My interest in the future of news, and thus in taking this course, does not stem from a professional background in journalism or technology. Instead, it derives from experiences I have had while working in post-conflict areas. The overt lack of access to credible information in many of these contexts—and its implications for transparency, corruption, etc.—motivated me to explore the relationship between information, news, and democracy, and founded my belief that the words “news” and “truth” should be synonymous.
Realizing the relationship between news and certain civil and political rights, such as free speech and access to information, drove me to really ponder the significance contained in the U.S.’s First Amendment. But a curiosity that was spurred by a proud celebration of my nation’s commendable values concluded with a deflated and disillusioned understanding of the rights contained therein. Specifically, while sifting through the web I found vignettes—such as the fact that CNN signs advertising contracts with governments that it covers, or that most major US news outlets agreed not to publish soldiers’ coffins at the request of the U.S. government—which suggest a news industry whose coverage is dictated by corporate and government interests. And although the above examples may be exceptions, I cannot be sure because these outlets are almost as obtuse as the governments and businesses they purportedly hold accountable. As such, although I have many journalist friends who lament how increasingly challenging it is to earn a decent income, I am excited by emerging forms of participatory media, fueled by interconnectivity, that could potentially provide a paradigm for challenging the existing monopoly over news content.
But before celebrating social media, and besides the fact that my friends are losing jobs, a negative result of the changing nature of news is that many outlets are closing their foreign bureaus. When I asked one of my friends why her paper, the Lebanese English-language daily The Daily Star, was not covering the uprisings in Bahrain more frequently, she lamented that what her paper publishes is dictated by the information that the news wires contain. Existing traditional publications are relying on a shrinking pool of verified sources for their information, and this too is problematic; neutrality in specific pieces is meaningless if only a narrow slice of events happening around the world is reported on.
At the same time, a non-curated jumble of information on the net that perhaps touches upon a wider array of issues could never supplant the quality reporting and analysis we see in The Washington Post or the BBC. We should not expect it to, and must be careful to idealize phenomena such as We Media, if for no other reason than that most content that the most popular tweeters discuss still links back to ‘credible’ publications for sourcing. And I will not even endeavor to address the ethical, verification, and other issues that accompany using “citizen journalism” in reporting. Indeed, the million-dollar question now is not whether we need news curators or not. We unquestionably do.
Instead, the question toward which to focus our efforts concerns who the new curator will be, where this entity’s interests lie, and how a model can be designed whereby truth and transparency, as opposed to money and politics, dictate content and information flows.
These criteria automatically disqualify governments and most current news outlets from assuming this role. So what are our options? I believe we must think in terms of the increasingly international and interconnected nature of our lives, on which much of new media’s success relies. As such, what about an international body (not limited to government members) that funds and is responsible for ensuring broad, verifiable coverage on world events? I know this sounds ridiculous and totally unrealistic today, but a public, nongovernment entity may facilitate an open, international conversation about what the role of news should be and how to improve it terms of quality and equity, bringing news into a broader conversation about individual rights.
Specifically, addressing such a mammoth topic as information on the international level may facilitate a more robust discussion of development topics related to communications, like the digital divide. Access to the Internet, and underlying that basic literacy, are at least as massive of impediments to an informed citizenry of the world as is lack of transparency. And until we also draw such issues into the debate surrounding the future of news, the discussion will transpire among a class of elites instead of the “citizens” that journalists purportedly aim to serve. Bringing news content regulation to the international level could help to change all that.