The phrase, “Because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” runs through my mind when I think of the possibilities presented by social media, or cybermedia. Here is this technology that allows for instant communication from a mobile device to tens of thousands if not millions of people. Think Donald Trump and his twitter account.
According to the recent Columbia Journalism Review article by Joel Simon, “Why journalists should be afraid of Trump’s media strategy,” one of our readings this week, Trump has upwards of 6.8 million followers. (It’s tough to ignore the irony of the word, “followers,” with its special religious underpinnings.)
Simon contends that what Trump is doing is dangerous “because what keeps journalists safe is not just legal protections and institutional safeguards. It’s also their usefulness to powerful forces seeking to communicate with the public.”
Break this traditional relationship, which Trump does with his ability to reach his audience, you have a media strategy “that the most effective way to get media attention today is to engage in shocking behavior, use social media to control your message, and rely on traditional media to amplify your voice.”
But Trump is here, and so is cybermedia, and the news media has to deal with all of it–from both sides, as those who cover stories based in cybermedia campaigns and as those who need to harness cybermedia to do their work as journalists.
Which brings to my mind another phrase that has been running along side “Because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” That phrase is “The truth is the truth until it isn’t anymore.”
In the wonderful world of cybermedia, this seems to be the way things are. The sheer mass of information follows one bit of information after another, the latter reshaping and reforming the former, so that what might have been the truth is no longer the truth–either in scope or depth–until the next bit of information comes along.
People love information, and we love to find patterns in it, whether it can be trusted or not, whether or not of what comes along has been vetted. It is there and people notice.
“The truth is the truth until it isn’t” has a precedent, however. Consider this: the earth might have been considered flat until it was proven scientifically, and then experientially, that it is round.
That is one bit of information that evolved over time and through a process.
How do you account for this phenomenon from Trump. One day he makes a statement about as controversial a subject as any, abortion. He says that as long as abortion is illegal women who abort should face a penalty. The next day, he says, the people to be penalized would not be the women but the doctors who performed the operation.
The truth in this instance is fluid. It gets reported. One truth replaces the other within hours.
The truth just might be whatever Trump decides next. As long as the reporting focuses on the stream of information that he provides the reporting reinforces the idea that the truth is fluid, changing, whatever it is now, and after a few minutes, whatever it is now, now, now.
Which is the problem with covering Trump in the advent of the age of cybermedia.
Is the news what Trump is saying from moment to moment, or is the news what is behind what he is saying? Making this distinction is critical.
Maybe the idea here is that we need metanews. News about what we consider news.
It may be the only way around journalists getting used by cybermedia virtuosos like Trump.
At the same time, getting at the truth, something journalists do, requires a new look at the truth from an old perspective–objectivity has for its goal uncovering the truth through a process, delineated by Kovach adn Rosenstiel in their book, The Elements of Journalism.
On page 100, they write “The call for objectivity was an appeal for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence– precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.”
Taking a neutral stance may appear to give the work of journalists more “authority,” but it was only a technique. As the authors state: “Neutrality is not a fundamental principle of journalism. It is merely a voice, or device, to persuade the audience of one’s accuracy or fairness.”
Reporting neutrally what Trump says continuously, perhaps, perpetuates Trumps messaging.
Handling Trump’s statements more objectively, to use the words of the authors, in a way that gets “the facts right” about his contentions and then revealing Trump’s “methodology to the public” might be a way to get the story behind the story, to slow things down for readers, and to get them to contemplate rather than simply absorb one item after another.
It’s just a thought.