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Online Journalism: A Critical Primer

Author: Jim Hall
Publisher: London and Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2001
Review Published: May 2004

 REVIEW 1: Tapas Ray

Travelling in Western Europe in the spring of 2003, I was struck by the ubiquity of graffiti art and wondered if it was simply the urban gangs' way of marking territory, or something more. Later, I came across an article by David Garcia and Geert Lovink ("Online Media is Tactical Media," www.content-wire.com, 5 May 2001), which opened up a certain perspective.

Garcia and Lovink cite Polish artist Krzystof Wodiczko's view that public spaces -- often occupied by the homeless and the displaced -- are the agoras of our times, and should be used for making statements. A question suggests itself here: is it these statements that I saw on so many walls? Is the West, at least the subaltern West, moving towards a new agora? And does this agora extend from the physical space of the city into cyberspace?

One of the major contentions of Jim Hall's Online Journalism: A Critical Primer seems to be that cyberspace is indeed turning into an electronic agora. To his credit, however, he sees this move in a way that is more nuanced than the usual techno-utopian perspective, which holds the convergence of computing and telecommunications to be a panacea for the voter alienation that is evident in the West, as it (supposedly) creates conditions for direct participation by all citizens in political decision-making.

For Hall, there are two operative mechanisms -- interactivity and hypertextuality. The first makes the consumption of news an activity that subsumes its construction, and shifts it "into the social sphere" (50). In discerning a move towards participatory democracy here, our assumption, of course, is that the political system is sensitive to public opinion as indicated by patterns of news construction and consumption in the interactive online media environment.

As for hypertextuality, Hall points out two related ways in which it works -- by providing the reader (or user or consumer) with the means of feedback (thus interactivity), and with the means of arranging textual elements according to her personal preferences, thus producing personalized narratives.

Hall rightly stresses the democratic implications of the autonomy that hypertextuality thus offers to the reader, making closure difficult to achieve on the part of the journalist, and setting news free from its usual deterministic cage. But he is also alive to the fact that this has a flip side. The ability to personalize news portals (the "Daily Me" effect) implies the ability by the reader to shut out news he or she does not like. "The ability of consumers to filter out so completely what for them is bad news," he writes, "clearly has significant cultural implications" (23). Here, we see an agora in which each citizen wears a device that allows each of them to make invisible and inaudible everything he or she does not like.

As one who has worked as a journalist for years, I cannot help noting that the reader empowerment and lack of closure brought about by the internet give me a sense of liberation. It occurs to me that there is hope yet for journalism, that it does not have to be as narrow and imperialistic as it often is. Going by the terms in which he sets out these issues, Hall -- a former journalist himself -- seems to share this feeling.

But the power to mediate is something not many journalists or media organizations would like to give up easily, or even see reduced. Therefore, it is no surprise, as Hall points out, that many mainstream news sites do not offer their readers the luxury of interactivity and hypertext links to source material and related items. What Hall correctly and soberly points out is the democratizing potential of the Net, which is utilized only to the extent to which media organizations want to utilize it.

Having said this, it is also recognized that technology can be difficult to control. In a detailed discussion of the way the Kosovo war was fought on the Net, Hall shows that none of the parties were able to control its coverage. There were voices from every conceivable quarter giving their own versions of issues and events, and given the technical nature of the Web, all these voices were equally audible.

Since the book was published in 2001, about two years before the second Gulf War, it could not have foreseen the further democratizing (some would say disruptive) effect that blogs and moblogs (mobile blogging) would come to have on the media environment. However, it correctly identifies the direction in which the internet has driven journalism -- such as in its reference to newsreaders on US TV channels solemnly reading out excerpts from transcripts of the Kenneth Starr hearings on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, posted on the Web.

The discussions are detailed and persuasive, but ultimately one is left with the feeling that Hall might have done well to explore in more detail the theoretical implications of some of the themes he touches upon, including disintermediation -- that is, the loss of filters and gatekeepers that often distinguishes Net news from print and broadcast. Still, it is a book that should be read not only by students, teachers, and practitioners of online journalism in order to know the potential of the new medium, but also by those who work in the older media, in order to see what they are missing.

Tapas Ray:
Tapas Ray was a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Communication, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA. He teaches in the postgraduate diploma program in Mass Communication at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India.  <tray@cal2.vsnl.net.in>

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