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Hazel Ashton writes:

It is local election time in New Zealand.

Candidates are fighting for positions on councils, community and health boards.

Problems knowing who to vote for

I recognize various candidate names; some I know a little about, but most I don’t.

I know from having served a term as an elected local government representative that one can’t tell, from what candidates say of themselves, how effective or ineffective they will be in practice.

There is little in the media which will assist the public to understand and meet major challenges facing our communities.

Given that our prosperity, well-being and possibly even our survival, depend on well-informed and effective political decision-making, I find it very concerning that someone like myself who follows politics closely, doesn’t know whether to vote, or who to vote for, or if I vote, whether the person I help elect will do more good or more harm.

Being informed as journalism fragments and social media pick over the pieces?

In his talk The beginning and ends of journalism, Dr Geoff Kemp, a lecturer in political studies at Auckland University, reminds us of the relationship of professional journalism to effective democracy. He is interested in the impacts and possibilities of new social media.

He says:

Some argue that journalism is doomed to dissolve, fated to fragment, its bodily integrity broken on the wheel of technological and economic transformation, the parts picked over by tweeters and bloggers, its place usurped by online individuals floating free in cyberspace.

Kemp indicates that a new ideal journalist, an “independent information intermediary” is sorely needed.

W. T. Stead’s “thousand public informant” media intermediaries

In his coverage of the history of journalism Kemp drew attention to one nineteenth century British newspaper editor W.T. Stead, who, well before his time, usefully anticipated possibilities that would arise with new media technologies.

Kemp notes that Stead:

advocated ‘government by journalism’, claiming the press could be superior to parliament in informing and representing the public, but he acknowledged that large-scale, monolithic media were not sufficiently in touch with the individuals making up the public. He predicted that the future would need to be one in which journalists were connected to ‘a network of corresponding associates’: a thousand or more informants who would channel news and opinions upwards.

Stead was in effect advocating a grass-roots network approach, before there was any sense of technologies which could enable locally-grounded networks of intermediaries to connect directly and in detail with local people and their concerns.

What lies ahead with social media as it exists?

Kemp comments, “What lies ahead is the increased interaction between professional journalists and online information intermediaries.”

However, given that professional journalists now have technologies with which they could connect with informed and relevant “online information intermediaries,” why aren’t more of these journalists collecting and delivering information that adequately represents and informs the public?

I think the problem is that the grass roots network approach advocated by Stead can’t be conjured into place by having professional journalists connecting with the multiplicity of individual bloggers and tweeters and friends on social networks.

A robust layer of participatory local media needed

However, I believe that his approach would become feasible if such journalists could draw on a layer of robust, locally-grounded, participatory community media. Community media, that is, in which local people could express, converse and debate about community-related issues. Participation in this media needs to be inclusive and there must be an ability to access any relevant information. Truly participatory community media would also actively encourage contributions and make support available for those who lacked the skills or confidence.

This community media would be owned and driven by the local community itself and would include a local magazine/news-sheet and locally-focused on-line screens (including through website and mobile technologies).

– And local intermediaries who are directly in touch

I think that journalists can only hope to become  effective “independent information intermediaries,” when they can draw their information from other intermediaries who are directly in touch with local affairs. Locally-grounded intermediaries, that is, who take time to immerse themselves in local situations and issues, including attendance at council or community or health board meetings and keeping people informed in local media on how issues are handled after the meetings are over.

What do you think? Do you worry that your vote (if you vote) might do more harm than good? Are you getting fed up with trivia? Your thoughts most welcome

A Blog that elaborates more on the concept of community media will follow soon.

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