We need less 'content' and more journalism

We need less 'content' and more journalism

Content, as media gurus keep preaching, is king. But such PowerPoint pep talk is shallow: "Content" -- an increasingly bastardised term that has come to signify TV newscasts, podcasts, movies, viral videos, Netflix series, memes, news articles, editorial features, real advertising, covert advertising, tweets and Facebook posts, organic or boosted -- is also an anaesthetic. It dulls the senses and kills meaning, then proceeds to belittle essence, promote shallowness and eventually undermine the practice of journalism.

Never before in the history of mankind has the consumption of "content" been possible during every minute of our waking hours. It's a 21st-century human condition, a blessing and a curse. While that proliferation has contributed significantly to free speech and democratic ideals, the overabundance of produced content and the speed with which one piece of "content" is superseded by another in an endless cycle has also desensitised our perspicacity and threatened to sideline the serious work of real journalists -- no matter how many of that dying breed are still left.

This phenomenon may be universal, but in Thailand it's particularly alarming given our poor standard of journalism in the first place.

Take the daily "drama" that feeds into the content meat-grinder. That term, "drama", used to mean something in the vein of Sophocles or at least (let's not set our hopes too high) our prime-time slap fests featuring perfectly-coiffed leading couples. But what has happened is that, on television, Thai news shows have usurped the role of drama-peddlers, while the online news cycle, with its sinister, radioactive quality that spreads and multiplies toxic matter, has become a theatre of click-baiting absurdity and lurid sensationalism. Every day these "content makers" wait to pounce and slap the "drama" sticker on anything they can, then spin a minimal angle into a Mahabharata-style epic.

Celebrity news-mongers seize upon any petty Facebook post, Twitter hashtag or clip of cell phone footage to make non-stories into news drama to fill their ample slots by blowing everything out of proportion -- a car accident, a lotto feud, a domestic spat, a mugging, you name it. On a more disturbing scale, the recent case of the Lop Buri gold-shop robber/killer is a prime example of a real crime being ruthlessly exploited as drama.

A homicidal robbery is worthy of being reported, I think. But the massive amount of air time and resources spent on the story by big and small news outlets alike was verging on ridiculous. Desperate, sloppy and even unethical, reporters resorted to interviewing clueless onlookers, consulting feng shui masters and, in one case, harassing the victims' relatives. News hosts aired every piece of gossip and conspiracy theory while rationalising that they had to honour "all sides of the story". And sure enough, before this story is even dead they will find another one to feed into the production line.

The disruption of old-school media has brought many positive changes, that's indisputable. The playing field has been levelled, the voices diversified. State control is harder (not that they've stopped trying) and narratives are democratised. But we have yet to find the right balance as time-tested journalistic principles are exploited or flatly abused. Some journalists openly flaunt propaganda (almost with pride). Some reporters double as corporate PR. Most "content creators" actually do the job of copywriters for products. And there are those newscasters who drone on about the most useless incident for 20 minutes without contributing anything to the public interest.

I have no intention of declaring war on content. I just believe that we need less "content" and more journalism. More contemplation and less scrollable news. More meaning and fewer headlines. Tough call, yes, in an age when the blanket term "content" opens up more financial possibilities. Salespeople don't even sell "ads" any more, they sell "content". Tough call, when technology delivers fast, cheap and disposable content to your personal screen. Tough call, when even journalism professors struggle to explain a huge, shape-shifting modern information matrix crisscrossed by truth, post-truth, criticism, propaganda, influence, objectivity, PR push, Breitbart and CNN, The Mettad and The Momentum. Pantip and Thai Rath, real fake news and fake fake news, on and on.

Tough, but necessary because otherwise the social service performed by journalists will be outsmarted by political spin doctors and corporate vultures. A big chunk of the burden lies with the audience, too. It's hard to stop thumb-scrolling, to slow down the intake of text and images, to resist forwarding yet another useless clip, to stop passing quick judgment, to really look and read instead of just browsing. To deactivate. If that's not possible, then we must learn to better distinguish between "content" and content.

Perhaps it's time to put that course in school.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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