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Democratizing the news media: new technologies may be changing journalism – but will they also make it easier to participate?

New Technologies May Be Changing Journalism — But Will They Also Make It Easier to Participate?


Now that enormous quantities of raw information are available to anyone with a computer and a phone line, questions arise not only about the role of journalists and journalism educators, but also about whether people of color will be an integral part of the information superhighway.


At the recently concluded National Association of Hispanic journalist’s (NAHJ) Conference in Chicago, the focus was on new technologies and their impact on the journalism profession. The conference was titled: “Welcome, Move Ahead. The Future is Here.” Its focus was on the need for journalists “to be fluent in yet another language, the language of computers.”


Said an organizer, “More and more media companies continue to venture into new [areas]. Newspapers, television networks and radio networks are unveiling Web pages faster than you can say Internet …. On-line, digital, World Wide Web and cyberspace are fast becoming media industry buzzwords.”


The conference, by its very existence, made plain what Claremont College’s Tomas Rivera Center (TRC) and other think tanks have warned about: a technological gap exists between communities, color and mainstream society. As if to buttress this assertion, very few Latino information and technology companies participated in the conference.


Further Separation?


In a report last year on Latinos and the information superhighway, TRC warned: “While technology has the potential to support democratic principles, without a guiding social contract the highway may further separate our already segmented society.”


Henry Ingle, chairman of the communications department at the University of Texas at El Paso and vice president of technological planning, worries that this gap between the information “haves” and “have-nots” will also affect schools of journalism. While he believes the role of journalists is becoming more important in the information age, he is not so sure that schools of journalism will be able to keep up with the technological demands.


“The advances in technology will require journalists to do more critical analysis, more in-depth stories,” says Ingle. “It will require them to go deeper into their stories. As a result [of the information explosion], journalism and journalists will become much more important.”


But, beyond that fact, Ingle says, “The Internet is not mass technology. It’s a personal technology. People go to the Internet as individuals, not en masse.”


Rising to the Challenge


Through the use of fiber optics, the Internet will eventually combine with cable television (with up to 500 channels), and access will be much faster. Although there is an abundance of information on the Internet, someone still has to verify and corroborate the information. Says Ingle: “Someone has to check references [and] original sources … multiple sources become more important. Someone still has to check the accuracy of the facts. Computers don’t have superpowers.”


In light of this, says Ingle, the biggest question facing schools of journalism is, Who will train future journalists in both in-depth analysis and the new technologies? Currently, he says, journalists aren’t trained in in-depth analysis. For that reason, Ingle is pushing for a new approach to educating journalists.


In addition to teaching journalism and communication skills, Ingle would require that journalism students receive a well-rounded education — especially in the fields of economics, education and political science. Following this approach, he reasons, journalism schools would teach students how to analyze information, not just present it. Ingle is not sure that the schools are up to the challenge. He suspects that the industry itself, which is profit-driven, may take the lead in this training.


“That’s a slap in the face to schools of journalism,” says Ingle. “Some schools are still trying to determine if journalism is a trade, a craft, a vocation, a profession or an area of intellectual inquiry.” Those who believe that journalism is solely an area of intellectual inquiry will be left behind by those schools who, in addition to offering communications theory, stay ahead of the technological curve and retain seasoned professionals with practical experience.


Beyond the Soundbite


Professor Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte of the School of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin believes that the rapid technological changes and the instantaneous delivery of the news will not alter the basic function of journalists.


“Someone still has to gather the news,” she says. The notion that journalists would become obsolete is contrary to everything that is known about viewer’s habits, says de Uriarte. She notes that the presentation of TV news has been getting briefer and simpler — as evidenced by the prevalence of soundbites. The theory is that the viewer has a very short attention span. if that’s the case, then how will the viewer find time to sit down for two-to-three hours per day of Internet news, asks Dr. de Uriarte.


Technological changes in the industry and in journalism schools simply means “business as usual with bigger computers,” says de Uriarte. To effectuate change in the industry, there has to be an actual change in the intellectual approach — in terms of what constitutes news and how it is delivered, she says. “if the industry doesn’t do something more thoughtful than soundbite journalism, it can degenerate to the level of the tabloid shows, where the more outlandish the news, the better. You already see more sensational news [programs]. It’s the same kind of slide [to superficiality].”


 Federico Subervi, a professor in the Department of Radio-TV and Film at UT-Austin, says the new technology will assist journalists in writing stories. “Even with all the technology, journalists will still be needed. The use of the Internet and electronic data is like a library. They don’t work on their own. What we’ll have is electronic libraries. The role of the journalist will be dissemination and interpretation — [interpreting] meaning and making sense [of the information]. We will need even more well-trained journalists and media professionals,” says Subervi.


`Building a Community On-line’


Subervi says he accesses various electronic networks, including the Institute for Puerto Rican forum (IPR). “It’s a new kind of journalism,” he says. “It fulfills a number of functions.”

One of the main functions of IPR is that it connects people from across the United States electronically, creating a sense of community by providing an open forum.


Lavonne Luquis, president of LatinoLink, who directed a computer lab at the NAHJ conference, says that its electronic service, also accessible through the Internet, provides a journalistic function with high standards: “Our combined backgrounds as print journalists have provided the framework on which we’ve built LatinoLink’s on-line reputation as a balanced, accurate source of news.”


 As to whether ethnic/racial-specific services such as LatinoLink will mean that more news about people of color will be accessible to the general public — or that only people of color will access these services — she comments: “That’s a tough question.


About 12 percent of our readers are non-Latinos, a number which has remained steady over the past year. So, yes, there are some people who are educating themselves about our culture.”


Commenting on LatinoLink’s specialty, Luquis says: “LatinoLink provides news, columns and other items of interest for the Latino community on the World Wide web. In the weeks ahead, we’ll be launching interactive chat features that we hope will help foster a deeper sense of community among our readers.


“I believe the so-called technology gap is tied to an education gap. There are severe problems in this country in many of the urban and rural schools that Latino kids attend. Working toward solving the education problem will do a lot to help narrow the technology gap. That said, I believe it’s essential to have on-line content that is relevant for Latinos, so that once they do get wired they don’t feel isolated in cyberspace.”


Enrique Gonzales, editor, Hispanic-On-Line, which is an electronic service of Hispanic magazine, says that he doesn’t see their service as performing journalistic functions. “We’re about building a community on-line. It’s kind of an electronic plaza where everyone can hang out. This is not a one-way medium, but one built and created by us and our users.


Regarding the effect of instantaneous news on the profession, Gonzales says: “Newspapers will continue to be shunted to a narrower and narrower niche. Studies show that in households with on-line access, fewer hours are spent watching television.” However, he says, on-line media is not limited to the news.


As far as the role journalists will play in this new age, lie says: “I think it’s very important that journalists perform the function of gathering and presenting the news. If you want to look at it in a business school model, journalists take data and turn it into information. That is an added-value service. “People are willing to pay for that so that they do not have to gather it themselves. They want a respectable and reliable source for that.”


Computers, Not Camcorders


Gonzalez says on-line media means “a democratization” of the news, but, he says, the big media companies “still have the strongest brand-name identity as respectable news sources.

“Once on-line media can self-sustain themselves financially, they will be able to force mainstream media to respect communities such as ours,” he notes.


German Aranda, president of LatinoWeb sees his service as a “virtual information center.” LatinoWeb was created as a conduit for Latino information in the U.S. “It is a skyscraper building of sorts, where Latino organizations have offices accessible to the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he notes, adding that 35 percent of the people who visit LatinoWeb are not Latino.


“Our primary goal is to help Latinos become computer literate so that they can use the Internet as a powerful information and marketing tool,” says Aranda. Aranda says that part of the technology gap is related to education, not necessarily money. It is getting people. to buy computers, rather than camcorders or stereos. “They cost about the same as a computer,” he says. “What we need to do is get people to invest in a computer for their entire family.”


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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