A MIXED RESULT
It would have been quite remark- able if a utopia of participatory, in- teractive media had followed the
arrival of new interactive technologies. But the excitement over technology ignores the extent to which power
and old-media politics survive today.
Instead of a revolutionary leap
forward, “media democracy 1. 5”—a
combination of old and new media
politics—better describes the current
situation. Today, retrograde media
politics blend with mobile telephony,
social media and digital platforms.
Opportunities for interactivity and
participation overlap with barriers
and actions to curb public expression and scrutiny. Colluding government and private interests coexist
with citizen activism and innovative reporting.
Social media do open up innovative possibilities for citizen participation and the circulation of diverse
information. Yet the notion that new
digital platforms inevitably catapult
citizens to the center of public expression should be viewed cautiously.
Traditional media have shown a re-makable capacity to adjust to a new
technological scenario, with governments and media businesses remaining formidable powers.
Social media also are unable to
counter government attempts to
suppress dissent or prevent access
to public records. Even without for-
mal censorship mechanisms such as
those in place under authoritarian-
ism, some governments apply legal
tactics to stifle criticism and discour-
age democratic expression. The dis-
cretionary allocation of public funds
encourages sycophantic news and de-
ters critical news. Social media can-
not offer much of a counter weight to
balance these heavy-handed tactics.
Moreover, social media do not nec-
essarily produce information that is
unavailable in traditional media out-
lets. As long as journalism—whether
traditional or social media—is con-
ceived purely as a business, substan-
tial investments in quality reporting
will not be a priority. If audiences and
advertisers can be reached through
low-cost news, then media companies
have few incentives to cast a wide net.
Although they offer new opportunities to produce and exchange information, social media do not solve
fundamental deficiencies of media
In a region with no shortage of journalism that is beholden to governments or solely driven by commercial
goals, rigorous and critical information that spotlights social challenges
and scrutinizes power is still needed.
Random tweets and status updates supply quick news bites, offer
vehicles for amateur journalism and
occasionally support collective mobilization. But they are themselves used
by governments and public officials
for the same purposes. Nor do these
tools fill the considerable information gaps created by the collusion of
governments and media owners, by
overly simplified news and by public
officials with little patience for democratic dissent.
Silvio Waisbord is professor and
associate director at the School
of Media and Public Affairs
at George Washington University. He
is editor-in-chief of the International
Journal of Press/Politics. He has
published books and articles about
media politics in Latin America.
is generally filtered by journalists,
although in some cases it is posted
without any editing.
News organizations are particularly
receptive to user-generated information during emergencies, crises, natural disasters, and accidents. Coverage
of the February 2010 earthquake in
Chile and the annual Caribbean hurricane season show how the media can
reposition themselves as communication networks for public exchanges
during major tragedies. However, in
a day-to-day news context, conventional journalism maintains limited
connections with citizen-produced
news, preferring instead to rely on
And access does not result in quality. With websites relentlessly focused
on attracting traffic, solid reporting
is frequently sidelined by breaking
and/or sensational news. The content
that generates the most hits is most
rewarded. The public importance or
proper fact-checking become secondary considerations.
It is debatable whether such constant flows of information have any
significant implications for media democracy. It’s news, but it’s not obvious that it matters for public life. The
kind of information necessary to dissect deep-seated problems, voice public demands and scrutinize political
and market power doesn’t conform to
sensational news flashes or 140 characters. One result: lower priority for
important stories about employment,
education, safety, health, or accountability of public officials.
FOR AN IN TERVIE W WI TH THE AU THOR AND FOR
SOURCE CI TATIONS SEE:
Americas Quarterly WINTER 2012