01 January 2012

2012: Let's get it right

News outlets generally take this time to reflect on the best and worst of the past year, and offer predictions for the years to come. I don't have a top or bottom ten list, and I'm not going to pretend I know what tomorrow will bring. For all I know the internet could disappear and be replaced with a virtual reality implantation device connected directly to our brains, so all we have to do is think "google" and our next thought triggers a nanosecond search on the subject.

I'm not a Luddite nor am I a technophile. There are useful inventions being created every day, but history spins in cycles that appear different only because the context has changed. As wonderful as the open source and free content movement is, it does not change the fundamental problems that prevent society from moving forward and beyond the real divisions that keep barbarism and ignorance thriving. By focusing so much on how wonderful the new tools and technologies are, are we missing the deeper meaning of it all?

Uniting people through the internet is step one of uniting people, and uniting people is only the first step toward understanding, which is the early stage of a long journey toward peace on this planet. Isn't that our true goal as human beings? Don't we all yearn — either consciously or otherwise (unless we profit from conflict) — for a day when there is true and absolute peace on this planet?

We as journalists are the gatekeepers of reality. Whether we're blogging, tweeting, posting videos on YouTube or writing three-part masterpieces for a global news outlet, we are creating the reality that is absorbed en masse around the world, and doing so in partnership with concerned and often highly-educated and skilled citizens.

But the potential lack of transparency with information is at critical mass. Multi-billion dollar corporations create content that appears as news, so do special interest groups, think tanks, unions, nonprofits... all have an agenda which is not always clear.

Certainly the internet offers an opportunity for transparency that no other time in history offered, and many responsible people take advantage of that. But with every yin, there is a yang. The anonymity and unclear laws surrounding online content allows for agendas to be shrouded in objectivity, often packaged and delivered by seemingly credible news organizations.

To this day, press releases or tips to news organizations almost always come with an agenda. Joseph McCarthy's antics never would have been outed had it not been for a CIA-fueled campaign to discredit him. Or consider the Valerie Plame/New York Times debacle. What was the real news value of outing her as a CIA operative?

There seems to be no line between propaganda and news, as one person's agenda is a news person's scoop of the year. And why shouldn't it be? If the Times never outed Plame, another news outlet would have, and it would have garnered all the publicity that comes with such a scandal. Any publicity is good publicity, right? Web hits are web hits, right?

Social media and blogging changed the game, and removed traditional gatekeepers from the picture. The keys are available to anyone with an internet connection. Truth finds its way out straight from the source and there are no longer agenda-laden decision makers determining what makes page one. It's all page one.

This however begs the question: What agendas are out there now? How do we know if something is grassroots when it could be astroturf? Ultimate freedom means ultimate chaos, because anyone can be anything — special interests may appear as a young mother hero, or disabled man with a heart of gold, or even a hungry child.

It's impossible to know what looms behind these images of supposedly pure truth. To know requires the one thing that has little if anything to do with journalism — faith. We believe it's true because we see it or hear it and it appears first hand. Certainly most of what appears as citizen journalism is probably raw truth, but how do we know when it is not? Can we rely on a citizen infrastructure to reveal these conflicts of interest? What if the conflict aligns with their ideology, would they risk their justice movement to expose a deeper truth?

It's dangerous to underestimate the industries that brought us stealth marketing, brand journalism and the culture of cool. Marketing, advertising and public relations are a multi-billion dollar rackets that thrive off emerging trends, analyzing sociological and psychological patterns and banking off emotion.

Being emotional and excited about the future of news is natural, but also contextual. This excitement and emotion is ripe for manipulation unless we can examine it for what it is — a moment in time.

Journalists are recorders of history, not mouthpieces for trends or ideologies. Whether we get paid to produce or work out of passion, our stories are revealing our history to future generations. What's important now — if it's truly important — will also be important 100 years from now. It's easy to get caught up in fashionable trends, but how do these trends fit into the bigger picture? What are the potential ramifications of its survival or failure? How would society benefit and/or suffer? We don't have to answer these questions, just ask them of ourselves to provide a rational context for examination.

Some people negatively associate journalism with activism, as if trying to make the world better is a bad thing. The human condition will never improve until every person in the world can go to sleep without fear of oppression or hunger or disease or insecurity. Until that time, the freedoms of the internet will continue to serve as an illusory and anodyne proxy — our online freedom dulls us to the lack of real freedom in the world.  

Certainly the calls for liberty in the Arab world and beyond are empowered by electronic devices and the web. But revolution obviously has existed long before Twitter and Facebook. Yes, atrocities are more easily revealed, but what is the end result? Are we punishing war criminals as we should? Where is the accountability and who or what is the enforcer?

People are being recognized for their sacrifice, but what is the end result of their recognition? If we build websites and pages for people who died bringing the people's experience of war to the world, what is our end goal? Is it homage for homage's sake? Is it to unite people? Around what end? What will the difference be when the dust of the war machine settles? Will we have become better at being human beings?

Journalism is not dead. It is more alive now than ever before... and perhaps ever will be. But we are at a major crossroads splitting humanity's future, and the path we take will determine whether future generations will look back and either say, "Wow, what an amazing time to be alive," or, "Wow, what an awful time to be living."

What do you think?

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