Just ask a teenager: The face of the media is changing

by Tim Shenk, Justicia Global

The face of the media is changing. Or, if you ask a teenager, it changed, like, such a long time ago.

How we receive, digest and pass on information is continuing to change as fast as you can update your Facebook status.

So how do we figure out the role of media in today’s society? This is a question that interests those of us who have stories and ideas we’d like more people to know about.

A few days ago I heard a comment on the radio from filmmaker Josh Fox that I think is worth a second look. (Fox is the creator of the new Oscar-nominated documentary, Gasland, which I highly recommend.)

Fox said:

The gas industry, I think they really went over the top this time to try to write to the Academy Awards to somehow take potshots at the film. They’ve been doing this for a year. We have posted at our website, gaslandthemovie.com, our rebuttals to every single one of their lies about our movie.

I have been very impressed with Gasland and am pumped about all of the national coverage it has drawn to “fracking.” (Side plug: His interviewees can light their tapwater on fire after oil and gas companies engage in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the region, which is an unbelievably damaging natural gas extraction process. This is so scary, for so many reasons.)

Yet I think Josh Fox is a few years behind on his mass media analysis. Has he really written rebuttals to everything the right is saying about him? Though a good organizer should be aware of the things being spread against his cause, actually replying in writing to every one of them is exhausting, not to mention self-defeating.

Why self-defeating? First, in the US, we self-select the information we take in more than ever before. That is, we seek out the news we want and are often oblivious to the “other side.” Our web “favorites,” TiVo and social networking addictions make it easy to bypass most information we think might challenge our views. The only time many of us get a glimpse of Fox News, for example, is when Jon Stewart is making fun of it.

We don’t watch TV or read blogs to become open to new perspectives. We do it to watch our guys beat up on their guys, to stock up on ammunition to argue against people we will most likely never speak to.

Second, in the Facebook generation, information is coming at us so fast we hardly pause to follow one issue very long. Egypt? That is so over. Tunisia? Greece? Arizona? Really really over. Many of us never even noticed that gas companies petitioned the Academy Awards to make Gasland ineligible until after Josh Fox himself mentioned it and issued a public response.

So even though I deeply respect him, I think Josh Fox is getting it wrong by giving way too much of his team’s valuable brain power to respond to every libelous comment Big Oil and Gas can make up. Those guys have ungodly amounts of money to pay their lawyers and PR guys to make up ridiculous story after ridiculous story about how the radioactive chemicals in our groundwater are “unproven to do us any harm.”

Take a look at the “comments” section of any Internet-based article on fracking: a surprising amount of people step up to defend this seemingly indefensible, irreparably destructive gas extraction method. Let’s not be fooled into thinking that these are your normal everyday “concerned citizens”: they’re guys getting paid a nice salary to confuse and mislead.

So what’s my point about mass media in today’s U.S.? Traditional mass media outlets can’t shape our worldviews as they once did, because we self-select so much more of the information we take in now. Many of us didn’t even notice the gas companies’ rebuttals of Josh Fox because we don’t access media where Big Gas has that much airtime. By the same token, most of the people who take the side of the gas companies probably haven’t heard Josh Fox rebut the rebuttals.

Is this unfortunate? Yes. Should we be exposing ourselves to a wider swath of media, at least in order to know what our neighbors are thinking? Probably. Yet my sense is, it’s a rare person anymore who subjects herself to too many news reports she fundamentally disagrees with.

The more we’re connected, the more we’re insulated. We don’t have the same three channels as the rest of the country anymore, and more and more we’re taking cues from our friends to figure out what to pay attention to. (One friend says, “If five or more of my friends on Facebook post the same video or link, I know it’s something I should look at.”)

Mass media still has great power to limit the framework of conversations, and it may cement our generally held views. I don’t completely buy the argument of the “democratization” of media, as corporate media ownership is more consolidated than ever, and Facebook is a business whose purpose is to create expertly targeted individual advertising.

Yet the pace of how we interact with news and information these days makes certain kinds of reactive tactics unnecessary and even counterproductive. Josh Fox went on an initial offensive with Gasland, and he has deservedly brought national attention to the very serious issue of the poisoning of our water supply.

He and the thousands of others working for our survival don’t have to spend precious time fighting a losing game of “liar liar” with the gas companies and their wells of money.

It’s the way information works now: just let any nasty stuff stream quietly across your newsfeed and Don’t. Do. A. Damn. Thing. Something else will come along about two seconds from now to make everyone forget they even saw it. Just ask a teenager.

3 Respuestas a “Just ask a teenager: The face of the media is changing

  1. Interesting stuff. If i understand your take, even if corporate PR firms understand the new media, small-scale filmmakers don’t have the resources to play that game. Instead best to move on to the next offensive ambush, like a guerrilla, never getting pinned down or forced to answer (cynical) critics.

    How about Obama’s mythbusting website? Was it a misallocation of resources by an otherwise media-savvy group, or an example of how large-scale reformers are forced to play defense? Supposedly a surprisingly large proportion of Americans are still buying into various silly untruths regarding Obama.

    Last thing: this social media is getting weird now that old ppl are wired. Everybody under 35 needs to take a minute to send their elderly relatives a link to Snopes. The email forwarding was bad enough– ill-informed blogs and Facebook posts are a whole new level.

  2. You know, I agree with most of what you’re saying but your characterization of teenagers is insulting. I’m a teen, I’m not a total dilettante and Egypt is not “so” over. I think it’d be a stronger article if you lost the veiled contempt for your audience.

  3. Adam, yes, you got what I was trying to say. When there’s a huge disparity in resources and you’re on the low end, don’t spend all of your time fighting on the playing field the opposition defines — that is, on the defensive. They’ll always have more to throw at you. I’m arguing that endless rebuttals probably aren’t as useful especially in the Facebook Age, because information has such a short shelf life. With the Obama team, it’s different. They have money to spend, even if few of the people who read Obama myth-busters are people really wanting to have their myths busted.

    Dan, I’m sorry you felt insulted. My point had much more to do with thinking about media strategy than trying to characterize teenagers, though I do take your point that it might strengthen the article not to use certain phrases. I have tremendous respect for the central role teenagers all over the world take in social and political movements, whether at school, in their neighborhoods or in the larger political arena: for example, students at the University of Puerto Rico, in Madison, Wisconsin, in Boise, Idaho, and at the Philadelphia Student Union.


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