I’m curious if part of the fomenting unease with journalism (and photojournalism in particular) is the other, emerging edge of the social media sword: People have begun to understand themselves as brands. They might not use the word “publisher,” but, more and more, people are conducting the publicity and publication of their own lives. Personhood is something to conceptualize for an audience—and monetize if you’re good at it! When that perceived power is taken away and used by an external actor (a newspaper, let’s say), I could definitely see some backlash to what one might call an appropriation of someone else’s story. This is especially likely in sensitive political situations like a protest at a university building; the reaction could be quite incendiary. Safe spaces are not being acknowledged, I guess. Journalists are left to figure out how to do their job in this fraught digital-communications environment. Being a part of the student press probably makes this way more complicated to deal with, as the Northwestern reporters and photographers have pointed out in this latest dust-up.
Of course you’re seeing professional journalists around the country hemming and hawing over this. But it’s a great opportunity to look at the more nuanced angles of how we understand ourselves as individuals interacting in a society saturated with the internet.
I’m not optimistic about it.
When I’m in public as a 21st-century individual, going about my day and participating in things, I can publicize my life on Instagram or I can keep it quiet. Journalists make the same decision, choosing editorially to engage with this story or that story or to interview this person or that person. Journalists must discern the narrative of the public from those participating in the public. Now, in a just world, they’re considering the ethics of their work and navigating the public sphere with a clear eye for what sort of information is truly in the interest of the people.
To refrain from engaging the public? That’s not how journalism works. But so few people have even a basic understanding of how journalism works that the whole interaction often falls into frustrating nonsense. Trust in the news media begins to fray (and it’s not helped along by jackasses like the president). Loyalty among subscribers and readers rots. Leery-eyed goons talk openly about wanting to lynch reporters. Journalists are left to sort it out. You get shit like this student newspaper editorial. It’s not happening in a vacuum at Medill. The problem is everywhere.