The tree of life: political values, cognitive tools and the transformative power of the media

Talk at Waking Life (Crato,15 August 2019)

The organizers of the Waking Life asked me to bring more solutions than problems to this talk, regarding the way journalism and the media, in general, can help to transform the world for better. By this we mean to align with the festival values, what they called, and I think it’s a very happy formulation, the regenerative pillars of society: in order to regenerate, to ill, to let something healthy grow again, we need democratic participation, environmental sustainability, social inclusion, and cultural diversity. These would be the main political goals. The cognitive tools to walk this way are critical thinking, artistic creativity, ethical technology and… that’s my point, the transformative power of media. Since this is a complex path, there are challenges to overcome along the way, and I would list the main ones: to fight back online disinformation and to create a community of readers/viewers/listeners. In short, the biggest challenge would be finding an audience that is interested in relevant content and can distinguish information from political propaganda, strategic communication (from corporations, companies, brands) and entertainment. 

Mbela Glodi, Congolese artistMbela Glodi, Congolese artist

Digital journalism and social change 

Journalism as a tool for social change requires to embrace complexity. A journalism that is committed to the fore mentioned political values, willing to create with the tools we named and that would fearless take the risks and challenges that we know will be continually present is a global project. In what ecosystem will this project develop? The digital ecosystem, which means that this journalism will be engaged in multiple relationships, all of them requiring different emotional and cognitive skills, as well as levels of commitment: with the social media, with the online platforms, with the professional peers, with the public. It would have to aggregate a conflicting set of qualities: to be flexible and innovative regarding the uses of languages, formats, distribution methods to approach and engage sources of information and audiences; but normative regarding professional values and editorial guidelines. 

As a teacher at the FCSH Nova of Lisboa, I always start my undergraduate courses by a formal, almost solemn declaration about the taboos of journalism, the red lights, the lines we don’t, ever, dare to cross, as a journalist. Before I had a lot of taboos. Now, they are increasingly reduced to one: journalism is a reality-based discourse. Journalism is not fictional. The journalistic imagination, which is a truly needed part of good journalism, is constructed like the sociological imagination envisaged by Charles Wright Mills, meaning that there is a conscience that the world we can imagine is part of the momentum we are living, the historical context and the social reality. From there, we can try to see the big picture, the connections, the articulations and hidden meanings that require the journalistic skills and resources to be unveiled: investigative reporting, awareness of what’s going on, what can be interesting for public life, the availability to immerse in a portion of the reality and to study it from every possible angle and perspective, and a literary talent to tell multiplatform stories, with words, visuals, and sounds. This implies news organizations that are willing to invest with time and resources, a journalistic education and training that prepares professionals for digital literacy fluency, big data reading skills, a disciplined critical mind, and, above all, the guiding principle that journalism is a profession, requires a discipline, an ethics and specialized knowledge. 

An old question: What is journalism?

One very good definition of journalism is “storytelling with a purpose”. The way stories are told is often more important than the topic of the story. To be able to tell comprehensive stories is to add value to a topic, to reward our readers with the feeling of having participated in an intelligent conversation: something that leaves a trace, a satisfaction, a desire for more. It has to become an experience. The metaphor I use a lot is the travel. We travel with the journalist, which is, in fact, a very common idea to express what good reporting should be able to do. The accurate definition of the professional field of journalism differentiates journalism from other competing and cannibalizing discourses. Journalism must be clearly separated from all the toxic elements that today are sold in the news package: manipulative, distortive communication, hate speech, partisan oriented positions, polarized world views, editorials about what should be presented as information, opinions and comments instead of a fair, honest, proportional and diverse account of “current affairs”. Journalism is about helping to create an informed debate. 

In a book from a Colombian writer called Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a female character that follows the writer’s journalistic chronicles in a local newspaper tells him: “I like to read you, except when you turn aggressive. Sometimes I can feel that you just want to go for the jugular. We can’t build an argument based on that”. The adversarial confrontation is part of the journalistic culture and it was necessary to build a sense of autonomy, a detachment from controlling political power. But in many cases has evolved into an empty narcissistic exposure of egos with the only purpose of providing a show – the show of negative emotions. Cynicism, disbelief, anger, resentment, shock, wrath, that for years were not admitted into a civic culture, are now welcome and nourished by the media culture. The emotional display of our deep collective mediated existence includes all aspects of life, from intimacy to political activism, and replaces the balance, the effort to address a subject from a more rational perspective. Journalism has embraced this new expressive mood and performs incendiary: escalates the violence, the sentimental, the melodrama, the feeling of injustice. The world is perceived as a threatening, disruptive and hopeless habitat. We know how populism and polarization grew out of constructed fear and suspicion. What Harold Innis wrote in the ’50s is still central to handle the media effects: What forms of power do media encourage? Innis worried about what he called the “monopolies of knowledge, which led to the centralization of power and damaged democracy. 

To be transformative, at least two installed practices need to be expurgated from today’s journalism:

-  The submission to commercial egoistic interests. Most of the journalistic content is paid content, it doesn’t emerge from an editorial choice based on news values, but it’s imposed by obscure logics detached from public good. Journalism needs to be more transparent;

-  To abandon the culture of fear. This culture translates into a certain type of storytelling that emphasizes personal drama, sensationalize emotions, provides endless time and space to minor events, often hyper-personalized, and loses context, comprehensibility, and understanding. We need to build elective affinities like Kant would have said, or empathic affections, but based on shared interests, concerns, joys, that are relevant to public life. 

Media are our fate

The media are not a choice in our lives. Social reality is constructed through mediatization. Digital media become irreducible contributors to collective perceptions. Media are not just the ultimate influencers, but they are the reality itself. Datafication corresponds to the latest stage of mediatization. This concept refers to a long-term structural transformation of culture and society through mediated communication and it means that the human agency is no longer in control. We still have a will, a brain, a policy, ethics, everything that defines humanity, but we moved from a stage where media had certain effects upon society and individuals, they could mold society, to a stage of reification of media technologies. In the contemporary world, media no longer represent events. They create social relations, form meaning and enhance people’s sensory experience. A famous Canadian media scholar from the 80’, Friedrich Kitller, expressed this technological dystopia in a very powerful way: “We adapt to the machine. Media are not pseudopods for extending the human body. They follow the logic of escalation that leaves us and written history behind it”. 

I would finish by using some thoughts from an American professor, Lance Bennet, a specialist in political communication. Lance Bennet developed the concept of “connective action”, when personal action frames are shared through social media networks: “Multi-faceted processes of individualization include the propensity to develop flexible political identifications based on personal lifestyles. People may still join actions in large numbers, but the identity reference is more derived through inclusive and diverse large-scale personal expression rather than through common group or ideological identification.”

This idea resembles what the second wave feminists of the ’70s called “the personal is political” (Carol Hanish). Many private experiences can be traced to one’s location within a system of power relationships. Now we can activate this network of interrelated personal experiences through media networks, immensely increasing its political potential. 

How does media power tastes? 

A lot of young people feel disengaged from political life and civic culture. As we grow hypercritical, there is the prevailing feeling that journalism is one of the corruptive forces of society, rather than a progressive force. But we all acknowledge that media are powerful, and we are part of that power. A culture of ethical information sharing, resistance to manipulation and global awareness of common problems are regenerative. Moreover, it tastes almost as good as the most democratic experience of the world: the dance floor! 

As individuals, our biggest responsibility is with the account, the memory, the lasting narrative, the relevant experiences, the digital footprint: what would be our legacy in the endless archive of humanity, that now is being stored, measured and eventually, potentially, re-used and recycled. As Bragança de Miranda said, the true essence of being contemporary is to control the forms of hatching, erupting, sending. 


Bennet, W. Lance; Segerberg, Alexandra (2012). The Logic of Connective Action. Information, Communication and Society, Vol. 15, Issue 5. 

Innis, Harold A. (2011): O Viés da Comunicação. Petrópolis: Editora Vozes.

Vieira R., Jorge; Cruz, M. Teresa (2017, organizadores). Cultura e Técnica. A Filosofia dos Media de Friedrich Kittler. Lisboa: CECL/UNYLEIA, E-Book. 

by Carla Baptista
A ler | 25 August 2019 | cultural diversity, democratic participation, environmental sustainability, future, journalism, media, social inclusion