Tag Archives: online culture

The State of Journalism Today

“Journalism is dead.”

“Journalism is thriving online.”

“Journalism is devolving.”

“Journalism is changing.”

“There are no real journalists left.”

“The people are the modern day journalists.”

With so many contradictory and incompatible soundbites being thrown around about the same profession, one wouldn’t be blamed to concluded that the true state of journalism is a very schizoid beast these days.  Of course, a lot of the opinions thrown around concerning journalism (as a profession, and as a practice)  will depend on a person’s viewpoint.

People who prefer a more traditional, investigative approach to journalism (à la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) will bemoan the talking head, opinionated turn journalism has taken.  24-hour news channels partially set us down the path of conditioning us to a more commercialized, on-demand source for our news consumption.  In contrast, true investigative journalism takes a lot of time and resources, especially if said journalists aims to uphold their work to a passable level of ethical responsibility (i.e. cross-reference sources, don’t force a narrative, forego personal biases when contradicted by facts, and don’t speak for the facts of the case but let the facts speak for themselves).  These are, of course, responsibilities that news channels often ignore.  That’s not to say that they do not/cannot employ or report solid investigative journalism on an individual basis, but that as for-profit institutions (who rely on investors and advertisers) their primary incentive cannot be said to lie with simply investigating (and, if need be, challenging) the truth of newsworthy cases–they lie with not upsetting the agencies and institutions that they depend on to pay the bills.

This is where the controversy surrounding retaining access comes into play.  News journalists want to be able to talk to newsworthy individuals.  By large, these individuals will be less willing to talk to journalists (and the networks/publications they represent) if they feel antagonized by them, which is why journalists have an incentive to mitigate this apprehension for the sake of the newsworthy individuals, so as to retain access to them throughout the course of their relevance in the news.  Such a setup makes it difficult to properly investigate or challenge people/events/organizations/authorities, at least to the point that it calls for to present a comprehensive, undiluted report to the public.  If Woodward and Bernstein had been concerned with having access to President Nixon, and the other perpetrators of the Watergate scandal, the presentation of the facts in that case might have been much softer to the public, than the truth of the high-level criminal act (on the part of Nixon and his accomplices) that it was shown to be.  This is why access journalism has to, by its nature, be conservative (that’s small “c” conservative, meaning an interest in the continuity of current institutional structures, not necessarily a right-wing political leaning).

The advent of exclusively online news sources (bloggers, vloggers, YouTubers, and just online personalities and commentators in general), has been described as a reaction against this kind of access journalism.  Some even consider it a return to the more robust form of journalism, because it gives voice and power directly to the people, without first being filtered through advertisers, agencies, and corporate structures.  However, there is an obvious flaw with this model, too.  Namely, “the people” aspect.

This may be an unpopular opinion to state in the blogosphere, but the public in general doesn’t make for a good judge on truth (or justice, for that matter).  While a medium spearheaded by  what can colloquially be referred to as popular public interest will have little qualms about challenging anyone it deems to be wrong on an issue (any popular online comment section is a testament to this fact), the actual investigative component of good journalism will almost always be all but forgotten through this format.  That’s the part about needing to cross-reference sources, not forcing a narrative, foregoing personal biases when contradicted by facts, and not speaking for the facts of the case but letting the facts speak for themselves.

How may online news commentators and personalities hold to this standard, when what they’re reporting goes against the conclusions and narratives they already agree with and wish to promote?  Very few, indeed.  Because they don’t need to.  And that’s why it’s so easy to start social media outrages and “witchhunts” over minor individual infractions instigated by online commentators who want to play at journalism, but don’t want to do the hard work required by it.  Their audience (and with the rise of gofundme, patreon, and monetization of view counts, one can even go so far as to call this audience “their funders and investors”) doesn’t watch and listen to be informed on a topic; they watch to have their presupposed opinions validated.  The only checks that are in place here are other online commentators who will criticize you from their sites and channels, none of which really matters if you have a large enough audience to withstand such attacks, regardless of how misinformed your opinions really are.

[A quick word needs to be mentioned concerning another popular route of dispensing news (especially regarding confidential truths): the whistleblower.  WikiLeaks is a good example of a medium which will publish information obtained by clearance-sensitive personnel that otherwise would have been unavailable to the public.  Although whistleblower resources like this can, and do, play a vital role in investigative journalism, it would be technically incorrect to deem either the whistleblowers, or the medium they publish their provided information through, as journalists.  The journalist is the journalist, not his or her source or the medium he or she works for.  And whistleblowers are by definition always a source, never the investigators of a news story.]

If this post sounds like an elitist appeal that’s because it is.  Just like I believe only elite basketball players should go on to play for the NBA, and only elite authors should win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe only elite journalists, who uphold the most basic of investigative standards and integrity asked of by their profession, ought to be regarded as actually being members of said profession.  And, in my opinion, there are very few self-professed journalists striving to uphold such a standard today.  Moreover, the mediums we are depending on to get our news from seem less and less conducive to fostering any sort of journalistic integrity at all.  A trend I don’t see changing any time soon.

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The Fallacies of Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s law is a humorous (and accurate) observation by Mike Godwin that, when it comes to discussions on the internet, no matter what the topic is, the likelihood that one commentator or another will make an analogy to Hitler or Nazis increases with the duration of the discussion.  Or as Godwin himself put it in satirically mathematical terms:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

Godwin claims that his motivation for coining this internet meme was to make online commentators more aware about their carelessness with Holocaust analogies when engaging in internet arguments.  A statement that few who have spent more than a day on an online forum could disagree with.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with and accept the accuracy of Godwin’s law, I have also noticed several careless misuses by its more fervent proponents.  Rather than simply being an observation about the nature of internet discourse, it has mistakenly been turned into a logical fallacy against anyone who so much as dares bring up similarities between a poster’s antics/comments with that of Hitler or Nazism, no matter how apt the comparison might be.  What is ignored is that Godwin’s law does not make any judgement about the appropriateness of a Hitler/Nazi analogy, just that its occurrence increases as a conversation prolongs.  Whereas, the meme once served to cause deeper reflection on behalf of comment posters, it is now used to evade unfavorable comparisons one’s words may merit; to claim victory without caring to offer up a defense to an accurate observation, and instead scream “FALLACY, FALLACY!” on the top of one’s lungs, while pounding the figurative podium in declaration of one’s triumphant logical superiority.

Yes, most resorts to Hitler/Nazi analogies made online are by definition the result of careless hyperbole, and fallacious reasoning.  However, this does not warrant the notion that all Hitler/Nazi analogies made against a proponent are instantaneously fallacious, just by virtue of being Hitler/Nazi analogies; the context in which the analogy is used is still an important consideration.  To claim otherwise  is, ironically, a fallacy in and of itself.  Perhaps, we need an internet meme to describe how as an online conversation grows longer, the probability that someone will misuse/misunderstand Godwin’s law approaches 1.  Of course, once we did that, we would also have to coin a law to describe the misuse of that law–circularity is man’s natural state of mind, after all.

The Internet as the Rabbit Hole

Every now and then I decide to briefly try going on somewhat of a web-detox regiment.  Not for any deep reasons, I just feel that my web usage occasionally reaches a critically high point.  Mind you, I can’t just cut the ethernet cable to my Wi-Fi completely, because the sheer prevalence of online services in managing my daily chores is too great to allow for that sort of liberty (I still have to check my emails daily in order to pay my bills).  But, to my surprise, when put to the test these necessary online duties take me under 15 minutes to complete from log on to log off.  This was surprising to me, considering I’ve previously been known to spend hours on end staring at my laptop screen.  My excuse for raking up these net overtime hours was always that I’m doing something productive (reading fancy-pants articles, and whatnot), in addition to pursuing leisurely activities like online games and YouTube.  But in reality, I was just trying to find excuses to continue staying online for any reason whatsoever.  The internet just has this way of making me feel as if all the important things that occur in life revolve around this omnipresent series of tubes that place the world at our fingertips.

Just about everyone reading this will probably have little trouble understanding the initial stages of withdrawal I experienced throughout the last week, and how I craved for that psychedelic high that comes with navigating from one site to another (picking up bits and pieces of information from dozens of different sources, at record speed).  But I don’t want to fall into the trap of sounding overly melodramatic about what should really be a mild nuisance.  Yet, it is a moderately noticeable form of mild annoyance, in that even now that I have broken my semi-netfree fast, I feel a sense of hesitation about resuming my previous web surfing habits.  Almost as if, now that the routine has been broken, I fear falling back into it again.  The fact that this is having an affect in making me question what would normally be my usual course of action, makes me think that some kind of–even if only in the most superficial recesses of my mind–psychological dependency has been severed.  And I’m left with these undefined reservations about reestablishing the normal mode of operation again.

Despite the fact that so much of my personal and professional life incorporates online services, the reality is that the dominance of the virtual world we create for ourselves on the internet, is largely illusory.  The all-encompassing presence I am (and I imagine many of you are, too) keen on attributing to websites, forums, online groups, blogs, is very much a self-maintained delusion, sustained by the fact that cyberspace allows us to do something meatspace doesn’t: transcend social limitations and decorum.

In the four days of my net abstinence, I saw how tediously slow information in the real world operates.  This makes the speediness and efficiency of online data a very attractive alternative  (ironically,  however, the lack of easily available distractions made whatever task I was doing also go by much quicker).  Furthermore, I saw how unaware a great deal of people are about internet culture and memes (and not just to the elderly), even though I always considered these things to be fairly widespread in popular culture.  The jokes, the tweets, the web-dramas, and multitude of online communities, don’t have much of an existence outside of their cyber confines (either that, or people simply feel stupid referencing them in person).  But the primary difference I took notice of was the general way people communicated with one another.

Whether you believe me or not, I make it a habit to write on this blog in the same manner and diction I do in my daily life.  Now, of course the blog format allows me to correct the occasional grammar mistake, and rephrase poorly articulated statements to better convey my opinions, but the basic tone expressed is the same as it would be if you were sitting across the table from me (just with less “ums” and awkward pauses mid-sentence as I fumble over my words).  However, when I see some of the more blunt and vitriolic comments left online, I find myself wondering just how many of these individuals would be equally daring with their choice of insults in a face-to-face conversation.  In person, even more confrontational personalities remain for the most part reserved when they are facing possible opposition in thought from a second party.  There is a level of empathy and solidarity in play; even if you hate the person speaking to you, it’s difficulty not to humanize someone whose face is right in front of you.

When forced to interact in person, most people have somewhat of a filter that prevents a lot of faux pas and breaches in social etiquette from leaking through.  Online, where the person you are interacting with is nothing more than a far-off abstraction of typed words, this filter is virtually discarded in favor of apathetic aloofness (see what I did there with “virtually”, ’cause we’re talking about “virtual” reality; try to keep up with my linguistic subtleties nOObs).  And the tiny personal transgression we are willing to overlook in the fellow human being seated across from us is thrown aside when that human being is reduced to nothing more than a screen.  I imagine it’s too much like having an internal monologue (where anything goes) that we forget there are actual people reading our diatribes.

This brings me to the core realization that hit me this week: the internet is essentially imaginary.  Not in the sense of being nonexistent, but in the sense of it mirroring our impulsive inner ramblings.  Hence, it’s no surprise that it can deliver such a satisfying high to our psyche, since it practically serves as a reflection of our deepest thoughts.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think I’ll try to limit my daily dose and remember that there is a space, outside of cyberspace.  On which real life hinges.