As part of our series on how technology is changing journalism, we’re asking journalists young and old how they think the industry is evolving.
Gavin O’Toole is a freelance journalist, editor and copywriter in London. He has worked for some of the UK’s leading newspapers including The Guardian, Observer and Financial Times, and has written several books about his specialism, politics and economy in Latin America. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. What is the biggest difference between journalism in 2021 and 20 years ago?
The endemic tension between diversity and counter-diversity — the proliferation of small, informed and often ground-breaking online sites that can subvert the suffocating market stranglehold of the major money-grubbing media groups, and the inevitable backlash by the latter and their political allies seeking to silence them. If you want to reduce this to one word, it’s ‘democracy’: the last 20 years has seen an unprecedented explosion of media democracy by which millions of people have been offered alternatives to monolithic mouthpieces that cherish power, and the backlash this has provoked among the powerful vested interests they exist to serve. This revolution has overall been positive, even if it has given unsavoury newcomers platforms to disseminate poison, because that’s what democracy is: messy, stressful, counter-productive, contradictory … but the best way we have yet found to manage our world. The upshot is that it remains absolutely imperative for small voices to make full use of technology to resist the perpetual, ever-present threat by dominant forces to silence them. This war will never end, because powerful people fear democracy. But you win by surviving.
2. How has technology changed journalism (for better or worse)?
See above. But also it has to be said that technology has eroded ‘standards’, for want of a better word, or at least ‘old’ standards. Those standards, in production terms, were invariably set by the established newspapers and had a commercial logic with roots in print that had evolved over generations. The result, in terms of how things were written—the content—was a ‘language’ of journalism full of nuances and codes that the reader simply ‘got’. Readers ‘absorbed’ their reality. That is why newspapers divided so neatly along class lines: different classes understood different codes and it made their place in the world clear. Then along came new technology like a sunstorm and changed the DNA of journalism so radically that no one really knew what the standards were any more. All those hidden codes that made up the language by which people understood the social messages they were being fed were scrambled—and with it their place in the social order. That’s partly why ‘populism’ (again, for want of a better word) has coincided with this new technological era: people are confused, and naturally other people are taking advantage of their confusion. But those taking most advantage of all this confusion are not the wild-eyed extremists, but the vast techno-conglomerates with very deep pockets that have hoovered up the profits.
3. Is journalism really getting worse or is that just something people like to say?
It depends what you mean by journalism. At the end of the day there was never truth, only truths. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, well, not telling the truth. The newspapers that I cut my teeth in distorted every single story to shoehorn it into a given space and fit a headline that … sold copies. It is in the nature of journalism to summarise, provide the reader with a clear direction and hence a clear understanding, often even think for them for goodness sake. Editing is by definition selective: what a media site leaves out is much more revealing than what it includes. So don’t bleat about good and bad journalism: all journalism is partial because that is what journalism is. People say lots of things, most of which are nonsense. The simple fact is that we still need ‘journalism’ because in our complex society we need information, and lots of it. A much better question would be about how to make sense of that information i.e., ‘media literacy’: something that all those powerful people who whine about how bad journalism is are still very reluctant to teach citizens. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself what powerful interests gain from having millions of confused people out there unable to read between the lines of ‘bad’ journalism that’s ‘getting worse’.
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