una iniciativa conjunta con Aspen Institute España

Vivian Schiller: "The Internet has allowed for a flowering of different kinds of journalism that were never possible before"

Vivian Schiller: "The Internet has allowed for a flowering of different kinds of journalism that were never possible before"

Foto de Irene Medina. Cortesía de Fundación Telefónica.

We had the opportunity to chat with journalist Vivian Schiller while she visited Madrid about the great topic of ‘Journalism = Democracy’.

Aspen’s Digital Executive Director Schiller, has also been the National’s Public Radio CEO, former Head of news and journalism partnerships at Twitter, former Senior vicepresident and Chief Digital Officer for NBC news. Schiller is one of the most admired and awarded voices in the United States for her defense of freedom of expression. She made time to speak with us in between the seminar and the public conference she gave in the Tech & Society program, organized by the Aspen Institute Spain and Fundación Telefónica.

Would you agree that journalism practiced through television played the ‘fourth power’ role of the State, representing the public’s opinion? 

There is always often the a reflex to romanticize the ‘good old days’. Every era looks back at the one before it and says ‘Oh things were so much better then!’  and therefor any new development must be bad. This is almost never true. So, wWhen television news came along and people were saying “this is the end of intelligent discourse” because people are not reading anymore. When the Internet came along and people said, “this is the end because people are only going to be getting news from unreliable sources”. What they are missing is that every form of media has had its limitations going back to cave paintings, so let us not pretend that there was ever a ‘good old days’. That’s an illusion. 

What’s lost in this nostalgia are all of the people that were left behind. The stories that was told, and I’m speaking mostly about the United States because that is my perspective, was were mostly about white people. So many people were left out of the narrative. As a white person watching the news, I saw myself represented, whereas if I was a black person, Latina, or indigenous I rarely saw my experience reflected in Walter Cronkite’s broadcast.   So, it wasn’t the good old days,;  it was just one slice of America.

And in fact, each new technology development has brought improvements to news discovery, consumption, and understanding. When television came along, it made it possible for people to understand and connect better with current events – to see images of the Vietnam War, of the Nixon-Kennedy debate. When the Internet and mobile era came, we had the power of all the world’s information in our pockets. 

So every advancement brings has positive and negative aspects. 

Do you think that on-the-spot reporting allows people to be more critical and so more involved with the public agenda?

A broadcast medium is by definition “one-to-many” so it’s not useful for listening to the public. In many ways, the diversified news media market we have today is much better in that respect. That said, limited access to news in the pre-internet era had power to change public opinion since so many were watching the limited offerings. 

I keep on talking of Walter Cronkite because he was such a dominant figure in the US in the 60’s and 70’s. When he expressed his opinion, it mattered. I grew up watching his nightly program during dinner. It was like Cronkite had a seat at our table. And I remember as a child every night was the Vietnam War and every day they’d say the number of American soldiers that died, and it really had an impact. They didn’t talk about all the Vietnamese who died, that’s another issue, it was all from a very white perspective, but still, it influenced people. 

In today’s world, people are looking for concrete and short answers. The fact is that two things can be true at the same time. On the one hand, the internet has allowed people to democratize access to information in a very powerful way. On the other hand, it has destroyed context, it can conduct us to fake news, it polarizes and radicalizes us. These two things are true at the same time. 

Let me talk about the good things first: the internet has allowed for a flowering of different kinds of journalism that were never possible before, the sharing of the Panama, Paradise, and Pandora papers, for example or data visualizations, our the kind of reporting we see from Bellingcat on Russia which they develop by  tracking bits of publicly available data. All those things have been amazing. 

At the same time, traditional business models for journalism have been decimated. The Internet and particularly the big platforms – the Google’s, and Facebook’s of the world – are much more effective for advertisers, so most of the money has gone there and cut the legs out from under legacy news organizations. Some new revenue streams have come in to fill its place – more support from the public for instance. But the losses are very high, and the new revenues are very low. So, there is a gigantic gap, and this is been a big problem particularly for local news.

In the digital age, how are tailor-made news affecting the articulation of public opinion?

I believe there is not a sole narrative here. While there are niche sites that drive polarization, there are also countless wonderful niche publications that offer deep reporting on specific topics. All of a sudden, we have digital news organizations that are dedicated just to climate change, for example, or science, Covid, alternative energy, on and on. This is a great thing because you have specialists providing very deep and informed reporting on a given topic. I don’t think there is anything particularly remarkable about news organizations that cover everything.

Is digital technology affecting the citizen’s awareness and depth of knowledge about reality, including their communities? How do you think it is affecting citizenship? 

​​Again, there is no single narrative. I’m going to say the good things first. I think platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, or even Twitter have demonstrated a flowering of creative expression that is  remarkable! Humans are capable of such imagination, and I love that those things go viral, I think it makes the world a better place, it reinforces our common humanity. 

On the other hand, we have seen content go viral on platforms that may be algorithmically optimized to feed people’s anger and negative emotion. In many cases, that virality does not happen organically – it’s manipulated. So things that make us angry which are ,by definition, things that go viral.

But it’s important not to demonize creativity and entertainment. People are allowed to have fun, I don’t think that is necessarily at the expense of critical thinking. I don’t think that if entertainment on social media were not here, we wouldn’t all be suddenly paying closer attention to, say, the latest data in Missouri and what the implications are for the state legislaturey. 

What does the future hold?

 The future demands us to step up, pay attention and act. This goes for the public and private sector. Democracies are at risk and independent public service journalism is needed more than ever before.


An interview by Morela Scull.


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