Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition

September 15, 2011

In the vortex of angst generated by scandal at News International and the complicity of Britain's political class, it is cheering to read a book that makes one feel a little more optimistic about the purposes and future of journalism. Networked hits the mark.

Adrienne Russell sets out to analyse a time of transformation in the history of journalism, from the era of professional mass media to a future of horizontal collaboration between networked citizens. Her research confirms grave shortcomings in 20th-century editorial culture, but offers reasons to hope that technology and the participation it permits can illuminate a brighter future.

Russell knows her territory and she surveys it confidently. Her comparison of coverage by US news outlets of the 1991 Gulf War with their treatment of the 2003 invasion of Iraq should become compulsory reading for students of conflict reporting. It reveals precisely why George W. Bush could not repeat his father's trick of massaging the message, 12 years after Bush senior expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

By 2003, unidirectional top-down communication by professional journalists to a rapt audience of passive patriots was not possible. At websites such as Salon.com, through video diaries and on personal blogs, Iraqis and dissenting Americans held official orthodoxy to account. Public interest watchdogs challenged unbalanced reporting of the war. Those great beasts of US "old media", The Washington Post and The New York Times, were shamed by critical email campaigns.

Russell makes her case emphatically. The rules of journalism had changed and politicians and old media struggled to make sense of the new mediasphere. They are struggling still, but Russell is not a nostalgic. Nor is she an abstract theorist, although her grasp of theory is impressive.

Her work is informed by interviews with journalists and those working to build new models for news-gathering and production. This reportorial methodology allows her to depict with great skill an environment in which multiple contributions to the public sphere from amateurs, citizens, satirists and subject specialists are challenging the dominion of professionals. She observes that they are changing profoundly, but not eradicating entirely, the role of professional reporters.

The author envisages a future in which trust in professional, truth-telling journalists will be replaced by collaborators united by faith in transparency, links to source material and the wisdom of crowds. Expert professionals will curate information for communities. The future of news will see networked communities participating in the creation and sharing of information. There will be new players, new functions and new truths.

Russell's scholarship is superb and gloriously accessible. She writes in fresh, plain English rendered exciting by intellectual agility and felicitous turns of phrase. Her conclusions are slightly constrained by nods to some shibboleths of cultural and media studies. So, she places disproportionate faith in the public's desire and ability to hold power to account. She regrets professional journalism's willingness to promote representative democracy instead of challenging it. And she believes the BBC should do more to embrace "the full participatory potential of the new environment".

This is ideology, but it represents a tiny flaw in an excellent book. Russell has spoken to and learned from those who are pioneering new journalism practices. She seeks to understand, not to damn. Networked is a great piece of truly modern scholarship. It reveals much about new types of news and new pathways to democratic engagement. It is an enriching and eloquent book by a writer with a sparkling style and an equally effervescent intellect, and I shall recommend it highly to my students and colleagues.

Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition

By Adrienne Russell. Polity 168pp, £50.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745649511 and 9528. Published 10 June 2011

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