Commercial Media Versus Consumer Media

Should the commercial media converge with the consumer media to better serve the public?

As I write this, the landscape of the digital revolution has two distinct sides, “Commercial Media” which represents legitimate news-gathering organizations such as the network news, local news, newspaper companies and so on. These are the companies, that, combined, we call the “Main-Stream Media” or the “Media Conglomerates.”

The other side is called, “Consumer Media.” Consumer Media is the everyman. The “Joe the Plummer” types, the people who have no background in journalism or any experience in news or entertainment. These are the people who make up the blogosphere, the watch-dog groups, the grassroots campaigns, the organizations that want to get a story out there into the world, and they are only armed with an idea, a computer, and an internet connection.

Do an internet search on any topic and thousands upon thousands of pages will load. Is any of the information true? Maybe, or maybe not. How can you tell the difference between the factual sources and the ones who are simply inaccurate. Do you know? How do any of us know? How do we know that certain outlets are to be trusted and not others. What is keeping me from posting lies on any topic on to the internet? Nothing. Recently, Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report demonstrated how easy it is to change Wikipedia:

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Stephen made his point clear, but in the process was banned.

Whatever chaos he may or may not have caused was beside the fact. There was no safeguard system put in place to prevent someone from posting clearly false information in a place that is considered by the average web surfing public to be a reliable source.

Commercial media is trying to reign in the wild west effect that the internet has created. The problem is they decided to start their campaign far too late in the game. For that matter they began the “convergence” of the media and the internet too late as well. For far too many years, newspapers and television stations (and networks) would have websites, but have no idea what to do with them. The idea was not to give anything away for free. Now in 2009 that’s pretty much all they are doing. Yes, one must sit through a brief commercial, or see banners plastered all over a webpage, but you can pretty much find whatever you need, (and today) directly from the people who made it. The media conglomerates have joined forces with pages like Hulu or There are still barriers, but they are mostly international. One cannot log onto the BBC and watch any of their programming if they are not in the United Kingdom at the time of logging on. YouTube still reigns supreme in the world wide web.

In 2006 M.I.T. Professor Henry Jenkins wrote that our current state of technology has developed a “Convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

Professor Jenkins went on to say this about convergence:

“I don’t think we can meaningfully critique convergence until it is more fully understood; yet if the public doesn’t get some insights into the discussions that are taking place, they will have little to no input into decisions that will dramatically change their relationship to media.”

This lack of communication with the public on the commercial media’s part has helped generate, a now very large, consumer media presence. This form of media is more often opinion based from people who want to call or refer to themselves as news and information providers, all via the internet.

Often times consumer media comes about through a feeling of irritation with commercial media for “not reporting the story.” Commercial media can’t report on airwaves every story that everyone wants. Yes, everyone has story to tell, but there isn’t enough time in the day to tell it. Plus not everyone’s story is compelling enough to share. News must be selective.

The cost is that sometimes important information slips through the cracks. Sometimes more details are required for the story, and can’t be told through commercial medias outlets. In “The Wealth of Networks” Yochai Benkler refers to it as “oversimplifying complex public discussions.” Benkler calls for more people to have access and to participate in an open flow of “observations and viewpoints” uncontrolled “by media owners and not as easily corruptible by money as were the mass media.”

So we see more and more blogs, or independent websites, reporting the stories they feel need to be told, but often make clear an opinion. Some are legitimate sites like the Huffington Post. Others go out of their way to fabricate the truth and even go as far as lying to their readers. They may believe the stuff they are telling people, but it may not always be true. For example, we know President Obama is NOT a Nazi, and is not trying to turn our youth into Nazis.

There are no real ethics in consumer media. One can post anything one wants anywhere on the web without being called out for accuracy. This is not to say that Commercial media doesn’t get information wrong from time to time, or even make things up, like Jayson Blair did with the NY Times. There are, however, checks and balances to catch this. The FCC can reject a broadcaster’s license, media companies can be held liable and be sued. Can the same be said for consumer media? Where are their checks and balances? Who holds them responsible for something that isn’t true, or for instigating fear mongering?

Commercial Media is going further and further to welcome the consumer media into the fold. Almost every cable news channel or local news asks it’s viewers to comment on a story, link to this, email us your photo’s, “If you see breaking news send us your photos or cell phone video of it, and other ways, “encouraging the consumer to become part of the story. This can blur the line between the professional media outlets and the amateurs.

Many media organizations call this “The Return Path.” The idea is to not lose the viewer. Keep them with you. By encouraging them to send their photos to you, or comment on the story, so they are involved, and they keep coming back. They, in turn, talk about it on social networks, generate water-coolor buzz, link and email the story to everyone they know, demonstrating that the power of the commercial media still exists.

More and more stations have producers dedicated to working on the return path. Rather than having viewers start their own webpages, commercial media would prefer that you utilize their webpages to tell your story. If one has a breast cancer walk they want to tell everyone about, use their space so you get noticed, as opposed to starting ones’ own blog to report about it, where very few may see it.

This action is a small, but an important one. It gives everyone a legitimate outlet to share their stories, but can catch any people who may spread incorrect information. People must register and attach their names to their comments. If a comment is rude, cruel, or hurtful that person is blocked from being allowed back to that site. That doesn’t stop them from going off and creating their own website, but does keep them off the trusted news source.

So does this convergence better serve the public? There is still lots of potential for the wrong information to be reported. Giving the average person a direct path to report their own news on an outlet that is charged with being the trusted brand, without checking their sources, is dangerous. Commercial media feels this is the needed action to keep people with them, and not lose viewers or readers to other sources.

Consumer media is only going to get bigger. Commercial media and consumer media will never fully converge, but the public must be better educated so they understand the difference between the two. I propose a “Better Business Bureau” type system where a trusted name in news, or a legitimate news organization, is allowed a ratings system, or certification, to show to the public they are indeed a real news organization. Commercial media outlets must get together, and put their rating wars on hold long enough to figure out a clear system to explain to a viewer or reader that they are the legitimate news organizations.

If a page wants to be taken seriously or be considered to be a real source of information that is checked and verified, then they must meet a certain amount of standards. Should this webpage or source meet the standards, then they are allowed in. Should they violate the standards then they must be reported and investigated.

This is not to say a webpage is banned or not allowed to exist. Under this idea if a webpage wanted to be considered a legitimate source of information they need to stand by it. It could be as simple as a logo on the web browser. Much like the logo of a pad-lock when one is on a secure website.

The public needs, and relies on, educated journalists who know what they are doing, and not rogue consumers who may have the best intentions, but may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions should they report something that isn’t true.

The convergence will continue between Commercial Media and Consumer Media, and there are a great many benefits, but the line should never be so blurred that the public cannot tell the difference between what is fact and what is fiction.