“Mainstream Media” is a term used to describe any major news publication (TV/Newspaper/Magazine, etc.) which is well known and arguably influential. Examples include CNN, the New York times, Time Magazine and many more. Each of these publications take pride in the work and material that they produce and do what they can to avoid tarnishing their own reputation and their public image. Each also have distinguishable differences in style, professionalism and journalistic integrity. But nearly all of these types of media suffer from a few common (perhaps fatal) flaws. Flaws such as: lack of objectivity (“embedded journalism”), sensationalism (lets talk about Britney Spears for a half hour, then talk about spring break in Cancun for a half hour after that), concision (that’s all the time we have folks/”cut his mic”), censorship (war is ugly, lets avoid showing it), and occasionally misrepresentation of public opinion/concerns (the questions selected by CNN for their recent Youtube debate. Really, do you wanna talk about immigration for over a half hour?).
Such flaws exist for a variety of reasons. The most prominent reason involves advertisers or special interest groups who pay the owners of news publications to run ads. For example, if a news paper has an account with Nike, but decides to run a story which reflects negatively on Nike’s use of child labor in the Dominican Republic, the news paper faces the possibility of Nike retracting that advertising account and taking their money somewhere else. In addition, such news publication companies also have their own obligation to keep a tight lid on negative criticism against the internal business activities of their owners. NBC is owned by General Electric, which has been known in the past to be not so environmentally friendly. Naturally, you probably didn’t see NBC saying much about GE being obligated to clean PCB contamination on a 40 mile stretch of the Hudson River a few years ago. A more recent example might be CNN’s negative criticism of Michael Moore’s movie Sicko, while CNN was/is simultaneously receiving large amounts of advertising dollars from pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly or Pfizer. These are just a few examples. (On the Internet: A recent controversy over the firing of an editor who worked for Gamespot.com resulted in a widespread boycott of the website by many of it’s regular visitors after it was suspected that he was fired for giving a poor review to a game which Gamespot was paid well by Eidos to advertise on its website).
Another flaw which I personally detest about television news in particular is its linearity; the progression from one story to another with a selection of stories that you didn’t actually select. You are forced to sit down and watch whatever the media tells you is important that day. There is little if any interactivity or feedback available from other viewers that you can read in real-time, and again, time constraints severely limit the depth of coverage on any given topic in the first place.
With such conflicts between commercial interests and public interests, it can be debated that the mainstream media we’ve been raised to admire and respect might not be representing the public it purports to be serving as best as it could. Granted, no form of media is flawless and it is ultimately the responsibility of the viewer to triangulate multiple news sources and judge reality for themselves. But it’s difficult to do when the traditional news sources skew their coverage of reality because they are more interested in taking money from advertisers instead of volunteer to fulfill any sort of moral obligations on behalf of the viewers.
The good news is that there is change on the horizon, and it greatly involves the Internet. I’d like to focus on one particular website for a moment which I’ve been a fan of for a little over a year. That website is Digg.com.
Digg is a community-driven social bookmarking website. The way it works is simple:
1. Digg users submit links to web pages containing something interesting (such as a news story, youtube video or a picture).
2. Other Digg users are able to view the link, and if they like it, can “Digg it” (essentially, vote for it).
3. If the diversity of users who digg a story is wide, it will hit the front page sooner. And if the number of those digs take off after hitting the front page, it’ll end up in the top-ten list for a short period of time.
If a user submits a link to something inaccurate or obscene, other users can vote to bury the submitted story.
I am not bringing Digg up to promote it exclusively. There are other websites out there that function in very similar fashion, such as Reddit.com. The point of all this is that the popularity of Digg and other such sites has been increasing and similar clone websites have been creeping up to cater to different audiences. Why are such websites gaining in popularity? Well, primarily because of the ability for the public (the users) to rank the importance, legitimacy or popularity of any given item submitted, and feel more participatory in the process of bringing important things to the attention of others. This is much different than sitting down to watch the 6 o’clock news to listen to 10 or 15 stories you have no say in selecting, nor have any idea how much other viewers/readers actually care about any given subject.
With social bookmarking websites, the source of the news stories is more open. You could call it open-source news, much in the same way that Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia, or Linux being an open source operating system. Another term used to describe this kind of productivity model is “crowdsourcing.”
The next ingredient you can add into this is the blogosphere. Granted, a majority of blogs out there are opinion oriented, but quality of these opinions can be taken into account before a person diggs or votes in favor of a blog. Another factor you can take in is Youtube, or more specifically, freelance video news coverage of public events not closely covered or even looked at by the mainstream media. A few people actually do this professionally, but more often than not, cell phones are being used to document events in public places. The quality of these types of small video cameras is getting better, and having a video of something controversial instead of just writing about it can make all the difference. I think one thing we’re going to see during the presidential elections in 2008 are the use of cell phones to root out flaws in electronic voting systems or people potentially cheating, and stuff like that.
In the future, the mainstream media will still have a role to play. But as the popularity of such community driven methods of news reporting evolve and become more popular, mainstream media will find itself in fierce competition and under constant surveillance by the public (as is the current trend on Digg right now).