Thinking about what technological innovation has done to journalism in the past two decades can be a dizzying experience. People have more data, better maps, prettier visualizations, more push notifications, faster fact-checking, and so on.
Yet there is a unifying feature behind all of these innovations, and it has to do with the role of media and the public in a democracy.
The news media, the argument goes, must provide the rationally-minded members of the public with enough information for them to see a clear and accurate picture of the world, and then become deliberative citizens. In that regard, technology could help news reports to be more accurate, data-driven, timely, fact-checked, with rich multimedia embellishment.
Technologically-enhanced journalism was supposed to become better at conveying the complexities of our reality to the public. Why, then, instead of an enlightened citizenry, did we then find ourselves facing a horde of hateful trolls, hysterical fake news outlets, a news agenda led by Russian hackers, and a never-ending spiral of conspiracy theories?
Maybe something was lost along the way. One of the fundamental problems with that vision of the role of media in democracy—that only imagines media as neutral transmitters of information on which the public then rationally deliberates—is that it might not be enough for the news media to hold a mirror that seek to reflect reality as accurately as possible.
A democratic public only emerges when its members feel concerned with something, and therefore become a public that cares. Here, the public is not an aggregate of rational individuals, but a community that realizes that it is affected by some issues. And to be affected, to be concerned, one has to have some kind of experience or sensation. Journalism, then, should also pay attention to what we could call “sensationalism.” Not in its derogatory meaning of exaggerating facts and events in an inaccurate way, but rather that our senses and perceptions, our sensations, inform knowledge in the most basic and important ways.
Among the technological innovations of the last decade, there’s a discrete yet enduring format that may fulfill such an alternative, “sensational” vision of the role of media in democracy: podcasts.
Of course, there is a wide variety of podcasts styles and tones, but with their conversational color and their immersion in sound and atmospheres, they have the potential to make you feel things. Podcasts bring you to places you’ve never been, they give you the impression of sharing an animated kitchen-table banter (or a loud bar argument) with a couple of friends. In that regard, podcasts are a “sensational” medium, a quality that may explain why millions of listeners tune in regularly and listen to long-form episodes that defy all common-sense knowledge about the shortness of our attention span.
One of my current favorites is Reply All, a Gimlet Media podcast that explores internet culture. Its hosts produce silly and fascinating episodes about, among many other curiosities, videos of rats eating a slice of pizza in the New York subway. But, springing from the same wide-eyed wonder about anything that pops-up from the weird corners of the internet, they also regularly bring about smart and honest reporting about phenomena that shine a vivid light on the current political landscape.
Even further from a traditional current affairs beat is the endless stream of podcasts about TV shows produced by Bald Moves. The two hosts, who are ex-Jehovah witnesses from the Midwest, record absurdly long podcasts where they just chat about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Westworld. Their success (20 million downloads, and counting) may look like another embodiment of the futility of pop culture, until you realize that part of what they do for hours on is to meticulously debunk crazy fan theories—patiently drawing a line between the factual, the plausible, and the ludicrous. Which seems like a useful skill for a democratic public to have.
Freed from the stranglehold of objective or neutral reporting, podcasters act as storytellers rather than merely as journalists, allowing them to take their audiences around unexplored territories that listeners can experience, and maybe care about.
Sounds familiar? Maybe because that’s the recipe of talk radio, that has perfectly understood the power of someone just talking to an audience. What podcasting adds to the mix is a diversity of voices that were not heard before, and a capacity to reach audiences that were not in the habit of tuning in to the radio at the same time every day or every week.
That seamless integration of podcasts in people’s lives might be the key feature of what is otherwise a relatively low-tech medium that pretty much recycles the codes and craft of radio. Flexibility and chronicity—whenever and wherever you want, but you’ll hear from us again next week—allow podcasters to build a relationship with their audience, a relationship that is made of sensations, friendliness, and familiarity. Not a spectacular innovation, in terms of technology, but maybe just enough of a shift to realize what media theorist James Carey saw as the role of media, that is, to be the “conversation of our culture.”
This article is part of a collaboration with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.