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Futures Volume 26 issue 1 1994 [doi 10.1016%2F0016-3287%2894%2990096-5] Tom Cooper -- Journalism in the 21st century online information, electronic databases and the news - Tom Koch London, Adamantine (1).pdf

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102 Book reviews role played by the mestizos, Christian missionaries and wealthy landlords in the evolution of Latin American cultures; and the importance of ‘cultural resistance’ and ‘ethnodevelopment’ whenever the forces oi modernity prove oppressive and threaten to annihilate local and indigenous cultures, ethnic minorities and aboriginal groups. Not only does Volume II address in specific cultural contexts the general issues and concerns raised in Volume I, but also it provides a fascinati
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  102 ook reviews role played by the mestizos, Christian missionaries and wealthy landlords in the evolution of Latin American cultures; and the importance of ‘cultural resistance’ and ‘ethnodevelopment’ whenever the forces oi modernity prove oppressive and threaten to annihilate local and indigenous cultures, ethnic minorities and aboriginal groups. Not only does Volume II address in specific cultural contexts the general issues and concerns raised in Volume I, but also it provides a fascinating glimpse into the very different ways in which African and Latin American cultures have evolved in the modern era. While participants were far from unanimous on the majority of issues they debated and discussed, there was one issue on which they seemed to be in complete agreement. That is on how crucial a role UNESCO must play in this whole process in the future. It i5 a role that is fraught with difiiculties. On the one hand, UNESCO must stimulate greater interest in and com- mitment to culture, cultural development and participation in cultural life in all parts of the world. On the other hand, it must avoid sanctioning some cultures at the expense of others or concepts of culture which prove injurious to people who have long suffered from cultural colonization, marginalization and indiiference. For par- ticipants in The Futures of Culture project, this is best achieved by promoting the development of a range of cultural concepts and models in different parts oi the world which provide alternative visions of reality. Let us hope that the world is listening. Had the world been listening when UNESCO was ringing the alarm bells over the insurg- ence of interest in nationalism and cultural identity over much of the past two decades, the world might be a far happier and safer place today. Journalism and the seduction of technology Tom Cooper Journalism in the 2lst Century Online Information, Electronic Databases and the News Tom Koch Journalism in the 2 7t Century by Tom Koch may well be one of the best researched, most srcinal volumes about journalism in many years. Since author Tom Koch The News 2s Myth, Mirrored Lives, 19YO) mixes his various personae as journalist, inior- mation consultant, writer and intellectual, this book brings a precise bdlance between professional experience and scholarly The author is Professor of Mass Communication at Emerson College, 100 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02116-l 596, USA Fax: + 1 617 578 8804). research. Koch feels he has discovered an emerging shift stretching from current IO future journalism. He posits that /ourna/i.m in the 27st Century will strongly amplify the current u5e oi online information and electronic databases in the newsroom. Like McLuhan, Innis, Mumt’ord, Gicdion, White, Postman, Meyrowitz and many other ‘transformationists’, Koch argues that a new technology (such as is used in electronic news research) is not just an improved tool, but is a potent agent of transformation within Its environment, sphere oi activity (journalism), and society. This review first seeks to identify and simpliiy Koch’s primary underlying premises about how new technologies (will continue to) change journalism and its omwelt. Second, this essay evaluates Koch’s predictions and notes important omissions in his assessment, especially his FUTURES January/February 1994  Book reviews 103 failure to consider the ethical and episte- mological problems created by reliance on such new technologies. Primary premises Neither subtle nor euphemistic, Koch believes that the new technologies will bring a ‘revolution’ in journalism and res- tore its credibility with readers. Primary premises include the following. 1) The new technology of online information and electronic databases will bring new objectivity in reporting. Trad- itionally, journalists have had to rely on official spokespersons, who may selectively present or mask information to protect personal interests: because electronic knowledge banks provide greater and better organized specialized information, jour- nalists may become more expert, may more knowledgably cross-examine official spokespersons, and may present readers more scientific (cf objective), cross- treferenced, and double-checked research. (2) New technologies transform the work environment. Opposing Phil Meyer’s argument that ‘these are just the same old journalists with better tools’, Tom Koch insists that electronic databases will make journalists work, think, and interact dif- ferently. News libraries will shrink and require fewer personnel, and reporters may retrieve context, background and counter- point from their desks, often instantly. The concept of ‘beat’ reporters will erode as electri-reporters will have access to all beats from their offices. Journalists will retrieve stories by terminal, rather than at the news morgue, and many stories will be synthe- sized with little travel and human contact. 1.3) Implementation of such tech- nology has been impeded by ignorant cor- porate assumptions. Frequently publishers and editors have held back the use of such new technologies due to their expense, time commitment, learning curve, special- ized languages and data, and quasi- relevance to mainstream news. Koch assumes and argues the opposite by demon- strating in several case-studies how high- tech journalists can transform mediocre stories to multi-dimensional quality articles with minimal expense, labour and learning. 4) Reporters and editors will become social authorities. By virtue of direct access to current documents from numerous pro- fessions journalists may quickly educate themselves so as to determine the validity of statements made by experts and sources. The best of these journalists, by virtue of their positions and visibility, will (seem to) become the real experts by virtue of their proximity to the public, their role as gate- keepers of the information of others, and their up-to-date cross-disciplinary research. In Koch’s words ‘online data technologies empower writers and reporters by providing them with information equal to or greater than that possessed by public or private officials they are assigned to interview’. (page xxxiii) In essence, the power to control news shifts from public authorities to electronic ones and their front office (journalism). (5) Electronic media introduces many more subtle effects on the content and context of journalism. Koch asserts that database-driven stories will be multi- dimensional, rather than ‘unary’. Context, cross-referencing, greater scale, and deeper focus enhance and restructure the news narrative itself. Within the ‘five w’s’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ become more important than the conventional ‘who?‘, ‘what?‘, ‘when?‘, and ‘where?‘. Journalists will become more evaluated by their computer-tracking skills than for their inside sources or purple prose. The social relations and pecking order of journalists will shift and they become more credible, reliable and authoritative in the public eye. Many other, invisible effects will be spawned by ‘the new objectivity’ of electronic news. Evaluation-pro These premises are not based on idle speculation. At every turn, Koch provides the reader with specific examples of how, step by step, a database-driven story may be better written than its ‘beat reporter’ predecessor. Drawing on databases used within business, medicine, law, engineer- ing etc. he shows how journalists might better understand and inform the public about, for example, medical malpractice suits, the collapse of a new mall, crime reports and similar urban phenomena. Journalism in the 2 1st Century is well researched, drawing on a multidisciplinary FUTURES January/February 1994  lo-page bibliography, including many fresh and topical sources. Utilizing current academic methodologies such as sem- ology, structuralism and political economy, Koch is never reluctant to mix brass tacks journalism with abstract insight drawn irom Barthes, Sontag or Chomsky. Indeed, he is well aware of the intersection between the sets of journalism and scholanhip, and thus quotes knowingly from the literate dis- course about journalism from such pene- trating analysts as ~Matusow, Eiron Epstein, Gans, Gerbner, Goldstein, Lapham, Tuch- man, Pdrenti and Lippman, although he does not acknowledge all these in his notes. It is no surprise that Koch’s essays in< ludc well mined nuggets of quotation. At the outset the author ii careful to define journalism from many vantage points such that he painstakingly acquaints us with the press’s social, political, economic and mythic‘ functions. And yet, with all this high-minded analysis, he is quick to ground his commentary with case studies iron1 T/F Neth/ York Times, Wail Stt-eet bw17 ~i USA Today, and other highly visible news out- lets. He also grounds analysis of high-tech hardware with concrete delineation of soft- ware such as Compuscrve, Vu/Text, ABI Inform, Paperchase and other specialized electronic libraries. It is this constant grounding of theory with case which makes the book user- friendly. .At times, especially in chapters four and five, Koch becomes J ‘how-to’ writer, and the book becomes more like ~ text book for reporters. Blow by blow, we learn how to use online technology, to retrieve data, to document and contextual- ire an article, and, in general, how to upgrade and update our news-gathering skills for the next decade. There is even an appendix listing and describing 2.5 data- bases and 24 suppliers, distributors and packagers. Because all this collated information is supplemented with well organized diagrams and charts, the 374-page opus reflects the work of a PhD dissertation, but the style of a literate public servant. It is a gift to both the iheads-on and hands-on communities. Koch even wishes to make us better citizens---by revealing how data- bases help us spot fraud such as Charles Stuart’s hoax in Boston or the US govern- ment’s suspect denials about the KAL 007 5py mission. Evaluation--con While there may be kernels of truth in Koch’s assertions, there is also a naive idealism traditionally found at the core d liberal journalism. Many new tools-from teletype to scitex-have been hailed as journalism’s new saviours while tabloid journalism has grown rampant and while many more newspapers must now print entire columns of corrections and dis- claimers each year. There has long been a hope that technology’s approach to verisimilitude would create a more realistic at-t or prcs\. Alas, as Arnheim argued back in thr 192Os, the greater a technology resemble> ‘reality‘, the greater the possibility it can he distorted to mislead us. That is, in Koch’s world, the more authoritative or documented an elec- tronic document appears to be, the more likely WP are to be seduced by its seeming authority, whereas we arc more likely to be scepticnl about human authorities. How is the average reporter or citizen to know when a docu~nent has been doctored, distorted by reduction, written for or by masked authorities, or ‘neutral’, if neutrality exists Even if one posits that some of the most hotly debated phil~~so~~hic:al premises (that reality exists; that reality is the same for all oi us; that facts exist and are demonstrably true) hold as absolutes, W/XII is to 5;ay which data are iacts? Moreover, what is conven- tionally held to be fact today, may soon be yesterday’s paradigm. Articles within data- bases of previous centuries may have been built on the assumptions that the Earth is flat, that bleeding the patient cures dis- eases, that polygamy is good for women, that it is aerodynamically impossible for humans to fly, that Why should our conventional, socially maliufactured data- bases have any greater corner on truth than any other human (mis)understanding? However, let us test the notion that electronic data are somehow directly des- cended from the great Cod Truth, and that journalists will thus become omniscient, veracious and credible. Are there not many loopholes in this thinking Were Hitler’s scientists, with their arsenal of data, any more reliable and credible than the Aust- ralian Absrcinals of the 1940s who had no literate data Was Janet Cooke, who authored ‘Jimmy’s World’ (and the hun- FUTURES January February 1994  Book review 105 dreds of other dishonest journalists Fred Fedler catalogues in Media Hoaxes) a more credible public servant than her illiterate colleagues sending tribal drum signals in Arizona or Ghana? In short, how can tools which are outside us reverse the dishon- esties, prejudices, subjectivities, and cul- tural perspectives which are inside us? Moreover, in the sense that ‘figures never lie, but liers often figure’, who is to argue that data are ever outside the human con- dition. When are data ever objective, com- plete, acultural, balanced to accommodate ‘111 views, fully contextualized, or quad- ruple-checked by outside referees for error? Given Koch’s notion that databases will help arm journalists against authorities, who will arm the public against journalists? In Orwell’s 1984 a type of database helped Winston Smith and other ‘journalists’ re- write history and eliminate the memory of socially undesirable people (unpersons). Who can prove that online information will be a safeguard against monopolies of socially controlled perspectives, rather than one means by which authority establishes hegemony? But even denying all these problems, there are the more pragmatic problems of computer viruses, the eternal cost of up- ating and upgrading information, power failures, lost or ‘floating’ information, data privacy and piracy, incompatible software and hardware, and a host of other technical difficulties which Koch seems to ignore. One perplexing assumption Koch makes is that all journalists are fully equipped to understand, interpret and communicate technical information to a large audience. Without a PhD in nuclear physics and engineering, will a newspaper reporter who locates and reads 10 elec- tronic articles on nuclear reactor5 nece5- sarily accurately explain the causes of melt- down to a broad public? Will s/he know enough to determine which of the 10 articles, if any, are truly scientifically sound? Another assumption between Koch’s lines suggests that journalists have a suf- ficient passion for truth to ferret out the final index about the last and best table of data, no matter how much time and difficulty are involved. In fact, as Weaver has indicated, journalists are a culture within cultures with more or less predictable demographics, belief systems, age clusters, and degrees of education within specific countries and regions. Many are more likely to use elec- tronic documents prepared within their country than those prepared in an adver- sarial (ie USA v Iraq; Israel v Syria; Republic of Ireland v Ulster) state. Such observations raise the wider debate as to whether any knowledge ever transcends national, cla5s, ethnic, gender, religious and other mind- sets. Moreover, within all cultures and classes are there not, as in all professions, lazy and undisciplined individuals who will seek shortcuts or misinterpret data due to haste? Most disturbing of Koch’s sins of omis- sion is the absence, both in his index and in his thinking, of ethics and epistemology. What happens when journalists, armed with partial data and selected information, imagine themselves to be authorities How are the political and ethical dangers any Ia5 serious than when press secretaries, PR image builders, and official spokespersons imagine themselves to be authorities? Whenever any group approaches the arrog- ance which feigns objectivity or elite exper- tise, how fairly and openly will that group view other groups? To be sure, some journalists have already been branded with the labels of arrogance and ‘instant experts’ in many quarters. Will not the electronic footnote add to the image of pseudo- authority? Indeed, the entire problem oi know- ledge worship reminds me of Plato’s warn- ing about reading. Plato cautioned that when we could read about experience, we would substitute the abstract practice of reading for the actual knowing of doing. How difierent it is to read about swimming than to swim. When the reporter substitutes electronic synthesis for combing the beat first-hand, s/he forgets the first-hand contact with the community, the shrieks of pain, the look oi fear, the smell of smoke, the endearing and alienating quirks of the individual human, the nature oi human contact, indeed of reality. In the worst-case scenario, the research news scientist who retreats to a wired womb of electronic surveillance has no basis for testing his data, no multidimensional, multicultural experiential vita by which to determine if COMPUSERV rings true on the street. How will the reporter know where the subscriber lives without ringing his doorbell? Indeed, what is to protect the reader FUTURES January/February 1994

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