Intellectual quality of the media sphere

January 1, 2012 § 7 Comments

Finland has an exceptional potential for continuous intellectual growth. We are well-educated people: we can read and understand anything that is published for the general audience. Practically everyone here reads, and because of that, we can learn more and we can teach each other. Surprisingly many of us can write: we have the largest number of magazine titles per capita in the world and because of that we can teach each other and more people to learn and grow.

What we desperately need is a future media sphere that would understand this huge, almost unlimited potential and to continuously challenge us to read and learn, to make us change, offer us valuable content, and hire talented and responsible writers and producers to make this happen. But Finland is also an island of media discourse where the journalists construct our public discussion sphere, the intellectual space proper where ‘public and national thinking’ takes place.

Access to the internet does not free us from this closure because most acute discussions, argumentations and presentations take place through a synchronous media or real places like the famous squares that provide a systematic and relatively simultaneous presence of both the journalists, their audience and those engaged.  In this sense we are not different from – to us –  distant Egyptian citizen communities – as I learned from my dear friend – who visit coffee houses when they really want to know, share and understand what is going on in the world and tell this also to their wives at homes (who perhaps tell them to go back and find out more). Real life together is synchronous at all levels.

We live times where this essential aspect of communication and interaction is being created: our synchronous and asynchronous ways of being together remain a necessity, despite the available mobile and internet services. A waltz without closeness and synchrony and the enjoyment provided by this, is just an image of waltz or robots walking.

Synchrony between real life and media

Asynchronous communication, online and mobile news and discussions inspire masses like we have seen to happen in the Occupy Wall Street movement, in Arab Spring and now in Russia. Even these admirable movements need their synchronous forums, such as tent villages, aliens in the big city, but where it becomes possible to be together, in a sensitive, fast, visible, and interacting sense, to share the problems and challenges, to argument for different solutions and to return to that forum again. It may well be one of the main strengths of general democracy that it can offer and promote such forums. But even the best forums will fail if we don’t have people who can read and write and prepare for these episodes of communication. People can be inspired into any strange collective acts and feelings as we have seen in the miraculously mourning people of N Korea. Inspiring writing and healthy forums are a threat there.

Strangely enough, despite the amazing potential of the audience, our public journalistic world in Finland is getting intellectually thinner, biased, driven by short-range, narrow-minded hunger for news, conflicts, media-against-media combats, visibility, dominated by civilized celebrity stories, political adventure scenes and national, narrowly defined international success stories.  I’m convinced that this is not a local symptom only. For example, the day I started writing of this it was bigger news in our leading newspaper to report on a famous (in Spain or in an unknown media source) Spanish spy than on the ending of the war in Irak. Our media follows US in its worst forms but fails to match its best. These developments concern our news on the economy, politics, arts and the society in general.

Science news as the guinea pig

Science news is an excellent test case of the intellectual ambition level of any nation’s news media. Here science news has an almost underground nature or it is pure entertainment. The practical and social process of science seems to have no interest while you can follow a number of one-hour long, detailed documentaries of how a local pop band talks about the production of certain sounds in their old recordings. The exciting race after Higgs boson, and its consequences to our world-view are covered by an odd line of news text here and there. There is no more boring format of a program than a rock band talking at a mixer table about who did what and what they did at the studio and then and then…. But people have learned to like this and to know that it is “interesting” or “informative” but if you listen to it carefully you can notice that it is mostly empty egoistic talk that fills the time slot allowed.

There is practically no genuine scientific news reporting in Finland except for the frequent science programs on our national tv-channels and the popular science magazine ‘Tiede’. Luckily our Parliament just passed a tax law that guarantees the continuation of a civilized broadcasting channel. We can still hope that it understands its audience better than the rest of our main channels. Now we cannot directly vote against it since the budget will be included into the national tax frame. In support of that decision, a commentator defended it on a local tv program, saying something like “…it is perfectly possible to live without the commercial channel documents on albino pygmies having silicon breast transplantations and face lifts. “ I agree. (The image above is part of a NASA photo).

In our leading newspapers and magazines science reporting has the overall form of ‘any news’ reporting. Many of our journalists don’t trust that “general” people would be interested in real and demanding science stories and they insist that science should be offered in the form of easy yellow paper titles, celebrity stories, fun, Nobel games and fame, or just as light gossip. All this happens in a country where we can read and learn to read even better.  Our publishers try to break the attention barrier, they don’t see and recognize intellectual barriers worth while breaking, or they just think it is too high a risk for their businesses. Strange enough, nature programs where people could report their findings used to be amazingly popular in the radio.

Modern media is educating us to naïve story formats and concepts and when they succeed in selling them to us they take it as evidence that this is what people actually want, that we do not want challenging content or form. As a result, a civilized and educated nation falls into a frightening vicious cycle of detereorating quality of media content and the entertaining internet just makes things worse: our newspaper publishers suffer from a neurosis that they will lose the game against The Net and they are afraid to produce challenging content, but instead, try to be cost-effective in this low-quality rat reporting race.

Efficiency of spending or efficiency of relevance?

Another result of this ‘efficiency’ is that our leading tv-news channels have become slow and thin in reacting to any ongoing novel or significant processes in the society, science, and technology. This happened with unbelievably thin and slow reporting on Fukushima and now on Irak war and its consequences. Surely having less people working is cost effective, if the cost is estimated per €:s spent for channel personnel, but the media game would be different if they could take the risk to consider efficiency in terms of €:s per relevance: a € spent for intellectual relevance is an intellectual investment, not  spending.

What a waste of the intellectual potential of our nation! The worst consequence of all this is the prejudice by our intelligenzia that ‘people are not interested in really understanding the world and society and that is why they vote for the extreme right wing party’. The media can blame itself: prevent people from learning what goes on in the society, offer them easy entertainment news, engage them into stupid no-brain formats and they will listen to anyone who has a compelling explanation, a theory, right or wrong, but an explanation. People want to know and be exited about it.

But we have exceptional intellectual spheres in Finland where this sad story is not true at all and where the readers – our citizens – show their true intellectual will and interests. Take the “Tähdet ja Avaruus”, T&A, my favourite magazine as an example (  “Stars and Space”, a cousin for Sky and Telescope in USA). It is for readers interested in astronomy, cosmology and the latest space technology. T&A is published by Ursa the Finnish society for amateur astronomers.

Originally it was just a modest leaflet, but from the beginning it had a genuine connection with real scientists in the field.  For example, there is the amazing column originally started by professor Heikki Oja, that tells, day by day, the latest news in astronomy and cosmology. Today T&A  is a magnificent, an intellectually ambitious and glamorous magazine, written in Finnish, and you can count together the sales numbers of all similar national magazines in other Scandinavian countries (with a total population of about twice that of Finland’s) and still Tähdet ja Avaruus sells more.

Why is that, and especially, how is that possible during the times of the empty entertainment media, The Net and YouTube -fun? Why do so many people read complex and brain-blowing stories about space-time, string theory, expanding universe, Higgs boson, Mars robots, magnetic fields of our solar system, adaptive optics, telescope design, and many more fascinating themes and keep on doing so?

The answer is simple: we are interested in the space and the universe around us.  Tähdet ja Avaruus trusts in this and in its readers’ intellectual motivation and potential. Its readers are the proof that everyone in Finland can read and understand when someone writes about space, or any other public topic, in a compelling way – and many are willing and able to do it. About 70 000 curious readers, including me read the magazine and relative to the population, I believe that on its own field, it is the leading magazine in the world.

But Tähdet ja Avaruus is not only a magazine, it is also a most valuable link to the most interesting knowledge sources in the Net as well and its writers are specialists and professionals whom you can fully trust, they can be your valuable knowledge guides. Even when they are wrong, biased by their own theories or you disagree with them and their knowledge, they still guide you to the fountains of new knowledge. When you follow their footsteps, check their suggestions for relevant sources and find out what are their passions, you will experience a knowledge journey of real learning joy. On the way we learn to read better and teach each other.

Recursive brainwash

As a counter example I took recently a look at our main newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. It has a simple strategy: whatever it writes about, it has to be somehow, time-space wise socially (economically, politically) significant and attention grabbing. Depth is secondary. As an example, the front page content on 11/11/11 consisted of e.g. the following topics: Economy slow down in EU (surprise?), six women compete for the national literature price, prospects of the deal with the trade unions, fake doctor in Finland, Kate Bush interviewed, CIA prison flights through Finland. While these are indeed news and stories as elsewhere in the world the question remains, is this really what we learn to read for and does it enrich our lives and educated citizens? Is it god for us as citizens and as a nation? They belive it is.

These appear as significant news only because they are already familiar to us via the same media, and we have not been offered other perspectives to life and society. Media interest is based on recursive manipulation: important news is the one that is important in the media. The formula is simple: media repeats names and topics, and all other media conducts the same symbol game, then they immerse into an “inter-media discourse” and the readers just have to follow this and the media struggle becomes familiar to everyone and some readers even learn to expect for more and so it goes on and on. We learn to be knowledgeable in our own social worlds by referring to these symbols – of what?

During this blinding process something fascinating is happening in the world of science, art, and human journeys, day by day. Somewhere there are passionate people and communities who try to learn new things, every hour and they are not just rock bands, politicians, Nobel scientists, leading artists, or Fortune 500 CEO’s. They are on the same journey with us to eternity, on our way to solve the problem of the universe in its most general form as I remember someone say, whose name I have, unfortunately forgotten.

Tähdet ja Avaruus trusts its readers and fulfills their civilized expectations through its content, content and content and competence, competence, competence. It has a beautiful magazine design, impressive and informative images and its overall style colors the reader’s journey and imagination, but these characteristics do not define the magazine, T&A just helps the readers to see, immerse and experience with the journalists and scientists with whom they interact. When content is ambitious also the investments in the external design pay back.

At T&A they know that we can read and because of that they learn to become better writers. This is a delicious vicious cycle of intellectual growth. My dream is that it will continue and evolve in Finland.

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