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A New/Old Role for Traditional Journalism

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The 2008 election campaign is historic for a number of reasons. But from the media's point of view, it may be remembered as the first campaign of the 'viral video' phenomenon.

The structure of news distribution is quickly shifting from vertical — in which a few journalists tells the masses what is happening — to horizontal, in which information can be placed onto the Internet by nearly anyone and shared with the world.

The challenges this new order presents to the world of journalism are a topic of a conversation between five journalists and scholars in “The News About the News in Campaign 2008,” a conversation moderated by Steven Roberts of George Washington University and published in the October issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics.

“I think it’s impossible to ignore the impact of the viral video phenomenon in this campaign,” said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and former media writer for the Boston Globe. He cited the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor, and the March 18 speech on race the presidential candidate gave in response to their release.

“Millions more people will see and observe and analyze those incidents online than would ever tune into a newscast showing those clips,” he said. “So you are dramatically expanding the audience. (In addition) people can make up their own mind (regarding the clips’ content) without any kind of media mediation whatsoever. That’s a hugely significant factor.”

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, noted that Jurkowitz is describing “an alternative system” of news consumption, in which people watch important events via videos that are distributed “peer-to-peer,” and interpret them without any input from the traditional media. Journalists “haven’t begun to adapt their ideas to this horizontal dimension of communication,” he said.

So what role should journalism play in a society where information – much of it incorrect, or open to misinterpretation – circulates so freely? Rosen suggests traditional outlets can serve as “reliable fact-checkers.” But he adds that this will require getting rid of “some outdated notions about evenhandedness that actually prevent them from culling out deception and misinformation.”

Alicia Shepard, ombudsman for National Public Radio, gave an example of the sort of thing skilled journalists are uniquely qualified to do. She noted that the rumor that Sen. Obama is a Muslim continues to circulate “despite ample evidence that it’s not true. So the issue is, why is that? It’s code for something … it speaks to their fears about Obama. (The fact) this bad information is circulating is important, and that is where professional mainstream media can come in and really try to analyze it rather than just report it, repeat it, or even dispute it.”

What she is suggesting sounds a lot like “interpretative journalism,” an approach one of my professors at emphasized when I was studying at Northwestern University in the 1970s. Perhaps the old methods still apply in the new media. If anyone can supply information, perhaps the primary role of journalism is to supply context and meaning.