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The Ecology of News and the lowest common denominator

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Citizen journalism has been a term used to describe the participatory nature of citizens in influencing the media and news agenda. The use of mobile phones, blogs, social platforms like twitter and facebook, has given citizens the voice and tools to participate in the ecology of news and be active actors in the news manufacturing process.

The media landscape has changed tremendously. Web 2.0 is a typical term used to describe a variety of web sites and applications that allow anyone to create and share online information or material they have created. It describes a many to many relationship, where everyone is capable of being the sender, and influences communication flow and the ecosystem in our society and media landscape.

I have seen a number of interesting stories surfacing on our local news outlets recently. While this is not something unusual, there is a certain pattern in which we receive our news now. How we interact with these sources, in turn, shape our sense of social realities and perceptions about issues and topics happening in Singapore and all around the world.

We coin terms like 'Umbrage', 'Sovereign lady', 'The Mask lady', for the purpose of finding a common language which we could all resonate and share.

It is safe to say that news items are like coffeeshop talk with an ephemeral nature. As humans, we are constantly searching for interesting and evolving topics to discuss with our soul mates. And in fact, what else can we talk about if we do not talk about politics, entertainment, food, gossips, travel, family, and of late, Covid-19. Through such discourses, we make meaning of our own life and how we intend to journey till the end.

Source: Scott Pelley

The advent of Social media has definitely change the playing field. The notion that 'Everyone is a Publisher' suggests a fundamental change in the role of the media, shifting gear towards a participatory culture, one that is co-created with our audiences.

There has been a lot of discussions about the attention economy, the premise of social media focusing on generating and creating attention for the purpose of advertising. The statement 'If you are not paying as a customer, then you are the customer', reveals the hidden agenda of big tech companies in conditioning customers and letting them be glued to social platforms, through ideologies like finding fame and success with growth in followers and engagement, and the democratisation of structures and power.

The woke culture describes the mentality of the newer generation and how they embark on 'knee jerk' reactions when they face certain pertinent issues discussed on the media. The notion that 'Everyone is woken', could potentially describe the warped and inflated sense of entitlement and empowerment one gets with technology. In fact, who could we blame when there have been a lot of successful movements and ground-up initiatives won against the traditional establishments.

The notion that 'change is possible' suggests that if we were to do something about our situation, then there's hope. While such mindsets are excellent in breaking existing prejudices, norms and beliefs, and give the side-lined more power and voices, we have also unfortunately, bred a whole new generation of digital natives, who behave and operate in a totally new way and dimension.

This is the culture which we all have to be accountable and responsible of.

Are we a by-product of the media, or the media is a by-product of us?

There have been too many mass communication theories and studies focusing on the power of media and its effects on audiences. Increasingly, it seems that the evolution of the media, namely from print to radio, radio to tv, tv to internet, and internet to social media, has given rise to different audiences with every change. The medium is the message, by Marshall Mcluhan, suggests that the medium is more important than the content. And with every fundamental change in every technology, new meanings of the medium are triggered and evoked.

Everyone is a publisher, so it seems. We have been given too much power in our own hands.

The tech companies want the entire population to be on their platforms. The attention that we give to such platforms are sold to big conglomerates and companies willing to trade money for our attention. This is the end goal for a capitalistic reason. To bring profits for the investors. To get more users in and get the whole world writing, the whole world responding, the whole world interacting. It's a global village.

How about the traditional news makers like journalists, editors, you might ask? In fact, media companies and practitioners have been adjusting to this new norm. There has been a democratization of content and structures, and an erosion of professional ethics and practice in the field of journalism. Media companies are losing attention to alternative media outlets which are faster in producing bite-sized and viral content. Traditional journalists are challenged with constant expectations of quality journalism and consumers' mistrust over reports which are partial towards the elites and government. In fact alternative news sites are providing a lighter source of news, one which is easier to digest with traces of entertainment.

Yes, the entire media industry is adjusting. In fact, I could see radio stations turning to facebook live to capture more online interest. Traditional news sites bowing towards 'lower brow' content to suit the tastes and preferences of the growing online community. Actors and hosts resorting to live streaming and selling to make ends meet. Trivial matters are discussed more as there's lesser pressure on the number of news holes available online. Everyone is in search of virality, so it seems.

What might we have become? Perhaps a growing ecology and systems of finding news that are of the lowest common denominator? Dramas, scandals, controversies, bad news are excellent content which trigger responses. Humans react to such news well even when we trace back to history. The death of Princess Diana, the growing hate towards Donald Trump, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the Kardashian family and its fortunes, Tiger woods' affair, and the list goes on.

If we do not have a common enemy, then we will all be bored. We need a common enemy to bring us all together. And who might this common enemy be? Islamophobia? Immigrants? Communism? Racism? Convid-19? Government? It is a juxtaposition of the many affairs that push this unfortunate candidate up on the media pedestal. Bingo! We found that perfect person or that episode for our next YouTube video, our next blog post, our viral hits, and we better strike the iron while it is hot before it becomes old news.

Scoop, it seems, could be found anywhere. As long as there's virality on social platforms, alternative news sites like Mothership and TSL will be quick to jump into the bandwagon. Slowly, news sites like CNA and Straits Times will succumb by picking it up, making the news even more legit and official.

Credit: ST

It will be interesting to discuss the role of reviewers on such posts, especially on Facebook. Most of the time, the comments are negative and bigoted. From an engagement stand point, every post is measured by its shares and comments. It is interesting to study the measure of success for every post. Are we looking at strengthening the public and social discourse over pressing matters and issues? Or are we simply looking at virality as the yardstick? I hope it is the former.

The role of social commentators should also be explored. Social commentators be they influencers, youtubers or bloggers are constantly finding content to talk about. This is 'trendspotting' from a marketing and programming standpoint. Finding trending issues and matters and have our views aligned to gather maximum impact and traction. Participants do not just get more leverage in views and exposure; a contentious topic, when discussed, could spark off more controversies and discussions, which in turn, makes it even a perfect formula for an explosive outcome.

And since social commentators have tons of followers, their views perpetuate the beliefs of the majority, which in turn, create a vicious cycle of audiences and content-curators who are constantly seeking and validating such mode of media consumption and production. In the long run, it becomes a self-propagating machine without much filters in ensuring good quality content and messages we receive.

Does the media truly influence us now? Or are we becoming the pervasive influence ourselves?

Paradoxically, have we become a powerful medium with the power of the pencil to draw any form of illustration? Drawing, as opposed to writing, is much more open and leave to the human mind to imagine and interpret.

Are tech companies killing all traditional media companies, and turning everyone into this 'lowest common denominator' medium we see every day?

And if we are the news ourselves, why do we need news?

I ask myself.

Dennis Toh

An academic, PR Professional and Actor, Dennis graduated from NTU, Wee Kim Wee School of Communications and Information with a Master of Mass Communications in 2006. He has been teaching marketing and mass media subjects for the last 10 years. Before entering into academia, he was the marketing head for a Specialist Healthcare Company. He has taught in Curtin Singapore, Temasek Polytechnic, Kaplan, MDIS, MIS, IPRS and Aventis School of Managament. He was an ex owner of Feet Haven Reflexology, a foot massage business, and runs a social media network, The Influencer Network. Dennis has been actively involved in the acting and modeling scene in Singapore in the last 5 years. Recently, he wrote a book '101 ways to get publicity for success' in 2019.


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