Is the authority of the press really weakened by the Internet? Hold your thoughts!

First get your facts straight, then plunge at your peril into the shifting hands of interpretation –that is the ultimate wisdom of the empirical, common-sense school of history – Edward H. Carr, “What is History?” (1961).

On his blog post “Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press,” Jay Rosen exposes an interesting diagram – published in 1986 by press scholar Daniel C. Hallin on his book “The Uncensored War”– on the three different spheres that comprises the basic job of a journalist in regards to reporting politics: the Sphere of Consensus; the Sphere of Legitimate Debate; and the Sphere of Deviance.

The Sphere of Consensus, as its name already implies, is that in which newsmen and society agree on a variety of issues. Therefore, according to Rosen’s post a journalist doesn’t feel compelled to do much work because there isn’t really anything to discuss. Things like checks and balances will fall within this realm.

The Sphere of Legitimate Debate is where, then again according to Rosen’s post, the journalistic job really finds it bread and butter. It is here where the two-party system really kicks in, with major political players dictating the news agenda.  Also, this is where the journalism holds high its values of balance and objectivity.

Last but not least, the Sphere of Deviance is where journalists deposit everything considered unworthy, unimportant or not valuable to even talk about, labeling it as radical or impossible. Conspiracy theories, for the most part, will fall within this category.

Rosen emphasizes that the boundaries of these three spheres aren’t static or clearly defined, and this is when the journalist bias kicks in, since he will treat news in a different way depending on how close the issue gets to either sphere limit. To Rosen this is a political act, even though journalists don’t allow themselves to think politically.

Having said this, journalists –and their editors–, therefore, dictate the angle of the story and decide what goes in or out of it, which many times is an arbitrary process –due to space or time—and in the media this is such an ingrown process that nobody even questions it.

“[…] These decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values,” wrote Rosen.

According to Rosen, “one of the problems with our political press is that its reference group for establishing the “ground” of consensus is the insiders: the professional political class in Washington.” Truth is, if a journalist is writing about politics, who are supposed to be his sources? The players. Who else? A journalist cannot interview the whole American public, that’s why it relies on research and studies done at the different respects. Cannot either generalized or affirms that everyone thinks this or that because then, the information can not only be challenged but proven unreliable and inaccurate.

Then, he alleges that political blogs and the internet are the catalysts that allow the general public to not only pitch in but contribute and take part in the legitimate debate sphere where like-minded people can interact and share information valuable to them.  The Media Research Hub of the Social Science Research Council published a piece untitled Political Polarization and the Internet, in which they found that: “The internet can help strengthen democracy, by bringing together people from different backgrounds, providing vast sources of information from diverse perspective, and allowing for public discussion and deliberation to a degree that has not been practically possible until now,” reads the section titled Political Impact of the Internet. This piece also, provides a different perspective, not as enchanting, in which participants facing so many, varied and perhaps, even contradictory information decided altogether to refrain from political and civic life or, “perhaps even worse, proponents of this view are worried that the new information environments create pressures for and encourage selective exposure processes whereby people search for information that is consistent with their existing views.” But that’s not all, one of the problems that SSRC found is the risk of ideological polarization and intolerance.

At this respect CNN’s political analyst Fareed Zakaria published on July 24th, 2011, a post untitled “Why political polarization has gone wild in America (and what to do about it),” in which he also considers that the new media has contributed to the political polarization.

“Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast,” wrote Zakaria.

Narrowcasting as defined by Wikipedia “has traditionally been understood as the dissemination of information (usually by radio or television) to a narrow audience, not to the general public.”

The inevitable bias of human beings

Let’s consider this: If journalists are biased, so is every human being, whether we like it or not, one way or another. At this respect, journalism can be a lot like history, since both analyze facts and interpret them. But why am I relating history to journalism? The answer is simple, in his  book published in 1961 “What Is History?” British historian Edward Hallett Carr arguments that history is by far a subjective matter because the historian bias due to his social, cultural, familiar, educational, health related, socio-economic, geographical background will interfere deeply and directly in his interpretation of the facts, whether he is aware of it or not.

“The facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish in the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, take them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him,” wrote E.H. Carr.

In other words, a historian who was born in a poor household won’t see the world the same way as of another, who was born in a wealthy one. Wait a minute! This sounds like a journalist or any other human being, isn’t it?

Well, even the mood felt or any physical discomfort on a particular day can affect the response to situations, and journalists aren’t exempted that’s why fairness and objectivity are held in higher standards because journalists try to limit the amount of bias –that they are conscious about– inflicted into their work, and this is also a conscious act.

But this intrinsic bias that every journalist, as every human being, it’s what defuses the boundaries within the aforementioned spheres.

The difference between a journalist and a political “apasionado” and bloggers in this point is that a newsman will always rely on official, known, proven to be reliable and accurate sources to get the facts straight and will always rely on checking the accuracy of those facts.

Plenty of political bloggers tend to report based on their opinions and judgments, disregarding the facts, and exercising bias to the bone; others, imitate the same traditional profession that they criticize.  But at the end, no one is bias exempted; the difference is how that bias is handled.

So do I think the internet has weakened the authority of the press? Not at all, I believe they are complimentary because where one provides hard facts and little feedback, the other allows feedback and opinion.

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  1. Session 4 – Global Systems, Watchdogs and What Comes Next « UW Digital Democracy

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