I was reminded, briefly, today of the last genuinely exciting thought I’d heard. No, not just a little bit interesting, but genuinely exciting. A few months ago I attended Radio Days Europe, the first time European radio broadcasters – both commercial and public sector – had come together. One of the many guest speakers was Peter Sunde, one of the co-founders of Pirate Bay.
At the time I noted…”He was a funny guy, who told the story of how they responded with humour to the many legal threats they have faced over the years. Of course, they face a greater threat at the moment, having been found guilty of “being party to possible file sharing” (or something like that), though awaiting an appeal hearing in September.”
He mentioned growing up in an age where it was common to make “mix tapes” for friends, and that’s why he felt file-sharing was the logical progression. Central to his argument about why Pirate Bay was a good thing, he spoke about how in the future it will be possible to digitise everything including clothing. “Digital clothing? Wow!”, I thought to myself at the time. A printer that could produce clothing or furniture as well as paper. It was one of those moments when my mind was genuinely challenged.
Part of the problem of working in the media is that you can become the ultimate jack of all trades. You know a little about everything. But in knowing a bit about everything, you sometimes miss the genuinely exciting. But today I went to a seminar at work which I thought was genuinely exciting, given by Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University. His interests in journalism are many, though often centre around the links between “traditional journalism” and “citizen journalism”.
A fair amount of today’s discussion centred around the recent interest in Wiki Leaks. While impressed with what’s happened so far, “there’s just one thing that could bring it all down”, he argued. Although Wiki Leaks checks their facts and sources, and have recently worked with a couple of mainstream newspapers in breaking reliable, big stories, he argued Wiki Leaks could die instantly. Their reputation could be permanently damaged, he argued, if it staked its reputation on something that turns out to be horribly incorrect.
This then led on to a conversation about what constitutes “citizen journalism”, and in particular the apparent conflict between “citizen journalists” and “professional journalists”. His philosophy of journalism seems to centre around finding the “connect” between the professional journalist and the citizen journalist, and between the open source internet and the gated community, which is, philosophically, a place I feel comfortable with.
He argued that one day soon, sometime, maybe next year, maybe in ten years, a journalist will break an incredible story based on citizen journalist networks. He mentioned, in particular, “the big story” about the monopolistic control (and subterfuge) of pharmaceutical companies, and how that story won’t be broken by an individual journalist, but by a journalist using his/her networks. This was the genuinely interesting, inspiring part, because on a personal level, I feel equally uncomfortable reading commentaries which either declare “traditional journalism dead” and those which decry the “citizen journalist” as uninformed, unable to ask critical questions. In responding to this dilemma, he declared the journalist as “a heightened case of an informed citizen”.
And then as I sat listening to what he had to say about “good journalism”, I also began thinking about recent criticism of the coverage of the Australian election. In particular, the observation those who COULD ask the tough questions on the campaign trail – the Laurie Oakes and Michelle Grattans of the world – stay at home and write commentary, while it’s left to the “young guns” to follow the politicians around. In response, Rosen spoke about the “horse race” of election coverage, and how it’s naturally “more interesting” to journalists to follow the politicians around and simply report on the theatre of politics, rather than to genuinely seek out and respond to the interests of the audience.
He argued media organisations should spend a few months establishing a broadly based “citizen’s agenda” for election coverage. Using focus groups, town meetings, social media, and traditional polling etc to genuinely establish what information/questions, the public needs to make an informed decision to make a choice in elections, he argued this approach should guide election coverage, not the “horse race”. But where’s the conflict that keeps the audience interested?, he was asked. His response was there’s lots of conflict in a citizen’s agenda too. Why are some issues more important than others? Why won’t you answer the question? Things like that, he argued, contain lots of conflict, and remain close to the heart of what journalists want.
“90% of everything is crap” he declared towards the end of the discussion. He could be right about that, although my natural optimistic instinct would say no. I think I’ll need to think more deeply about that though.