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Online News -- Public Sphere or Echo Chamber? (MIT Communications Forum)

02/24/2011 5:00 PM 3"270
Jason Spingarn"Koff, Documentary producer; Joshua Benton, Director, Nieman Journalism Lab ; Pablo Boczkowski, Professor of Communications Studies at Northwestern University

Description: Two panelists debate whether journalism in a digital age amounts to feast or famine, and differ on even basic questions: Are people just snacking on the news equivalent of junk food, and starving for the kind of information they need to be informed citizens? Alternatively, doesn't the abundance of information on the internet make possible a healthy media diet?

Pablo Boczkowski describes results from his ongoing research into changes in the nature of news supply and demand. He is interested in particular in the gap between stories news organizations deem important--international and national subjects--and the stories most people like, involving sports, crime, and entertainment. His studies look at online news sites, cable and broadcast TV, and newspapers in the U.S. and around the world, during normal times, and times of crisis or momentous events (elections, the global financial meltdown).

The bottom line: "People consider public affairs news anxiety"provoking, requiring a lot of cognitive effort," and pay attention to serious topics primarily during momentous times, after which they return to their normal news diet, rarely clicking on or tuning into the kinds of stories journalists consider "page 1." As a result, news publishers in all media, in an increasingly competitive environment, feel pressure to cater to consumer demand, says Boczkowski. There is a "growing tension in all newsrooms between the logic of their occupation and of the market," which threatens to reduce public affairs coverage in many broad"based, traditional publications, leaving serious news to "niche sites." This may lead, Boczkowski worries, to a "deepening of information inequality."

Joshua Benton is more sanguine about the trends, noting that historically news organizations have never presented "a pure reflection of journalists' judgments of the most important stories" on the front page, and that news consumers have long been accustomed to a mix of hard stories and lighter fare. Benton sees a larger "news universe" that defies a supply and demand metaphor, since "it's hard to look at the internet and say there is a shortage in supply of anything." The web, particularly social media, connects people to quality news and information, a quantifiable phenomenon seen in rising readership for publications that suffered in print"exclusive form, notably The Atlantic, and New York Review of Books.

Benton continues, asking provocatively whether it is "OK for people not to be informed about public affairs-how much does it matter? In the U.S., it is not clear "how important the element of mass is in mass media," when so much public affairs writing is aimed at politicians and lobbyists, "who do the heavy lifting." On the other hand, the web has made it possible for many more people to set the political agenda; "We live in a world where Gawker can take down a Congressman, Talking Points Memo can get an attorney general to resign, and Wikileaks can set the whole world talking." Niche news sites collectively have clout, and may help fill a vacuum in Washington and world coverage. Says Benton, "In the end, there's room for lots of different kinds of players."

About the Speaker(s): Jason Spingarn"Koff is a filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared on PBS (NOVA, Frontline/World, History Detectives, LIFE360,/i>), the BBC, MSNBC, and in Time, and Wired. Spingarn"Koff is a 2010"2011 Knight Journalism Fellow at MIT. His feature film, Life 2.0 was shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Spingarn"Koff is a graduate of Brown University and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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