Society has always placed unique trust in writers. In fiction we suspend belief and escape into their created world. In school we analyze their past in ways we don’t press to know other professionals. We seek refuge in a writer’s unique lexicon as a way to put pen-clad strength to our own emotions.
And we turn to journalists particularly at our most vulnerable moments. We rely on them for coverage and context in times of strife. We read them to orient ourselves accurately in the world. We watch them on TV and listen to them on our digital feeds to mold our expectations on a minute-by-minute basis.
But the great irony of modern journalism is that we’ve created a system in which communication is completely dependent on quality technology, but technology is not dependent on quality communication. In a world of ad-driven platforms and push notifications, content is distributed faster simply because we have the capability to deliver at such speed. And with seemingly limitless content distribution capabilities, the tension between quality and accessibility grows.
In our rush for content over context, we’ve pushed the question of ‘how’ we communicate to data scientists and engineers and app developers without expecting the field of journalism as a whole to understand the basics of digital communication. We’ve reached a dangerous point where content creation and content distribution are completely separate.
We are only starting to understand how tech companies like Facebook and Twitter shaped the political landscape of 2017. This will surely heighten the debate about what role free speech, the First Amendment, and the Fourth Estate have in the Information Age. But we must address the underlying divide between content creation and distribution if we are to change the future of journalism. And this can only occur if we push journalists to be technologists.
Such a claim may seem counterintuitive at first. We are more likely to classify writers in the Creative Class than in anything related to science and technology. But more than that, journalists are trained in an inherently reactive manner. They “break” stories and “chase” news about events that have already occurred. Investigative reporters dive deep into a subject in order to uncover something previously overlooked.
Technologists, on the other hand, are pushed to be ever forward-thinking in their quest to create more efficient systems. But such discord doesn’t have to exist. It is the journalist’s jobs to constantly add new experiences, new words, and new tools from outside their craft in order to inform their perspective. We must remind ourselves that a journalist is only as good as her understanding of modern society. Therefore, it is essential for journalists to know the algorithms and the code that run our world. Journalists shouldn’t shy away from informing this technology, because to understand how digital communication channels work is to understand the basic infrastructure of how truth is distributed.
No amount of corporate oversight can stop the spread of ‘fake news’ or ‘alternative facts’. No federal legislation will curtail the polarization of modern media. The simple fact is this: Journalism can’t just play catch up with technology. Only when journalists understand emerging tech trends – and when they ultimately create content distribution platforms – will we begin to fix the polarized nature of news in the 21st century.