I was sat at some communal seating in the restaurant in my office last week when I looked up and saw a familiar face sipping coffee, nibbling a Danish and holding light conversation with a colleague.
Working at a media business this is not uncommon, but for some reason this familiarity was more profound, it was almost like I was looking at a family member. I continued to work and allowed the man’s voice to marinate my subconscious until a statement unearthed itself from my memory, accompanied by trumpets…
“From the headquarters of ITN, the early evening news with Nicholas Owen. Good evening…”.
The casual coffee sipper was Nicholas Owen, ITN anchor of the 1990’s and the voice I would have heard most often whilst tucking into my mothers inedible chilli con carne as a young boy.
Profound feeling? That’s simple nostalgia, I hear you say. That’s what I thought too, at first. But the last few weeks have made me think Nicholas’ voice was a little more serendipitous than I initially realised.
Growing up in Greater Manchester in the 90’s, to me Nicholas Owen was the source. He was the authority from which we learned about current events. Alongside parents and school, a household’s choice of terrestrial TV news outlet was the sole, standardised source of information on which to base opinion on current events.
But hearing Nicholas that day has served to highlight how starkly different the contemporary news landscape is.
Nicholas and the folks at ITN kept it simple; here are the facts as we understand them. Full stop.
Contemporary news has numerous faces and recent political events have emphasised how much this form of communication is splintering even further, the result of which is an immensely challenging landscape.
Now, before we explore these various modern mutations, one could argue that in order to cut-through the complexity of the modern information maze all one need do is consult the bastions of fact like the BBC et al., to which I ask how realistic is that? In our current era of perpetual connectivity and ever changing choice where can we actually gather the facts?
Theoretically, at one end of the scale of fact is ‘Information Liberation’ embodied by profiles like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden who militantly argue that the broadcasting of pure, unfiltered information to give holistic visibility is crucial. This group are otherwise known as the ‘Fifth Estate’.
Perhaps next on this scale are traditional news titles (the Fourth Estate) who also strive to deal only in fact but who are admittedly influenced by other factors like ratings, sales, topicality of content or the occasional D-Notice served to them by government.
Next on the whistle stop tour of refraction is Native Advertising which features the overt promotion of a product or service placed in highly relevant and natural news surroundings. This content is certainly appropriate and informative but has a distinct objective to influence behaviour.
Adopting a more entertaining angle we need to acknowledge the increasingly popular satirical news content. The headlines of The Onion and ClickHole are famed for reflecting the current societal zeitgeist with razor sharp accuracy and as well huge hilarity. So strong is the editorial tone from this type of news that many have fallen fowl to taking it as actual news.
And so the rabbit hole begins to darken…
After listening to an episode of This American Life podcast (‘The Revolution Starts At Noon’) I became aware of another mutation to squeeze onto our scale, perhaps one of the newest mutations; traditionally the group may have been termed ‘lobbyists’ now they come under the label social hackers.
The episode investigated a group of ultra-nationalists turned Twitter trolls who argue they “memed Trump into the presidency by weaponising information”. The group translated Fifth Estate leaks into digestible but contentious viral updates to flood American news feeds with a specific rhetoric.
Recent political shifts have also gave rise to widespread reports of our final and darkest mutation; Fake News. Content hosted by seemingly professional and visually convincing titles that is actually spurious information simply draped in a clever and topical tone. When done in the political arena, some have referred to it by its traditional label of propaganda, but with the proliferation of digital, the line has become blurred.
So we have those battling to bring us the facts and those battling to bring us their facts. For better or worse, news is now owned by everyone now.
The most prominent story to be featured in every single form of mutation we specify on our scale was the recent campaign and inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, given that US candidate campaigns tend to be some of the most covered events on earth, the evaluation of what information people read about The Donald is rather fascinating.
That which is inherent throughout all of the mutations is information, never before has the usage of information been so powerful, beneficial and potentially damaging.
The growth of information with its new, mutating shapes makes the communications industry and challenging but fascinating place to be.
I finished this post last weekend and by Sunday evening I felt the need for a switch off from feeds, screens and data.
I walked to the Tate Britain to quietly walk the gallery before the working week roared into life again.
The first exhibition I came across was a brand new installation entitled ‘WOT U 🙂 ABOUT?’ by Rachel Maclean (shown below), its a cerebral piece of art depicting our contemporary relationship with information.
The Tate’s description describes how the yellow figures “embody data, feeding a desperate crowd with internet cables until their system is hacked. The figures present a vision of society that is at once seductive and nightmarish”.
As I continued to wander the exhibits, three words bubbled to the front of my mind…
I miss Nicholas.