Journalism in the Digital Age

by Péter Bajomi-Lázár, Budapest.  

Students of normative theories of media performance often ask the question of what the job of journalists is in the Digital Age. The most important problem to date, when social media platforms reach literally billions of people, is disintermediation, i.e., the declining role of journalists when it comes to gate-keeping and moderating content. Traditional elites have lost control over huge parts of mass communication. Facebook, Twitter and other platforms often deliver fake news stories, conspiracy theories and hate speech. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that the 2010s evinced increased political polarisation, which yielded, toward the middle of the decade, Brexit in the UK, the electoral victory of Trump in the US, and the rise of populist political leaders all over the world (cf. Chadwick 2017). What role have media played in these unwelcome processes? And what can professional journalists do to counter them?

            The reasons behind political polarisation and the rise of populism are manifold. Perhaps most importantly, they are rooted in the economic crises that have cyclically emerged since the early 1970s. In an effort to preserve economic growth, elites encouraged technological innovations such as computer networking, which triggered the globalisation of the economy. Production was outsourced to cheap labour countries, which, in turn, undermined the position of the traditional domestic working classes, as well as increased differences between the revenues of the rich and of the poor, and eroded trust in elites (cf. Castells 2019). The latter was coupled, in the most developed countries, with declining levels of trust in traditional media organisations (Reuters Institute 2020).

            Analysts are divided over the issue of what role new media—and especially social media platforms available on smart phones—have played in polarisation. Have they contributed to the rise of ‘echo-chambers,’ or ‘filter bubbles,’ and hence to the polarisation of society and the lack of meaningful dialogue in the public sphere? There is no decisive answer to this question. Most studies suggest that few readers would rely on only one news resource. Instead, they use improved (and cheaper) access to the news to consult many sources, albeit the studies conducted in different countries reveal somewhat different patterns in that regard. Even more importantly, most users rely on both social media platforms and legacy media outlets (for a summary see Gálik 2020). A new study, however, suggests that social media may have played a role in polarisation: among those de-activating their Facebook account for four weeks, political polarisation declined significantly in comparison to the control group (Allcott et al. 2020).

            There is not a lot that professional journalists, committed to providing quality news, can do to counter the social processes which, at the end of the day, may undermine democratic cohesion; their efforts at checking facts have little effect on those susceptible to fake news and conspiracy theories. Yet a recent report by the Reuters Institute (2020) reveals some contradictory trends: in the UK, the number of those seeking objective news sources has grown since 2013, while in the US the number of those has grown who seek sources that reinforce their already existing views—possibly because in uncertain times, when class identities are lost, many people seek confirmation. But even in the US, those seeking objective news sources outnumber those who do not (in the UK, 76 per cent, and in the US, 60 per cent of those interviewed say they prefer objective news services). This suggests that there still is a need for traditional journalistic values.

 

Bibliography

Castells, Manuel (2019): Rupture. The Crisis of Liberal Democracy. Polity Press.

Chadwick, Andrew (2017): The Hybrid Media System. Oxford University Press.

Gálik Mihály (2020): Visszhangkamrák és szűrőbuborékok [Echo-chambers and filter bubbles]. Médiakutató, vol. 21, no 1, pp. 27–35.

Reuters Institute (2020): Digital News Report 2020, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2020-06/DNR_2020_FINAL.pdf.

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