Monday, September 13, 2010

Media Burning

There is a clear difference between ‘old media’ (traditional print and televised news services) and ‘new media’ (blogs, YouTube channels, social media). Our thinking as a culture is still very much stuck in the ‘old media’ mindset – that things don’t happen unless the cameras are turned on. If we examine thethe  timeline of the development of the recent story about burning of the Qur'an by Pastor Terry Jones, this point is clear. According to The Guardian, traditional media outlets only took up the story after it had already started rolling.

First, I would like to modify our understanding of ‘old’ vs ‘new’ media. There have always been sources of information other than formal print and televised journalism. In the 1980s, when journalist John Pilger wanted to talk about things that he couldn’t broadcast on television, he turned to alternative media. In this day and age, he might have started a blog, but in his case he wrote books: books about events that were insufficiently covered by traditional media, books about the media industry itself. In a different context and time, when political organisations wanted to talk about the suffering of the black population of South Africa, they used traditional media, but they also organised protests, wrote pamphlets to be distributed at events, held talks at universities.

And so the argument that ‘new media’ is novel is itself a false narrative. Rather, the already-existing informal media dynamic has changed. The resources required to create a video or informative pamphlet have changed, now that a webcam can be used to upload a video to YouTube, or a site such as Blogspot can host your words for free. Therefore, the volume of informal media has increased. This is not new, just different and bigger than before. It’s far easier for a single individual or group to get mass attention, especially when the message is inflammatory.

It’s interesting that the people who fed the story about the Korna burning were not proponents of the event, but people opposing it. The facebook comments were overwhelmingly negative; even the first semi-mainstream (where?) report was negative. The outrage sparked a buzz, and that buzz increased in volume until the traditional mainstream media outlets simply could not ignore it.

So while many comments have been aimed at Big Media for pushing this story, I think those are mis-aimed. Big Media took it up only when they had no other choice. My advice would be aimed instead at the people who stormed in outrage: Don’t Feed The Trolls. The power the individual holds in the current media environment puts an onus on the individual to be at least a little responsible.

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