Polonia: A Case Study

Diaspora is a term that I’ve never come across in my years of studying the media. Yet when I learned that it refers to a cultural group of people who have scattered from their original geographic homeland, I immediately lit up. My whole life I’ve been exposed to diasporic media, thanks to my family’s strong Polish cultural ties.

In particular, I remember growing up with the sights and sounds of TV Polonia, an international television station servicing Polish people living outside of Poland. Delivered alongside the myriad of international television stations offered by cheap satellite TV companies, TVP is a station that caters to one of the world’s largest diasporic populations.

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With between 15-20 million people of Polish descent living outside of Poland (MSZ, 2014), it comes as no surprise that a station dedicated to this group exists. TVP, and its radio subsidiary, report primarily on key Polish issues often ignored by the media within Australia.

In today’s internet age, the importance of a dedicated diasporic station such as this may have arguably diminished. Yet for the less computer-savvy amongst our population (my grandparents included), TVP was, and continues to be, a key source of Polish news and entertainment in an otherwise very Australia- and US-centric media landscape.

In a nation that prides itself on multiculturalism (at least ostensibly), diasporic media such as TVP plays a pivotal role in allowing our diverse population to maintain a cultural link to their old homeland.

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Global Echo Chambers

No discussion of globalisation and the media is complete without a foray into the world of social media. Hailed by many as the ultimate connective medium, social media has the potential to bridge the gap between cultures and countries. Social media as a medium should be McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ coming to life. But is it?

While it certainly has the potential to be, more often than not social media acts as nothing more than a convenient echo chamber. Rather than encouraging us to explore the vast wealth of different cultures and opinions available around the world, the majority of social media platforms have been developed or evolved (often by design) to be reflections of our own cultural beliefs and standards.

Conventional ‘friendship’-based social media networks such as Facebook will inherently give users a view of the world that is centric to their socioeconomic situation and geographic region. Put simply, despite being a ‘global network’, Facebook is little more than the online version of your local community. Even then, the Facebook Wall is designed to hide content that users would find ‘boring’ or disagreeable (Edgerank, 2014), limiting your online world to the small fraction that you’ll find most agreeable.

Yet even when we delve into more global networks like Twitter or Reddit, we find that users will choose to segment themselves into very niche or specific topics or regions. Reddit itself has appropriated the term ‘circlejerk’, to refer to the never-ending reinforcement of popular ideals or viewpoints on the site’s respective ‘subreddits’.

Despite our growing dependence on global social media networks, our ability to limit ourselves to a very narrow perspective of the world is becoming easier and simpler. With an ever-increasing number of geo-specific, language specific and purpose-specific social media networks coming into existence on a near daily basis, this trend is unlikely to slow down.

We are more globally connected than ever before in history. Yet our global village is starting to look an awful lot like a set of global echo chambers.

 

Edgerank, 2014. Edgerank. Available at http://edgerank.net/

Race in Context

In my research proposal, I outlined my desire to research the impact of gaming on the public sphere. Looking at the topic of race and ethnicity in the media, I found that video games present an equally fascinating case study in this field, too.

Many modern games (CoD in particular) have used race as a defining characteristic. The ‘good guys’ (usually white, typically American or British soldiers) fight against the evil Arabs/ Russians/ Germans/ Muslims.  My classmate Lachlan has gone into greater detail on the topic in his blog post, so I won’t comment too heavily on the negative use of race in games.

Rather, I wanted to explore the positive use of race in gaming. Extra Credits, a lecture series that delves into issues pertinent to the study and development of video games, explored the topic with their Race in Games episode.

The Extra Credits team make particular mention of LA Noir, which utilises race and racial issues heavily. In their episode, they look into the way in which the LA Noir developers have used character reaction to racial issues as a narrative device to define and add depth to characters.

We each carry around ‘baggage’ regarding racial (and other) issues. Game developers can tap into our extrinsic feelings towards these issues in order to define characters, dictate mechanics or advance the story.

The way in which race and racial issues are addressed is what sets apart games like Call of Duty from LA Noir. When used to define game mechanics, race becomes nothing more than a caricature or stereotype, which we are forced to adopt in order to complete the game. Yet when properly and intelligently utilised, race and racial issues can become powerful and rich storytelling devices. And through the interactive nature of the medium, it has the potential to force us to reflect upon our own feelings towards race and racial issues.

Gender and the Media

Gender and the Media

Let me preface this by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with the need for greater representation of women and women’s issues in the media. The growing media awareness of anti-female behaviour in countries such as India is nothing short of phenomenal and a great boon for gender equality worldwide. So when I say that I take issue with studies of ‘gender in the media’ that focus entirely on women, know that I do so without condemning the much-needed awareness of women’s issues and gender inequality that are being raised.

Western media and academia is quick to criticise gender inequality toward women (and rightfully so), though has failed to apply those same standards of criticism when presented with cases of gender inequality toward men.

A TV Show that presents certain female characters as incompetent in ‘male’ tasks is lambasted mercilessly by critics in news articles. Yet portrayals of male incompetence in ‘female’ tasks are the stuff of comedy gold. Advertisements that sexualise or objectify women are rightfully attacked by feminist media sources, and yet the same standard is rarely applied when the gender roles are reversed (O’Brien, 2013).

When workplace inequality toward women is uncovered, the media (both independent and commercial) immediately demands explanations and solutions. Obama’s push to eliminate the pay gap (Fram, 2014) between men and women has received staunch support from countless media sources, particularly the independent media in the US. Yet we dismiss as a fact of life, that 9/10 workplace deaths are male, or that the average male works up to 6 hours more per week than his female counterparts.

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The media has blossomed in its willingness to discuss violence, discrimination and sexual abuse toward women. Yet media coverage of violence or sexual abuse towards males is significantly more lax. Worse still, there are cases in which media outlets have portrayed such stories as little more than idle curiosities or humorous, often under the category of “Weird News”.

Even in our entertainment, we’ve come a long way from laughing at the Pepe le Pew’s unwanted sexual advances, yet we still find it hilarious when our male characters are sexually assaulted or sexually blackmailed.

Yes, women have been, and continue to be, discriminated against in many facets of life. Yes, social issues affecting women do exist. Yes, it is fantastic that the media and academia study these issues and bring them to light. Yet when presented by the long list of male-specific issues in society today, men are told by the media and society to ‘be a man’ or ‘man up’ or that they deserve a bit of discrimination as payback for the years of discrimination women faced. And very rarely do we stop to ask “why?”

When studying ‘gender in the media’, we need to take a more holistic approach. Gender issues are not a binary Male/Female tug of war. When looking at gender issues, we should never take an “Us verse Them” attitude. We must recognise that different gender issues exist for both men and women, and not dismiss them entirely because of a “they did it first” attitude, as some journalists are want to do.

As students studying media and culture, we must recognise when the media takes action to address gender issues and also when it fails to act, for both men and women.

 

Fram, A. 2014. “Obama Signs Actions Taking Aim At Gender Pay Gap”, Huffington Post, 08 April, Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/08/obama-pay-equity_n_5112161.html

O’Brien, S. 2013. “Diet Coke: Sexist against men”, The Herald Sun¸ 09 February, Available at: http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/seewhatsusiesays/index.php/heraldsun/comments/diet_coke_sexist_against_men

 

 

Enabling the Storyteller

With the dawn of the online sharing age, society’s ability to exchange thoughts and ideas has never been greater. The artist and storyteller is only ever a few clicks away from a global audience, where once they were relegated to the confines and restrictions of museums or the mass media. The freedom of ideas and ease of exchange has given rise to aesthetic journalism on a global scale.

Cramerotti (2009) describes aesthetic journalism as social, cultural or political investigation presented in an artistic context. This change of context forces us to reflect (even if only on a subconscious level) on the context with which we receive our ‘actual news’ – television news segments, newspaper articles and snappy sound-bites.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and unlimited access to global audiences, storytellers and citizen journalists are better equipped than ever to share a message or spread a viewpoint. From YouTube to WordPress, DeviantArt to independent news publishers, artists and storytellers have countless platforms and methods with which they can share their work. Presenting their research in the form of a documentary, artwork, video, song or metaphor, artists and storytellers are able to show us just how clouded our current interpretation of the world may be.

Take YouTube icon FriendlyJordies, a comedian who comments and reports on current political issues through the use of satirical infomercials and news pieces. Though it may be heavily biased, his parody of the infomercial and news story format actually lends credibility to his claims.

Visit his YouTube profile here.

That’s not to say that art has never before challenged social norms. Even blockbuster cinema hits like “Avatar” have made commentaries on our society’s political and environmental dilemmas. Historically, art has long been a platform through which we can ponder societal issues and debate the status quo.

Aesthetic journalism’s true value comes from its ability to challenge traditional journalism’s accepted formats and aesthetics. By selectively bastardising or subverting the format through which journalistic investigation is presented, aesthetic journalism encourages us to think about the format and style of traditional news. And in understanding the format, we are better equipped to appreciate the way in which it shapes or influences our understanding of the world.

 

Cramerotti, Alfredo, 2011, “What is Aesthetic Journalism,” in Cramerotti, Alfredo, Aesthetic Journalism: How to Inform Without Informing, Intellect, London

Automation, Big Data Analytics and the End of Traditional Journalism

The digital age has ushered in an age of crisis for traditional news media organisations and journalists alike. Falling advertising revenue and the rise of citizen journalism has led a dramatic drop in the profitability of news media and traditional journalism (Pavlik, 2013). Pavlik believes that innovation has the potential to reinvigorate the field of journalism, yet fails to consider the implications of innovation on the viability of journalism as a profession. With ever-increasing innovation in the field of analytics in our data-rich world, it is likely that our concept of news and journalism will undergo a radical shift in the not-too-distant future.

In 2011, a young startup in Chicago began work on a news automation service. Known as Narrative Science, the company utilises big data analytics and social media analytics to create simple yet readable news stories. These stories are written and published with minimal human oversight, reporting on topics such as sport, finance and even politics (Levy 2012). Similarly, tech giants like Google and IBM are constantly improving upon their big data analytics capabilities, finding faster and more effective ways to track trends and sentiments through social media and other online sources.

News organisations are already making use of this technology, using social media analytics to find trending topics and to gauge public sentiment (Bartlett 2013). Already, technological innovation has led to a partial automation of the first step in a journalist’s job – finding what to write about.

At the risk of propagating conjecture, is it not altogether likely that the entire journalistic process could one day be automated? As Narrative Science has shown, computers are more than capable of writing simple articles with minimal human input. I propose that with the continual improvement of analytics platforms and the growing amount of data for these platforms to process, computers will one day (sooner than many journalists would care to admit) be able to write stories faster and with more accuracy than any journalist. And for a fraction of the cost.

What does this mean for news media organisations and journalists? As this technology becomes cheaper and more effective, news organisations are likely to begin adopting it, though will probably face harsh competition from established digital companies like Google and Facebook. With diligent editorial oversight and careful criteria selection, news organisations (particularly the big media conglomerates) will be able to tailor their stories to suit their readership and filter out any stories that conflict with their advertiser’s interests.

For journalists however, the outlook is far grimmer. While journalism as a profession is unlikely to outright disappear, computer-automated writing is poised to take over a significant portion of the work currently undertaken by journalists. Consider the following possibilities, some of which are already nearly a reality:

  • In a crisis, news-writing software will be able to aggregate official and social media channels to form a cohesive, informative and unbiased story. Quotes, videos and pictures could be sourced from these channels to provide a potentially unbiased report on any given crisis.
  • Sports results and players can be analysed to create a report on any given sporting event. Furthermore, player/team performance could be compared to past games, social media and current news stories to add a depth of analysis to the report.
  • Analysis of social media channels (combined with any other sources of data that news companies can acquire) could lead to the creation of stories reporting on trends within particular topics or fields (eg, polling results could be combined with social media sentiment analysis software to develop a report on a country’s political climate during an election).

As the distinction between human-written and computer-written stories becomes thinner and thinner, the number of journalists employed by these organisations will decrease. The journalist’s sole bastion may reside in the field of investigative journalism, which is far more difficult to automate.

Yet investigative journalism has all but disappeared from the commercial mainstream media, fuelled by the conflict of interests between media conglomerates’ revenue streams and the public idealisation of an unbiased media (McChensey, 2004). This has relegated the field of investigative journalism primarily to independent online news sources and blogs, such as Vice and Crickey. In a world in which the sporting, financial and current affairs mainstays of a newspaper publication are written by computers, the average journalist may find themselves working for one of these independent publications, likely in an investigative role.

It may well be that in the future, the news we consume will be split neatly into two categories – computer-written and human-written. At the rate with which this technology is improving, given enough time we won’t even be able to tell the difference.

 

Levy, S 2012. “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?”, Wired, Published 24/04/12, Available at: http://www.wired.com/2012/04/can-an-algorithm-write-a-better-news-story-than-a-human-reporter/

Bartlett, R 2013. “How newsrooms can use social analytics to guide editorial strategy”, Journalism.co.uk, Published 19/06/2013, Available at: http://www.journalism.co.uk/news/how-newsrooms-can-use-social-analytics-to-guide-editorial-strategy/s2/a553295/

McChesney, R 2004. “The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st century”. Monthly Review Press. p. 81

John V. Pavlik, 2013, “Innovation And The Future Of Journalism,” Digital Journalism, 1:2, 181-193

The shortcut to the bottom of the barrel

Let me ask you a quick question: “Someone offers to sell you a bat and ball for $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Most people will quickly answer that the ball costs ten cents (hint: it doesn’t), revealing an interesting phenomenon that shapes the decision making process defining the public sphere. When answering the question, most people will avoid the mental arithmetic, and simply resort to a mental shortcut, by using what they know near instinctively (that $1.10 minus $1 is ten cents). People apply this mental shortcutting process to most of their decisions, thereby making assumptions and defaulting “to the answer that requires the least mental effort.” (Lehrer, 2012) The public sphere is no more immune to this than any other facet of our lives. McGuigan (2005) describes the concept of uncritical populism, which states that consumers aren’t just “passively manipulated recipients of commodity culture”. Rather, the content that we consume is a reflection of what we want. And as the mental shortcutting principle shows, what we want (for the most part) is a public sphere that grants us improved knowledge and understanding of the world with minimal mental effort. Given the choice of a public sphere dominated by mentally and ethically challenging discussions, versus a public sphere dominated by easily-digestible sound bites and celebrity stories, its little surprise that the general public chooses to engage with the latter. When a consumer limits their ‘world’ to celebrity gossip, breaking news and sports successes, they are simply using a mental shortcut to satisfy their desire for understanding. The mainstream media, recognising the consumers’ desire for an easy-to-understand worldview, has adapted – simplifying complex issues, sensationalising popular issues and ignoring the issues that may lead to unwanted mental effort by the consumer. Combined with undue influences by those in power (i.e. the media owners), this propensity for shortcuts is taking us further and further down the road to a trivialised culture, as portrayed in Stuart McMillen’s comic “Huxley vs Orwell”. huxley-orwell-amusing-ourselves-to-death Are we shortcutting ourselves to the bottom of the barrel; to a world in which true public discourse is drowned in a sea of irrelevance?