Archive for October, 2012

The amazing influences of social and mobile media are becoming more clear every day.  They establish and maintain social and professional relationships, and those relationships  number in the thousands for many. They  facilitate the instant exchange of brief messages and have the potential to move masses of people to action. Thus, these are extremely effective relationship building and marketing tools.

For example, universities establish contact, foster interactive relationships, and drive responders to a website for more information. These tools also motivate desires to visit campuses and attend events. Likewise, special interest groups are able to stimulate followers to assemble, and oppressed people can connect across closed borders. Examples of success in relationship building and motivating to action are endless.

But MIT professor of “the social science of science,” Sherry Turkle, raises a different kind of concern. Her concern is the longterm psychic and social effects on individuals who live day-to-day in this virtual world.  In her book Alone Together, Turkle  explains  how her research is indicating that young people are using on-line relationships to avoid the difficulties of real human interaction.

Turkle reports that many of her interviewees are choosing texting over actually making a phone call and talking to someone. Instead of writing a letter or having a real conversation, an instant short message posted or tweeted is preferred. In the final analysis, Turkle’s fundamental concern is that those who spend much of their lives in this digital world are losing their capacity for sophisticated problem-solving conversation, and for genuine human intimacy.

It’s only fair to also mention here that many of my students and colleagues disagree with Turkle and feel that the opposite just might be the case. Their argument is that relationships are only begun on-line, or by using social media tools, and that they can be the beginning of a meaningful social, and even intimate, relationship.

These questions therefore are important to ponder: What do these new tools do well, and what do they not do? It continues to look like they build relationships and stimulate action extremely well. But they do not deal with sophisticated problem solving, and they do not achieve a deeper understanding of complex issues. For these outcomes, other media and face-to-face human interaction are required.

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When I first began my studies of media the television set was just coming into our homes.  As we rearranged our furniture and our family communication patterns changed, it was impossible to miss seeing just how dramatically a new technology changes how we live. 

For many of us in middle and upper class homes in the US, the TV set came into the most used living room or den in our home.  It was placed where all the comfortable furniture could be arranged around it.  And from that moment on, when in that room it would be impossible to ignore that screen. It would also be nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. In fact, when walking into that room everyone in the family quickly developed the habit of immediately turning on the TV set, then sitting and staring at the screen for hours… and rarely talking with anyone.

Some speculated that TV actually contributed to families falling apart.  Prior to television many of these families shared dinner conversation together, gathered in “sitting rooms” to read and discuss the issues of the day, and many times even solved basic survival problems. Those that communicated in this way tended to develop a sense of unity, and when they actually faced survival together they developed extremely strong bonds.  But with advances in transportation more people were working some distance from the home, and with the advent of television there was little or no interaction in the evening.  In fact, there often would be more interaction and problem-solving at work than at home! 

And so TV actually became a new problem for many families. And it had nothing to do with its content. People were watching whatever was there, and were watching it all night long. They were using it more for escape than for educational enlightenment.  They would sometimes ask for better programs, but then they still mostly watched action adventure, mindless comedy, and sports. They were using it for escape.

With experience, it became clear to producers that television was a very different medium with its own unique characteristics. It was most powerful when it contained less information and more drama. And when the drama was set in the context of suspense or conflict, it became even more gripping.  So in order to attract larger audiences even news programs would have to contain less detail and more emotion. Producers would soon find new ways to accentuate drama and conflict with camera framing, camera movement, editing, special effects, and scripting.  Now with almost all of TV content favoring drama and violence the question became: What impact will all this violence have on our children?

Was violence on TV going to make children more violent?  Would constant diets of emotion make them more emotional?  Television was now becoming a kind of baby sitter for many parents, taking pressures off them for hours each day. But with what consequences?  Soon there would also be an ever-growing amount of sex on television. Would this make children more promiscuous?   Some journalists reported that by the time a child becomes 18 he or she will have spent more time with TV than in school!

Looking back one might conclude that the world did not come apart as a consequence of  TV.  But most would agree that the world did change in significant ways. Now, how do we yet again deal with the consequences of  even newer technology, i.e. the Internet, websites, social media, blogs, camera phones, and more?  Can we now get even more lost in a virtual world of bits and games?  Do families do anything meaningful as a group any more? Can hours in a digital world reduce our capacity to think or concentrate?   In the final analysis, will “digital children” be able to deal with the incredibly complex problems we face in the world?

It must be noted here that there are many kinds of family settings in the world, and assumptions made for the purpose of this analysis will not apply universally. Some families are in severely challenged urban neighborhoods,  some in primitive rural villages, some in middle class and affluent suburbs, and others are in cultural and religious settings with different values and priorities. But in each of these settings, technology is having its influence on families.  How are all these children being affected? Where children were already at risk, are they now at greater risk? Or will they be connected to better ways of growing and surviving?

Our challenge continues: We must come to know the good and bad of new technology. It is an inevitable and continuous global game-changer. Then, we must learn yet again how to make the most of the good.

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The speed and need of 24/7 cable for constant breaking news, the tendency of television to dramatize, the rapid growth of social media, the financial troubles of newspapers, and overall austerity cutbacks all over the world, collectively have changed the landscape of international news gathering and reporting. The fundamental question is: Are we getting the information we need to function as intelligent citizens?

In the past, large Newspapers maintained bureaus in many places all over the world. But recently many have been closing them.  Mainstream broadcast news organizations have done so as well.  For example, CBS had a number of bureaus strategically placed in cities around the world. Now it covers international events completely from its bureau in London. All news organizations today rely to some extent on freelancers, and local journalists, who compete for space and airtime in order to get paid.  As a result, traditional outlets also depend more than ever on three basic international news services.

Associated Press (AP) still covers the world, and also has an international video news service.  Reuters has traditionally been strong in business coverage, and continues to provide international coverage. And Agence France-Presse (AFP) does as well. All of these services work on some kind of fee basis and provide news coverage for both television and newspapers. But with each individual news outlet reducing its fulltime international reporting staff, it has become more difficult to achieve distinction.  

In addition, many new networks have appeared all over the world. For example, Al Jazeera covers the Arab world with both an English and Arabic channel, which are managed separately. The english channel boasts objectivity in its coverage, with its selection of stories based on the interests of its audiences. The Arabic channel is more Arab centric and has a reputation for being critical of Western and US influences. Al Arabiya broadcasts only in Arabic, but has an English website.  It prides itself in its objectivity.  But there are many other channels in the Middle East and all over the world that compete for audience, and specialize in everything from news to music to religion.  CNN has both domestic and international networks,and may have the most bureaus and reporters around the world.  But many see a self-serving commercial spin to their tone and style, and see this tone also as a form of bias. All of these news organizations have websites, and now refer readers, listeners, and viewers to them for more information.

Governments too are in the business of news.  Most brag of objectivity, but clearly reflect cultural biases and varied definitions of what it means to be democratic. The BBC World Service in the United Kingdom prides itself in its objectivity, but has been accused by conservatives as being too liberal.   The Voice of America (VOA) strives for news objectivity, but many in other parts of the world say its Western perspective is indeed a bias.  In Russia the media is controlled by a more authoritarian government, but that government wants to argue that it’s democratic and fair. China is launching new initiatives in targeted parts of the world, including the US. It admits that it hopes to achieve a better public understanding of its culture, but it also asserts that its policy is to be objective in reporting the news. The fact is, there are competing international newspapers and media networks all over the world, with most asserting that they are objective. But they clearly exist to advance a better understanding of their cultures and perspectives.

Add social media, and the situation becomes even more complicated. Citizens not only talk across borders, but they actually can file stories from cell phones. News organizations are now soliciting social media responses and posting  some of it as news, including video from cell phones.   How can consumers in this kind of situation know what they are getting?  Is it factual?  Is it exaggerated? Is it substantive enough to understand?

Indeed the speed of the media world today tends to short-cut all stories, including the important ones. The intensity of breaking news competition often results in reporting errors that have to be corrected later.  With fewer bureaus, every reporter flocks to where news is breaking, leaving the rest of the world virtually uncovered for long periods of time. Enhancing dramatic values is competitively enticing, so using the camera to make small crowds look large, and editing to make events more exciting, becomes common place. So with this daily barrage of information, do we ever really come to know what actually happened, or understand the context necessary for really understanding the situation?

The adventure in media ideas I am currently sharing with honors students at TCU is dealing with these very complex issues. In the end, the challenge will be to find a way to make sure every citizen understands how media actually work, and how to become fully and accurately informed on their own.

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Most of the government, education, and business leaders I meet think The Economist is the most influential news magazine in the world. And when examined closely, it turns out to be a great example of how the editors of a primarily print publication are using new technology to make certain they are prepared for inevitable changes in media consumer behavior. And instead of contributing to information clutter, they see it as an opportunity to each week cut through that clutter with a concise, well-organized, look at the entire globe.

To be certain we are currently in the midst of a digital revolution and no one can be certain just how and when it will end. The Economist is a weekly publication, and so each Monday morning the editors gather to plan the content for the following week. Reporters send stories for consideration from all over the world, and by Wednesday the magazine’s many components are coming together.  It is then printed in many international locations, circulated there, and therefore can be in most subscriber’s homes each Monday.

But the magazine is also offered in an i-Pad version which can function as a total magazine substitute. Social media are also used to let subscribers know what is happening more immediately, and the Website is managed so as to stay on top of late breaking news.  And so The Economist is gaining experience in all media and stands ready to adjust to trends as they unfold.  The thinking is that the tablet format, containing almost the entire publication, is likely to be the future. So the business plan is to keep the subscription price the same in all platforms and allow subscribing to all of them by paying a small premium.  In other words, unlike many other publications, the editors intend to charge the same for their content no matter how you get it.

Interestingly enough they also have a new feature print magazine designed to be a cultural lifestyle publication, but there is an i-Pad app for it.  They also have an economic and trade data service  for businesses. And they produce conferences and seminars on hot topics with star participants from business, government and media. All of this is very high quality and aimed at diversifying revenue sources. In this way, financial security is maintained while media roles and consumer behaviors change.

In summary, The Economist’s editors see each medium they use, along with the fact that they cover the entire world each week, as opportunities to concisely cut through information clutter and give a more organized and focused report on what actually happened around the world. And they are betting on media diversity… combining digital media, print, data services, live events, and more… to protect their competitive advantage in the midst of still another uncertain media revolution.

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