New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

National Media Summit 2012 at University of Kelaniya, 25 May 2012


New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

This was the title of a presentation I made at National Media Summit 2012, at University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, this morning. I was asked to talk about New Media and policies for Sri Lanka.

In my audience were academics and researchers on journalism and mass communication drawn from several universities of Sri Lanka. I was told the biennial event is to help frame new research frameworks and projects.

Now, I’m not a researcher in the conventional sense of that term, and am fond of saying I don’t have a single academic bone in my body. Despite this, occasionally, universities and research institutes invite me to join their events as speaker, panelist or moderator.

University of Kelaniya, a state university in Sri Lanka, has the island’s oldest mass communication department, started in the late 1960s.

Perhaps inertia and traditions weigh down such places — while I had a patient hearing, I found our ensuing discussion disappointing. The historical analogies, policy dilemmas and coping strategies I touched on in my presentation didn’t get much comment or questions.

Instead, rather predictably, the ill-moderated discussion meandered on about the adverse social and cultural impacts of Internet and mobile phones and the need to ‘control’ everything in the public interest (where have I heard that before?).

And much time was wasted on debating on what exactly was new media and how to define and categorise it (I’d argued: it all depends on who answers the question!).

Part of the confusion arose from many conflating private, closed communications online (e.g. Facebook) with the open, more public interest online content (e.g. news websites). Similarly, the critical need for common technical standards (to ensure inter-operability) was mistaken by some as the need for dull and dreary orthodoxy in content!

Concepts like Citizen Journalism, user-generated content, privacy, right to information were all bandied around — but without clarity, focus or depth. Admittedly we couldn’t cover everything under the Sun. But we didn’t even discuss what options and choices policy makers have when confronted with rapidly evolving new media types.

Half anticipating this, I had included a line in my talk that said: “Academics must research, analyse & advise (policy makers). But are Lankan academics thought-leaders in ICT?

I was being a polite guest by not explicitly answering my own question (but as a helpful hint, I mentioned dinosaurs a few times!). In the end, my audience provided a clear (and sadly, negative) answer: far from being path-finders or thought-leaders, they are mostly laggards who don’t even realise how much they have to catch up!

And some of them are framing Lankan media policy and/or advising government on information society issues. HELP!

Don’t take my word for it. Just try to find ANY online mention of National Media Summit 2012 that just ended a few hour ago. Google indexes content pretty fast these days — but there is NONE that I can find on Google as May 25 draws to an end (except my own PPT on SlideShare!).

Or try accessing the Mass Communication Dept at University of Kelaniya. For the past few weeks and even now, it remains inaccessible while the rest of that university website works.

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far? YES, for now, it does seem that way…

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8 Responses to “New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?”

  1. Mel G Says:

    OMG. I can’t believe these academics actually setting out government policy or are involved in shaping young adults.

    Your presentation was very very basic, infact chicken feed for academics teaching fast pace journalism these days.

    Did they discuss whether journalists have an “agenda”? Average mortals in government seem to think so. I wonder what the “properly trained” journo grads have to say?

    Anyone coming from the Kelaniya Uni school of journalism, will quickly find out that they are fossilised in the modern newsroom.

  2. Nandasiri Wanninayaka Says:

    A great set of slides. Very informative. Satatistics very useful as well. I really miss the opportunity of being there.

  3. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    @Mel,
    Thanks for comment. Part of the problem in my session was poor moderation, but even a more skilled moderator couldn’t work miracles in that setting.

    The academic snootiness came up on a few occasions with some of them running down practising journalists who “lack training”. I’m quite used to professors of mass communication lecturing on newsroom realities without EVER once having been inside one, let alone worked in such situations.

    Some audience comments were particularly harsh about citizen journalism (asking, for instance, what could happen if citizen pilots or citizen surgeons were permitted in those fields). I let such absurdities pass without rejoinder.

    Mind you, it wasn’t just the University of Kelaniya academics; media teachers and researchers from half a dozen Lankan unis were assembled. I sympathise with the graduates they churn out, but worry more about the kind of policy advice they give to naive and opportunistic politicians!

  4. Sandya Says:

    Nalaka, BTW I am a product of this campus, but not the Department, thank fully
    I completely endorse your comments as I know first hand the old minds that walk the corridors of this institution and the kind of lethargy and indifference there seem to be in embracing change! I pity the new generation who unfortunately is fed with archaic theories which are completely redundant in today’s world!
    A couple of months ago, I got a letter requesting me to deliver a series of guest lectures for 2010! And a couple of years ago a student came to me to get assistance in completing her thesis on ‘history of hoardings’! All this from the Dept of Mass Media which is supposed to teach new media trends. God Bless our University system.

  5. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    @Sandya,
    Thanks for comment, which makes me realise that mine wasn’t just an isolated experience on the first morning of the monsoon!

    Something else that worried me, overall, from that encounter was repeated references to computer technicians — perhaps suggestive of a notion in some Lankan academics that Internet-based media are basically something best practised by those who dabble in computer hardware and software? I didn’t get to probe this further, but some audience members spoke with unconcealed disdain towards citizen journalists and even web-savvy hybrids like myself.

    If we extend the same weird logic, television CONTENT is best produced by TV repairmen, while the finest radio programmes should emerge from those who can dismantle a radio receiver and put it back together, right?

    I may be wrong, but is this snooty dismissal of geeks widely prevalent in Lankan academia? I probably riled by singing praise of Geeks for changing our modern world, and in calling for Public Interest Geeks!

    Also, I was puzzled why did NONE of the mass comm students think of live (or delayed) blogging or tweeting from the National Media Summit? There was connectivity and access. But minds already closed?

  6. Nalaka Gunawardene Says:

    Update: A summary of the two day meeting has just appeared in Daily News, 5 June 2012:
    New dimensions in Mass Communication – National Media Summit 2012 by Professor Sunanda Mahendra http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/06/05/fea23.asp

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