I recently read an article on buzzmachine.com by Jeff Jarvis titled “Public is public…except in journalism?” The article was written in response to criticism of a map published in a newspaper showing the addresses of people who have acquired gun permits. This issue falls under the debate over gun control that has exploded across the country following the Newton school shooting that occurred last month.
While I’m not going to debate the issue of gun control in this post, I do wish to talk about the relevant argument Jarvis is making, which asserts that it is up to the public to decide what information is important and not necessarily the journalist. This argument may be hard to swallow for those dubbed as “old school,” but I think it makes sense, considering a journalist’s main responsibility is serving the public. However, this argument makes the assumption that the pubic is informed enough to handle the power and responsibility of regulating important information, which relates right back to the duty of the journalist. It’s a very chicken or the egg type deal.
Jarvis states, “Our default as journalists should be that more information is good because it can lead to more knowledge.” At first glance, this statement is very appealing to me. Information is the fuel that leads to decisions, change, and actions in our society and larger world. However “change” and “actions” are broad terms that don’t always mean inspired and positive movement. The reality is misuse of power can lead to violence and danger. Jarvis admits that certain topics relating to criminal investigations and security should be kept private. So, does that mean that everything else is fair game?
This issue of gatekeeping can’t be discussed without bringing to light the fact that we are moving into a very digital world. I realize everyone’s tired of hearing that, but we might as well open our laptops and face the music. “Back in the day” (Sorry Mom and Dad), when the news came only in print delivered directly to one’s doorstep, journalists had a different, arguably greater responsibility. What was written in ink was permanent, in the sense it couldn’t be erased forever with one click, and it was brought to the entire public’s attention whether they wanted the information or not, whether they were equipped to handle it or not. Sure, they could choose not to read it, but what was there, was there. There was a clear divide between the journalist and the public the journalist was writing for.
Today, in an age where not having a twitter account makes one as archaic as a record player, journalism has entered a Choose Your Own Adventure type world. Reading the news is your choice, just one carefully tracked click away. Google search, type in a web address, or click on links but ONLY if you want to . You have the ability to actively search certain terms, follow whoever you want, and select the personalized news and updates that appear on YOUR page. Additionally, there is no longer a clear divide between journalists and the public. Anyone can blog, tweet, facebook, and comment on posts. All you need is a computer, a username, and occasionally the ability to pass a test stating you are not a robot. Then BAM, your thoughts are out there, right alongside someone who got a degree and or $ to write something.
I actually am a fan of new technology giving the public more power, which may seem strange coming from a journalist who hungers for such power. Yes, people will misuse information, and it could lead to danger, but I think the positive outweighs the negative here. For every irrational, ill-informed, frivolous blog rant, there is an active discussion forum happening somewhere. If someone is spreading lies on twitter, challenge them on it or unfollow them and find someone else to follow that makes you think.
The fact is PEOPLE ARE TALKING. Yeah, the political rants on Facebook are highly annoying, but I honestly think we are getting somewhere. I think the fact that the public is discussing issues right alongside those who write professionally is a great achievement for journalists who aim to reach their public in a new, personal way. It doesn’t make our jobs less important or meaningful, just gives us more reason to keep doing what we do. We can sit here and gripe about journalism dying or we can have a little faith in journalists and the general public to take information and use it in a totally new,different, and effective way.
Jarvis says, “I would hate to see society and especially journalists find themselves advocating the regulation of knowledge.” Truthfully, I guess I have no choice but to be excited for this idea of making more information available. This field IS what I am getting my Master’s Degree in, after all.
I, as journalist and public news consumer, Choose My Own Adventure. What are you going to do?