"Digital Media Even Out the Communications Playing Field"

14 Nov 2016

New digital media have given a voice to those beyond conventional circles. Yet they demand savvy users able to dispassionately weigh their contents and their aims

Professor Robert G. Picard, Reuters Institute, University of Oxford, discusses the increasing importance of media and communication in society and how digital media are affecting society. He expands upon his latest edited book “What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication" (Media XXI, 2016) that was produced by participants in the 2013 STI Experts Meeting of the same name.

Why are media and communications systems important to society?

Society cannot exist without communication because it is the glue that holds people and institutional elements of society together. Society must continually communicate who belongs to the society, the commonalities of members of the society, the values upon which it is based, how it is structured and developments that affect it. This remains the primary role of media and communications systems in contemporary society. In small-scale society, communication needs can be facilitated by interpersonal communication and group communication, but the scale of cities, nation-states, and the interconnected globe have made media and communications systems a necessary part of that interaction.

How do media and communications systems carry out that role?

When they operate effectively, they provide us orientation and direction, help us understand how power is exercised and how we participate in society, assist our understanding of the world and people about us, and help us respond to developments in our lives. This is done through information, analysis, and facilitating discussion and debate. Entertainment can serve many of those functions, but it can also serve to divert attention from those activities. When media and communications systems function well, they provide us reasonably reliable views of society and the world about us; when they function poorly, they can distort and skew the view that we receive and the perspectives that we accept.

How are digital media altering communication in society?

Digital media are disrupting existing media, transforming how we communicate, and creating new mores of communication. They are having a large-scale impact on legacy media and are altering the ways we communicate with each other and how we communicate information, values, and needs as a society. Because digital media dramatically increase opportunities to operate media and provide content, legacy media now operate in high-choice markets and have lost the advantage of scarcity that made them powerful in the twentieth century. Communications systems and networks now allow many more people than in the past to express themselves, create content, and distribute it. This reduces the power that a few people were able to exercise over communication in the past, but it also popularizes communication, revises the purposes of that communication, alters the practices of communication, and changes the values conveyed in communication for better and worse.

Do digital media strengthen the public’s right to be informed, or do they make information more dubious, confusing, or chaotic?

They do both. Digital media make focused and specialized data, information, and analysis available to those who want to seek it out. It is often provided by specialists such as scientists, physicians and other health professionals, bankers, attorneys, policy analysts, and non-governmental organizations. These often provide in-depth and authoritative content, some of which is relied upon by mainstream media. However, the amount and depth of material is greater than traditional media typically carry so these digital media often provide better information and perspective on issues to those with the inclination and time to seek them out. Digital media also make it possible for those who do not have a voice in mainstream media to be heard. Women, minorities, political dissidents, and others are able to express their opinions and represent their lives in digital media in ways they could not in traditional media. This expansion of voices is good for all of us. The down side of digital media is that nearly everyone can express themselves and their opinions. This allows conspiracy theorists, racists, bullies, the ill informed, and purposeful liars to have voices as well. Establishing which voices in the digital media world are honest, and determining what information is true, are becoming significant challenges in the digital world.

Does society receive adequate content from media?

The content is there, but we must increasingly make greater effort and use many more sources than in the past to receive content that adequately addresses our social needs. The ability of media outlets to individually meet those needs is decreasing because they serve smaller audiences and have fewer financial resources. We all need to be more aware about how we obtain content, the limitations and strength of different providers, and the perspectives that those providers present. We need to be more active in seeking out content that we need, especially news and information that helps us understand and integrate with each, build community, and carry out our roles as citizens.