The Digital Revolution does not change the most important thing about journalism

A most important point about the digital revolution in journalism currently under way is this: That whilst it changed pretty much everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it did not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. However, whether it means that society can free itself of the false idol of journalistic objectivity is an altogether different and urgent question.

As many others have described, the digital revolution changes apparently everything; and it continues to do so, in a way that is unprecedented since Gutenberg and/or Industrialisation. Maybe even more so. Professionally and personally for me, few things have changed my daily work, challenged my thinking, driven my professional curiosity and academic studies over the last two decades as the digital revolution of media and journalism. And of course as I am writing this, the revolution continues.

This is a dispatch from the trenches. 

Like other journalists of my generation, I lived through the revolution as it radically changed the tools and practices of the trade. For a short period of about 28 months around 2008-2010,  probably like no other editorial manager around the globe at that time, I worked on developing and maintaining sets of editorial standards across dozens of languages and different cultures for a large and complex public broadcaster, right as the digital revolution brought in the massive deprofessionalisation of journalism, but also liberated and empowered the craft in ways previously not imagined. And like quite a few other philosophically inclined people, I dove (dived?)  into the epistemological and even the ontological aspects of what does not change but matters even more than any aspect of the digital revolution: the concept of objective truth in journalism, and the social function of journalism in particular and mass media in general in society.

Hang on there, Christoph. 

Are you really saying that journalistic truth, objectivity and the function of media don’t change? Not even since Facebook and WhatsApp? Yes. I know that is a contentious claim, but one I would argue can be proven both inductively and deductively, not to mention anecdotally.

As a print journalist, I saw how the revolution made newspapers first easier to produce and then seemingly obsolete before taking the latest turn – “glocalisation 2.0”- which I will deal with in this post briefly too, if I have the time, but intend to deal separately at another time. As a TV reporter, I saw how the revolution first made the field work easier, faster and better – and then break all the rules before moving away from TV to form its own eco-system as a form of social medium (e.g. YouTube). As an online and social media journalist, I saw how the web and the technological means at our disposal helped create new and amazing expressions of journalism – from “Medium” to Twitter. At the same time, I witnessed a lowering of professional standards of practice, from research to publication, across the vast phenomenon of not just lazy journalism (aka “the land of lousy hacks”) but media instituions: The revolution has already brought to light that some alleged bastions of quality journalism (in particular broadcasting networks) are in fact just tabloidist ventures operating behind a veneer of cultural gravitas and legitimacy, and compensating for a lack of fairness and objectivity with ideological zeal previously hidden to an analogue public. In this new era, the digital public it constitutes is a different beast altogether.

(Compare – carefully, with a view to content and form –  a print edition of the “Spiegel” during its heyday in the second half of the twentieth century to the – by some measures massively successful – website of 2014, and you will be instantly struck by the differences, but also the similarities underneath which shine through when compared.)

Obviously, there is a lot more to be drawn from what I have summarised here. But since my train ride will be over in a few minutes, let me bring it back to the point of this rambling piece:
That whilst the digital revolution has changed pretty and conitues to change just about everything, from paradigms of scale to the organisation of knowledge and the tools of all trades, it has and will not change the actual role and function of journalism. Nor did it change its importance for a free and democratic society. Consider what happened in the “Arabellion”, the “Arab spring”. Consider the “filter bubbles” in which people spend their time on Facebook [note: link is to a piece in German].

Ok, I hear you say, so journalism is still required. D’uh! What’s the point of all of this?

Firstly, I don’t think it is a banal point at all. Secondly, it makes me very excited and optimistic about the future, but also concerned that we need to explain this – and its implications – to young (and older) journalists. Thirdly, it is not just about empowering journalists. We also may see the digital revolution as a means of what Gaston Bachelard called a useful “epistemological rupture”: As an opportunity to look at assumptions and unquestioned premises around the function of journalism. And in particular of the nasty, false idol of journalistic objectivity – of which I must write more very soon.

How I failed to expose the false idol of journalistic objectivity

So we were sitting up on the panel in the auditorium of the Pontifical University of Santa Croce. It had already been a long day, though it was only 3.30 in the afternoon. I had a few more minutes to gather my thoughts before our presentation and discussion. Dozens of people were filling up the seats, firing up laptops and tablets, checking their earpieces that provided simultaneous translations into one of four languages. I saw a bishop speaking to a small group of young, well-dressed women and men, presumably students of the university. Next to me, Matthew Bunson was going through his presentation paper.

Professor Daniel Arasa and Federico Lombardi

That morning, we had been at Saint Peter’s square by 6.30, hoping to catch an early mass with a priest and two other German pilgrims we had met. However, people had already begun queueing up for the weekly General Audience. We could not get inside the basilica. Of the more than one million people who had travelled to Rome for the canonisation of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II, many had stayed for a few more days. So we had stopped for breakfast – the priest knew just where to go – and then walked over to the Salle Stampa to take part in the first point in the conference programme that day: an opportunity to talk to Federico Lombardi SJ, the spokesperson and head of the Vatican press offices. Father Lombardi was very candid about the relief the “new” pope’s public persona has provided to his own role: no longer does he feel entrenched and stuck in a more defensive position, since the secular media has greeted Francis with enthusiasm and an open, welcoming stance. At the same time, the affable Jesuit also described some of the challenges the spontaneous nature of the Holy Father posed – before taking questions from the fully filled press room.

Digital challenge to print media

Afterwards, we had walked back to the university and taken lunch there, before finally gathering again in the plenary auditorium for the two final sessions: The presentations of Matthew Bunson and myself, as well as – saving the best for last – an encounter with Joaquin Navarro-Walls, the director of communications for Saint Pope John Paul II.

Over the last two days, dozens of speakers had given talks – the program offered several simultaneous sessions – and included speeches by Cardinals Dolan and Barbarin, the Archbishops of New York and Lyon, respectively, as well as Austen Ivereigh, who heads Catholic Voices, the well-known Washington law professor and activist Helen Alvaré, and many others. I had written copious amounts of notes, met many interesting new colleagues and already filed reports for radio and my own paper of the canonisation – since the day before the conference even started, we had experienced the historic event right in the middle of Rome.

So, here we were. The auditorium was full, and the Dean of Communications, Prof. José Maria LaPorte, greeted the attendants, introduced the panel and asked Fr. Christian Mendoza to give an introductory speech that outlined the topic: the challenge of the digital revolution to Catholic communications – in particular print journalism. This topic was right up my alley. Having started my journalism career in print back in the 1990s, I had learnt the craft in the typical and traditional setting of a broadsheet daily newspaper before moving on to work in TV and broadcast journalism in general both in Germany and Australia for well over a decade. I had experienced journalism at every level and across all media, in commercial and public, as well as recently in religious institutions, from the line to senior executive levels. What is more, my (still not completed) PhD thesis struggles with a very abstract but (in my view) crucial aspect of journalism: its epistemology, the question of how journalism knows what it knows and then shares with the world, in the process producing a public sphere (or contributing to it), hopefully providing some checks and balances for society.

Exposing the false idol

For my presentation, I had decided to focus on two aspects the digital communications revolution has brought about –– points that affect communications in general and journalism in particular: firstly, the de-professionalisation of the craft at a time when we need quality journalism more than ever; and secondly, the opportunities this provides for communication, especially for Church communication – after all, a field on the defensive in an often hostile secular setting, but paradoxicaly blessed with arguably the best “product” anyone could ever hope for: the literally good news of the Gospel.

Now, apart from a bunch of great practical possibilities the ongoing revolution provides, I was going to argue that an important but also risky opportunity had arisen: to expose the false idol of primitive objectivity with which – since early modernity – the press had obfuscated and at the same time reified its social legitimacy.

Exposing this false idol was risky in the sense that if we (Catholic communicators) were not going to do so – and use this window of opportunity to professionalise and legitimise a “Catholic” (in inverted commas!) journalism and communication – then it would be closed on us. This would have dire consequences, given that we live in a time where even the basic Catechesis in the Faith is happening in the media, as Cardinal Dolan had pointed out in his opening address at the conference.

Three concrete suggestions

After an excellent presentation by the author and journalist Matthew Bunson (more on this in a separate post), I launched into my own talk. And everyting progressed really well – till about half way through the presentation, I realised that the somewhat abstract problem of this false idol really was far too complex and abstract for the setting of this seminar. I soldiered on, simply stating the conclusions of my research and finishing with three concrete suggestions:

Firstly, I believe we should specialise and re-professionalise. In secular culture, knowledge of the truths, beauty and simple facts of our Faith are less and less part of common knowledge. Expertly and professionally sharing the splendours – and also the less dazzling  aspects – of how our faith is expressed in prayers, liturgy, but also acts of charity (and what it provides to those that believe!), is not just imbued with the joy of the gospel, but powerful storytelling and potentially fantastic journalism: credible, authentic – and real, not just objective.

Secondly, let us engage and educate. Being knowledgeable and communicate well about our Faith and its expression in the works of the Church, the works of charity, and so on, is one part; the other is to engage audiences wherever they are. Who is helping cradle Catholics by informing them about the Church and what we believe – rather than letting them get that information from secular media, as – I would guess – more than 90% do? Which Catholic media outlet today is talking to the many millions of Muslim migrants amongst us, for instance? I believe this is part of the Catholic journalist’s job description.

Thirdly and finally, I am convinced that none of these suggestions, or other attempts we might tackle, will bear fruit if they are not informed and imbued by our own connection to God through an active participation in the sacraments and a regular, active prayer life. Too many Catholic journalists, myself included, write more about the Church then they pray or participate in and with her. However, it is that objectivity that we need: of the interior life, our relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.

Christian Mendoza, Matthew Bunson, José Maria LaPorte and yours truly
Christian Mendoza, Matthew Bunson, José Maria LaPorte and yours truly

Images taken by students of the university, (C) 2014 Pontificia Università della Santa Croce. A full gallery of  can be found here.

Disclosure: I was one of the invited speakers at the conference. The university paid for my travel and accommodation.