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Watching the Watchdog: Don't Just Rely on Social Media

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

There's a notion abroad in this fair and frozen land -- particularly among the young -- that we don't really need general interest news organizations (known condescendingly to many as "the mainstream media").

Somehow, many of us have been persuaded that social media alone can keep us up-to-date and fully informed.

Utter bullshit.

General Interest News Organizations (GINOs) like newspapers, broadcast networks and magazines are the cornerstones of our democracy. Without them, the nation to and on which the social media would report will no longer exist.

Because without democracy, Canada would have:

  • No free, fair and competitive elections.
  • No separation of powers into different branches of government.
  • No rule of law.
  • No open society.
  • No protection of our human rights and civil liberties.

It's that blindingly simple. Without GINOs we wouldn't be Canada.

Their journalism in our democratic society is a public service, defined and protected by centuries of struggle. Their journalists literally represent the people. They're the irreplaceable messengers serving and guarding the people's democratic right to know.

Too often, the cost is high. For at least the last decade, around one journalist a week is killed somewhere in the world while practicing the honourable craft.

It takes years of training and experience to produce a first-class journalist. Some kid living in his mother's basement who's mastered Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, simply doesn't qualify.

Most professional journalists work for GINOs which, whatever their faults, are information centres run, staffed and edited by experts who double-check facts and are trained not only to seek out information but also to explain its significance and put it in perspective.

Ideally, the job of journalists in these GINO information centres is to report on the world we live in with accuracy, honesty, fairness, impartiality and objectivity, producing disinterested, but not uninterested journalism, without bias, fear or favour.

Social media can't offer any of that.

Of course, GINOs aren't perfect. Nor are -- at least in my experience -- priests, politicians, doctors, lawyers, tax accountants, prostitutes or readers of this column.

Of course, GINOs screw up sometimes. Particularly now that newsrooms everywhere are cutting back on staff while desperately trying to find a place in this new, frightening, digital world.

All of which is creating its own crisis. Already, the proliferation of social media information websites encourages people -- not just the young -- to visit only those websites that agree with their already pre-existing biases. Websites with no pretext to impartiality or fairness. No pretense to public service.

When people do that, they can't hear the multitude of differing views and voices out there provided by the GINOs. Instead, they hear only one side of every story. Which means they live in a dangerously narrow, fantasy world in which there's only one truth and one answer to every question.

They become the equivalent of religious zealots. If that doesn't scare you, just look around the world today and check out the damage caused by those who serve their one true god with blind faith and utter contempt for non-believers.

As if all this isn't enough, there's another danger to democracy looming on the horizon. What The Economist calls "The four giants of the Internet age -- Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon."

In just a few, short years, the four have become incredibly rich and powerful information monopolies. "Never before" reports the magazine, "has the world seen firms grow so fast or spread their tentacles so widely."

Its those tentacles we should fear.

Already, that other information giant Microsoft, the world's largest software corporation (assets $41-billion), has started its own news service. Now it controls content as well as software.

Can Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon be far behind?

Unlike the GINOs, none of these companies has a culture of public service unless you count their overweening need to get everyone on earth to buy their products and services. They have no history of serving and protecting democracy, of honouring the people's right to know.

Yet if the GINOs die or are seriously wounded, these are the astoundingly rich and powerful organizations that will swiftly move in to take over their pubic information roles.

Yes, it's true our GINOs are far from perfect. But they're a helluva lot better and safer than any of the likely alternatives.

Let us never forget that as journalism goes, so goes democracy.