Digital media has more connection with public interest than traditional media
Apr 6, 2012
Digital media offers more resources for discussing and serving the public interest compared to traditional media, but challenges remain in defining and upholding public interest values. The digital landscape allows for greater accountability, participation, and two-way communication, but it also presents risks and the need for responsible journalism. The evolving media landscape necessitates ongoing reflection and commitment to fostering a healthy and informed society.
One of the most frequently used terms that is difficult to establish is “public interest”. The difficulty lies in the fact that the very definition of the word is complex. Curiously, or not, “public interest” is one of the few terms for which Wikipedia does not have an entry in Portuguese, which is not exactly a coincidence. Ultimately, public interest is the benefit of the majority of people, but it may conflict with other equally fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy or freedom of expression, for example. Hence, the question: how to define what is public interest to the media? The difficulty of the task is no less than its importance. Although drawing lines on such a delicate issue is almost impossible, this is where the true guide to the functioning of the media comes from, much more than “impartiality” (because this, yes, is an impossible aspiration). And whatever it may be, when it comes to discussing public interest, digital media has more resources than the traditional press.
The observation that digital media has more resources than traditional media to discuss public interest and account for its own performance deserves a small digression. The fact that there are more tools available for public debate does not mean that digital has more connection with the public interest. Technology in itself is neither bad nor good, nor is it neutral. The relationship proposed here between public interest and digital media is that it has more possibilities to account for itself than traditional media does.
McQuail lists eight conditions to establish the extent to which a media works for the public interest which are: freedom of publication, plurality in media ownership, diversity of information, opinion and culture, support for public order, wide reach, quality of information and culture available to the public, support for the good functioning of the political system (here, another digression: assuming that the political system in question represents the individuals of that society) and promotes respect for individual rights and human rights. I will not discuss the eight points one by one, but it only takes some reflection to realize that traditional media does not even come close to most of them (such as, for example, plurality in the ownership of communication media).
The first digression is called into question at this point. A critic of digital media may here remember that not all the points just mentioned are present in the virtual environment. For example, digital tools helped organize the riots in London in 2011; on the Internet, the amount of information and culture available is not always acceptable and also on the Internet it is possible to find publications that do not respect the fundamental rights of the individual. All of this is true, but the maxim remains true. Only and only digital media can encompass the eight points suggested by McQuail, although it does not yet do so, for a number of reasons. In addition, digital has taken the bidirectionality of media discourse to a completely new level, unimaginable for the media before its creation. Inherent in the activity of digital media is the fact that the receiver is no longer just a receiver, or as Jay Rosen well formatted, the receiver is now part of the group of people we once knew as the public. (Here you can read an excellent Economist article on the subject.)
There is no longer a beginning or an end to media discourse and only the introduction of digital tools could have led to so much. Open journalism (whose closest translation in Portuguese is “citizen journalism”) has brought the reader/user into the middle of the discourse and imposed a much closer follow-up, forcing the media to account much faster. Biased coverage and reporting errors receive much more criticism now than before the digitization of the media. In an excellent example of the development of open journalism to its limits, the British daily Guardian adopted a policy that prioritizes digital publication and emphasizes reader participation. A promotional video of the newspaper with the three little pigs killing the wolf went viral on the Internet (see below).
Unfortunately, the defense of the public interest does not depend only on the guarantee of freedom given to the media of a certain society. At its peak, the press acting with all the freedom and support possible simply passes the responsibility to society to decide the crucial issues of its functioning, including norms, ethics and values. If society is sick, it is not possible for the media to not be (as was clear in the episode in which a bounty hunter disguised as a journalist of a charlatan police program humiliates and abuses an accused criminal). The justification that “this is what the public wants to see” works as a pseudo-democratic escapism for the entrances into sensationalism and this always ends up in traumatic episodes like the scandal of the phone taps of News of the World in the coverage of the disappearance of Milly Dowler, or in national episodes like those of Escola Base, Bar Bodega and many other incidents caused by a fraudulent defense of the public interest.
We are living in a time when the media is redesigning itself in practically all aspects: ownership, journalistic practices, scope, reach, responsibility, function, distribution, legislation and many more others. With each new technological advance, challenges simply transform and the problem solved generates a new one (which reinforces the thesis that technology is neither good, bad nor neutral). Once the digital scenario is complete and definitely fits into society (including from a legal point of view), a series of problems should appear, but the discussion of the public interest has everything to become more transparent and accessible. Of course, this, as long as each society so wishes.