Remember when The Jetsons seemed outlandish, with robots doing the majority of household chores and treadmills substituted for walking the dog?
Or how about the paranoia of 1984, with Big Brother tracking and recording all movements, conversations and using personal information against those who dared question societal norms?
There are elements of both in the current and future state of journalism, suggests Reuben Stern, deputy director of the Futures Lab at the Missouri School of Journalism. The watchful eye of Big Brother has its counterpart in private companies that collect and mine data for insight into consumers’ lives, while the automation of The Jetsons’ futuristic world can be seen in the automated stories generated by the LA Times and similar methods used by the Associated Press instead of relying on reporters to create content.
“If you think about The Matrix, the major premise of The Matrix is that everything is data and the entire world is this data-driven thing we live in while we’re actually floating in cocoons producing heat for the machines,” he said. “That’s also the future of journalism. It’s all data. We live in this data world where we float through all these bits of code.”
If something like the ability to read a map, once an essential skill for traveling any kind of distance, has fallen by the wayside thanks to GPS capabilities and Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets, why wouldn’t journalism, and the tools used to create content, change as well?
The core mission of journalism remains unchanged, Stern said.
“All this technology that comes on board, all this future, ideally, is not going to change that,” he said. “As long as the journalists continue to use these technologies for that goal and that purpose, of informing the community so it can govern itself, journalism is always going to be just fine. In fact, the new tools give us new ways to do that, which is pretty cool.”
And as the divide between journalists and their audience diminishes, it’s possible the role of a journalism may transform into something else, part observer and reporter, part teacher.
Still, some old, tried-and-true methods will continue to be effective and necessary and shouldn’t be shelved, said Jackie Kazil, a data journalism expert.
“There’s one basic thing that has transposed time and that’s asking for directions,” she said, recounting a story her mother told her. Shortly after she departed Czechoslovakia, Kazil’s mother found herself lost in a forest and fell into a river. After getting to her feet, she came across a man and tried to communicate her situation.
“She points down to the ground and she says ‘Deutschland!’” Kazil said. “That’s her way of asking for directions in a language she doesn’t even know. That’s still a fundamental thing that people know how to do.”
In this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, producer Michael O’Connell talks to Reuben Stern, deputy director of the Futures Lab at the Missouri School of Journalism, and data journalism expert Jackie Kazil about how technology is changing journalism as it’s changing the world all around us.
— Amber Healy