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april 2004

The future of journalism


by Hans Durrer
Next Right: Ulrich Klose, embedded journalist for RTL News in the Iraqi War

Journalism has no future. Mike has said it, and Kevin has said it. Both are lecturers in journalism at Cardiff University and have probably thought more about this issue than most of us. That, of course, does not mean that they are right. In fact, they are wrong. I will tell you why, but first things first:

Neither Kevin nor Mike have really elaborated on why they think journalism is destined to die. Anyway, being university lecturers, they will most likely deny ever having uttered such a simple, clear and straightforward phrase as "journalism has no future." For as we all know, academics are always full of "yes, but," and "it depends," and "you've quoted me out of context" — very much like politicians, really.

  But they have said it. You do not only have to take my word for it. I have witnesses. But actually, that is not the point. For this is not a trial here.
  Let me go straight into medias res, and give you a potpourri of thoughts that Kevin and Mike have expressed during their lectures in regard to what they think journalism is. Here is what they have said: Nothing but gossip; Western imperialism; something anybody can do; a thoroughly subjective attitude; self-importance; loud noise that accompanies events that would also take place without it. Actually, they have said a lot more than this. But that is what I readily recall. And I agree with them. I think that journalism encompasses all of what they have said. And even the remarks that I don't recall. But why should all that disappear?
Next Let's have a closer look at two of the issues raised: journalism is nothing but gossip, and journalism is only loud noise that accompanies events that would also take place without it. I like gossip. In fact, most people like gossip. So if journalism is gossip — and I think it is — why should it disappear? I'm pretty sure, we want gossip to stay. Journalism is but loud noise. I agree. Yet it seems that we like the drums being played. Moreover, we are voyeurs, and we are vain, and we are terribly self-important. That is why there's a need for the noise. For silence is uncanny, it is frightening.
  There have always been thinkers who have argued that journalism is nothing special, that it is something that anybody can do, and that with the Internet becoming increasingly a regular household item — in a few privileged countries in the Northern hemisphere, that is — the digital communication age is near. So we are told by the enthusiasts. Everybody can now put up a web site, there is no need anymore for the old-fashioned journalist who decides what we should see and hear and read. So, has the time of the gatekeeper come to its end?
  People do not want to be told, Mike, in a lecture, once said. Clearly, the opposite is true. People want to be told, and if only to be able to say that they don't want to be told. I only have to listen to what my classmates are saying when getting to do a new assignment: What do they mean? I don't understand. It is never clear.
  People need guidance, they need to be told. Of course, I can already hear the enraged academic pointing the index finger at me: And by whom? By you maybe? Well, why not. But seriously: we do not know what is good for us. At least, I don't. And I don't think I'm an exception. Which is why I have to listen to what others are saying. And that includes lecturers. Lecturers do what journalists do: they filter, they select, they ask poignant questions, they put things into context. At least the good ones do.
  We — again, the minority populating the North — are living in affluence — not quite all of us, though. We are drowned in infotainment, and know less and less, for we are not made to handle such quantities. We do not have the time and energy to sift endlessly the McDonald-ised streams of topics. We need somebody who does it for us. We need professionals, people who are educated, who know what they are talking about. They do not have to be experts, but they need to be curious, interested and sometimes brave. And they should be at least thirty-five years of age. Why would we listen to anybody who has not had a life yet?
Next Mike, in another lecture, defined journalism as critical inquiry; and Kevin once mocked the term "investigative journalism," arguing that journalism that does not investigate is no journalism at all. Quite. Critical inquiry, then. A pretty good definition of journalism, I find. What then eludes me is, why it should disappear. Given all the PR-strategists, corporate identity specialists and the rest of the beauty parlour section, we need critical inquiry and critical investigations more than ever. Anyway, we need not worry, competition, envy, and greed won't leave us — and they surely will keep our investigative motors running.
  Moreover, there is a serious need for reliable information. The chairman of Nestlé recently predicted that advertising will change dramatically because people are getting tired of being presented with beautiful promises that are nothing but lies. They want to know what they are buying, which is why advertising needs to become honest, he said. That doesn't sound like advertising anymore, that sounds more like one of the elements of information policy that journalists once claimed to adhere to: truthfulness.
  Clearly, Nestlé would not adopt such a policy if it is not one that will sell. And it will sell because we are already getting tired of a world that can be summed up in show and business. To be fair and accurate has the distinct advantage that it bestows credibility on whoever practices these principles. And the future will be with the ones that we can still trust. For without trust there is no communication to speak of.
Next Journalism will not disappear, journalism will change. The twenty something's whose only qualification is to look good on camera will vanish again from sight. Because we are getting tired of shining surfaces — there are too many, and there are too much.
  The Internet that many hail as the revolution will in no time at all be relegated to where it belongs — next to the TV, the video, the record player and the radio. It will become an electronic gadget among others.
  We will get rid of the quantity thinking, the more-is-better consumerism, because we will all experience what all major religions have always been preaching us: that less is more.
  This social and cultural change, I'm saying this in my part-time function as prophet, will hopefully see the emergence of the revival of documentary. This would set the necessary counterpoint to the mindless speed that we take for progress. For documentary requires time and patience. Which is precisely what we need in order to experience what life is all about.
  What will be in demand is knowledge and experience. That, of course, is the way I see myself: fairly knowledgeable and somewhat experienced. And needless to say: I'm arguing here for my future.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes