There is the media, and there is journalism. The former can mean anything in this era of highly democratised flow of information.
But journalism means something very specific and critical. The explosion of the media landscape in the recent past, powered by the revolution in information and communications technology, is unprecedented in human history.
Today, any major news development at one end of the world instantly travels to utterly distant parts of the world. The speed is prodigious, and often the contagion can bring about a global wave either in celebration or disapproval of something.
The biggest force here has been social media. The world is a better place because of advances that have eased the flow of information, the unfettered availability of channels of communication and vast sources of knowledge.
But the world also faces grave dangers precisely because of unbridled circulation of anything and everything. Change is good. Creative destruction, as economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out more than half a century ago, moves societies forward and for the most part leads to better conditions. This, of course, needs not be seen through a rigid teleological frame.
Human ingenuity thrives in environments of free flow of ideas and tinkering with new ways of thinking. The current explosion of the media landscape is itself a product of human tinkering, but also has provided part of the infrastructure for freer imagination and innovative thinking.
But a world of creative destruction without institutions guarding against human excesses could easily lead to a state of nature or at best worsen an already anarchical system – we have no world government and global governing systems that fully rule over everyone and every state or non-state actor.
The sprawling media landscape that includes all manner of unfiltered and unprofessional dissemination ironically presents easily the biggest danger to what used to be referred to as the ‘fourth estate’.
I say it used to because I am not sure we can still speak of a unified ‘fourth branch of government’ called the media that’s strictly independent and services a public good.
The disruptive effects of social media have left mainstream media gasping to survive and remain relevant even when, in fact, the latter can offer wholly different and extremely critical services that social media cannot. Instead, there is near race to the bottom here.
Media houses find themselves wanting to emulate social media platforms where everyone is an expert and everything in its raw form can pass for material worth putting out. Worse still, increasingly we get more punditry and less serious investigative reporting, much opinionated arguments but little sourced stories and a lot of salacious breaking news yet very limited deep insight.
The sum of the issue here as I see it is the gradual death of journalism, ironically at the behest of the media. A big paradox it is: the media is killing journalism.
Consider the recent trend of Uganda’s websites purporting to be news outlets. I have lost count. One of them is run by a fellow fully ensconced to State House, but it is seen by many Ugandans as a source of credible and worthy news!
Unlike in the past where starting a newspaper or a radio station required substantial financial and human resources, it’s now easier and a trifle inexpensive to lay claim to being a media organisation by starting a ‘news’ website.
In the West, the biggest damage to the credibility and standing of journalism has come from vicious assaults from website outlets.
And the sustained attack on journalism by President Donald Trump, perhaps the main reason majority of the Republic Party now considers the media ‘an enemy of the people,’ has succeeded mainly through sending out only a few words via Twitter.
Trump and his supporters seem unaware his Twitter handle and the myriad populist news-websites out to harangue ‘the media’ are in fact part of the media. The real target for denigration here is not the media, but journalism.
Real journalism bites. It is not music to politicians and the powerful. But it’s never a threat to society because it serves a common good for all, telling the true story and casting a spotlight on the issues affecting people’s lives.
In our times, this journalism has suffered a plunge. We have tabloid television in league with social media. Major television networks hire celebrity anchors who can attract viewership and ratings.
On social media, the craze is about following people on Facebook and Twitter and how many followers someone has. Some people now get news and information by following certain individuals.
In this media maze that includes everything and anything, the decline of journalism means we are inundated by disinformation as much as rushed breaking news supposedly in realtime.
We have individuals and organisations spewing toxic and salacious stuff that do little to inform and educate. More than ever before the profession of journalism, as the vanguard of the fourth estate, needs to be at the front of the information age, but it’s now in a marginal position.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University