Social responsibility in journalism, new media, niche media at the start of the 21st century-- an indictment

I’ve had an odd confluence of events yesterday:

In the morning I interviewed Mark Brayne for a feature I’m writing about the psychology of climate change. And in the afternoon I had a fight with my boss about the content for the green blog video site I blog professionally for.

The interview with Brayne was mostly about how society becomes convinced enough about the prospect of climate change to actually change our behavior. As a former journalist and current psychotherapist, Brayne has a unique perspective on the ability of the media to influence behavior (scroll down to hear a podcast of our conversation about the media). He also has a very profound indictment of the state of the modern media.

Taking a step back, during and before both world wars propaganda campaigns were waged by governments to aid the war effort. More specifically, during World War II, the British government needed the British population to behave in a certain way: austere behavior in the buying and use of goods. Austerity, green-economic experts like Andrew Simms believe, needs to be revived to make the public transition to the mentality necessary to adapt to climate change and continue to survive on this planet.

Post WWII, Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and his nephew Edward Bernays were instrumental in spreading consumption as the driver of economic growth. Post-war people were too frugal, the market for newly produced goods wasn’t big enough. Bernaise figured out how to appeal to our animal instinct in order to get us to buy things and fulfill subconscious needs.

Brayne has a rather profound indictment of early 21st century journalism and it’s its effect on human behavior: “The concept of modern independent free media that I can write what I like and that’s it’s really just about ratings and sales is profoundly irresponsible.... The media don’t want to be regulated, actually they don’t want to be accountable to anybody. Journalists have a massive responsibility to take their profession more seriously than they do.”

“And if journalists say ‘well, I’m only in the business of giving people what they want, and entertainment,’ I think the media at the beginning of the 21st century is not fit for purpose. I don’t think politics is fit for purpose. And I don’t think consumerism--economics-- is fit for purpose.”

(To listen to our conversation about the media in full, click below: )

What does this have to do with my day job as a professional green blogger?

The site I blog for professionally is partnered with NGO's, businesses, and government agencies. My vision for the blog is to make a discussion space for different views about transitioning to a sustainable economy: like juxatopsing Alstom and their “green” plans for carbon capture and storage next to Greenpeace which opposes coal power (we have videos from both). Without saying too much about the dispute: there are plenty of frivolous green websites that sell themselves using celebs, nudity, and material-culture to consumerize green. The green video site I blog for has a responsibility to be bigger than consumerism. And it is well positioned in the UK market to be exactly that.

Franny Armstrong in a video says about the stakes of climate change, “It’s everything you know, everyone you love, everything’s at stake.” Brayne is right, the media helped consumerize our culture and now it has a deep and profound responsibility to contribute to the sustainable transition. That’s the kind of journalist I want to be.

*for more information about Brayne's work on climate change psychology, see his consortium website

Update 20 Sep: My boss and I did have it out and I've retained my editorial freedom for now on the basis of the success of the blog. But if it comes to blogging about celebs and porn I'll quit first. And that would be sad for the green video site because I am unpaid labour: if I walk the blog shuts down. The environment is too important for failure.

Open access to data breeds corruption. Open access to data breeds transparency. Which is it? Both.

Free the data. Open access to data breeds corruption. Open access to data breeds transparency. Which is it? Both.

You’ll notice I haven’t posted on either of my blogs in a while. That’s partly to do with most of my ideas have gone to my professional blogging, but also because I’ve been cooking this post and having trouble with the argument and linking all the bits together. Leave a comment: tell me if I’ve put the pieces together right, what I missed that’s related. I’m relatively certain this is still a naive viewpoint:

At the end of July I was at a Barcamp Transparency mini-conference in Oxford. Most of those attending were open source guys. The connection between information transparency and open source technology is that information, especially statistical information, can be used to create software that can tell businesses about consumer behavior, for example. Advertisers collect this information on the internet, on blogs and online newspapers.

And therein lies the issue: do you want data on your spending habits to be available to corporations, or your credit card monitored by government for suspicious activity in ostensibly to predict crime? Tie these two together and you get something like Amazon deleting copies of 1984 from it’s Kindle via remote (admittedly, the government was not involved in this but thinking about it, it’s not a large step to think it could be-- see Farhad Manjoo on the topic).

But what if freedom of access to information also leads to your ability to monitor government and know when they spend tax payer dollars on duck hutches and moats (for the Americans in the audience, see MP allowance scandal)-- sounds good in that instance. Transparency in government is another issue in the open access to information hemisphere.

More broadly, thinking about transparent information also brings up the changing model of journalism: the pay model for online newspapers. As a blogger (prefer bloggess, actually, but...) I can’t do what I do unless I have access to news articles and reports. For bloggers in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, the ability to view free news (stories, full reports) and have free access to information diffusion services (google’s Blogger, Facebook, Twitter) means something completely different-- those who live in oppressive regimes can hold their governments to account on the world stage by using the free information and information services online to do everything from blog about injustice to launching full scale campaigns.

Social media comes into play here, witness Iran’s tw-evolution. Social media is access to real time information. And there’s a fantastic argument to be made (as @apesphere does) for making Twitter a social enterprise to guarantee freedom of speech as a universal human right.

NPR’s Kevin Anderson was on the Guardian’s Media Talk podcast recently (31 July), teaching the British how NPR continues to free information: it asks for money. MoJo does something similar by putting the tipjar on it’s page. LinkTV displays a huge link, “Support LinkTV.” These site explain exactly what certain dollar denominations buy the consumer: however many $ = an episode of “Morning Edition.” That makes it explicit and that’s why it works. (The British I’ve noticed, are uncomfortable explicitly asking for money. They need to get over it.)

As an aspiring journalist I realize that if the pay model isn’t figured out, then I won’t be able to make a living. But as a bloggess, if the pay model is too heavy on the pay bit, then I won’t be able to make a living either. Some bloggers make money through advertising (admittedly, not very much).

There is an interesting dimension to open access to information when it comes to advertising, as Jay Rosen wrote on PressThink , “Advertisers aren’t in business to advertise; they do it to reach customers making a buying decision.” In other words, advertising on the internet is used to gather information. It’s not profitable in and of itself, but because it can theoretically help corporations make better marketing strategies at some point in the future. According to Rosen (via doc Searls), there’s a lot of economic cost inefficiency or market leakages here.

If advertising isn’t a viable business option for funding information sources, then what? Paying by link? No, linking to my sources in blog posts make me accountable.

I firmly believe that access to information has to be free-- it ensures that governments are accountable to their citizens, businesses to their consumers, and the media to the citizens it serves. As long as information is free (not unprotected, mind-- this is another issue) and (most) data transparent, the tools are available to protect us all. The internet and online newspapers must remain free.
Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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