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Mutant journalism in Latin America: Community interactivity and gamer culture

Por Soledad Domínguez

What does it mean to be a journalist today? Adriana Amado asks in her book "Metáforas del periodismo: mutaciones y desafíos [Journalism metaphors: Mutations and challenges]". Amado, a media and communication researcher who participates in organizations dedicated to quality of information, worked for 10 years doing the research that materialized into this recent book. She investigates and analyzes in depth the famous phrases, platitudes and metaphors crystallized for more than a century about the journalistic profession: the metaphor of journalism as the fourth power, the best profession in the world, the investigative reporter, the metaphor of truth and freedom of the press. Amado told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) she has redefined these metaphors into a new "mutant" journalism, in a context of interactivity and gamer culture, scenarios of a new "mutant" journalism. 

LJR: In a chapter of your book you analyze the difference between celebrity journalism, in which a journalist seeks the approval of being seen to achieve their stardom versus influencer journalism, which is a gamer in search of another player with whom to interact. How does this gamer culture apply to the new journalism? 

Woman with platinum blonde hair in a black sweater poses for camera

Argentine author and journalist Adriana Amado. (Photo credit: Alejandra López)

AA: To be a gamer is to actively participate in the social conversation, where you are part of the community and the community is part of building "information." Most of the sources I get to interview, I get from my participation in social media. It’s about playing, about going back and forth. The difference between a gamer and a spectator is that the former participates in what he/she is doing, gives advice on the game, [and] teaches the rest of the participants. Today, there are many accounts on social media, which are very active with figures who have their own viewers and to whom they show their antics. For example, the Spanish streamer Ibai Llanos — who has more than 12.5 million followers — operates under this logic of reciprocity with his people. There is a symmetry, then, between participants' games in the digital conversation. And many journalists, despite being in social media, still think under the logic of being celebrities. And that the rest of us are there to see them and at most congratulate them for their articles. 

LJR: What is the mutant journalism concept you develop in your book? 

AA: I took the mutant concept from Alessandro Baricco, who in a 2008 book shows that change has different ways of expressing itself. Most social changes are very gradual. Long periods of time are necessary to understand the acquisition of new habits. The mutation makes small, subtle changes that turn you into another person. A journalist is still a journalist, but he or she is no longer the same as before. He is no longer a producer, he no longer generates content. Today, content is everywhere and it is produced by anyone and at any time. Even public officials and politicians share their news on their social media accounts. We have become curators, a gourmet who selects what can be useful to a community and channels it, presenting it to them so they can enjoy that offering. Large media outlets have subscribers in their communities. The New York Times, for example, has a crossword puzzle community. And that community then allows them to make those great feature stories that a very small portion of readers will read. So, what we must think about today in journalism is, how do I diversify to respond to all the needs without losing the community that wants to read war journalism? Today, the journalist acts like a museum curator. What do museums do? They have a basic collection and every now and then they organize exhibitions, games and temporary activities in order to have a more vital museum that can find new funding sources and new interests. Many news outlets embrace a single issue and say, "We have these sections and we will report only on international politics and sports. And they don't stray from there to talk to other communities, other audiences, other interests. The question is: Is that what the reading community expects? Today, we have the generous possibility of being fluid, flexible and adapting ourselves to the time and container we are in. ​​

LJR: And what does the conversation with the community of a news outlet who is no longer an audience look like? 

AA: It looks like  a broadening of voices, not so much and only to the reading community but to other communities involved in the story I am putting together. For example, recently classes started in the schools of the southern cone and with it, the teachers' union problems. And what do journalists report? They interview unions and ministers of education, and where is the educational community in the coverage and feature stories? The educational community is made up of everyone: children, parents, businesses around the schools and these sources are missing in the news. This has to do with what they teach us in journalism schools: they don't teach us how to find that information, how to look for it, or those sources that are already produced. Imagine I have to do a story and an analysis on corruption and transparency. To start from scratch would mean a lot of work and I’ve no idea when I’d finish the story. But if I have tools that allow me to track who are the best sources: scientific articles, technical articles, tools that make me an active person in social media. Doing journalism via the community is an integral network of abilities that today most communication and journalism schools do not teach. 

LJR: What is the most urgent ethical debate in our profession today? 

AA: Ethics has to do with the quality of information. This is not something decided by an internal media committee or a professional committee of journalists. Quality of information is a collective endeavor that has to do with sources, readers, informants, [and] journalists. Today, the most effective corrections are made in real time in social media. The journalist publishes an error and someone pays attention and says "It’s not like that." There are news outlets that are taking advantage of this collective force to incorporate a correction quickly and apologize, and thus come out stronger from the error. That's an example of collective and dynamic ethics. To do that, you have to be a receptive news outlet and have your listening channels open, to have a respectful and attentive community of readers. If we only spend time "producing content," obviously there's not going to be time to build your community. What the gamer ethic tells us is that 80% of your time is spent building community. And 20% is dedicated to the game or tutorial. The biggest amount of time is spent building the links. And if it's nurturing and positive, the community will bring you information, will contribute, will correct you with love. I have communities of people in social media that I don't know personally and that collaborate with my research, they send me sources. And what they suggest and share with me is always very useful. 

LJR: Of all the metaphors associated with 19th and 20th century journalism, which one is the most anchored in Latin America, and how can we redefine it and overcome it? 

Adriana Amado: In our region, the most firmly anchored is the metaphor of investigative journalism. It is a metaphor that is very much revered in Latin America and that unfortunately cannot be developed. Not only because of material issues but also because of security issues. Many of our journalists cannot carry out investigations because their lives are at risk. So, this canonized and idealized idea of the journalist who does his or her investigations - which we like so much and which is fine - forces us to ask ourselves: Is investigative journalism feasible in Latin America? Without abandoning its ideal, which is needed: How can we rethink it so that it is no longer a risk and leads to good results? I believe there is a possible solution for investigative journalism, which is collaboration. That is, building up networks along with research centers and NGOs. 

LJR: In that sense, what would be an example of collaborative journalism to make research effective without putting our journalists at risk? 

AA: There’s an example from the field of environmental research. Many of the investigations started in this area were led by non-governmental organizations that have contributed their efforts and resources, for various reasons, such as greater flexibility to obtain research funding. So why not build partnerships with these organizations to carry out journalistic investigations? When we build large enough investigative teams to thin down liability, that is one way to protect a journalist. So, we have to rethink the canonized image of the "investigative journalist," which was [the figure] of auteur journalism and heroism, which is still revered today. We have to move away from heroic auteur journalism and go towards collaborative journalism along with organizations. 

LJR: Would that be the "choral journalism" that you also mention in your book, a collective form of teams of journalists collaborating with each other? 

AA: Today we have a system that is very focused on X journalist’s byline, on his or her prominence, his or her celebrity. And yet, in Latin America, we see projects that are vital, with many journalists’ bylines. When it comes to awards, there are more and more teams of journalists. These are new ways of working to overcome difficulties, to share efforts and integrate knowledge. The journalist does not have to be the one who handles everything: data, photos, text... And this is how collaborative, networked groups are put together. It’s important to find valuable people willing to collaborate and share their knowledge. 

LJR: What is the main role of the journalist in Latin America? 

AA: What international studies of Journalistic Performance and of Worlds of Journalism show, in terms of Latin America, is that it’s a journalism of argumentation and opinion. This has to do with the limitations of investigating and producing original material that can start from zero. And this is very much anchored in the tradition of political journalism in Latin America. When all the performance focuses on political opinion, it exposes a weak side so that a ruler can say: "Oh, you want to be an opponent." And the role of "opponent" does not belong to a journalist either. 

LJR: Another point about the new journalism that you mention is academic training. Today, class subject areas look very different from those of the 20th century. And this is very much affected by "a technological fetishism" that today pigeonholes digital, audiovisual, radio, text, and production journalism. What could we add to a new academic education? 

AA: In Latin America, schools of journalism, to a large extent, are about the history of communications and not journalism. They teach history of culture, sociology, but not journalism, which is a technical, not theoretical career. So, one finds journalists who can do textual and argumentative analysis and, again, fall into the trap of being philosophers of power, when in fact they should be providing a service to their community. I am a strong advocate of the service role of journalists, from sports, the public sphere, to shopping, health. These are considered marginal subjects and are not even taught in universities. There is a lack of content in terms of the public service journalists should provide. 

LJR: What elements of analysis are we lacking in the region?

AA: We have no training in statistics or data management. Our Latin American universities abhor quantitative methodologies, so a pandemic suddenly appears and we have to analyze the affected populations and journalism cannot do it. I believe there has to be a curriculum of studies on the role that journalism should play in terms of its place as a service to the community. And when you analyze the "public," the most verifiable way to do so is from the logic of the documentary and data. Otherwise, we end up in what we already do: analyzing statements and texts. We do not have to stop analyzing them, but we also need to verify data, projections and draw averages. We live in countries where inflation is a scourge. [But] journalists do not understand the mathematical projection of inflation. It leaves us helpless. So we are highly educated journalists, but we do not know how to make an average. A short time ago, together with ADEPA (Asociación de Empresas Periodísticas Argentinas or Association of Argentinean Journalistic Companies), we made a study of 16 countries on the impact of COVID in Latin America. The main limitation we found in the research was that none of the 16 countries had comparative statistics of data such as the number of journalists killed by COVID. If a university is not able to back up journalists’ denunciations, the threats they receive, the reasons for death, I ask myself: What are we investigating? The analysis of verifiable data gives us information that can generate advocacy and change public policies. 

LJR: How can journalism help maintain the democratic and political system? 

AA: It's very simple: Our democratic obligation as journalists is to defend and value our information. We’ve spent many years talking about fake news and how everyone is lying. And what we build are higher levels of skepticism in society. If those of us who are dedicated to information are telling people "don't believe anyone" then, of course, why would people spend time on something they know is a lie or suspect is a lie. So, we have an urgent obligation to build trust in information again. We have to work more on quality information than on disinformation. Through that, we’re making an immense contribution to democracy. We are dedicated to information, let us do it well and let society recover the value of information. It’s useless to sit in journalists’ conferences saying that information is a pillar of democracy, if then we go out in social media to say that "such and such is fake news and misinforms." So, what do we do? Let's build up and stop looking all the time at what others are doing wrong because society needs us to contribute with quality products. People don't need a story about what they don't need to read. People need good and reliable information to read.

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Contributor Soledad Dominguez is a journalist covering and writing stories on human rights, racial equality and innovation in journalism in Argentina and Brazil.

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