Digital divide: Older generations ignore internet news

In contradiction to the commonly held belief that the proliferation of digital media and Internet news is making us smarter, offering wider access to worldwide information than ever before, Labor MP for Fisher Andrew Leigh argues that the new technology is selective in its reach and that many are disregarded.

Making a speech to University of Canberra students this week Leigh said,

In effect, technology has widened the information gap between the most-informed and least-informed members of society.”

Leigh’s speech centralised on this point. He went on to say that new online news mediums favour opinion and comment over factual reporting, highlighting the integral significance of journalism in the political process. Leigh says that a consequence of this type of information has led to a prevalence of shallow reporting. He also argues that high-speed minute-to-minute deadline orientated competition from online news outlets and the ability to comment online anonymously through this medium has generated a new era of nastiness.

What I find most interesting about his speech is how Leigh has highlighted the marginalisation of older-age news consumers who have been left behind during the rise of digital media news. They rely on a flailing print newspaper industry who’s standards and scope of reporting have changed over the years, arguably due to the it’s fiscal struggles and diminishing ability to fund the type of in-depth journalism that truly informs.

Of course the older generations, let’s make that over-50s with little interest in digital media, have the option to access public radio and free-channel television programs offering news and current affairs information – but can those options really offer enough variety and depth to truly inform these digitally disengaged citizens and fill the gap left by print newspapers? Can a two minute TV news bulletin recap of the day’s political events fully communicate the nuance and scope of detailed issues?

Leigh made a significant point about the widening information gap in his speech by saying,

“For engaged citizens, there’s never been a better time to be a news consumer. You can watch press conferences live on Sky, and get transcripts of radio programs in different cities. You can access the opinions of thoughtful bloggers and sassy tweeters. Engaged citizens are better informed now about political news than they’ve ever been before.

And then there’s the remainder of the population: some who are too busy with family and community to bother with national politics; others who are more interested in Lara Bingle than Laurie Oakes; and those who don’t seek out political information, but let it come to them. For this group of disengaged citizens, there is a growing disconnect from the political process.”

It is in response to the issue of this information starved demographic that Leigh then makes the argument for government newspaper subsidies to combat the rise of shallow, nasty, opinionated journalism and foster a high-quality, well-researched kind.

“I’m not sure you can legislate good journalism any more than you can regulate good taste. But appropriate subsidies may be able to get us there.”

Fears of government-influenced media may abound, Andrew Bolt has already likened the concept to Russia’s mouthpiece for communist politics Pravda.

Are these fears warranted or extreme? Australia is a steady democracy, it’s not perfect, but it’s functioning and a far cry from Russia’s communist regime. The publically funded ABC is an example of how a tax-payer funded media outlet can be regulated to maintain independence and integrity.

One important fact to note is that suggestions of newspaper subsidies are bipartisan. Liberal frontbencher and Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband Malcom Turnbull has also mentioned the government funding for newspapers topic. So perhaps the communist regime-style media control comparisons can be put to rest right here.

Obviously, print newspapers have a deep aversion to accepting subsidies from the government. They’ll be reeling at the idea of relinquishing the complete independence that allows intricate critical analysis of our leadership to flourish.

The uncomfortable uncertainty lurks within the fact that the newspapers’ ability to report, uncover, and criticise may be lost entirely without subsidies.

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