#ukriots and the limits of traditional media (and what it means for democracy)

This post started out as a few immediate thoughts about the way the #ukriots played out across the media.

By the time I'd got around to tidying up what I'd written it'd been superceded by a wealth of good analysis – some focused on media, some not.

Having written something I felt it worthwhile adding my own initial reactions to the debate, particularly from a media perspective given the political role the media has within liberal democracies.

I end the post with some next step ideas about what this all means for democracy. Something I'll hopefully return to a later date.

As mentioned above, recommended wider reading would include: Zygmunt Bauman's article on the consumerist context for the riots; Critical Legal Thinking and Schnews' account of the broader neoliberal capitalist project as cause of the riots and the London Review of Book's historical perspective.

I wanted to capture some of my thoughts around the limitations (and failings) of the media during the worst of the rioting, which may be useful for my ongoing research.

The guiding theme for all the points I jotted down was how the liberal media has possibly reached its limits for effective and adequate reporting in the 21st century.

This is partly due to the emergence of networked media powered by the internet and increasingly networked mobile technology; however, it is also down the wider structural limitations of liberal democracy within which the media plays a central role (see Louw, for a good overview of how the emergence of liberal democracy has gone hand-in-hand with the media).

Networks/Technology
During the worst of the riots social media gave access to multiple sources of information enabling anyone with internet access to gather information and build their own real-time stream of news.

Fascinatingly, the BBC was urging people not to use social media (Twitter in particular) to interpret events.

They told us: Twitter was full of misinformation, conflicting accounts and unverifiable information. Stay tuned to the BBC for verified and authoritative coverage.

Importantly, this random, disparate and admittedly sometimes misleading information flow of Twitter was the reality of the situation.

Gathering real-time streams of information and content from social channels and augmenting it with mainstream media coverage or official sources allows individuals to build their own personal news feed using multiple, heterogenous sources.

The flaw in the BBC's argument is that live streams of social information are much more reflective of the reality of the situation and allow individuals to create a flexible, open-ended picture of what's happening.

The role of the BBC (and other traditional new providers) is to crystallise information into "news" whereas following events through social channels recognises the fact that "news" is never created as a fixed reality, rather it allows us to infer a complex and ever-changing picture of events.

It can be suggested that this problem arises from the industrial model of news production where the gathering of information has to result in a completed, finalised and sellable product.

The BBC's idea of Twitter being misleading and unreliable is also a flawed argument based on the fact that it fails to recognise any other mode of editorialising except their own, professional news-production.

For example there are a number of filtering, accrediting and editorialising information using peer networks as Yochai Benkler has examined – see chapters 6 & 7 in The Wealth of Networks for an exploration of the different models of peer-to-peer information gathering and filtration.

As an example, I relied mainly on my own Twitter and Facebook network for gathering information about events, turning only to the #riot and #londonriot hashtags to verify what the BBC and mainstream media was reporting.

And as James Cridland has pointed out in a great blog post, when it came to gathering useful or verifiable data on the riots, traditional media – including the BBC – was reporting inaccurate information on events.
 
So, the BBC's attempts to warn people against using social media was telling: if anything, it reveals the real power of social media.

That the nation's public service broadcaster needs to try to convince people it has better information than the people on the ground suggests the game may soon be up for traditional, top-down, authoritative media.

(an ironic foot-note to all this, most forward-thinking mainstream media are actually seeking to build on real-time, social reporting as articulated by by the emerginging concept of "ambient journalism" according to Alfred Hermida.)

Reinforcing the argument that social media is over-taking traditional editorialising was the quality of the BBC and Sky's rolling news coverage.

Throughout the night, as I skipped from the BBC News channel to Sky News all I saw were news anchors repeating a variation of the same information drawn predominently from official sources; largely inane commentary from the paid-up commentariat or politicians and police sources who simply maintained an entrenched position that arguably created the socio-economic situation that gave broth to the riots in the first place.

The real voices of people involved or pragmatic analysis by individuals perhaps better qualified to talk about what was happening – people on the streets, sociologists, political economomists and the rioters/looters themselves – went unreported.

In fact, the news coverage on Sky went further than not offering real voices by actively seeking out and then mis-preresenting real voices.

Reporting on being told by one looter that they were looting because they paid taxes and got nothing in return, the correspondent reported this saying: "But I wouldn't say that's a political response. This is all just opportunistic."

If these points are political and cultural reasons why mainstream media has become inadequate in reporting news then there are also arguably institutional reasons as well.

For example, once the sun went down or rioting become too intense, dangerous or moved to perceived unsafe locations, such as housing estates, both BBC and Sky resorted to reusing aerial footage of burning buildings or footage recorded earlier.

No doubt this is to protect the health and safety of reporters, but it further reveals the limits of the media's ability to tell the full story.

Just as the textual/spoken reporting was limited to a repetitive set of 'known' or 'verified' information so too was visual reporting limited to unhelpful long-range or out-dated scenes.

There was arguably some 'citizen reporting' via Sky and the BBC – but this itself brought about an interesting blurring of boundaries between social and institutional reporting.

With many of their own correspondents living within areas subject to rioting and looting, Sky and BBC brought their reporters into live broadcasts on the phone.

Similarly, many were reporting events in real-time via Twitter. These off-duty reporters were reporting on local events from a personal persepective: remember almost all of these individuals have a "tweeting in a personal capacity" disclaimer on the accounts, plus by reporting through Twitter their coverage isn't limited to Sky subscribers or license fee payers.

Their actions were arguably blurring the role between being a professional reporter and a personal or citizen reporter. 

Limits of liberal democracy
The limits of the media can be extended, I'd argue, to an analysis of the increased decline in liberal democracy and its hold over people's lives and society as a whole.

Firstly, which is the demographic consuming least traditional media? Young people of course. And what was the core demographic of rioters? Young people – although, of course, with exception.

Young people as a whole crude homogenous lump don't consume mainstream media. On the one hand this is causing advertisers and media companies sleepless nights, but on the other it also means that the media's role in performing its rational, liberal public information or watch-dog role is being undermined.

Added to this situation is the established – and growing – disenfranchisement of young people by other structural elements of liberal democracy, such as government policy, political parties and the police.

For example, see my post on the March 26th demo and how so many of the young people I saw were serious about fighting back against police brutality meted out at the last year's student demos and a government which has made only too clear how public policy is dictated by the market by u-turning on student fees.

As a result, you have a liberal democratic mechanism of managing public opinion which is no longer effective among the emergent population (not to mention further exacerbated by the ongoing economic effects on quality of life and perceived life chances).

Then there is the content of the media and the role it plays in liberal democracy.

At a normative level the media is meant to help us rationally debate and discuss events in the public sphere and form reasoned, democratic responses upon which our political institutions will act.

However, the trend over the past decades has been an increasing sensationalism and populism among the broader, mainstream media.

The public – and in particular those who consider themselves liberals – who pay particular attention to the media to stay abreast of topical issues – are failing to recognise or discover the nuances and complexities of what is happening.

The public appears almost unanimous in adopting the sensational language used by politicians and media commentators and most importantly the predominently white, middle-class news readers who themselves are guilty of reinforcing this media "restyling" by adopting media stereotypes, e.g. referring to looters as animalistic, feral, etc.

There's no space in this type of traditional media coverage for critical debate. Suggestions that the government's strategy of destroying communities by cutting its funding and increasing levels of unemployment is parallel to destroying a community through the physical violence of trashing shops go unheard.

Arguably, the strategy is the same; the tactics differ. The government has the upper hand and can destroy communities through policy-decisions and structural means; young people adopt much cruder approach

And this allows us to glimpse a subtle and potentially crucial failing of the traditional media in what we might term 'end-stage liberal democracies'.

The government and the wider political institutions in a liberal democracy (of which the media is one) are used to controlling the media and shaping coverage.

Young people realise this. Many refused to become part of the media spectacle by attacking journalists or refusing to be interviewed – which further inflames the media's democratically privileged position and response.

Of course, social media's operational relation to this is not unproblematic. While social media can (but doesn't always) cut through the manipulation of media coverage by dominant interests, it can also incriminate people committing criminal acts.

As if to reinforce how important the traditional media's role is in supporting or facilitating liberal democracy – and social media's potential to disrupt and challenge established ways of working – as I write this endnote David Cameron is stood in the House announcing plans to censor social media during public disorder, effectively legislating for an enforced reliance and dominance of traditional media when liberal democracy is faced with 'legitimation crises'.

As none of the proposed knee-jerk respoens are likely to identify or attempt to fix the underlying causes of the #ukriots I expect we'll see more legitimation crises.

Comments

  1. Something perhaps not fully played out as yet, and successfully exploited by some of the more sussed journos, seems to have been that whilst journos bearing all the trappings of pro equipment were attacked, those who instead used iPhones and similar were better able to ‘get away with it’ in our new culture of videoing ourselves and our mates, etc?

  2. yeah – there’s a tension there between tooled up pro journo and tooled down ‘citizen journalism’.
    There’s tensions in the idea of what is a journalist or media professional and what role do they occupy – particularly within corporate media (BBC included).
    But a really interesting tension with regard the ethics of it all and the growing ‘co-veillance’ [not my term!] which was particularly prominent in Canada during the ice hockey riot.
    I did, however, also see some people (inc the Guardian’s paul Lewis, I think) say that on a number of occasions anyone seen filing with a camera/phone was attacked – so perhaps a traditional, analogue solution to a particularly technological problem.

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