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Reviving a Species.

Valdai Papers

Special Issue

Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

Andrei Bystritsky

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

Citizen journalism vs. professional journalism: Who influences society’s self-awareness?

We are living in a world of communication abundance, as numerous studies on the media bear out. Many people today probably find it hard to image a time when it could be difficult to get hold of a text or a photograph, or to check a quotation or reference. All you need today is a search engine and a little patience.

This ease has given rise to an illusion that the almost billion-strong community of Internet users can replace professional journalism. There are millions of diverse outlets on the Internet, offering everything one could need: court rulings, statements by non-governmental organizations, human rights and corruption reports, etc. As such, we often hear that an era of “digital” democracy is upon us – that the electronic communication abundance will generate unprecedented forms of public oversight of government, and that the myriads of ordinary but active Internet users will create a brave new world, where there is no place for miscreants and criminals to hide from embarrassing revelations.

A victim of molestation at a provincial church may expose the priest from time to time, but oddly

enough the scandal hardly affects the Catholic Church at all. And that’s because the belief in the curative properties of communications is based on the illusion that mankind is guided by the light of truth. But what if the light of truth only succeeds in horrifying mankind? If teachers kept opening children’s eyes to the naked truth – the fact that man is a loathsome creature inclined to all kinds of vices the education process would grind to a halt.

In other words, the emergence of millions of online actors with their own accounts and ideas has upended the comparatively harmonious picture of the world, which was only recently created by a fairly limited number of professional journalists, leaving in its place chaotic Brownian information motion.

I will go so far as to predict that even hundreds of millions of potential “citizen journalists” will at best have no influence at all on the world and at worst will only magnify mankind’s inherent shortcomings.

While I don’t intend to idealize professional journalism, the fact is that journalists still follow editorial logic and a hierarchy of editorial decision-making. Hierarchy is the basis of culture, and culture is the only thing (apart from naked fear) that keeps us from indulging in an endless cycle of violence and revenge information violence in this case which human nature is so susceptible to.

It is another matter that today both professional journalists and their “citizen” counterparts exist in a

relatively new information and communication environment that has brought many unexpected things. Some people believe that the communication abundance has radically changed the status quo. But is this true?


Special Issue

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

Here is John Keane, the author of Democracy and Media Decadence and a serious scholar of the interplay between communications and social order, on this question: “It is often forgotten that the changes that are going on have been driven by a variety of technical causes and human causers

including radical alterations to the ecology of public affairs reporting and commentary

news journalism is now just one of many different types of power-scrutinizing institutions.


Keane identifies several spheres where the consequences of communication abundance have been felt most strongly. Of these, the democratization of information is the most important. In a sense, this is an uncontroversial point, as access to information has indeed been radically simplified. But the consequences of the democratization of information are not quite so clear-cut. While this process should lead to multitudes of people participating in discussions and decision-making as well as to a shocking degree of openness, it is more likely, in my opinion, to result in information chaos, confusion and, strangely enough, even greater atomization of society. The amount of general knowledge is shrinking rather than expanding. Mankind is becoming fragmented, and as people seek out new identities, they begin creating new communities, or reviving old, archaic ones. The latter tends to be a more spontaneous process.

Companies like Google and social media are a response of sorts to the democratization of information. In effect, they are attempting to organize information and communication, and enable billions of people to rationally structure both their relationships and their consumption and dissemination of information on the Internet. But the success of these ventures is causing serious doubts: true, they have incredibly high capitalization levels, but there is not the slightest shred of evidence that they orderly arrange information. On the contrary, what we see is the snowballing of information. This helps explain the dispute between the European Commission and Google, for example. It is a dispute between the two types of monopolies private and ostensibly public. Google wants to do it all, to improve people’s lives by giving them access to databases, libraries, etc. But the European Commission, which formally claims to favor access to resources by other organizers of knowledge, essentially wants to retain its regulatory role and place Internet operators under its supervision.

Yet another circumstance is the seeming expansion of public oversight. Indeed, anyone is free to post almost anything on the Internet, and it only takes one inopportune photograph of an intoxicated MP to cost him his career. Non-governmental organizations have become much more powerful. Now they can disseminate information without any hindrance, and the ability of the public to access this information contributes to what seems at first sight to be the unprecedented efficiency of organizations like Transparency International and Doctors Without Borders. But even cursory observation will show that both public oversight as a whole and non-governmental organizations in particular have not made much progress. What’s more, now they can be easily waved away simply by avoiding their websites or unsubscribing unpleasant or unwelcome news about real or imagined government abuses on Facebook. Some thirty years ago, however, the impact of reports presented by such organizations was amplified by traditional media.

The relationship between privacy and publicity merits separate consideration. Clearly, we have approached a state resembling village life in the recent past, where children slept on the same straw- covered surface side as their parents, and the life of farm animals in all its nakedness served as an


Special Issue

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

object lesson. In the final analysis, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe was the elegant Hellenistic fantasy of an aesthete who wished to escape from the harsh and rather obscene facts of life. The tradition of privacy that asserted itself over the last 150 years has been ruined and no longer exists either for public personalities or ordinary people who may believe that their private lives are no less interesting than the life of celebrities. It is amusing to consider that individuals today enjoy much less security in the current information and communication environment than a member of the underground in Nazi-occupied areas of Russia during World War II. Even though some people believe that this boundless and occasionally voluntary openness is leading us toward the triumph of digital democracy, it seems to me that as the result we’ll see nothing but an orgy of unbridled mob passions. A striking example is the widespread phenomenon of personal data theft.

But digital democracy is not just a meaningless phrase. It even seems to be possible. For example, there is a widespread belief that chaotic churn of the digital environment creates entire institutions out of popular individuals, who essentially constitute a new, unelected class of representatives. The Gracchi brothers were representatives of this kind, but it was much more difficult for them to communicate with their audience than present-day activists. True, there are serious doubts as to whether the Internet is responsible for the popularity of Boko Haram’s leaders. I, for one, believe that they caught the public eye with their wanton cruelty, but the Internet is part of the story all the same. For now, digital democracy is just a dream, albeit not a bad one. After all, what could be bad about ordinary people regularly participating in governance and decision-making? But so far all it has yielded is an endless stream of complaints and verbal abuse.

Two more factors should be taken into consideration as well: the Internet’s lack of borders and spying, which is generally referred to as monitoring. The lack of borders is truly amazing. There seems to be no physical barriers to the spread of information, except perhaps language barriers. There is a reason to believe that, eventually, we will be able to overcome the curse of the Tower of Babel. However, it is interesting to note that, despite the rapid development of electronic communications, the lack of borders only manifests itself in the technical ability to deploy servers in any part of the world, not in the emergence of an infinitely communicating community. The same goes for monitoring. For all its technical lightness, information behavior has failed to acquire any additional integrity or consistency, while the amazing capability of technological monitoring has promoted voyeurism more than anything else.

These new elements of communication abundance have created an incredibly impressionistic information picture of the modern world. It is a motley and chaotic picture, in which abundance turns out to be a kind of curse akin to the Midas touch, making rubbish valuable and devaluing really important information by drowning it in a flood of meaningless chatter.

We must also consider the contradiction between meaning and effect in the message. But before we take up this topic, let me say a few words about the dynamics at play in the world.

The events of recent months, mostly those related to Ukraine, have demonstrated the depth of the present crisis. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book, The End of History, in which he argued that after the disintegration of the USSR, history understood as a battle between light and darkness, democracy and totalitarianism had come to an end. There were no obstacles to the


Special Issue

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

triumphant procession of freedom and democracy, he claimed, and a new stage in world development would begin after a brief hiatus. Today it is clear that Fukuyama’s theory was a spectacular failure.

Instead, the collapse of the bipolar political system in the post-Cold War era encouraged billions of people to create their own countries, communities, etc., but this process broke down within a very brief historical period. The Arab Spring, the Maidan in Kiev, and clashes on Taksim Square in Turkey are similar in that they are all episodes in the transformation of the old world into something new.

At the same time, the involvement of the masses in the process of social and political creativity has led to what can be considered a change of the world historical order and development paradigm. The most important thing in this context is the transformation of what are commonly considered liberal values. These values have resulted from the long, complex and sometimes tragic evolution of Judeo- Christian civilization. Until quite recently, it was assumed that these values human rights, minority rights, democracy, freedom, etc. were intrinsic to human nature and that people left to their own devices would naturally gravitate toward them. Whereas now there is no doubt whatsoever that these values are the epitome of all that is aggressive and cruel in human nature. It’s simply that before the 1990s these values were under systemic attack from the official communist ideology that sought to transform them in its own way by placing them within a matrix of collective non-freedom. In the 1990s, an illusion was created that these values were no longer under threat from any quarter. At any rate, many people, including Fukuyama, seemed to believe this.

It is rather funny to recall how the European Broadcasting Union warned the VGTRK (Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation) in the 1990s that Tatu, a Russian teenage singing duo, should observe conventions and avoid overt displays of homosexuality on stage during the Eurovision contest. In 2014, that same Eurovision insisted that the rights of sexual minorities be protected.

In the same period, huge numbers of people from the former USSR, the Middle East, the Far East, and the Maghreb began to participate meaningfully in political life. These people were inspired by liberal values, although their conception of what constitutes liberal values differed.

The history of Russia at the turn of the 20th century makes for the simplest point of comparison with the current situation in the world. I will note the five most important similarities. First, the traditional patriarchal society had collapsed. This is happening in the Islamic world today, and it is happening again in the post-Soviet space, in part due to the collapse of the paternalistic communist society. Second, a relatively large number of young people lack any kind of economic, social, or cultural security. In present-day Cairo, as in the suburbs of St. Petersburg at the time, one can see crowds of restless young people. Third, there is a large group of half-educated intelligentsia, who are sufficiently radical and nihilistic to recklessly attack the existing order. Fourth, capital is highly concentrated in the hands of people who in their heart of hearts are not sure that they have the right to it. We can compare, for example, Savva Morozov (the late 19th century Russian millionaire and philanthropist. Ed.) and the Bin Laden family, who, by making donations willingly, were digging their own graves. Fifth, simplified liberal values find their consummate expression in the crude desire for justice and equality and the demand that they be delivered immediately and in their most notional and radical form.


Special Issue

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

All of this is accompanied by extreme envy of the prosperous West and contempt for its already refined liberal values, which are regarded as a sign of effeminacy and weakness.

This dangerous cocktail combining the availability of large numbers of people to use as cannon fodder, a crude ideology of equality and forced justice, and money from frustrated rich men is turning the world into a battlefield, both in reality and in the heads of a lot of people, including in the West itself.

Thus, what is happening in the world can be interpreted as a global civil war similar to the civil war that raged in Russia in the early 20th century. It is online warfare waged with the use of modern communications system, and therefore I interpret it as a series of episodes, from comparatively peaceful protests to really brutal ones like in Egypt or Ukraine, rather than a relatively brief clash of opposing forces.

To get back to the issue of journalism, the problem, as I see it, is that professional journalism is a journalism of meaning, while millions of bloggers and other producers and consumers of information are aimed at achieving an effect.

As Kenneth Boulding writes in his book The Image, “The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image.”

The focus on effect rather than meaning is the main change that has occurred in our electrified age, for the effect spreads over the whole situation and not just on any one level of information.

What we need is a renaissance of real journalism competent, independent, balanced, based on facts and reality, and detached in general, the kind of journalism that took shape in the 20th century.

Introduced by Giorgio Vasari, the concept of renaissance implies a certain loss. There can be no revival or renovation of something that was not lost in the first place. European journalism and the world communications system in general have lost a lot recently, in part because communications in general and journalism in particular are reflecting an ongoing social change.

This mass exchange of information involves tens of millions of people incessantly writing or producing something. As a result, it is absolutely impossible to make heads or tails of what is going on in the world, particularly given the political biases of prosumers (simultaneous producers and consumers of information) and the constant clashing between them. Moreover, it is entirely clear that a portion of the world’s professional media today is politically biased.

My assertion that we need a renaissance of journalism is confirmed by numerous recent studies. For example, 52% of respondents in a Eurobarometer poll believe that radio is the most integrating medium in Europe. The consumption of public media is growing. It is high time we realized that journalism honest, competent and reliable is needed for the survival of civilized society. The key problem is the reliability of information.

A kind of revolt of the masses has occurred in the communications sphere. Like any revolt, it has both positive and negative aspects. The positive certainly includes the relative ease of accessing all sorts of


Special Issue

Reviving a Species. Why Russia needs a renaissance of professional journalism

data and mass mobilization. The main negative is the dramatic decline in reliable information, which fans the flames of the “global civil war” I mentioned earlier.

Mankind is like Dante in need of a Virgil to guide it through the information labyrinths of the modern world. In fact, after a brief period of confusion caused by the snowballing of Internet users, the professional media have been transformed. They have learned how to take advantage of the new opportunities to offer high-quality products to their audiences.

What does an ordinary Internet user do? He wanders from site to site, his glance often lingering on notable details and following hyperlinks. It is like random motion. Even if the user is looking for specific information for example, about the Decembrists he will make a lot of motions and spend a lot of time only to end up with a random selection of data. Meanwhile, Nathan Eidelman’s books could provide the reader with good information presented in a fascinating way. Well, the modern professional media are a “collective” Eidelman capable of offering a logical and well-developed concept of knowledge, including knowledge about what is going on in the world.

Unlike unorganized Internet users, professional media are made up of well-disciplined and united communities capable of conforming to standards of journalism. They can, for example, separate fact from commentary, and check the reliability of their sources.

The journalistic renaissance has to be about returning to standards of professional journalism and realizing that today’s world is dependent on the professional media to a much greater extent than ever before.

The political turbulence in the world, amplified by communication abundance, calls for a new information dissemination hierarchy based on standards of honesty.

About the author:

Andrei Bystritsky, Dean of the Faculty of Communications, Media and Design, the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Chairman of the Council, Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club.

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7 Special Issue