Fourth Generation Journalism

Gone are the days of reporting in the national interest.

Ntarama Church Massacre, Rwanda, December 25, 1994
Skulls of genocide victims were lined up by UN staff in the months after the killings to count the number of victims. The massacre began April 15, 1994. At least 2,500 people were killed in and around the church.

My first real experience as a conflict journalist was a trip to Rwanda in December 1994. The bloodletting of the genocide was already six months in the past, but the consequences were plain to see everywhere. Back then, it was a small, densely-populated, mountainous country with limited natural resources that suffered from grinding poverty, and it hasn’t changed much since my visit. But what wasn’t so obvious to see in 1994 was that the local media had been complicit in the killing. Elements of the government used some of the local media to turn the society on itself, broadcasting calls for violence and hate that capitalized on ethnic suspicion and inflamed resentment into a raging genocide.

In fact, Rwanda remains a cautionary tale for us all — a warning for the international public and media. Global realities regarding population growth and limited resources create the potential for many more Rwandas. One question is, “Will the media be complicit in using violence to solve such challenges?” During the atrocities in 1994, the Rwandan station Radio Mille Collines incited the violence that led to genocide. Could this happen again? Or will media take this opportunity to meet its responsibility to inform and educate about our global interdependence? People everywhere want to understand the consequences of events in our 21st-century world, and they want to know how to build one human community that can cooperatively solve transnational challenges. The media must become a facilitator of the successful management of our global problems — the unseen influence responsible for shaping our perspective of ourselves, framing us as individuals within the realities of our world.

We have arrived at the beginning of a fourth generation of media, journalism, and mass communication. The first era came with the advent of the printing press and the emergence of pamphlet-eering, enabling activists to share their views with their local communities more efficiently and directly. The second generation saw the technical development of radio paired with a structural change, as wealthy individuals purchased the power of regularly published media and used it to further their social agendas in their communities. The third generation witnessed the advent of television. Structurally, corporatization shifted the media environment, giving financial performance priority over the “public service” objectives or social agendas of their previously local owners.

As media came of age, the nation-state entered its heyday. Governments were able to protect their citizenry and ensure the benefits of self-determination by interacting with other governments. The technological capacity to reach a national audience (through radio and television) blossomed, and media developed a default posture of putting all events, news, and data through a prism of local — and later national — perspectives. This national stance reflected the perspective and perceived strength of the government and the global nation-state structure. Media’s reach was constricted by language and geography, and for all who benefited from it, this context made perfect sense. As media’s reach became global, its impact — if it still had one at all — remained tied to the geography that housed its distribution options: the printing press or the broadcast tower.

Today, mobile computing and the Internet have erased geographical boundaries, allowing for truly democratic public participation in the generation of globally available content — something that has never been possible before. The new delivery platforms feed a tremendous proliferation of information and help shift the media mindset towards embracing a collective discussion. The fourth generation of journalism has arrived.

The end of the era of the all-powerful nation-state coincides with the end of the third generation of media that supported it. Our society is now connected by both technology and shared interests. Global transnational issues confront every human being on the planet — be it rising sea levels or shrinking access to potable water — regardless of geography, race, or religion. And the consequences of our governments failing to address these significant social and political issues are dramatic, real, and inescapable.

This era requires the recognition of our global, interdependent community, and the unprecedented levels of human cooperation now taking place. It also needs to recognize the dire consequences of failure. We live in a time that demands media which understands these issues and applies its energy and resources towards informing and supporting those who seek meaningful progress. Technology, business models, perspective, and approach will all change. We will redefine community to include geographic and topical focus, and we will forge a new relationship with the public. We can build a more stable media infrastructure and foster a newfound sense of responsibility to humanity. Gone are the days of reporting in the national interest. It is time to see the world and report on what is in the human interest.

This is no easy task. I have taken a first small step with the launch of The Global Council for Media Transformation, a project focused on empowering the public and encouraging it to demand and support media that reflects this new reality and opportunity. Together, we can transform media and the society that it serves.

Molly Bingham is a photojournalist. She was the official photographer to the Office of the Vice President of the United States from 1998 to 2001 and is the director of the documentary film Meeting Resistance. She attended TEDGlobal.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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