Multimedia Musings

by Christopher J. Spurlock

The users are mad as hell…but are we listening to them yell?

Howard Beale is pissed! You should be, too!

Last night (while I should have been studying for a quiz) I came across a blog post that really piqued my attention. I think it was the post’s title, “The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media: My Advice to the Next Generation,” that really got me. (I’m not sure if it’s because I’m graduating soon, but lately I’ve been paying more attention to all of this “future of journalism” chatter.) Combined with my immediate desire to procrastinate, my curiosity was enough to get me to start reading.

The post’s author, Jay Rosen, is a journalism professor at NYU and one of the leading journalism scholars in the nation. Last week, he gave a speech to the incoming class of journalism students at Sciences Po école du journalisme in Paris, France; he then took the transcript of that speech and adapted it for his blog.

In the post, he begins by referencing the 1976 movie Network. Because I’m under the age of 50, I’ve never seen the film, but I watched the clip he embedded. What I watched was the (apparently) infamous scene in which TV anchor Howard Beale goes a bit nutty on air and tells his viewers to go to their windows, open them up, stick their heads out and yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Incredibly, the people did just that.

Initially, I wasn’t sure why he included the clip. What point was Rosen trying to make here? He explained by writing,

“In my reading of [the scene], the filmmakers are showing us what the mass audience was: a particular way of arranging and connecting people in space. Viewers are connected “up” to the big spectacle, but they are disconnected from one another… When they disconnect from TV and go to their windows, they are turning away from Big Media and turning toward one another. And as their shouts echo across an empty public square they discover just how many other people had been ‘out there,’ watching television in atomized simultaneity, instead of doing something about the inarticulate rage that Beale put into words.”

After reading that, and the rest of the post (which I highly recommend), I started thinking about the state of the media today. If I am to believe what I hear on an increasingly regular basis, the so-called “Big Media” Rosen references is dying rapidly. But, if the mass media we’ve been so accustomed to is fading fast, who will people “connect up” to? Rosen makes the argument that, with the advent of the Internet and social media, the public no longer has a need make that connection. Instead, he posits that people are “turning away from Big Media and turning toward one another.” They are making millions of lateral connections in lieu of the traditional vertical one.

I think Rosen is absolutely correct in his analysis of today’s public and how they connect to the world. He put into words (very eloquent and academic words) what I have been thinking for awhile now. But has journalism, as a profession, come to this realization yet? Does every journalist out there realize their newspaper, radio station, or TV network is no longer “the source” for news? Do they realize they no longer dictate and moderate the national and global conversation? I would argue that they don’t.

Spending this past summer as an intern at a TV station provided me with some great experiences, but it also showed me just how blind some journalists and news executives are to what their audiences are thinking and how they are interacting with one another. Some news organizations think they get it, but they really don’t. They’re trying to create “community-centric” news outlets that run on user-generated content, but they’re missing the point. They’re misunderstanding that most basic economic principle of supply and demand. If the public doesn’t demand that type of news, they’ll just ignore it when it’s supplied. The whole “if you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t apply here.

What Rosen argues is that we need to rethink the way in which we perceive the audience. He says we need to “replace readers, viewers, listeners and consumers with the term ‘users.'” When we imagine our audience as a group of users, we can more effectually interact with them. Instead of dictating “down” to them, we need to get on their level. We need to become the moderators of the new public conversation instead of ignoring it, we need to respect the power of the public to create their own content, and we need to embrace the new role the user is playing in the gathering and reporting of news.

What do you think? If you’re a journalist, are you worried? As a user, do you feel misunderstood? Your comments, criticisms and creative solutions are appreciated and encouraged.

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3 responses to “The users are mad as hell…but are we listening to them yell?

  1. dani fankhauser September 9, 2010 at 9:52 pm

    I am a journalist and do think that Rosen makes a good point. The Web allows information to spread laterally and two-way instead of just top-down. It’s a reorganization act. News must still be reported by professionals – not everyone can have access to Obama or Tiger Woods – but a good news website will allow users to discuss and retell the story to their own audience. For community news, we do need users to gather news – take pictures, post to blogs, etc. I’m at the beginning of my career and am excited to see what we come up with.

  2. cjspurlock September 10, 2010 at 7:04 am

    Dani,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree completely. I’m glad you’re “excited” to see what happens. I am too, but I think my excitement is currently being overridden by fear and frustration.

  3. Ron September 12, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Can you give an example of “dictating down to them”. Don’t really understand what you’re saying. In what form have you seen this happening?

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