The new journalism: are we just talking at each other?

Based on a conversation with professor William Yates

by Charmaine Daniels

Communications Professor William Yates

Communications professor William Yates gets his news from six to eight sources per day, which he says is necessary for good citizenship. Though he likes a lot of online sources, he also still enjoys holding a newspaper in his hand. Whatever the source, he points to the journalism gold standard of “Get it first, but first get it right.”

As the mass media fundamentally shift toward countless choices and louder voices, something gets lost, according to communications professor William Yates. In that atmosphere, he says, very important information gets treated the same as superficial information.

"Britney Spears' medical records take on the same weight as national health care reform."

The broad array of television channels and Internet news sites creates silos of information. That puts more responsibility on the consumer to check multiple sources and determine the truth.

"I'm not sure we have time to do that."

According to Yates, when the town crier shouted out the news from the street corners in the Middle Ages, pockets of gossip were broadcast along with the news. By the mid-1800s, communicating news stories passed to large daily newspapers that espoused the truth, in part to please advertisers and avoid being sued. "We're now back to people-sharing communication," he says. However, we lack the face-to-face controls in place during the town crier era. Without that set of controls, there's not as much effort to be civil. When Rush Limbaugh poked fun at
Michael J. Fox's tremors (Fox has Parkinson's disease), he crossed the line.

"We've gotten good at talking at each other.  We're losing the ability to talk with each other." 

When television broadcasts consisted entirely of programs produced by the top three networks of ABC, NBC and CBS, they created a centrist flow of information, but civility was not uncommon and profits were plentiful. With the rise of cable television in the 1980s, competition for advertising dollars stiffened and the atmosphere became more combative.

"Now is the wild west of media - and whoever as the biggest shotgun wins. At some point, we'll figure out who is worth listening to."

A perfect example of how delivery of the news has changed is to consider the tale of Neda, a teenage girl killed on the streets of Tehran, Iran, during a pro-democracy protest in June. Her shocking death was captured on video, and posted to Facebook.

"The world knew instantly."

There's a place for traditional journalists, even though newspapers haven't figured out how to make money in journalism's new era. "It will be painful, but they'll figure out how to operate less expensively," he says.

"Maybe journalists will be independent contractors."

Backpack journalists can now shoot footage and send it back to the station or newsroom via laptop. Before long the technology will produce a small unit that will combine stills, video and audio - making journalism more accessible and cheaper. The downside of decentralized journalism could be a lack of responsibility.

"Media law and ethics are more important than ever now."

The pace of media transformation over the last 10 years is dizzying compared to the relatively long reign of radio and television.

"I'm envious of those who teach Plato."

The media pendulum will shift and "the ranters" will collapse under their own weight.

"There will always be people committed to telling stories accurately. You have to trust and believe someone."