The Media's Mid-Life Crisis

22/09/2011 13:49 BST | Updated 21/11/2011 10:12 GMT

On an Autumn weeknight in London's Banqueting House, the octogenarian media impresario and Reuters Editor-at-Large Sir Harold Evans moderates a panel of press players to his right and U.K. politicians to his left. An audience, mostly dotted with graying heads feverishly takes notes.

The topics of this Thomson Reuters event: press regulation, reform, and privacy ethics and boundaries in the wake of the News of the World hacking scandal (and the damage it's done to journalism and the media).

Its press panelists are something of a league of extraordinary gentleman--with journalists from The Economist, The Times of London and the BBC coming together for discussion and resolution.

"In Europe we have an idea of deciding what is the balance between public interest and private interest," booms John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister. "Right now it's the editors who decide."

"How do you define what is a newspaper? How do you define what is a journalist? That's where you have the difficulty of regulating," says Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors.

"Newspapers are dying in this country. They're struggling. This is an existential crisis," insists Lionel Barber of the Financial Times, adding, "We have to both innovate and embrace this new media..."

A news media friend of mine muses under his breath: 'It's like the scene in Titanic when the orchestra's playing while the ship is sinking.'

Indeed, there's something of an elephant in the room or at least a somewhat couched concern. The Internet...and more specifically the mobility of the Internet and ubiquity of social networks has been pummeling journalism and and re-shaping the definition of privacy, and how society operates.

As is often the case with these sorts of structured town halls, the most salient and honest discussions occur afterwards, once a few drinks have been downed.

To the point of journalistic regulation, one Thomson Reuters employee points out how all this talk of regulation is pointless when media like Twitter and Facebook exist as open, instantaneous and free-form forums.

After the riots, Prime Minister Cameron had sought to censor the aforementioned to prevent further unrest--as if riots had never been spawned before social media.

To the point of privacy (at least in its broadest sense), for better or worse, this is the era of transparency. It becomes clear how much social mores regarding privacy have fundamentally changed when people willingly give up their private information on blogs, in tweets and in status updates. There is a sense (perhaps initially propagated by a tabloid/celebrity culture's feeding frenzy) that all information is public.

A most contentious case in point: the influence of WikiLeaks and the rise of its charismatic founder Julian Assange (who, incidentally would have significantly spiced up this panel as a 'wild card' guest).

To the point of ethics, these are human-defined and created by society at large, and these moral rules have changed as technologies, inventions and social relationships have advanced and been transformed through evolution... and revolution.

Earlier this month, a frightening article in the New York Times by David Brooks ("If It Feels Right") discussed the results of a 2008 sociological study of America's youth, revealing that many young people have no understanding of ethics or no built-in ethical barometers.

Although limited to a small population in the U.S., the findings provide chilling insight into a changing set of global values (and I say global because nothing remains localized for long in the Internet Age).

I realize that this blog post started by covering the changing face of journalism and the media and has now reached the point of touching upon ethics, transparency and privacy in the digital space. But think about it, the aforementioned media of the newspaper world ('legacy media') was defined as such by a term that according to Meriam-Webster's Dictionary means: "a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression."

At some point, the ever-important word "the" was place in front of the mutable term 'media' and endowed upon its early foot soldiers--newspapers, and then TV news--a sense of cultural distinction and seemingly interminable relevance.

The fact is that, in the literal sense, the Internet is now 'the media' for all intents and purposes. It is the conduit through which information passes. And the term 'journalism' which contains the verb 'journal' (to chronicle) could in a literal sense be used in reference to those who recount events and information via blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

The one thing, however that isn't quite as mutable in its meaning is the term 'society' ("a community, nation, or broad grouping of people having common traditions, institutions, and collective activities and interests"). And it is ultimately up to society to consciously affect the course of the medium of digital and mobile technology, and to assign ethics and values.

To positive or negative ends, if there are riots and revolutions, changing ethics and social mores and differing levels of comfort with the idea of transparency and publicizing of private thoughts, the (social) media is not to blame. The key word here is 'social.'

If something's rotten in the state of Denmark, it's because it is our fault for allowing this inorganic, digital conduit to run amok and define us in algorithmic, aggregate, metric terms, with no human guidance. After all, we're still in charge. The machines haven't taken over...yet.