New Media: Anarchy or Democracy?

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Interview with Czech journalists Vaclav Moravec.

Where does a modern young person get news? According to research, over the past couple years, the process of informational provision for many is about the same – the internet. Social networks, including: news from friends, microblogs, blogs, opinions of friends or famous people, and news reports in a particular search engine. It seems like everything should be fine: we read what we want and when we want, and the internet eliminated notorious censorship so that one can’t find it with a lamp in broad daylight. But no, there is still a strong feeling that something is wrong, that orienting one-self in the existing information space is becoming more and more complicated, and finding truthful news is hardly easier than it was with even the severest censorship. Or rather finding a lot of things is not a problem, but understanding which one of them is the truth, and which is manipulation is more difficult. Take, for example, a story from five years ago, when enterprising English lads, bored of summer hunger for information, entertained themselves by posting a photo of human-eating shark on the coast of South West England on the website of a news agency. Hysteria in the country lasted for a week, and then pranksters were forced to confess to faking the picture. It’s frightening to imagine to what extent such a prank could grow today, with all of the social-networking.
How to solve the problem of “online trash” and not drown in the infinitely growing information flows? How to create a decent media? What is a successful career in the media built on? We have talked to, perhaps, the most famous journalist in the Czech Republic about all these things and more. Meet the hero of our rubric Personalities – a journalist with 20 years of experience and author of one of the most popular TV show on Czech television Vaclav Moravec.
Our readers are people from all over Europe: both West and East. Hereby, our first question is: tell us about yourself.
I am a person who already as a child decided to devote his live to journalism. At one moment, I was also interested in medicine, but not for long. In high school, I made a final decision in favor of the media, and began writing articles for one of the local newspapers. Then I got lucky as socialism in Czechoslovakia fell, in the sense that the whole media industry began to transform. I was just at the junction of generations. The old guard was forced to hand over their positions as some were members of the Communist Party, others were co-operating with the STB (Ed.note Czech KGB). Therefore, when, in1990, I joined the faculty of journalism, we were very quickly sent to practice in the media. Almost all of my classmates worked and studied at the same time. It was a very exciting time for young people, as they got an opportunity to work with leading publishers of the country. For example, in Germany or England it is impossible for a 25 year old person to write an article on the front page of the country’s leading newspaper. I can say that I am a child of my time, I got lucky.
What
followed it? How did your career develop?
I co-operated with a couple of newspapers and worked at Czech Radio «Rozhlas». I had a one hour show. Economists, politicians, sociologists, even ordinary people involved in different activities went on the air. In 1999, I received the first offer to try to conduct such a program on television, I refused. It felt crazy for a 28-years-old to lead a serious show during the prime-time major transmission. As a result, I gave my final approval only 4 years later. The project turned out pretty successful: “Question of Vaclav Moravec” is almost 10 years old now.
10 years for a program is an impressive period. What do you think the viewer interest and ratings of transmission are based on?
I think the secret is that the program has to constantly evolve and change. Of course, I try to keep some elements. For example, the basic concept remains the same: a hot topic + different points of view on it. As for the rest, I try to always introduce new innovations. For example, now I try to invite not just a famous guest to the studio, but also the ones that are interesting. And as there are usually two guests in the studio, rather interesting discussions occur, for example, between little-known professionals from business and politics backgrounds. My show is quite long: two hours; and the fact that people stay in front of their screens for so long…. It cannot explain it. This, I believe, is a small miracle.
Through discussions on the TV, you partially build a relationship between your viewers and a particular problem. In connection to this, I have a question: what is the place of media in contemporary life, in the relationships of those who have power and the population?
You have to understand that the media, politicians, and the public of the country are in the same social space. This space is going through a serious transformation at the moment. I am a person who generally supports the classic concept of the Habermas’s public sphere and sincerely believe that the media is there to control the politicians and inform the public about their activities. But at this time the whole system of the functions of the media is under review, the media is increasingly getting pressure from commercial interests. Most media operate on a commercial basis. I would call it a transformation of society as a whole. Therefore, politics and journalism experience a huge crisis, at least in the Czech environment. Therefore, it is not possible to clearly evaluate the situation and reply to your question. (Ed.note. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas introduced the concept of Öffentlichkeit – the public sphere in 1962. The concept was based on the independence of the state information sector, which included public libraries, radio and television, museums, art galleries, and information services. In this relation, Habermas designated “public domain” as a critical counterweight to the state.)
With the advent of the widely accessible internet, journalism is changing. Many new media products have appeared, bloggers have joined the mission to inform people about what is happening as well. In your opinion, is there a problem of information overload and how can one learn to navigate and sort?
I like Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he raises a very important question: “What’s worse: censorship and a lack of information or its excess, a specific information sea in which we drown?” I think that with the help of the online environment, we move towards the latter. We have a huge amount of information which we cannot bear. I see the danger. I, as a traditional journalist and supporter of the traditional model, see the world of new online media and bloggers as a serious threat. The public does not have any warranty on them and editorial policy or principles that manage them cannot be understood. In big media, for instance on Czech television, everything is transparent. We are under enormous public scrutiny; there are internal instructions, laws that govern the institutions. Look at CNN. They are trying to involve citizens and citizen journalism in their space and create a platform for civil journalism. But it relies on the fact that they create certain rules. As for the internet space, what are the rules there? Someone posts fake photographs online of the dead Osama bin Laden. Traditional media in pursuit of fast information replicate it, and then it turns out that this is a photomontage. So we witness tampering and poor information. By the way, even in the most democratic classic media space in the past, manipulation was not as great as it is now on the internet.
I think that the space of “new media” has to state some of the rules: how, on one hand, to use democracy and freedom in their space, and on the other hand, the rights and duties of such activities. Nevertheless, how this situation will be resolved is yet very difficult to say. Regarding the question of navigation… Under the current circumstances, I cannot see the instrument with which it would be possible to define, in the first stage, what is the truth and what is manipulation. So my answer is: there is no way! To solve this problem, as I said, there must be new conditions and new rules created.
We would like to hear your expert opinion on another topic. Why do you think the most popular contemporary media projects are produced in the U.S. and the UK?
You know why? Because they are large countries, that at the moment, are the flagships of globalization. The U.S. and the UK live in a continuous tradition of democracy or what we currently tend to think is democracy, and the rest of the countries are more or less following their footsteps. Hereby, these two powers are the legislators of what is main stream, including everything within the media. Others are looking to their examples for inspiration. The question is, how long will it last? Look at China, Brazil, and India. Out of these countries, the Western civilization is gradually disappearing, taking with them their “ideas about beauty.” It is quite possible that in 20-50 years, everything will be completely different.
The last question: your advice to young journalists who would like to create their own media. Do you think there is a universal recipe of how to make a successful media project?
First, you must know a lot about your audience. Secondly, a media product should have clear boundaries and differences from others that already exist in the market. In my opinion, these are two key points. Aside from everything, you should not underestimate the potential audience. If you take a look, in Europe a printing press often cannot secure a long existence for itself, and in my opinion, it is a mistake to assume that the causes lie solely in the advent of online media and new media formats. The key is that these publications are similar to the existing ones, and simply cannot find their readers. You must respect the reader and offer him something new. The media often underestimate the public in general and the reader in particular. They think journalists are smarter and more informed than a common man. This is not true. This is why for me, it has always been important to serve as a reliable source of information and perceive the viewers and listeners as full partners. If you follow these simple rules, you can safely expect a successful media product. This is my recipe.

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