Saturday, July 24, 2010

Andrew Marr's "New Journalism"

In writing about the impact of the Internet on how we receive and read news, I have been less concerned with all the evangelical talk about media (which may or may not "converge") and more worried about whether the world the Internet has made is one that will sustain the practices of journalism that have evolved in the "cultures of the free press." This is not the reckless world of Stanford University's recent "Innovation Journalism" conference but the world of a vital public institution made sacrosanct by the dialect liturgy of Mr. Dooley. It is from this point of view that I approached the received pronunciations of BBC presenter Andrew Marr and his recent piece for BBC News Magazine, "A New Journalism on the Horizon."

To his credit Marr tries to find the right balance between the world of those who would practice journalism according to its traditional standards and those would seek to read (or, as much of his subtext suggests, "consume") the daily news. There is much to ponder in these concluding paragraphs:

Our appetite for long-term campaigning and focus fritters away. Fast news has had the same effect on our minds as fast food has had on our physiques.

The next media age may be differently configured. We may have a group of very large "aggregators" bringing busy people the most important new news of the day, rather as now, but there will be fewer of them.

But underneath that, we will have large numbers of specialist news sites - for specific companies or sectors, for different environmental issues, for overseas crises - which bring together journalists, academics, specialists, campaigners, professionals, lobbyists and so on. These will be where the expertise and longer-term attention span will be found.

They will pile the pressure onto the powerful, and keep asking the questions. And from time to time their work will break upwards, to the aggregators (we need a better word) and the global headlines.

Whether or not Marr realizes it, the division he envisages has roots in the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, particularly in the distinction he draws between "syntagmatic" and "associative" relations. The latter are the domain of what we now call "aggregation." They are concerned with how entities may be collected and classified according to a system of categories. Within that system, categories themselves may be collected and classified, which is why our terminology of concepts tends to be hierarchical: Rin Tin Tin is a German shepherd, which is a dog, which is a mammal, which is an animal, which is a "living system." However, there are no relations that distinguish the entities in a category other than their membership in subcategories in the hierarchy.

Syntagmatic relations arise because there are severe limits to what can be expressed through associative relations. (Database designers and object-oriented programmers might wish you to believe otherwise, but those of us who speak "natural language" know better.) Thus, consistent with the name, it is through syntagmatic relations that we recognize the grammatical distinction in a sentence between an individual acting as a subject and the objects upon which that subject acts.

At the risk of sounding too reductive, Marr seems to envisage a world in which a new class of "specialist" journalists will cope with all the intricacies of syntagmatic relations, summoning them to "pile the pressure onto the powerful," while "the rest of us" can blithely live in the world of associative relations through which we receive and "consume" our news. This seems to be Marr's solution for what will keep the practice of journalism alive and well, but it presumes that the powerful will respond to such pressure. It overlooks the possibility that, consistent with that "fast news" metaphor, a general public that subsists on a diet of associative relations will never care about the results of a practice based on syntagmatic relations. The powerful may be pressured; but will the pressure signify in the world at large? Those of us who still have some sense of history remember what happened when the demagogic Boss Tweed was pressured by the press. He simply shrugged and said, "What’re ya’ gonna do about it?" If the general public is not engaged in what journalists do to apply their pressure, why should the powerful worry about it?

To some extent Saussure's distinction emerges earlier in Marr's piece in a remark he makes about television viewing habits:

A public has emerged which doesn't watch traditional sequential television, or even understands the notion of "channels".

The channel is, of course, an associative construct; but "traditional sequential television" is a diachronic experience that depends heavily on a grasp of syntagmatic relations, such as those studied in the domain of narratology. If we are not engaged by the pressures of investigative journalism, it is primarily because we can only comprehend those results through syntagmatic relations. If we abandon our capacity to comprehend even the simplest narrative of an episode of The Simpsons, we are unlikely either to know or to care about the fruits of journalism's labors; and, once again, the reasoning of Boss Tweed will triumph.

No comments: