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Why on-line journalism matters

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 11 November 2002


Genuinely important events, like the recent Bali bombings, show up the complete failure of our mass media to act as reliable sources of information and analysis. Geared up as they are to the usual trivialities of sport, personality politics or fashion, and mostly oriented to advertising, our television, radio and press are totally inadequate when it comes to conveying the essential information and analysis necessary to get a grip on such matters.

Worse, because the mass media refuse to deal in any sustained way with underlying trends, such events always come as horrible shocks to the public. The reaction to the shock then too often results in hasty, ill considered policy response.

Fortunately, an alternative news and commentary source is emerging in the form of on-line journalism. Driven by entirely different principles to existing mass media, on-line journalism promises to diversify information provision and interpretation in line with the needs of an emerging global information society.

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The way the mass media sensationalised the Bali bombings - milking every last drop of pathos out of the personal tragedy of victims and their friends and relations - has been a reminder of just how debased it has become. Even the ABC has resorted to such stories, long on images of horror and sorrow, short on explanation. On television, always the worst at this sort of thing, perfectly coiffed anchorpersons flipped from horror and grief to the latest cultural inanity, carefully adjusting their plastic expression as they did so. This extended exploitation of our genuine empathy with the victims, mixed with a little ghoulishness (the vicarious pleasure of other people’s pain), reflects the most cynical values where everything translates into ratings and thus profits.

The failure lies not only in the media’s complete inability to deal with real tragedy in itself, but even more importantly in the total abrogation of any responsibility to report the significant developments in national and international affairs that underlay such developments. Our mass media show almost no capacity to track underlying issues, whether it be global warming, the intricacies of international relations or any other complex, sustained process. The media certainly cannot be bothered digesting and reporting on the masses of reports and analyses put out by governments, NGOs, academics and others that deal in depth with such matters. Instead they opt for the facile emotionalism which might sell papers or time slots, but which adds nothing to any level of understanding. And understanding is the key to preventing such terrible things from happening again.

Furthermore, real investigative journalism - where the media organisation undertakes its own in depth research - is pretty much a thing of the past. This used to be a main reason for having media, but due to both economic (it costs too much) and political (the major media owners’ interests) reasons it is very rare these days.

One of the main problems is the ideological consistency of the current media. Far too many television and radio commentators are explicitly right wing, although not all would own up to it, reflecting the basic politics of the ownership. The press, even though there are a few token non-right commentators (notably, Phillip Adams and Hugh Mackay), are little better. This homogeneity of ideology exacerbates the herd mentality in our mass media which makes serious, sustained investigation or debate almost impossible. (What did the ABC do when it wanted to produce a political commentary program on Sunday mornings? Well, got a bunch of journos to hold forth, of course.)

This problem is illustrated best in elections when the whole process is boiled down to a race between the leaders, and when haircuts and soundbites matter more than policies. Sadly, at this critical juncture of popular decision-making process, meaningful policy analysis is mostly absent.

The main reason for these things is the centralisation of media ownership, resulting partly from government policy but mostly from the economics of broadcast (that is, mass distribution of standardised product) media. However, the rise of the Internet, and the advent of narrowcasting (that is, targeted distribution of differentiated product), has seen the appearance of new kinds of publication and journalism. These are the increasingly sophisticated and well resourced news and analysis websites, such as On-Line Opinion. This website has explicitly embraced the concept that variety is important, in direct opposition to the policy of the big players. However, in broader terms the comparatively large number and easy accessibility of such electronic fora as On-Line Opinion radically challenges the big media players’ stranglehold on news and analysis.

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Because of the immediate accessibility of electronic publication all sorts of organizations are in effect becoming alternative news and commentary sources. Even academic journals are doing this, although too few have grasped the fact that immediacy and clear writing are much more important in the new medium.

Another form of on-line publishing are weblogs, or blogs, which are sort of halfway between personalised websites and on-line journalism. Blogs are frequently updated personal websites that cover a variety of subjects, from the obviously personal to the overtly political. One such blog is the infamous Drudge Report which carried reports on Clinton’s White House shenanigans.

The basic problem with on-line publishing is the vast amount of it - and its variable quality. At least newspaper editors, magazine editors and book publishers provide some kind of quality control. How can one determine whether or not an on-line publication has any real value?

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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