At Personal Democracy Forum: The Internet, Media and Journalism

Expert Opinion June 23rd, 2008

, Former Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

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NEW YORK, June 23, Early-Afternoon – Smile, you’re on the Internet and everything is public now. But the afternoon panel on the “Clickocracy” and the Internet’s Impact on Media and Journalism is wondering if there are any rules left in journalism and how journalists can retain credibility and accountability in the new media age. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine.com is moderating the panel and “playing Oprah” with audience questions for a panel that features some of the most prominent new-media journalists: Ben Smith of Politico; Ana Marie Cox, former wonkette.com editor and current time.com blogger; Jose Antonio Vargas of Washingtonpost.com; and Sarah Stirland of Wired.com.

The panelists begin with a discussion on the supposed divide between bloggers and “traditional journalists.” After struggling with “air quotes,” Ana Marie Cox suggests we need to get past imagined distinctions between bloggers and journalists, but to be sure that whoever is delivering the news is accountable and that they are stimulating a real debate about the issues.

Jeff Jarvis is interested in how journalists have used new media to enhance transparency in the most recent election cycle. He asks the panel what they think the most impactful new tools have been and clearly it’s the real-time or mobile tools that were exploited by both journalists and the campaigns themselves. All of the panelists laud the advantages of Twitter as an instant mobile broadcast tool and cite the use of Instant Messanger for internal campaign staff coordination. Social Networking was also big and Jose Vargas of Washingtonpost.com recalls the “Facebook kids” taking over an Iowa caucus and swinging it for Obama. Sarah Stirland notes that Facebook kids are also important because they have voting parents who are themselves exposed to candidate videos on youtube thanks to their children.

While the use of these new tools was key to the 2007/2008 primary season, Jeff Jarvis is surprised that video did not play as big a role. “There was no Maccaca moment,” he submits, and Ana Marie agrees, saying that she was surprised by the lack of video-based citizen journalists tracking the candidates on the campaign trail. Jose says he was surprised that Jeremiah Wright did not doom Obama and credits the democratizating force of the Internet for it: “it wasn’t just a single 30 second video, it was an entire youtube discussion…we’re beyond soundbyte politics”

What was a surprise to none of the panelists was that journalism continued to be in flux during the primary campaign. All of the panelists described major shifts in how “old-schoolers” practice their craft, including sincere responses to blog and commenter criticisms. Sarah Stirland observed that “we’re not in an environment where we can choose not to write about something. What do we need to do as journalists: do we write about something that’s not really an issue but is getting hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits?” The job of journalists may be changing, but some of the panelists are concerned with the instinct to even assign journalists a particular role. Ana Marie submits that “here are as many different job descriptions for journalists as there are journalists.”

Turning to questions contributed by the Forum’s online audience, Jeff asks what the impact of Google was on the recent campaigns. Jose notes that Google ads have had a big impact and cites a student thesis that was submited to him that analyzes the potential predictive power of Google for the campaigns (and the media): according to the student’s data, Google search trends actually predicted the result of every primary.

True to form, the audience decided to get directly involved at this stage of the Forum with one participant claiming that the Internet has failed to have any fundamental impact on politics or the political debate. Some of the panelists gave limited credit to this opinion, but all reminded the audience that the Internet has surely had a fundamental impact on campaigns and specifically how they raise money. Ron Paul could not have gotten as far as he did and Barack Obama could not have gotten as far as he has without Internet fund raising.

Looking to the future, Jeff asks the panelists what we can expect from the Internet campaigns now that we’re down to two candidates. Ben Scott warns that “viral Internet rumours about Barack Obama” could be a major story of the coming campaign season. Ana Marie agrees and says that in general, “the Right will catch up” in terms of their use of the Internet as a political tool. Sarah adds that “the Right roots” in particular will improve their exploitation of Internet tools “but the question is, is there the public attention-span for the Right’s issues for them to catch on?”

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