The choice of a keynote speaker says a lot about an organization’s outlook, so I was eager to hear what Richard Gingras, Google’s head of news products, had to say at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August in Chicago. The self-described “technologist” revisited good questions about the future of journalism practice and pedagogy, and received a standing ovation for his calls to “rethink everything” and create “constant innovation” through digital media technology. As he noted, today’s educators will help inspire tomorrow’s innovators.

But his broader message was disconcerting to those of us who feel that a celebration of new digital media too often deterministically assumes that new technological forms will and should dictate journalistic practices and participation. This worship of the limitless potential of technology ignores the limitations faced by journalists and citizens alike as online power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of traditional profit-oriented players who dominate the media landscape and impede the democratic potential of new technology.

No More Gatekeepers?

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Richard Gingras

“There are no longer any barriers to publishing — everyone has a printing press,” Gingras told the audience. “There are no gatekeepers.”

This sort of conventional digital-age wisdom reflects a failure to fully consider who has access to information, who can actually produce content, and how content is consumed. Beyond its immense usefulness, Google itself is, of course, a chief gatekeeper, both technologically, by tailoring searches through individualized algorithms that prioritize leading content producers, and socially, through its dominance of the digital media landscape.

More significantly, these “end of barriers” statements should be anathema to a roomful of media scholars well-versed in such concepts as the digital divide and the knowledge gap, which indicate that technological means and know-how are unevenly distributed across society.

And finally, digital media’s reliance on advertising and accumulation replicates existing commercial media structures and power relations that have prioritized profit over the public at least since the arrival of commercial broadcasting in the 1920s.

To say that there are no more gatekeepers only reflects part of the picture. Indeed, Pew’s 2012 State of the Media report notes that Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and a few others represent “a small number of technology giants” that in the past year “began rapidly moving to consolidate their power by becoming makers of ‘everything’ in our digital lives,” a shift that “will provide these companies with detailed personal data about each consumer.” Not only do these digital giants have immense power to create the social world as we experience it, but also value for these companies is generated through content and data that users create and provide.

The gatekeepers that dominate the web might not look like editors in green eyeshades deciding which stories will make it into print, but information online still travels from source of origin to content creators, interpersonal channels, sharing networks and mass media outlets, all of which have their own worldviews. As Pam Shoemaker and Tim Vos note, “The result may be idiosyncratic, but it is based on information that has traveled through many gates.”

Furthermore, as Pew and others have found, most news traffic online is confined to a handful of sites, and those are controlled mostly by legacy news organizations and content aggregators with the main exception being the Huffington Post. As James Curran writes in the excellent new book “Misunderstanding the Internet”:

In other words, the rise of the internet has not undermined leading news organizations. On the contrary, it has enabled them to extend their hegemony across technologies.

All of this is to say nothing of the fact that television remains the most important source for news in most countries, including the U.S.

Different Time, Same Channel

This is not a new debate, but it is one that has not received enough attention. Some recent thinking (for example, by Clay Shirky, Dan Gilmour, Yochai Benkler) suggests that institutional power is being neutralized by technological developments. While these observations and developments are certainly welcome and valuable, it is premature to suggest that the tenacity of institutionalized structural power does not remain a significant barrier to more democratic media systems, particularly in the United States.

Mounting evidence suggests that the web is not turning out to be the democratizing force we have hoped and that opportunities for participation are limited, as Matthew Hindman demonstrates in “The Myth of Digital Democracy.”

“It may be comforting to believe that the Internet is making U.S. politics more democratic,” Hindmand writes. “In a few important ways, though, beliefs that the Internet is democratizing politics are simply wrong.”

Tales of “Twitter revolutions” have been overblown and the web is increasingly dominated by the same kinds of large corporate entities and powerful elites that have come to dominate media in the past.

“These are extraordinary times,” Gingras told AEJMC members. “The media landscape is in the process of being completely transformed, tossed upside down; reinvented and restructured in ways we know, and in ways we do not yet know.“

Yet our time is not as unprecedented as we might wish to think. In his book “The Master Switch,” Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, who coined the phrase “network neutrality,” describes what he calls “the Cycle,” or the process that occurs as a new communication technology becomes dominated by powerful actors. Simply put, it goes from an open to a closed system, as with radio, telephone, television and film.

But that does not make the cycle inevitable, and now is the time to see the strengths and limitations of new technologies and use them accordingly. As Wu writes, “If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices that our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a manner history has foretold.”

Rethink Rethinking

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Many of Gingras’ points at the AEJMC conference were correct. The pace of innovation is likely to quicken. Students need computer skills. “Computational journalism” is a great tool for investigative work. Rethinking how journalists and journalism educators do things is always a good idea. And the future of journalism is bright — if we get things right at our current critical juncture.

Gingras pointed to the opportunity and responsibility that come with technological change. He wisely asked, “How might we evolve our craft to build trust in journalism and restore some semblance of cognitive-reasoning?”

In order to do all of this, our celebration of technological innovation must be coupled with broader attention to the media environment, with a focus on its political economic structure. If journalists and journalism educators are truly concerned about the public as they generally purport to be, they must see that a narrow focus on technological innovation is misguided.

If we want to make real progress, here are some places to start: Get broadband in every home. Teach technological skills through information literacy and critical thinking skills through media literacy. Enhance public and other alternative media sources so we don’t have to depend almost exclusively on commercial, corporate-controlled content. Establish policies that increase competition and diversity in the media system. Make sure students master fundamental reading, writing and thinking skills necessary to succeed in college, on the job and as democratic citizens. These are the skills educators and employers often lament that students lack.

Rather than a narrow focus on technological innovation, we need to revisit the unresolved issues of the past that remain at the root of our current crises in journalism and democracy. Media literacy scholars Renee Hobbs and Amy Jensen point to “advertising and consumerism; the quality of news and journalism; media ownership and consolidation; media violence and behavior; the representation of gender, class and race; and media’s impact on public health and well-being.” As Hobbs and Jensen have noted, “The current focus on what the Internet and digital media can potentially offer in the way of creativity, learning, and social connectedness has eroded interest in these more sober topics.”

As Gingras told the AEJMC crowd, “Innovation is not just about a sexy new user interface. It’s not just about what we do, it’s also about how we do it.”

But it’s also not just about how we do it, it’s also about what it’s for, why we do it, and who benefits. How we use the technology must remain secondary to what we use it for.

Gingras also noted that affirmation sells better than information, a fact that has been thoroughly exploited for power and profit in today’s media environment. Let’s hope that affirmations of our passion for technological innovation don’t blind us to the information that presents a more complete picture of the future, which we must now create.

UPDATE (9/11/12): Richard Gingras replies in the comments, and says he does not genuflect at the altar of technology, but takes a more nuanced view.

Seth Ashley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Boise State University, where he teaches classes in journalism and media studies, and serves as editorial adviser for The Arbiter. He received his doctoral and master’s degrees from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and he received a bachelor’s degree in production design from the University of Southern California School of Theatre. He has worked as a writer and editor for newspapers and magazines as well as a production designer, audio technician, documentary filmmaker, and musician. His research interests include media literacy, sociology, history and policy, with a focus on the role of news media in a democracy. His academic work has been published in the Journal of Media Literacy Education and Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism.

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