Making a Difference in News Journalism

Heidi_Hirsto

Heidi Hirsto
Lecturer in Communication
Aalto School of Economics

The main ideals of news journalism used to be simple: strive for objective, impartial reporting of facts. This was also a time when the central task of news journalism was to help citizens make sense of the world through organizing the chaos of real life into a set of coherent accounts.

Of course, this model is badly outdated.

The new way of news journalism is the “individual diversity” model of Google News and other news search engines (Carlson 2007). These engines provide user-citizens with links to multiple news outlets and multiple viewpoints, supposedly without legitimating one view over another. The new model promotes the values of diversity, polyphony, pluralism, personalization, and access. The idea is to offer as many viewpoints and stories as possible – and let the reader choose.

It seems that, in some respect, the model of individual diversity has gained ground also in traditional forms of news media, such as newspapers. Take any noteworthy social or economic event – such as the collaboration of Nokia and Microsoft – and look at how it is represented in Helsingin Sanomat. I promise to eat my doctoral hat if you cannot find several perspectives, multiple voices, and divergent stories of the topic.

And surely there cannot be anything problematic about that?

I would argue that there can. The problem is that the relations of different viewpoints are often left not only unsettled but entirely untouched.

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe has promoted the idea of “agonistic pluralism” as an ideal model for democracy. It is first and foremost an alternative to consensus-oriented ideas of democracy, including all sorts of third way and win-win politics. At the core of agonistic pluralism is the notion of the political as an insoluble struggle between ideologies or discourses that are mutually incompatible.

An important aspect of the model is that pluralism alone is not enough. On top of pluralism, we need struggle – lively, active, and continuous struggle. We need the acknowledgement, respect and scrutiny of differences, tensions and contradictions.

This requirement poses a challenge for the journalistic news media.

Above all, it invites us to question the sustainability of the current practices of polyphony and diversity in news journalism. Is it enough simply to lay down different truth versions or viewpoints side by side – one version in economic section, another in domestic news – without commenting upon their interlinkages and contradictions? If not, then what should news journalism do differently?

There is one crucial difference between professional news media in all its current pluralism and the public discussion that takes place in the online discussion forums of these media. In online discussions, tensions between different viewpoints, camps, even social classes, are visible and strong. People take sides. When you read, you cannot help taking a side as well.

How come this does not happen so often when you read Helsingin Sanomat? What is wrong with its pluralism?

Perhaps the news media should to take a time out to reconsider once more the division of labor between the journalistic and the online, user-produced material. Most newspapers already provide a site and impetus for citizen discussion on their online discussion forums, and these forums seem to do a good job in facilitating polyphony and discursive struggle.

To what extent is it reasonable for professional news journalism to try and mimic that, especially if it can be no match? Could not professional journalism find a strength of its own?

Perhaps the next step for professional news journalism could be a step back towards the old-fashioned “ordering” task. Obviously, it must be emphasized, ordering not in the sense of offering ready-made consensual truths but in the sense of constructing, demonstrating and pointing out connections, tensions, differences and contradictions.

What professional journalism needs to (continue to) do is to facilitate and fuel public discussion and discursive struggle. “Anything goes” is not the way to do that.

References

Carlson, Matt 2007. Order versus access: News search engines and the challenge to traditional journalistic roles. Media, Culture & Society 29(6). 1014-1030.
Mouffe, Chantal 2000. The Democratic Paradox. Verso.


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