These Days, There are Multiple Sources Shaping Public Debate.
By Thomas J. Roach
Journalists dominated the public sphere of the 20th century. When it came to public discourse, they set the agenda for public debate, selected the contestants and generally, determined the winners. If the first decade is any indication, the 21st century will be dominated by public relations practitioners who will flood an ever-expanding matrix of public media with partisan arguments that will have to be sorted out by the public.
While journalists are lamenting their loss of influence and jobs, public relations is booming. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for every million workers in America there were 4.5 public relations practitioners and 3.6 journalists in 1980. Today there are nine public relations practitioners and only 2.5 journalists per one million workers.
The practical impact of this for the aggregate industry is that quarries will be less likely to be victimized by reporters and editors who decide that the homeowner complaining about blasting is the only “objective” source of information.
Members of the community will access Twitter and Facebook posts by homeowners and by the public relations representatives of the quarry. They might also read a story about the issue in the local newspaper, but the story may not be an investigative piece written by a reporter. It may be a press release written by the company public relations staff. Even the editorial might be a guest editorial written by a company spokesperson.
Clearly one outcome of current trends is that company spokespersons will have greater access to members of the community and less interference from newspaper employees who present themselves as the only source of “objective” information.
This doesn’t mean that the citizen with a legitimate complaint is defenseless. A Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) group can make an email mailing list of neighbors, hold meetings, lobby city council members, and make their own Twitter and Facebook posts. Neutral citizens interested in the issue can access all these sources of information and come to their own conclusion.
This new model of mediated public debate is not unlike the partisan press of the 18th and 19th centuries. So-called objective journalism didn’t begin until the early 20th century. Prior to that, different political interests had their own publications.
A citizen who wanted to learn about an issue read newspapers from different partisan sources. The articles in the partisan press newspapers were argumentative essays. Someone reading several newspaper articles could function like a judge hearing arguments from opposing attorneys. If each party made its best case, the citizen-judge would be better able to determine the most compelling one.
Today, the fractured industry of mass communication and the financial cutbacks at established newspapers have created a new partisan press scenario. Instead of having the town’s only newspaper looking at the various sources and deciding the best argument, each citizen can access the sources and decide for himself or herself. In at least one important way, this is preferable to the 20th century objective journalism model.
No Such Thing
The problem with “objective” journalism is that there is no such thing as objectivity. All arguments made by human beings are subjective by definition. Issues involving noise or physical danger rest on probabilities and contingencies. Claiming that a story is newsworthy, choosing whom to interview and whom not to interview, and framing the issue are all subjective choices made by reporters and editors.
There is nothing wrong with reporters and editors making those decisions; their transgression is in claiming that their choices are more valid than ours. Bloggers now have a similar role to journalists. They create an agenda, they cite sources and they state opinions. The key difference is that bloggers acknowledge tacitly that these are their opinions. Journalists need to do the same. If they do not, the debate will go on without them.