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Technological determinism, UGC and the future of journalism

Abel Ugba

Proof 2010: Journalists Defending Journalism
Set 1, January 2010 The Scale and Origins of the Threat to Journalism

Introduction: Unthinking Anxiety

In this analysis I discuss two factors that I believe are partly responsible for the ongoing rush to turn every citizen into a reporter or journalist. These are an uncritical faith in the transformative capacity of technology, also known as technological determinism, and a nervous anxiety, largely suppressed until recently, that journalism as a profession is defined by paper walls, which are not only permeable but also easily flattened.

At its most liberal technological determinism asserts that social change is driven by technological innovation, and that this counts for much more than the influence of society on technological development. At its most conservative, it sees technological development as autonomous, free of social influences and almost entirely driven by technical innovations. The development of a particular technology is perceived as the inevitable first stage of the development of a more sophisticated version that will further tighten the grip of technology on society, and make citizens carry out its biddings unquestioningly.

Technology Is A Dependent Variable – Dependent Upon Humanity

It is worth pointing out that technologies do not initiate actions. People do. As Smith (1994, p. xii) aptly puts it: ‘…no technology, no matter how ingenious and powerful, ever has initiated an action not pre-programmed by human beings.’ It is therefore a fallacy, albeit one propagated with zeal that has exerted considerable influence, to assert humanity’s inability to control its invention or to resist its push and pull.

Nonetheless, this misconstruction appears to be one of the dominant themes in the narratives of those who assert that newer and more sophisticated technologies of communication, impose on all citizens the obligation to report from everywhere and about any subject under the sun. Technological invention, especially the dramatic development in ICTs of the past three decades, would be wasted or grossly under-utilised if every literate and semi-literate adult and child did not assume the onerous duties of a reporter, the argument goes. Its advocates have been hard at work to come up with terms which best describe the ‘new’ journalism or the death of ‘journalism as usual’. Grassroots journalism, citizen journalism, news activism, many-to-many journalism, interactive journalism, conversational journalism, user generated content (UGC) and civic journalism – all these different and sometimes contradictory terms come down to the same, basic idea that ‘anyone’ can and should report the news.

This idea is most forcefully espoused by Dan Gillmor in We the Media, a seminal but provocative analysis of the implications of citizen publishing for journalism (and of citizen journalism for publishing). Gillmor invites journalists to accept ‘an evolution that is turning some old notions on their heads’ because ‘we really have no choice, anyway’ (2006, p.111).

Oh Yeon Ho, founder of South Korea-based ohmynews.com (widely acknowledged as the biggest and most popular citizen-journalism outlet in the world), is even more blunt is his assessment: ‘Every citizen is a reporter…journalists aren’t some exotic species, they’re everyone who seeks to take new developments, puts them into writing, and shares them with others’ (Reported in Gillmor 2006, p.110).

In fairness to Gillmor, his book does not advocate the usurpation of the role of professional journalists but rather a re-articulation of that role and of the relationship between professional journalists and the audience. Still, his ideas and those of like-minded analysts have been cited by those opposed to the professionalisation of journalism per se.

Moreover, these zealots have created the erroneous impression that access to sophisticated technology is really all that is needed to produce good journalism. This poses problems for journalism educators, especially when they are confronted by fresh-faced students who claim they are already full-fledged practitioners simply because a picture of Kate Moss at a London restaurant that they took or text messages about Amy Winehouse’s latest antics sent by them, have been published by the BBC or Sky News.

The point I am making is not that journalism can and should be practised without regard to technological innovations and the participation of non-professionals. These developments are inevitable and positive. In fact they have been integral to the development of journalism throughout its history. Rather, my argument is that the ideals and purpose of good journalism must not be deposed in favour of or conflated with the superficiality and emptiness that often result when constructive and critical thinking are abandoned to machines or computer. With regard to news reporting, superficiality and emptiness are evident when, for example, live broadcasts or instant relays on television degenerate into a meaningless mix of de-contextualised narration and repetitive pictorial display. In their haste to avail themselves of sophisticated technology and bring the event to the audience ‘as it happens’, broadcasters often fail to supply detailed and contextual information that would enhance a more meaningful interpretation of the news by the audience, i.e. the gizmos get in the way of showing what is really going on. In that it continues the tradition of projecting technology as panacea, I am concerned that the uncritical elevation of UGC will inflict similar damage on journalism.

Participatory Journalism

Without any doubt journalism is more purposeful, rewarding and satisfying when those trained to deliver it maintain a close and beneficial relationship with the audience or target group. Almost since the invention of modern mass communication, the relationship with the audience and users’ participation in the news production process, have been encouraged by journalists keen to put the media at the service of society. Through phone-ins, letters to the editor and other platforms, journalists have successfully incorporated the views of users without abdicating their professional responsibilities or compromising standards.

There have been many previous instances when users’ contributions to the news process have been either constrained or (even) enlarged by (newly) available technology and (widening) socio-political contours. So the idea of media democratisation trumpeted by the apostles of UGC is not entirely new. What is new and also objectionable, is the call for the usurpation and bastardization of journalism, all in the name of making it more accessible and acceptable.

In my view, those championing this call have either misunderstood the nature and true importance of journalism or their judgement has been clouded by an un-problematic acceptance of the capacity of technology to transform and empower. Journalism is important to society for the well-rehearsed reason that it serves as its life-blood by ensuring that vital news and information circulate through every part of it. However, its importance also derives from the individual and collective records of those who through unswerving devotion to truth and passion for objectivity, have made journalism the collective conscience of many communities. While I am not suggesting that practitioners of UGC are incapable of this sort of commitment, it must be emphasised that the critical oversight and comradeship of professional colleagues – traits that are hardly present on the myriad, lone planets inhabited by many UGC practitioners – have been instrumental in enhancing the allegiance to their profession on the part of many journalists. Put differently, journalism’s reputation and importance have endured, among other reasons, because trained men and women, working with and among professional colleagues, have upheld its ideals and integrity, and thereby underlined the indispensability of journalism to modern society.

As the formats and fruits of the various forms of UGC become increasingly manifest, it is clear that an un-creative and un-disciplined application of this brand of news reporting will neither enhance the value and integrity of journalism nor serve the audience and society better. Journalism is much more than simply collecting and documenting ‘facts’. It is also not about ego trips and one-way discourses disguised as commentaries and features. Good journalism implies meaningful and critical editorial judgement, ethical sensibilities, editorial autonomy, and public service and trust. These are concepts that many advocates and practitioners of UGC do not appreciate or even understand. The future of journalism depends on how deeply or loosely these traits are imbibed and implemented by the armies of current and future entrants into the profession. That is why we must resist the move to limit or even eradicate them in the name technological application and media democratisation.

Abel Ugba is an African-born journalist who worked in Dublin, where he also gained his PhD, before joining the Journalism team at the University of East London.

References:

Gillmor, D (2006) We the media: grassroots journalism by the people, for the people, Beijing, Cambridge, Tokyo: O’Reilly publishers

Smith, Merritt (1994) ‘Technological Determinism in American Culture’, in Marx and Smith (eds)

Does Technology Drive

History? Dilemma of Technological Determinism . Massachusetts: MIT Press pp. 1-36

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