Opportunity Lost: Interactivity and the News Media
ICM 501, Dr. Alexander Halavais
Sept. 19, 2006
Newspapers and other traditional media have good reasons to proceed cautiously as they explore the interactive possibilities of the Internet and other forms of computer-mediated communications. But they may be squandering their best opportunity to exploit these technologies to build a dynamic and dedicated online readership, while adhering to their role as honest mediators among diverse, competing voices in society.
Nicholas Jankowski and Martine van Selm (2001) note that the Internet offers robust features that seem ideally suited to news media. For example, online newspapers can update stories as new developments break. They can employ video and audio to enliven static words and images. Television and radio Web sites can expand the relatively shallow coverage for which broadcast media are so often criticized. The online format offers virtually unlimited archival “space” at a trivial price. And there’s great potential for interactivity, in a way that allows users to become participants in the news process. Hyperlinks can direct users to original sources and documents, and discussion groups provide ideal fora for users to deliberate over the events of the day, replacing the coffee-shop talk that has so largely been lost in the rush of modern society.
Research by Sheizaf Rafaeli (1996) and Fay Sudweeks suggests there may be distinct benefits for organizations that fully embrace interactive technologies. They found support for their thesis that “interactivity is associated with those message qualities which [sic] invite people and make people gravitate to groups on the net. Interactivity may be a mechanism through which netting occurs on the net.” Less interactive online groups
… are less likely to see stable relationships. Individuals may come, but they will not tarry. While less interactive groups may be or even grow, they may be doomed to a rotating-door, shifting existence. (1996, p. 11)
Despite the advantages of interactive media, in a review of seven online newspaper and six television station Web sites in the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, Janowski and van Selm found evidence that many of the interactive features possible on the Internet “are not fully utilized” (2001, p. 1). For example, while most of the newspapers studied provided some sort of discussion platform, “the sites differ considerably in terms of openness for and involvement of readers”; only one of the television stations hosted an unmoderated discussion group (p. 7). They noted that, of the newspapers they examined, most “seem to be reflections of the print products in terms of design and content” (2001, p. 8 ).
Donald Matheson (2004) found a similar conservative bent in a case study of the Guardian of London’s Web log (“blog”), a medium that is unique to the Internet and well suited to take advantage of its interactive capabilities. While Matheson found significant differences in terms of voice and authority between the Guardian and its blog, he concluded
[t]here is much about the Guardian that is ‘old media’. Predominantly, it links to established news institutions. It preserves the role of gatekeeper. It constructs a journalistic claim to authority and does not let the user talk. It is not in any way revolutionary and despite what popular commentary on weblogs might lead us to expect, it does not provide a new personalized democratic space in which the mainstream media are held to account. (2004, p. 460)
Judging from my own experience as a newspaper reporter and editor, this is still largely the case online among traditional media, although there are notable exceptions. Many news Web sites still offer few outside links, provide only regimented discussion platforms, and allow few opportunities for users to help shape the news. Matheson suggests this may in part trace to an authoritarian strain in news media: news is traditionally a one-way process, which “rarely addresses its audiences directly or invites participation in assessing the value of news items,” which are often presented as “self-evidently newsworthy” (2004, p. 454). He argues that inviting greater public participation in the process, beyond mere reaction, threatens the news organization’s claim to authority.
Moreover, news media have traditionally viewed themselves as society’s only objective and reliable providers of the information that citizens need to participate in a democracy, offering readers and viewers a breadth of stories that challenge their preconceptions and expand their horizons. Cass R. Sunstein (2004) raises the concern that any erosion of this role could lead news consumers employ new technologies to limit their exposure to news stories they find unpleasant, distasteful, or with which they simply disagree. “In fact, a risk with a system of perfect individual control is that it can reduce the importance of the ‘public sphere’ …” (2004) Similarly, Jankowski and Selm (2001) raise the question of whether the “added values” offered by online news sites “actually contribute to increased citizen engagement” (p. 11).
There’s a certain patronizing illogic about the notion that relaxing the traditional media’s monopoly over the news process – and putting it in the hands of the unruly public – somehow presents a “danger to democracy” (Sunstein, 2004, p. 59). In fact, it’s worth exploring to what extent non-mainstream news sites on the Web foster vigorous debate on a wide variety of topics.
One such news site is “Fark.com, a news aggregator site that relies entirely on linked news and entertainment stories culled from elsewhere on the Web and submitted by members. A typical collection of Fark stories includes breaking news, political comment, pop-culture news, “news of the weird,” and non-news items such as contests and polls. Stories are presented in reverse chronology, as submitted, and the (hilariously irreverent) headlines are written by the contributing members themselves. To the right of each post is a link for discussion – a hugely popular feature. Typical discussions attract scores of comments, or hundreds for hot-button issues. Contrary to the predictions of Rafaeli and Sudweeks, these are characterized by raw and heated debate, particularly relating to political items; however, sarcasm, insider jokes, and tongue-in-cheek humor leaven the hostilites and may in fact foster the sense of online community Rafaeli and Sudweeks observed (1996).
Fark.com is noteworthy because, in contrast to Sunstein’s (2003) concerns about the shrinking public sphere, its formula actually guarantees exposure to a wide variety of types of news, made palatable by the humorous headlines. And judging from the comments, its members represent a healthy range of thinking. What’s more, as a user-directed news site, it offers a participatory experience lacking in the Web efforts of the traditional news media. In a few words, Fark.com and sites like it are fun and engaging. The hidebound traditional media may need both of those qualities in spades if they hope to maintain a dynamic online presence into the future.
Jankowski, Nicholas W. & van Selm, Martine (2001). Traditional News Media online: An Examination of Added Values (pp. 375-392). In K. Renckstorf, D. McQuail & N. Jankowski, Television news research: Recent European approaches and findings. Berlin: Quintessense. (The authors request that all citations refer to the published version; however the article as referred to here is temporarily available online at http://loc8ted.com/library/jankowski-2001.pdf, pp. 1-10).
Matheson, Donald (2004). Weblogs and the epistemology of the news: some trends in online journalism. New Media & Society, 6(4). 443-468.
Rafaeli, Sheizaf (1997). Networked interactivity. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 2(4). 1-16. Retrieved Sept. 16, 2006 from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue4/rafaeli.sudweeks.html
Sunstein, Cass R (2004). Democracy and filtering. Communications of the ACM, 47(12), 57-59.