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At Large

Why ‘old’ media still matter

/ 12:08 AM November 22, 2016

(Excerpts from a talk delivered at the National Family Planning Conference on “The Power of the Media,” Nov. 21-22, at the Hotel Novotel Manila)

I work in the oldest of the old media. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that when moveable type was invented, it actually sparked a revolution in communications. But technology always heralded progress for the profession of communication: the birth of printing presses, the complementation of print by photography, the enhancement of print by broadcasting first via radio and film, and then by television. And now digital technology threatens the dominance, if not the very existence, of the so-called traditional media. Greater accessibility allows even nonjournalists to take on the role of news gathering and shaping opinion, with no need for intervening editors or gatekeepers. Indeed, these days, anyone with a smartphone can be and is a journalist.

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The death of print had long been predicted, starting when I was a college student. Well, reports of the death of print have long been, as Mark Twain put it, greatly exaggerated. Print still lives!

Traditional media have in fact not just survived but actually thrived in their effort to adjust to the new environment, new technologies and a new audience. But while traditional media are doing a great job of adapting to and adopting the new communications technology, aren’t they in a way simply seeking to replicate the new media, and thereby hastening their doom?

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Here are some reasons the traditional media still matter:

First, the traditional hierarchical setup of the newsroom—reporters answering to desk editors who direct the coverage and edit the copy, with everybody in turn answerable to a chief editor and a publisher—turns out to have inherent value. The gate-keeping function of older, more experienced journalists protects readers from false or erroneous news, providing guidance to young journalists and protecting them from the pitfalls of libel suits and succumbing to temptations like corruption, overfamiliarity with sources, cooptation and cronyism. Older journalists are also there—though less so because personal interaction in the newsroom is becoming rare—to provide teaching moments on journalistic values like accountability, fact-checking, attribution, balance and discernment.

Newspapers are said to be exemplars of “a nation talking to itself.” The op-ed pages are supposed to be an open market of ideas, where differing, if not opposing, views are given equal time and space, the better to afford the reader a choice among many opinions to adopt, agree with, vehemently oppose, or simply ignore. Yes, that is possible, too, with the so-called new media, but the anonymity allowed by Facebook, say, or tweets, can often serve as license to serve up the most outrageous opinions without taking personal responsibility for them.

Yes, accountability matters. The profession also demands that reporters name their sources, as much as possible, if only to give readers the chance to evaluate the value of this information from these sources. That is why the real quest of the journalist, I believe, is balance. No one quite knows what the “truth” is, especially with a breaking story. But the reporter and the media outlet have the responsibility to provide the whole picture, to provide both or all sides of the story.

Technology now allows us to cherry-pick from among a very wide array of news and opinion sources, from all around the globe. But while this allows one to tailor-fit one’s media choices according to one’s personal preferences, politics and inclinations, it also makes for a narrower, more restrictive world and world view. Is the day of the broad, mass-appeal media over? If so, then the ideal of “a nation talking to itself” will likewise be gone. Instead, we will end up as little island-republics insulated from each other, listening only to those we agree with, forming opinions and taking action based only on a point of view we already have. We will have stopped learning, stopped growing, and, in the truest sense of the word, stopped communicating.

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TAGS: digital technology, Journalism, Media, newspapers, traditional media
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