Analysis of the terms of reference of the Independent Media Inquiry Part 1

The terms of reference of the recently announced Media Inquiry are dense and need to be unpacked. I am writing up some brief notes here that I will probably use as material in my online news units I am teaching next year. I started this a few days ago and when it go to over 2500 words halfway through the second entry into the terms of reference I decided to split my post into four. This is on the first entry in the terms of reference I shall post the other parts when they are finished.

The terms of reference:

An independent panel will be appointed to inquire into and report on the following issues, while noting that media regulation is currently being considered by the Convergence Review:

a) The effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia, particularly in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms;

b) The impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news, and how such activities can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment;

c) Ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to on-line publications, and with particular reference to the handling of complaints;

d) Any related issues pertaining to the ability of the media to operate according to regulations and codes of practice, and in the public interest.

‘Technological change leading to media platform migration’ describes a long process that has changed the media landscape. The two key ideas here ‘technological change’ and ‘media platform migration’ have been discussed a number of ways in scholarly literature.

Firstly, when we discuss ‘technological change’ it is important to clearly define what the character of this change as it will come with various built-in assumptions and expectations. There are three schools of thought about technological change. First, the view that ‘technology’ determines change. A key proponent of this view is someone like Marshall McCluhan and this position is summarised well in the media inquiry context by Bernhard Keane in Crikey:

Let me grotesquely simplify a complex issue to explain: the internet has had two kinds of socio-economic impacts: we all initially thought the boundless ocean of content it provided to users was the revolutionary change wrought by new media. To use McLuhan’s phrase, the message (the content) was supposed to be the message (as in social impact), because there was so much more content than ever before. But in the past decade, and especially in the past five years and with the growth of mobile online access, interconnectedness, primarily via social media, has become the main socio-economic impact of the internet. How we use the internet is its biggest impact, bigger even than the content we get from it. As per McLuhan, it’s the medium (how we engage with it) that is the message of the internet, not the content.

The affordances of the ‘internet’ enables or produces ‘interconnectedness’. Another way to think about this is from a social perspective. You want to talk with friends — as a form of social interaction — you can do this in a variety of ways online. The need to talk to friends and other examples of sociality serves as the driver of technological change. This is called social determinism. A more relevant example is the emergence of ‘interconnected’ media ecologies organised around core cultural values where content, ‘sharing’ practices and ‘engagement’ are determined by the sociality of participants. In partisan ‘culture war’ battles played out in the media these are often referred to as ‘echo chambers’ to describe their social function of accentuating the apparent ‘voice’ of a given perspective that is out of proportion with the actual frequency of the cultural values in a given population. Another example are niche or specialist media enterprises that service particular areas of interest. Just as an enthusiast-run arts and craft forum fits this definition, so do global enterprises such as The New York Times or The Washington Post.

The third perspective on this is a mixture of the two and is derived from sociological work into science and technology. What is examined here are ‘socio-technical assemblages’ rather than a specific technology or sociality often associated with such technologies. Keane’s piece in Crikey has some elements of this in the way he emphasises the importance of how internet-based technologies are used. Other examples everyday socio-technical assemblages include the road-car-driver to describe the way drivers are empowered in certain ways and new practices or habits emerge premised on the interaction of the more or less three elements of the assemblage with each other. Think about how you engage with ‘traffic’ as a pedestrian versus as a driver, or different suburbs with suburb-speficic rituals of courtesy (or bull bar use) and so on. There are different habits and ways of perceiving of what is ostensibly the ‘same’ environment of the ‘road’.

A way to think about this in the context of online media and ‘technological change’ is by thinking about the habits of media audiences that have embraced and adapted to relatively new ways of engaging with media content. There are different compositions of practices and habits across the production and consumption of media content and even entire media enterprises. A practical example is that in the magazine world I come out of we would speak of ‘toilet length’ features! The practice of reading magazines while going to the bathroom meant that these specific habits of reading needed to be factored into the production of stories. There is a socio-technical assemblage of reader-magazine-toilet for which there are certain habits and practices. What new habits have emerged based on practices of reading/engagement with new technologies? Is there a ‘train journey’ feature? A ‘waiting in line for coffee tweet linking to a blog post infographic’ habit?

You may already see why this is a problem for established media enterprises that relied on revenue streams organised around now extinct habits, such as the role and function of the weekend classifieds. There is no longer an early morning classifieds brigade that used to attack newsagency distributors for early copies of newspaper to hunt bargains. The habits of classifieds-hunting have been dissassembled from the socio-technical assemblages that included print newspapers and have develeped into newer assemblages organised around eBay (Australia) or Craig’s List (US). There are new rhythms and practices that characterise these emergent media-based assemblages.

Secondly, ‘media platform migration’ describes another process and this part of the inquiry has strong connections to the much larger Convergence Review. Again there are a number of ways to think about this ‘migration’ process. What precisely is being ‘migrated’? Is it content? Is it a specific medium? Is it a set of social relations and functions that used to be associated with a particular medium or form of content and now is associated with another medium or form of content?

In terms of an entire medium appearing in another medium, this practice has been termed ‘remediation’ by Jay Bolter and David Grusin. For example, a PDF version of a print magazine may ‘remediate’ the magazine print medium to an online context. They note there are always ‘traces’ (in the high philosophical Derridean sense) of the previous medium in the remediated version.

Another way to think about a media platform is according to the affordances the medium allows. So the text heavy versions of newspaper earlier in the 20th century relied on primarily temporal modalities. This happened after that. It was structured into ‘narrative’ as the primary modality for representing information. Hence, the importance within journalism for ‘stories’. A narrative-based story frames events of the world and imbues them with an ordered sense alongside other events. Now with the absolute dominance of the ‘screen’ there has been a shift to spatial modalities for representing information. An example is the emergence of database journalism and more generally the visual layout of information (this alongside that). The affordances of the ‘screen’ and spatial modalities have filtered back through print so now print layouts and designs follow cues from websites.

A third way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is in terms of they way digital content can now circulate across a number of screen-based interfaces from the computer screen, to tablets to mobile phones to proprietary ‘walled garden’ networks such as those found in social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). For example, are the rituals and habits of consuming youtube videos on one’s phone the same as watching them through Facebook on a browser on a desktop computer?

A fourth way to think about ‘media platform migration’ is probably closer to the sense imagined in the inquiry’s terms of reference and that is in terms of specific forms of media content undergoing a process of migration from the way it is been distributed for the last 50-60 years through mass media (print and broadcast TV & radio) to the way it circulates now primarily as digital content and ‘online’. But content can not (or should not) be isolated from the specific context where it was produced, how it is circulated and the character of its consumption. I’d be very wary of any kind of essentialised conception of a specific form of media content, such as ‘news’, as it does not take into account the broader context and assemblages that make such content possible. There is no point taking an essentialised view of ‘news’, for example, as it operated in newspapers without understanding the relation between the professional practices that produced this form of media content and the material conditions of production that made it possible. Here I mean banal things like advertising, management structures, established forms of distribution, different forms of social capital that make the media content worth engaging with (‘reputation’, ‘trustworthiness’, etc) and so on.

The ‘current media codes of practice’ again requires some unpacking. Jonathan Holmes explains some of the complexities on the ABC’s Drum site by tracing the patchwork of medium-specific codes of practice and the instutional bodies that oversee or enforce them. As the first entry in the terms of reference specifically mentions the migration from print to online it would seem that the current regulatory body primarily, but not only, for print, the Australian Press Council, is the focus. The APC offers an extract from the Chair’s Foreword to the Council’s 2009-10 Annual Report as indicative of where they see the Council going in a section titled ‘Responding to the Internet’.

It is worth noting that the report states that Council’s existing jurisdiction includes both print and ‘on-line’ publications of its members. It broadly describes the challenges posed to the ‘practical effectiveness of the standards’ by online publishing and the migration of print to online content and (importantly) the changing character of new-based media enterprises. I have summarised these below:

1. Newspapers are in effect becoming multi-media enterprises
2. Two tendencies emerge. a) Greater range of information and opinion that can be disseminated more widely and ‘economically’ [which I think means ‘cheaply’]. b) New opportunities and rate of publication can adversely affect accuracy and quality [of journalistic content?].
3. The same standards are not being applied to online content as that of print. (Evidenced by complaints being received by the Council.)
4. “The rapidly growing convergence across media platforms should be accompanied by an appropriate degree of convergence [not uniformity] between the standards and processes of the Council and other media regulators.”

It seems that the first entry in the terms of reference is tailored towards helping the APC work towards maximising the ‘practical effectiveness’ of its own standards in the ways it has already defined, even without necessarily getting to the third entry in the terms of reference that specifically refers to the APC. For future reference, the APC’s General Statement of Principles has a footnoted definition of ‘public interest’ which is relevant for unpacking the fourth entry in the terms of reference.

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