“Society rightly distrusts the modeling done by a single mind,” observed J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor in their 1968 essay, “The Computer as a Communication Device.” “Society demands consensus, agreement, at least majority.”
Licklider and Taylor’s decades-old statement applies today to the general distrust the modern American public seems to have of the news media. Traditional news gathering organizations have historically portrayed themselves as “institutions” of democracy and communication, conjuring images of stately offices filled with journalism “professionals” who decide what the public needs to know.
The masthead of The New York Times is a perfect example: “All the news that’s fit to print.”
But the contemporary American public seems to perceive “the news media” as a single mind, elitist and disconnected from the rest of society. News media backlash, particularly from conservatives, has taken the form of reader distrust. “The media,” it seems, does not seek consensus; it single-handedly chooses what to report and what not to report and what subjects to provide with “perspective.”
Conservative Fox News Commentator Bill O’Reilly has found it commercially beneficial to capitalize upon the assumption that traditional “objective” news media is anything but objective. On a nightly basis, O’Reilly markets his cable TV news show by boasting to the public, “You are entering a no-spin zone.”
So how can the evolution of interactive communication help the news business? How can computers and the Internet help the news media rebuilt trust with the American public?
The news industry can start by learning from Licklider and Taylor’s basic idea of communication: “to communicate is more than to send and to receive.”
There needs to be more of what Licklider and Taylor call “cooperative modeling” — cooperation in the construction, maintenance and use of a model.
The news industry must do more than just force-feed readers the stories that editors have decided is good for them. News organizations should use the tools and technologies of interactive communication to make the news gathering and delivery process more transparent, responsive and inclusive.
A few ideas: When reporters go out to interview sources, they use technology to record their conversations. The audio clips can then be made available to the public on the news organization’s website. If a reporter is covering a high-profile court case or arrest, the news organization could include electronic versions of the documentation (arrest reports, judges decisions in PDF) with highlighted passages to show how facts were gathered.
The Hartford Courant is moving in this direction. Every story-level page on the newspaper’s website now features a link to the Courant’s ombudsman and to the newspaper’s list of corrections. It is easy as ever for readers to make a comment or complain about the any area of the newspaper’s coverage. And the ombudsman posts a daily blog so the public can read what others are saying.
Reporter e-mail addresses are now included at the end of every story, so the public can easily correspond with the newsroom. Most of the editors and reporters have stopped treating the public like an annoying child. Nowadays, the newspaper is doing all it can to invite readers in and start a dialog.
“Information transmission and information processing have always been carried out separately and have become separately institutionalized,” Licklider and Taylor stated. “There are strong intellectual and social benefits to be realized by the melding of these two technologies.”
If newspaper readers, TV news viewers and online news users can feel connected to the news gathering process and see themselves reflected in the product, they will want to keep the traditional news media as part of their daily lives – “as
active participants in an ongoing process, bringing something to it through interaction with it,” Licklider and Taylor wrote.
“A communication system should make a positive contribution to the discovery and arousal of interests.” Licklider and Taylor concluded. “When minds interact, new ideas emerge.”
Licklider, J.C.R and Taylor, Robert W. “The Computer as a Communication Device.” Science and Technology, 1968.