I am at the Neo-Journalism conference in Brussels, where academics will debate where journalism is at and where it is going. I am giving a keynote on Thursday 4 October.
But the conference kicked off with a keynote by Mark Deuze, Associate Professor at the Indiana University’s Department of Telecommunications.
He started off by laying the groundwork about the purpose of journalism. He points out how early humans needed individuals who would tell them when danger was coming.
These individuals, says Deuze, would be killed first, so it was a noble act.
The first function of journalism, says Deuze, was to warn us about danger. But as society become more urbanised, journalism started including stories about the elite.
The second function of journalism was to tell us who was in charge, who are our heroes, and how do we worship them. For Deuze, voting is a form of worship in modern society.
The third function of journalism that evolved in the 20th century is to tell us about the values and rules of society.
Every newspaper story will be about some kind of danger, such as stock market crash, about our leaders and about what we are not supposed to be doing, for example crime reporting.
The journalist as ‘special’
None of this is beholden to journalism, but about how a society functions, says Deuze. The idea that journalism is special is ancient but in some ways it is a very 20th century phenomenon.
Journalism constantly tells itself what it is, who is included, says Deuze. So academics are studying a group of people who are not special but have told themselves that they are special.
Deuze’s point is that at the core of the crisis in journalism is that the narrative of journalism is broken. “Everybody is a journalist now,” says Deuze. It is a function of how society is evolving.
Deuze points out how many models in journalism studies have the journalist as an individual at the core. “Crap,” he says.
The function of these models is to convince us that there is something special about the journalist, he argues, pointing out how journalists often give each other awards that reflect this.
Deuze says won’t we don’t see how journalism is essential to the maintenance of modern society and that journalists as individuals who are trying to contribute to society.
For example, anyone who has posted a Facebook status update is a journalist, The updates, Deuze says, follow the same pattern as journalism – warning us of danger, who our leaders are and where we fit into society.
Without those updates, says Deuze, we would not know “where we are, who we are and where we belong to.”
Our media life
Media are three things. They are devices that have personality – generally perfect and occasionally incredibly frustrating. Media are also activities. And media are social arrangements that structure our lives.
He argues that media as artefacts are disappearing. Deuze explains how the traditional, rotary dial phone was clearly identifiable as a phone. Media was one thing, doing one thing. But today, the cell phone is no longer a phone any more. The artefact disappears, says Deuze.
Media are part of every waking moment of our lives, and increasingly, of our sleeping time too, through constant updates in the background.
We have become media. There are events that could not have happened without media but are not caused by media, says Deuze.
He cites the Arab Spring, the London riots and the Occupy movement. These social arrangements have characteristics of media – it can rise up quickly, no one seems in control and there is no central agenda. This is the conversation you had in the bar last night, he says.
There is no audience anymore, content is everywhere made by users, says Deuze. The biggest slice of content is content about content – people telling each other stories about the stories shared by people they trust.
Deuze concludes by showing an image of dance DJ Tiesto. He talks about the role of the journalism as a DJ. A DJ needs to know and respect his source material, and people will respond to it.
A DJ like Tiesto is no beholden to any industry. He is a global brand with a record label that pulls in other artists, says Deuze. The DJ is a key node in a network.
Journalism has got to a moment when it can go beyond itself and think of itself like Tiesto, says Deuze.