Changing the Channel

How technology and economics have switched what news gets covered

The future of “news” in the 21st century—how we consume it and how we produce it—is heading into exciting but entirely uncharted territory. The explosion of new technology and the growth of social media are gradually rewriting the rules. As a consequence, the public is edging ever closer to the centre of the process, and the implications of this are potentially profound.

I learned this with great clarity when I worked in the tiny desert kingdom of Qatar, overlooking the Persian Gulf. It is there where the influential Al Jazeera international news network is headquartered, and it was Al Jazeera—during the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009 and the subsequent Arab Spring revolutions that began in Tunisia in December 2010—that most dramatically tapped into the public’s yearning throughout the Arab world to write its own history. For the first time, the Arab public finally made some progress in accomplishing that, and it was largely Al Jazeera’s use of new technology and social media that made it happen.

Between 2008 and 2010, I was managing director of the Al Jazeera English network, based in Qatar, and I know that Al Jazeera’s success in using the tools of social media to cover the historic changes in the Arab world was no accident. It was a gradual but radical transformation for a news culture that, until 2008, was largely indifferent to how the internet, cell phones, tiny cameras, and social media such as Twitter and Facebook could reshape its work. A defining moment came during the Israeli-Gaza conflict in early 2009 when we realized as a journalistic team that these new technologies were the only way of effectively covering the story. Later on, during the Arab revolutions in 2010–11 when Al Jazeera journalists were being targeted and driven underground or arrested or killed by the dictatorships in power, relying on the public as genuine partners in telling their story was even more essential. A lesson we learned at Al Jazeera at that time was one that journalists everywhere have come to learn in this new 24/7 media age: running out of options certainly focuses the mind.

The increasing power of the public in influencing today’s news agenda affects the heartbeat of any modern democracy, and this is an important public policy issue to study and understand. That makes this excellent new book by Carleton University communications scholar Rena Bivens, Digital Currents: How Technology and the Public Are Shaping TV News, so timely and substantial.

Having interviewed more than 100 journalists and news executives in Canadian and British networks, Bivens draws a detailed, even exhaustive, behind-the-scenes portrait of how TV news organizations are riding the social media wave. She captures the ongoing challenge within traditional newsrooms to embrace the public’s newfound participation in news while still protecting the integrity of professional journalism.

In today’s digital media environment, the growth of user-generated content and citizen journalism is having a significant impact on news production. But it is more than a never-ending stream of tweeting, blogging and live hits. It also cuts to the core of how our news agenda is determined. Bivens’s book places a spotlight on the increasing role of the public in determining how news decisions are made.

Bivens examines how TV newsrooms—traditionally a change-averse bastion of “long-established news production routines”—are becoming more open to new sources of information: “This explosion of [user-generated content] has ushered in a shift in mainstream media—they are making space for this unconventional news production within newsrooms.” Her research explores the various ways in which the public is now having its influence felt. They include taking pictures of breaking news events and sending them to news organizations or posting them on social networks, discovering new stories and topics through social media, and pushing new directions and angles to current stories by adding comment and context in sufficient volume. The reason much of this is growing in impact within newsrooms is that many more journalists themselves are becoming active social media and internet users.

It is in the coverage of major breaking news where this has been most dramatically evident. Two examples cited in the book are the horrific South Asian tsunami in December 2004 and the subway bombing in London in July 2005. In both disasters, news organizations were flooded with an unprecedented volume of images and video from cell phones, emails and text messages that completely defined how the public witnessed these events. In the London bombing, the BBC received the first pictures from an eyewitness eight minutes after the first bomb went off. That was before the news media even knew of the disaster, let alone had the opportunity to send TV crews to the scene. “It’s the first time we’ve done a television news package solely using pictures from people’s mobile phones,” one BBC editor told Bivens. “There were no TV pictures of that, ever,” added another. “Those were the only pictures.”

Bivens, who is currently a Banting Fellow at Carleton’s School of Journalism and Com­muni­cation, completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow in Scotland while also working with the distinguished Glasgow Media Group. Perhaps influenced by her work there, Bivens wisely chose to examine networks in the United Kingdom and Canada—and not in the United States—for the book. To a Canadian reader, the UK examples provide a fascinating contrast with our own. Ever since I lived in London in the 1980s—with its vibrant, diverse media culture—I have thought it is lamentable in media terms that, as a country, Canada finds itself located beside the United States—and not the United Kingdom—with America’s smothering commercial broadcast environment.

In Britain, Bivens examined the major networks—BBC, Channel 4, Sky and ITV—and the APTN international news agency. In Canada, her fieldwork was at CTV, Global and the CBC. Although it feels like a lifetime ago (2006), I was the CBC’s editor-in-chief at the time and, along with several of my colleagues, Bivens interviewed me. Reading the excerpts in the book of what we said to her then, I was reminded that—eight years ago—there was still some questioning within the wider CBC community about how enduring and radical the impact of new technology, the internet and social media would be in the years ahead. There is no questioning of that anymore, nor should there be.

Much of that has to do with today’s media economy. Not only has the introduction of new, less costly technology made it possible for more people to “do” journalism than ever before, the economic context for news organizations has changed. Advertising has dropped, budgets have been cut and journalists are facing wave after wave of layoffs. When I was working abroad as a CBC senior news and documentary producer in the 1980s, there were many journalists from Britain, Canada and the United States covering the world’s major stories. Now, the three large American networks have fewer than half the staff they had in 1980. Canadian foreign bureaus have also been reduced dramatically. Yet, in 2014, it has become a crowded and competitive media marketplace, in spite of its financial challenges. No longer are there simply a few major media brands. There are numerous new news sources that can either astonish or appall, most tellingly—it seems—the public.

Although Bivens is careful not to exaggerate its impact, she writes “in conjunction with these digital media tools, the public has come out of their relative obscurity to inhabit digital spaces and publish information that is widely available to their selected networks and beyond.” As a focus of her book, she goes on to ask this question: “Within the confines of professional, mainstream television news organizations, what are the implications of the public’s arrival for traditional journalism?”

Bivens sets out to explore this question by examining in considerable detail the various stages of the news process. She looks at how ideas are gathered, stories are assigned and decisions are made and at how power in the news organization is actually wielded. The book does a very effective job in outlining how today’s news organizations are trying to navigate through the various minefields that this digital age has created. How does news today happen? Does it flow from the structures and processes of the industry? Or do journalists themselves have the ability to put their own stamp on what is ­produced?

Bivens examines the “traditional narrative of journalism practice” as reflected in several groundbreaking TV news production studies done in the 1970s and ’80s—“the view from the twentieth century.” They largely described a media world in which “news is manufactured and therefore a mere social construction, not ‘reality’ itself.”

Perhaps the most seminal book about news organizations during that period was written by Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans, titled Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. It was critical of American news organizations at the time for being overly focused on government and authority, and called for more diversity and openness toward all segments in society in “deciding what’s news.”

I remember this book vividly because it was published in 1979 just as many of us at the CBC were preparing for the introduction of CBC Television’s exciting new 10 o’clock news hour—The National and The Journal. I recall that the eloquent appeal by Gans for more diversity in news decision making became our mantra for the new National.

The suggestion in Bivens’s study is that this traditional narrative may no longer apply—if it ever did—and that the newsroom dynamics have become more nuanced in this 21st-century digital age. Journalists today often do seem to exhibit more autonomy. News organizations often do appear more open to the input and influence of non-traditional sources and “unconventional actors.” And “public participation in mainstream news production,” made easier by social media such as Twitter and Facebook, often does seem to be widely accepted.

Up to a point, that is. As Bivens reflects in her book, there still is considerable debate within newsrooms that “Twitter isn’t journalism.” For all of the occasions when 140-character messages on Twitter actually broke major news—such as the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, and the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan—the ubiquitous nonsense of Twitter feeds by celebrities such as Justin Bieber often seems to suck the oxygen out of the debate. Bivens quotes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd as writing in 2009 that she would prefer to be “tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account.” But that was yesterday, and today is today: since then, of course, Maureen Dowd has opened a Twitter account.

Although suggesting that this debate will likely never be truly resolved, Bivens reminds us that “the reception of new technologies has a long history.” She quotes a prominent Greek personality who undoubtedly would have grated under the 140-character limit imposed on his Tweets: “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories … They will be the bearers of many things and will have learned nothing … They will be tiresome company.” That was Socrates speaking more than 2,500 years ago in reaction to the invention of writing.

In her book, Bivens is certainly clear about the news media’s role in today’s society: “The mainstream news continues to operate as the main stage for the ongoing war over images, fought by public relations professionals and governments spokespeople every day. Many consider this struggle to be as vital a war as those that take place physically.” I share her view that the news agenda in the future needs to be shaped “by a wider representation of the population than just those powerful enough to have traditionally directed our gaze.” But my sense from her visits to these eight news organizations is that this is slowly happening, although perhaps much too slowly.

Digital Currents is no breezy summer read. It is more like a probing forensic examination of today’s news culture that will be appreciated by media scholars and journalists as well as individuals and groups that want to understand better how the media works. Apart from providing a thorough analysis of existing research, this book is also striking in its effort to open this debate to the public. Too often, journalists monopolize the discussion about the future of news. And they—or is it still we?— are then able to control and frame the debate. That is not healthy. Although I cling to the belief that, as journalists, we are still loved by our children, I have come to see that, as a headstrong cohort, we are overly defensive, self-absorbed and incapable of detached self-regulation. Just like everyone else in society.

As a journalist for nearly 40 years working inside various large news organizations, my experience in the past three years contributing to Ryerson University’s School of Journalism has been a revealing one for me. I have come to admire the efforts by journalism and communication scholars in Canada to help us all better understand the road ahead. This book by Rena Bivens is an important addition to that body of work,

Way back in the 20th century, when I was not obsessing about what Herbert J. Gans actually meant or wistfully wishing that Canada was a next-door neighbour of Britain so I could rip off the BBC signal free of charge and make quick weekend trips to London, I kept thinking about something serious that famed American journalist Walter Lippmann once said. The press, he wrote in 1922, should be “like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of darkness into vision.” Throughout my professional life, I have always embraced that sentiment. But I have felt that, ultimately, we as trained journalists are the ones who should determine in what direction that searchlight is directed. I am humbler now. In the 21st century, as this book shows us, I believe that we need to rely more closely on the public to get that direction right.