The Internet and the changing perception of news

The Internet has truly revolutionized news reporting on a scale unlike anything we've seen before. But just like the other tools of communications in modern history, and the subsequent struggle for its control to present news in a particular light, the Internet will also share the same fate.

Communication tools have re-defined what news is. The television fuelled the Vietnam War; the fax machine, the Tienanmen revolt; the Internet, the "reformasi" challenge in Malaysia. In 35 years, from the television images to the internet ripostes to authority, time has changed people's perception of what news is. But this re-defining of society is not new. The Reformation in Europe was an inevitable consequence of education, a riposte to the priests who controlled people's lives in ways some educated Muslim now feels about the guardians of his faith. As people become more educated, his curiosity causes him to seek things out for themselves; this often compels him to question authority. Every new form of communication riles authority and the Internet is no exception.

But the older forms of communication, once accepted, becomes integrated into the system. The television and the fax are so commonplace one now marvels about its tremendous impact on society. But gone forever are the patrician news reports that combined scholarship, insight, opinion which, in The Times of London or The New York Times, shook the foundations of governments. The world changes so rapidly that even the purveyors of news gallop behind it. This emphasis on speed means much falls through the loop, and what dominates is the current image, often the first to seep through. It does not matter now if that image is right or wrong: the premium comes from being first.

News always from contested viewpoint
News is always reported from a contested viewpoint. Governments want control over what its citizens should read or heed with this control either subtle or brazen. The Singapore Senior Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in an essay in Newsweek (July-September 00 Special Issue) makes a remarkable admission: "I'm not worried about political ideas; they are expressed in words. Political chatter on the Internet may encourage more defiance, but is not as morally devastating as pornographic pictures."

But this is so not just on the Internet. It is the latest twist through the centuries, in the epochal struggles between authority and those out of its loop. And coming from a man (Lee) who has fashioned a society in which contrary political views to the ruling party are discouraged, it reflects an understanding of the coming chaos in the dissemination of information. The quest for the "right" news
This struggle exists in varying degrees in every country, the severity or public perception of this dependant on the type of society where it occurs. The Western countries downplay this control as determinedly as its media exposes it in countries beyond its Judea-Christian pale. I have observed the handling of news in the United States, Europe, Asia, and not found a single instance where some form of pressure is not brought upon the media to ensure only the "right" news percolate to the masses. Often, it is not necessary to break a reporter's knuckles, which less sophisticated governments resort to, to prove this. The television age made the government's controls over the dissemination of news more sophisticated. China's experience from the fax revolt made it more savvy to control the Internet.

In some countries, like in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, in the Romania of Nikolai Ceucescue, the Myanmar of Khin Nyunt, typewriters are tightly controlled, and in Baghdad, licensed to boot. Malaysia's discomfiture at the Internet challenge to its official worldview is no less uncomfortable than China's in 1989 or the United States' in 1969. These new forms of communication are now accepted participants in controlling the citizen.

No different from early newsmakers
The Internet therefore is no different from the earlier purveyors of propaganda and news. Each epoch comes with it its own methods. The stone-cutter, Socrates, was forced to drink hemlock because his views upset the current hierarchy. President Lyndon Johnson of the States 2,000 years later had to retire when the television images of the Vietnam War made his re-election doubtful.

When I became a journalist in 1961 with Reuters, the fastest means of communication was a machine known as the teletype: it spewed out 66 words per minute. When I worked in newspapers eight years later, it was the Linotype and hot metal that set the pages to print; two years later, I moved to another newspaper which used what was the first computerized type-setting machines in Southeast Asia.

Just three decades after this transition, news is transmitted via speed lines at thousands of words a minute, so that news selection becomes a problem-a problem still prevalent among news organization. I still carry a typewriter when I travel, but most of my fellow journalists file their stories straight from their laptops to distant editors from the news venue. The news organizations -- from news agencies to newspapers and news magazines -- resolve this huge influx of news by concentrating on the banal, the trivial, the mundane, reserving their main stories, which can be as varied from a child trapped in a well to the Camp David summit, which are then treated with the same emphasis, intensity and irrelevance. The media battles on for mindshare
Every news technology, especially in communications, is revelled as the best thing since sliced bread. The speed of technology is such that a product is often outdated within six months. Most get caught up in this frenzy of changing technology, and find, like Tantalus, condemned to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down immediately. Governments tend to do this as a first reaction to modernizing trends. But more focused authorities evolve their programs around the latest technology and build on it, and concentrate on the task at hand. The media companies do this well but some governments have yet to catch on.

Into this realm, the dissemination of news and views becomes contested. The sensory images take precedence in the real world; the average citizen would rather be fed with news than have to think about its consequences. But concept of readership loyalty in the Internet age is laughable and the mainstream media is acutely aware of this. Many have set up their own Internet portals to continue to attract and retain its readers. But it fights a losing battle. Every one with a view can expound it on the Internet. Those focused in their search can get a viewpoint he subscribes to; indeed, many of the Internet companies dispensing news even allows you to download only those types of news you would rather read or view.

It is in this context that the Internet has changed one's perception of what news is all about. But the Internet is also anarchic. It shakes people out of their complacency and forces the purveyors of the written word to make themselves more relevant. The emphasis on speed necessarily gives little or no time for reflection. The specialist Internet magazines and Web sites that provide flesh to the bare bones of news -- opinions, commentaries, arguments -- will always have a welcome, albeit restricted, audience.