Wall Street collapsed, and the media should have lucked out. The financial crisis was great fodder for exciting news coverage—the entire planet tuned in to watch global stock exchanges play worldwide limbo, and as the U.S. presidential candidates scrambled to gain political capital as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we all got a thrilling denouement to a year of presidential election drama. But, as it turns out, not even a story so sensational as an economic apocalypse could cure the malaise of the media.
It is no secret that the Internet and the plummeting economy have challenged the media. Now, though, their combined forces seem poised to give the press its deathblow. Case in point: the Christian Science Monitor’s announcement on Oct. 28, 2008 that it would terminate its print publication and become an Internet-only news source essentially represented a surrender to “changes in the [media] industry—changes in the concept of news and the economics underlying the industry,” as Monitor managing publisher Jonathan Wells put it.
It is clear that the “changes” to which Wells refers include YouTubing, blogging, Twittering, and all the other ways through which the Internet has banalized the process of information dissemination and acquisition. The proliferation of comments sections on many news Web sites, including those of CNN and even Spectator and the Bwog, show how the media has been forced to adapt to a new two-way flow of news and commentary. This new paradigm is increasingly replacing the more didactic style of traditional print publications. Indeed, when the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism held its annual Changing Media Landscapes forum on Nov. 11, 2008, its guests, who included bloggers from the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, represented agents of the media who are trying to acclimate to an environment in which anyone with a blog and minimal computer savvy can engage in amateur journalism.
While many may be rejoicing over the masses’ wresting of power from newspaper hegemons, we should not all be celebrating this trend. Popularizing information media comes with great danger. The best example of this came in October 2008 when the media—and owners of Apple stock market shares—went into a frenzy after a CNN iReporter, a “citizen journalist,” falsely claimed that Steve Jobs had died. It is true that Apple stocks recovered. But the whole incident shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
This somewhat farcical episode makes plain the folly of abandoning traditional journalism in favor of popular information sharing. It is irresponsible of media organizations to reach out to everyone and anyone with a computer to help give the news. Contrary to what CNN seems to imply through its iReport program, simply possessing a computer or a camera does not qualify someone to give the news. Journalism skills and ethics take years of training to develop—otherwise, why would Columbia’s School of Journalism or even Spectator even exist? Rather than succumbing to the threat to journalism posed by greater Internet use, the media and especially newspapers should strive to reassert their own authority, leadership, and trustworthiness in journalism by increasing the quality of their news coverage.
Realistically, though, a dire financial outlook for media organizations and the increasing popularity of the Internet will probably make bucking the trend toward citizen journalism difficult. It may be the case that Internet sites such as Spot.Us—whose founder, David Cohn, was also a panelist at the J-School’s November forum—are the future of journalism. Spot.Us allows anyone to pitch an idea for a news story on the Internet and request financial contributions to fund the production of that story. The front page of the Spot.Us site boasts a quote from Cohn in an August 2008 New York Times article: “Spot.Us would give a new sense of editorial power to the public.”
No one can deny that there are advantages to giving journalistic power to the people. Bias, and even inaccuracy or lies in media coverage, have become easier to identify as news sources become greater in quantity and variety, and journalists are consequently under more pressure to get their stories right and to be ethical. But as more and more people are free to write whatever news they like on the Internet—and get the support of organized media in the process—the onus falls on the viewers and readers of news to take more steps to verify the accuracy of what we read. We all know that we shouldn’t believe everything we see on CNN or read in the New York Times, but we can believe even less of what we hear or read from callow citizen journalists.
It is therefore a tragedy that the Christian Science Monitor, a multiple Pulitzer-Prize-winning organization founded a century ago, has fallen victim to the “changing media landscape” of our century. Of course, the Monitor will continue to publish online, and we can even say that having fewer newspapers in circulation has environmental benefits. But we also must fear that the fall of the Monitor’s print publication is just a sign of bigger crises to come for the journalism behemoths that totter alongside their Wall Street counterparts. The media landscape may be changing, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
The author is a Columbia College first-year. He is the deputy editorial page editor.