a time of abundance, at least in quantity. In that abundance we’ll have plenty of quality, too, but it’ll be more difficult to sort out. To assure a continued supply of quality information, we have to address the other side of a classic economic and social equation: demand for information that’s reliable and trustworthy. That’s up to you and me.

Trust and Reliability

 In this emergent global conversation, as we ride a tsunami of information, what can we trust?

Trust and credibility issues are not new to the Digital Age. Journalists of the past have faced these questions again and again, and the Industrial Age rise of what people called “objective journalism” -- allegedly unbiased reporting -- clearly did not solve the problem.

We don’t have to look back very far to note some egregious cases. The New York Times’s Jayson Blair saga, in which a young reporter spun interviews and other details from whole cloth, showed that even the best news organizations are vulnerable. The Washington press corps, with dismayingly few exceptions, served as a stenography pool for the government in the run-up to the Iraq War. And so on.

The credibility problem of traditional media goes much deeper. Almost everyone who has ever been the subject of a news story can point to small and sometimes large errors of fact or nuance, or to quotes that, while perhaps accurate, are presented out of their original context in ways that change their intended meaning. It’s rarely deliberate; shallowness is a more common media failing than malice.

Having said that, I greatly appreciate what traditional news people give us in many cases: their best efforts in a deadline-driven craft. Despite the minor errors, the better media organizations get things pretty much right (except, of course, when they go horribly awry, as in missing the financial bubble until it was too late). The small mistakes undermine any notion of absolute trust, but I tend to have some faith that there’s still something worthwhile about the overall effort.

Most traditional media organizations try to avoid the worst excesses of bad journalism through processes aimed both at preventing mistakes and, when they inevitably occur, setting the record straight. Yet too many practitioners are bizarrely reluctant to do so. As I write this, it has been more than a year since the Washington Post published an editorial based on an absolutely false premise, which I documented in my blog and passed along to the paper’s ombudsman, who passed it along to the editorial page editor. The editorial page has neither corrected nor acknowledged the error, an outrageous failure of its journalistic responsibility.

I still don’t know why the Post refuses to deal with this mistake, now compounded through inaction, but I do know that the silence betrays another major failing in the mass media: a lack of transparency from people who demand it of others. (On the subject of transparency, I should note that I have relationships, financial and otherwise, with some of the institutions and people I discuss or quote in Mediactive. My online disclosure page, dangillmor.com/about, lists many such relationships, and I mention them in my writing either directly or with appropriate links.)

One of the most serious failings of traditional journalism has been its reluctance to focus critical attention on a powerful player in our society: journalism itself. The Fourth Estate rarely gives itself the same scrutiny it sometimes applies to the other major institutions. (I say “sometimes” because, as we’ve seen in recent years, journalists’ most ardent scrutiny has been aimed at celebrities, not the governments, businesses and other entities that have the most influence, often malignant, on our lives.)

A few small publications, notably the Columbia Journalism Review, have provided valuable coverage of the news business over the years. But these publications circulate mostly within the field and can look at only a sliver of the pie. Now, the “Fifth Estate” of online media critics is helping to fill the gap.

The new media environment, however rich with potential for excellence, has more than a few reliability issues of its own. It’s at least equally open to error, honest or otherwise, and persuasion morphs into manipulation more readily than ever. There’s a difference between lack of transparency and deception, though. Some of the more worrisome examples of this fall in the political arena, but less-than-honorable media tactics span a wide spectrum of society’s activities. Consider just a few examples:

  • Procter & Gamble and Walmart, among other major companies, have been caught compensating bloggers and social networkers for promoting the firms or their products without disclosing their corporate ties. This stealth marketing, a malignant form of what’s known as “buzz marketing,” caused mini-uproars in the blogging community, but a frequently asked question was whether these campaigns were, as most believe, just the tip of the iceberg of paid influence.
  • Meanwhile, new media companies have created the blogging and social networking equivalents of the “advertorials” we find in newspapers, compensating people for blogging, Tweeting and the like and not always providing or requiring adequate disclosure. Federal regulators have been sufficiently alarmed by these and other practices that they’ve enacted regulations aimed at halting abuses; I worry they'll go too far.
  • On blogs and many other sites where conversation among the audience is part of the mix, we often encounter sock puppets -- people posting under pseudonyms instead of their real names, and either promoting their own work or denigrating their opponents, sometimes in the crudest ways. As with the buzz marketing, it’s widely believed that the ones getting caught are a small percentage of the ones misusing these online forums. Sock puppetry predates the Internet and has never gone out of style in traditional media, but it’s easier than ever to pull off online.

Craig Newmark, founder of the craigslist online advertising and community site, famously says that most people online are good and that a tiny percentage do the vast majority of the harm. This is undoubtedly correct. Yet as Craig, a friend, would be the first to say, knowing that doesn’t solve the problem; it takes individual and community effort, too. In a world with seemingly infinite sources of information, trust is harder to establish. But we can make a start by becoming better informed about what we read, hear and watch.

Next time: Some principles for media "consumers" -- starting with, "Be skeptical."

(I'll be discussing these and other topics this Wednesday, Jan. 12, in Washington, D.C., at the New America Foundation. More on that event here.)

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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