Technology can do more than ‘inform and engage’

Jason Stverak President, Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity
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During a commencement address at Hampton University, President Obama bemoaned increasing use of technology by Americans to stay entertained instead of “informed and engaged.”

He cited incredible inventions—iPad, iPod and Xbox—that he said have become ‘diversion’ rather than ‘a tool of empowerment.’ He discussed the problems with the “24/7 media environment” that “bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments.”

Valid points. But he didn’t highlight advantages for news consumers in a media cycle that never sleeps, and the many platforms now available to access news on the go. He didn’t mention the number of companies and clients relying on technology for their survival. More importantly, he didn’t push the Hampton students and citizens all over America to use technology to become news producers themselves.

How Americans get news changed dramatically over the last decade. According to a March 2010 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Internet is now the third most popular news platform, behind local television news and national television news. The study also found that 92 percent of Americans rely on more than one news source every day. That reinforces other studies: Americans no longer rely on one media outlet for all their news.

Opportunity for Americans to get more news in many ways from a variety of sources can improve democracy by ensuring a better-informed and aware public. If a working mother with only 20 minutes a day to read her local paper or watch the nightly news has a BlackBerry or iPhone that feeds selected stories ranging from PTA bulletins to Supreme Court nominations in between carpool, meetings and soccer practice, she will be better informed.

This is fundamental to accessing news on the run. Without technology, we would not have access to information that makes us better citizens. The 24/7 media environment and range of views on websites, broadcast and cable news and in print to give Americans every side of an issue and the power pick which side is true. This makes democracy.

In addition, we as a country cannot afford to rely on traditional media like newspapers to get all of our information. Local television news ratings continue to suffer historic declines and radio abandoned news a decade ago. That leaves communities without coverage. Forced to live without vigorous local and state coverage, citizens must find other ways to get news or they are left in the dark. They also need to hear all sides of public debates to make informed decisions on who to vote for and what issues to support.

That’s where technology really becomes a game-changer. Now all citizens can gather and publish news. They can report, write and record to feed traditional media, Blogs, other websites or their own. For the first time in history, average citizens have the power to control information flow.

All we have to do is use it.

President Obama was right when he clearly stated that America thrives when “each of us stays informed and engaged” through technology instead of merely distracted and entertained by it.

The President must repeat that message often. But please add a paragraph reminding Americans we now can be a lot more than consumers of news. Now all citizens can produce news which will hold “our government accountable,” and fulfill “the obligations of citizenship.”

Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.