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Reimagining the media for post-institutional times

“To put it bluntly, the media do not mediate as they used to.”

The news media are knowledge machines which make a distinct product: accounts. From a multitude of potentially newsworthy events happening in the world, these machines produce reports of the facts that count and explanations of why they count.

One of the challenges of making this machine work properly is that while the world is quite unpredictable, the journalistic report has to be produced predictably on time — every hour, day, week, or month. A key way in which media organizations have historically overcome this challenge is by relying heavily on the institutional apparatus of the societies they cover.

Governments, large corporations, political parties, major nonprofits, and so on have been the leading providers of the raw materials that often form the basis of the media’s accounts. During the course of the 20th century, representatives of large bureaucracies became accustomed to furnishing information in a rational and dispassionate manner to journalists, usually with an aim towards reaching consensus on important societal issues.

Positioning themselves as the critical mediator between institutions and the public has been the foundation of the media’s cultural power in society. In the idealized form that is often taught in journalism schools, the mainstream media have tried to enact this role by presenting bureaucratically oriented accounts, filled with verifiable facts, explained in rational terms, and rendered in dispassionate language.

Because institutions are stable entities interested in their own self-preservation, the media accounts have also more often than not nudged the polity in the direction of consensus and greater social cohesion — even though this picture has been problematized by an increasing prominence of incendiary rhetoric in some quarters of the news ecosystem.

But if the past couple of years have made something clear, it’s that we live in an era in which the power of institutions is in decline and that of social movements is on the rise. As if the economic crisis of the media wasn’t enough to cast dark clouds in their future, the weakening of the institutional apparatus of society threatens to erode the cultural infrastructure of how the media has made knowledge in recent history.

Can journalism reinvent itself for a post-institutional era?

The contemporary challenges to the strength of institutions have come primarily from social movements. From #MeToo to the Yellow Vests movement, this form of social organization has been gradually becoming the main conduit to express a mounting generalized disenchantment with the ability of existing institutions to adequately address systemic inequities in critical dimensions of social life.

The Yellow Vests movement in France is a particularly telling illustration of declines in institutional strength. A self-organized collective, heavily reliant on social media, expressing its claims vehemently, and seemingly not geared at reaching consensus has been forcefully testing the limits of a president supported…by a two-year-old political party!

Social movements are not a new collective actor, of course. Their existence long predates the contemporary moment, and the media used to be instrumental to relay a movement’s message to the citizenry. But social media have made it easier for movement leaders and members to communicate among themselves and with the population at large, bypassing journalistic organizations.

To put it bluntly, the media do not mediate as they used to.

What makes the current scenario so tricky for the modern journalistic machine is not only that movements are challenging institutions, but also that this trend has been coupled with foregrounding in public discourse a rhetoric centered on claims often expressed and interpreted with high levels of emotionality and shared primarily on social media platforms.

Taken together, the rising roles of movements, claims, emotions, and social media create the opportunity to reimagine journalism for this post-institutional moment.

This process might lead media organizations towards a path relying less than before on the issues, information, and perspectives provided by elite institutional players. This might open up spaces in the news for voices representing the interests and concerns of a greater variety of groups increasingly dissatisfied with the traditional institutions of society.

Incorporating a greater array of voices not necessarily aligned with longstanding institutional actors might lead to an editorial product more prone to interpret claims and conflict in a systemic manner — rather than as episodic anomalies to be solved by institutionally-oriented consensus.

Claims and conflicts are usually conveyed with a heightened affective tonality. Foregrounding them would also invite a shift from rationalizing to legitimating emotion as a core element of how the news is made, received, and interpreted.

In a world in which billions of people spend a major portion of their days not only informing but also expressing themselves on social media, media organizations might want to explore a shift from solely providing news accounts to also hosting the conversations that those accounts — and the perhaps alternative ones generated by a portion of their audiences — might trigger.

Even though many leading online news organizations give their users the possibility of reacting to the news on their respective sites, this often appears to be more the side dish than the main course. Perhaps shifting the mindset from telling the authoritative account to listening to the voices from the crowds might be an effective way of harnessing the energy of the contemporary cultural moment, in 2019 and beyond.

Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.

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