Especial sobre medios en The Economist

La última edición de The Economist viene con un interesante especial sobre los cambios en la industria de medios de comunicación. Disponible acá. Adjunto dos artículos que me parece interesante comentar. El primero plantea que la cobertura de los medios tiene que priorizar la transparencia y la fiscalización por sobre la objetividad. Cuando lo privado se hace público, en la era de Internet, cuesta entender que los medios sigan apelando a la objetividad como su principal capital. Hoy los medios más consumidos -y por ende los más rentables- fiscalizan al gobierno de turno y revelan sus preferencias políticas. En Chile esa es tarea pendiente, pero no por ello lejana. Por ejemplo, un 55% de los encuestados señaló en 2010 que los diarios debieran hacer públicas sus preferencias políticas en tiempos de elecciones (Conicyt, UDP & Feedback, 2010). Lo mismo tiene que ocurrir con analistas de medios que no revelan sus conflictos de interés ni sus afiliaciones al momento de analizar fenómenos sociales. Cuando los analistas transparentan sus intereses contribuyen tanto a la calidad del debate público como a la credibilidad de los medios de comunicación que les dan tribuna.

El segundo artículo, acerca de los cambios en la industria de medios de comunicación en la era de Internet, propone que las audiencias -ahora productores y consumidores de información- acceden hoy en día a una diversa gama de flujos informativos. Y es ese acceso y diversidad lo que nos hará volver a la era de la deliberación en espacios públicos. "The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics", plantea el artículo. Ahora bien, este tipo de afirmaciones hay que leerlas con cautela. Por ejemplo, una cosa es que en la era de Internet la transparencia sea un valor preciado por ciudadanos y consumidores, y otra es que sean los medios, las tecnologías y sus transformaciones las que determinen el surgimiento de demandas sociales. En Chile hay una relación positiva entre aquellos jóvenes que participan políticamente y utilizan redes sociales, aunque quienes lo hacen son aquellos de nivel socioeconómico más alto. El baile de los que sobran se traspasa al mundo online y todavía ese tipo de predicciones de The Economist hay que leerlas sin olvidar el contexto desde donde se plantean.

Este tipo de discursos asociados a la democratización y la participación como consecuencia del uso de tecnologías, olvida las formas que tienen las personas de entender esos conceptos y cómo los construyen en la práctica a través de los usos que le dan a Facebook o Twitter. Con esto no desconozco el papel que las redes sociales pueden tener en movimientos sociales, pero de ahí a atribuirle esos movimientos al uso de Facebook y Twitter, como lo han hecho algunos medios nacionales, es otra cosa. El fetichismo tecnológico no puede nublar procesos sociales como el del movimiento estudiantil, ni tampoco esconder las motivaciones de quienes participan en ellos o el papel que tienen tecnologías como las redes sociales en su articulación y desempeño.


A special report on the news industry: Impartiality The Foxification of news In the internet age, transparency may count for more than objectivity.

Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition

ONE OF THE world's most profitable news organisations is Fox News, an American cable-news channel that is part of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. In 2010 it is thought to have made a profit of over $800m on revenues of $1.5 billion, according to SNL Kagan, a research firm-more than its rivals CNN and MSNBC put together. Fox was set up in 1996 by Roger Ailes, a former media adviser to three Republican presidents, specifically to appeal to conservative viewers. Its star hosts, such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, offer distinctively right-wing opinion and commentary, though the channel insists that its news reporting is unbiased. Fox is famous for being opinionated rather than for being profitable. Bill Shine, head of programming at Fox News, thinks these two characteristics are related. "We offer opinions not seen anywhere else," he says.

In a world where millions of new sources are emerging on the internet, consumers are overwhelmed with information and want to be told what it all means. Fox is not the only news organisation that is unafraid to say what it thinks and is prospering as a result. Other examples include Al Jazeera's unabashed support for reform in the Arab world, Jon Stewart's satirical take on the news in the "Daily Show", Rush Limbaugh's hugely popular conservative radio show or even The Economist. Perhaps significantly, MSNBC, which has lately been positioning itself to appeal to a left-wing crowd, is picking up viewers (see chart 5). "It's not quite as political as what Fox does," says Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, "but we definitely have a progressive sensibility, a sensibility to the left."

CNN, meanwhile, continues to lose out to its more strident rivals, in prime time at least. Mr Griffin, himself a former CNN employee, reckons that the channel has failed to move with the times by favouring the "disinterested, at-arm's-length anchor". Mark Whitaker, CNN's managing editor, disagrees. He says his (highly profitable) channel is known for "integrity and avoiding cheap opinion", and for providing more global coverage than its rivals. "In this day and age you should have a point of view, but not necessarily one that's rooted in knee-jerk ideology," he says.

The idea that journalists should be impartial in reporting news is a relatively recent one. "A lot of newspaper people treat it as one true religion, when it's an artefact of a certain set of economic and historical circumstances," says Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. America's Founding Fathers nurtured a vibrant, fiercely partisan press with no licensing of newspapers or policing of content. During the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance, for several reasons. By appealing to a wider audience, they were able to increase their circulation and hence their advertising revenue. Consolidation, and the emergence of local newspaper monopolies, also promoted impartiality. "When you are the only paper in town, you can't risk pissing off liberals by being too conservative, or vice versa," says Mr Benton.

With the professionalisation of journalism in the early 20th century came a more detached style of reporting. In effect, a deal was struck between advertisers, publishers and journalists, says New York University's Jay Rosen. Journalists agreed not to alienate anyone so that advertisers could aim their messages at everyone. That way the publishers got a broader market and the journalists got steady jobs but gave up their voices. Objectivity is "a grand bargain between all the different players", says Mr Rosen. When radio and television emerged, America's private broadcasters em braced impartiality in their news reporting to maximise their appeal to audiences and advertisers and avoid trouble with regulators.

These days different countries have different preferences. In Europe overt partisanship in newspapers is widespread and state-run television channels often have partisan allegiances: Italy's three state channels are each aligned with specific parties, for example. The political independence of the BBC in Britain is unusual, and is in any case contested by critics who complain that it is too left-leaning. In India 81 of the 500 satellite-TV channels that have sprung up in the past 20 years are news channels, most of them catering to specific political, religious, regional, linguistic or ethnic groups. Only a few take an objective, pan-Indian approach, says Daya Thussu of the University of Westminster.

If impartiality is already the exception rather than the rule, the internet is now eroding it further. In America it undermines local news monopolies by reducing advertising revenue and providing access to a wide range of alternative sources, thus undoing Mr Rosen's grand bargain. In Britain and other countries where news broadcasters are required to be impartial, at least in theory, the convergence of television and the web makes such rules seem outdated. Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, said at a seminar last December that he thought the case for polemical, opinionated news channels was "persuasive", though the BBC's own news coverage would remain impartial. The internet has also compressed the news cycle, with headlines delivered instantly by smartphone or Twitter, creating a demand for immediate analysis and opinion.

Moreover, the internet makes it easier than ever to find and synthesise different views, says Krishna Bharat, the creator of Google News. The idea for the site occurred to him in the months after the attacks of September 11th 2001, when he became frustrated by the inefficiency of visiting lots of different websites to get a broader picture of the news. When news comes from multiple sources, a mix of strong opinions becomes more desirable. "It's time to embrace the fact that certain news sources have a point of view, and that's why they have the following they do," says Mr Bharat. "I think there's a place for all of them." By undermining many of the traditional arguments for objectivity, the internet may thus cause a wider "Foxification" of news and a return to the more opinionated and partisan media landscape of the 18th and early 19th centuries. "Almost every country that has an open society is going to have some kind of opinion television programming," says Mr Shine.

This does not mean that all news organisations should take overtly political positions. Mr Rosen is just one of many media watchers who think it is time to release journalists from the straitjacket of pretending that they do not have opinions-what he calls the "view from nowhere". Journalists signal their impartiality by quoting people on opposing sides of an argument and avoid drawing conclusions, even when the facts are clear. "There have been times in the past when CNN has been criticised for being neutral-not only non-partisan, but not really having positions," says Mr Whitaker. But lately, he says, "we have been stronger in taking a point of view when we think it is supported by our reporting and by facts."

Transparency is the new objectivity

One way forward, suggests Mr Rosen, is to abandon the ideology of viewlessness and accept that journalists have a range of views; to be open about them while holding the reporters to a basic standard of accuracy, fairness and intellectual honesty; and to use transparency, rather than objectivity, as the new foundation on which to build trust with the audience. He cites the memorable phrase coined by David Weinberger, a technology commentator, that "transparency is the new objectivity". In part, this involves journalists providing information about themselves. For example, on AllThingsD, a technology-news site owned by Dow Jones, all the journalists provide an "ethics statement" with information about their shareholdings, financial relationships and, in some cases, their personal life (two journalists are married to employees at large technology companies). "People are more likely to trust you if they know where you are coming from," says Mr Rosen.

Transparency also means linking to sources and data, something the web makes easy. Bloggers have long used the technique to back up their views. Ezra Klein, a blogger at the Washington Post, has suggested that news organisations should publish full transcripts of interviews online. WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, a fan of radical transparency if ever there was one, makes a similar argument. "You can't publish a paper on physics without the full experimental data and results. That should be the standard in journalism," he said last year. Mr Weinberger has observed on his blog that transparency prospers in a linked medium: "Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can't do links. Now our medium can."

The future of news Back to the coffee house The internet is taking the news industry back to the conversational culture of the era before mass media Jul 7th 2011 | from the print edition

THREE hundred years ago news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides. "The Coffee houses particularly are very commodious for a free Conversation, and for reading at an easie Rate all manner of printed News," noted one observer. Everything changed in 1833 when the first mass-audience newspaper, the New York Sun, pioneered the use of advertising to reduce the cost of news, thus giving advertisers access to a wider audience. At the time of the launch America's bestselling paper sold just 4,500 copies a day; the Sun, with its steam press, soon reached 15,000. The penny press, followed by radio and television, turned news from a two-way conversation into a one-way broadcast, with a relatively small number of firms controlling the media.

Now, as our special report explains, the news industry is returning to something closer to the coffee house. The internet is making news more participatory, social, diverse and partisan, reviving the discursive ethos of the era before mass media. That will have profound effects on society and politics.

In much of the world, the mass media are flourishing. Newspaper circulation rose globally by 6% between 2005 and 2009, helped by particularly strong demand in places like India, where 110m papers are now sold daily. But those global figures mask a sharp decline in readership in rich countries.

Over the past decade, throughout the Western world, people have been giving up newspapers and TV news and keeping up with events in profoundly different ways. Most strikingly, ordinary people are increasingly involved in compiling, sharing, filtering, discussing and distributing news. Twitter lets people anywhere report what they are seeing. Classified documents are published in their thousands online. Mobile-phone footage of Arab uprisings and American tornadoes is posted on social-networking sites and shown on television newscasts. An amateur video taken during the Japanese earthquake has been watched 15m times on YouTube. "Crowdsourcing" projects bring readers and journalists together to sift through troves of documents, from the expense claims of British politicians to Sarah Palin's e-mails. Social-networking sites help people find, discuss and share news with their friends .

And it is not just readers who are challenging the media elite. Technology firms including Google, Facebook and Twitter have become important (some say too important) conduits of news. Celebrities and world leaders, including Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez, publish updates directly via social networks; many countries now make raw data available through "open government" initiatives. The internet lets people read newspapers or watch television channels from around the world: the Guardian, a British newspaper, now has more online readers abroad than at home. The web has allowed new providers of news, from individual bloggers to sites such as the Huffington Post, to rise to prominence in a very short space of time. And it has made possible entirely new approaches to journalism, such as that practised by WikiLeaks, which provides an anonymous way for whistleblowers to publish documents. The news agenda is no longer controlled by a few press barons and state outlets, like the BBC.

We contort, you deride

In principle, every liberal should celebrate this. A more participatory and social news environment, with a remarkable diversity and range of news sources, is a good thing. A Texan who once had to rely on the Houston Chronicle to interpret the world can now collect information from myriad different sources. Authoritarian rulers everywhere have more to fear. So what, many will say, if journalists have less stable careers? All the same, two areas of concern stand out.

The first worry is the loss of "accountability journalism", which holds the powerful to account. Shrinking revenues have reduced the amount and quality of investigative and local political reporting in the print press.

But old-style journalism was never quite as morally upstanding as journalists like to think. Indeed, the News of the World, a British newspaper which has been caught hacking into people's mobile phones, is a very traditional sort of scandal sheet (see article). Meantime, the internet is spawning new forms of accountability. A growing band of non-profit outfits such as ProPublica, the Sunlight Foundation and WikiLeaks are helping to fill the gap left by the decline of watchdog media. This is still a work in progress, but the degree of activity and experimentation provides cause for optimism.

The second concern has to do with partisanship. In the mass-media era local monopolies often had to be relatively impartial to maximise their appeal to readers and advertisers. In a more competitive world the money seems to be in creating an echo chamber for people's prejudices: thus Fox News, a conservative American cable-news channel, makes more profits than its less strident rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined.

In one way the increasing availability of partisan news is to be welcomed. In the past many people-especially right-wing Americans, since most American television was left-leaning-had nothing to watch that reflected their views. But as news is becoming more opinionated, both politics and the facts are suffering: witness some American conservatives' insistence that Barack Obama was born outside America, and others' refusal to accept that taxes must rise (see article).

What is to be done? At a societal level, not much. The transformation of the news business is unstoppable, and attempts to reverse it are doomed to failure. But there are steps individuals can take to mitigate these worries. As producers of new journalism, they can be scrupulous with facts and transparent with their sources. As consumers, they can be catholic in their tastes and demanding in their standards. And although this transformation does raise concerns, there is much to celebrate in the noisy, diverse, vociferous, argumentative and stridently alive environment of the news business in the age of the internet. The coffee house is back. Enjoy it.