Hate and broadcasting, media and power
25 Mar 2019|

A killer walks into mosques in Christchurch and broadcasts a message of hate around the world.

The 50 murders reveal again the disrupted landscape of our digital world.

In an age of information chaos, a lone wolf can speak loudly. Murder was done for a media purpose. This column, then, is about media purposes, not the hateful message of a despicable man.

The modern nature of power is recast by the digital realm. Broadcasting and journalism morph as media convergence brings them together.

Take the terms ‘broadcasting’, ‘publishing’ and ‘media’, which have become almost interchangeable. Convergence means that the act of publishing is a merged stream of text, audio and vision.

The murderer published and broadcast as he acted.

Editors have lost their traditional power as information gatekeepers. For a couple of centuries, editors controlled information. The gatekeeper rule was that newspapers, radio and TV couldn’t tell you what to think, but they could tell you what to think about.

Journalism still matters greatly, but the agenda-setting role of news has gone forever.

The gatekeeper role was crumbling as the twin towers crashed in 2001 on September 11th. The pictures were the message—no journalism needed. In the way we measure eras, that’s symbolically appropriate. At the start of a new century, 9/11 announced a remaking of the media rules. The message can surge over the gatekeepers.

The broadcast streams live and many can instantly see, hear and read.

The old editorial gatekeepers ponder the ethics of the new age. What should be reported and how should it be reported? What can be said and what must be cut out?

The new platform gatekeepers pitch their algorithms against the digital torrent. The digital wizards soar and drown simultaneously. Old editing dilemmas confront new media.

Facebook, Twitter and message groups struggled to contain the Christchurch hate broadcast with limited and late success. Emily Bell, director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, observes that platforms are now as accountable as the press:

Individuals, trained by the platforms to understand how to influence and publish, are now well versed in creating material the platforms find difficult to purge. Information, it seems, will get out. This raises a question for the press about how journalists ought to treat newsworthy but highly sensitive events. While the ambition is always to have the best possible reporting in difficult situations, there is inevitably debate about where the line should be drawn in terms of coverage and focus—now, that balance must also take into account the fact that the press no longer controls what information is available.

Pity the editors, new or old. Not only must they do the facts and do ’em fast, now they must ponder contagion effects.

As Bell comments: ‘Responsible reporters ought to have the basics imprinted on their subconscious: Do not report facts until they are verified, do not focus on the perpetrator over the victims, do not use sensational language that might glamorize the terrorist.’

Fair enough. For journalists, this is good but old stuff. It’s pretty much what I had drummed into me when I entered the craft five decades ago. The facts, please. Balance. Context. Get it fast, but get it right. If you’re accurate, you get believed, even trusted. Some basics don’t change, even if methods and means are in turmoil.

The people who do politics and policy confront a similar set of dilemmas that reach to basic truths.

A striking element of the era of information chaos is the understanding that good journalism is a public good. And, further, in the digital age, that the market can’t always be relied on to produce good journalism as a public good. Don’t take the word of a mere hack for all this. It’s vouched for by the econocrats of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as it examines the impact of Google and Facebook on Oz media.

Looking at the digital disruption, ACCC chair Rod Sims says there’s ‘a problem with the commercial model for the funding of news and journalism’ and ‘we cannot simply leave the production of news and journalism entirely to market forces’. Sims lays out a set of judgements to establish that journalism is a public good: ‘News and journalism are different to many other commercial activities in that they benefit both the individual and also society as a whole.’

Sims gives an economist’s version of the reality journalists have been grappling to understand—‘with a mixture of impotence, incomprehension and dread’—as we rocket deeper into the 21st century. The mixture quote is from a former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who argues that journalism faces an existential threat.

In one of the best books written on what the tumult is doing to hack world, Breaking news: the remaking of journalism and why it matters now, Rusbridger explains how the old model of news is broken while half-truths blast around the planet’s information ecosystem. Fake attacks fact.

As Rusbridger laments, ‘news is broken’, and that’s bad for people and their societies.

A lone Australian terrorist in Christchurch creates problems for Australia in its relations with two significant Muslim nations, Turkey and Indonesia. That’s a powerful broadcast by one bad man.

For journalists as much as for those who do politics and policy, Christchurch poses—yet again—agonising questions.

Give the final word to Rusbridger: ‘Once, to do journalism, all you needed was knowledge of shorthand and to read a couple of books on law and local government. Now the best journalists had to be moral philosophers and students of ethics. The speed of change was both dizzying and relentless.’