Cultural jargon is still jargon

It's easier than ever to connect with fellow journalists. But does that mean it's too easy to get disconnected from our audiences?

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

I can't remember quite such an unsettled period in journalism in the 18 years I've been writing this blog. (Yes, this site is now old enough to go to university — which is rather ironic, given that I haven't set foot in the university where I actually teach in over a year now.)

What to make of a plane being essentially hijacked to detain an independent journalist, for example? Let's be honest — you don't need my hot take on that. Geopolitical diplomacy and global journalistic freedom are well above my pay grade.

However, it's clear that we are in a period of shifting business models, technology and cultural norms that might well impact on journalistic practice, and that's where I think we need to focus more of our attention. (We're back to the idea of “Trust, Tech and Tools” that I'd planned to explore this spring, before COVID shut the schools again…)

But as we do that, we need to make sure that our conversations remain connected with the concerns of “real” people: those outside our own sphere of media debate.

61% of Brits have no idea what “cancel culture” is

For example, there's some interesting research from Kings in London that suggests that the tight concerns of the media clique are not widely shared by the general public:

72% report they have either never heard of the term “microaggressions” or have heard of them but know very little, while 61% say the same about both “cancel culture” and “identity politics”, and 54% are similarly unaware of “trigger warnings”.

Now, I'm not denying the importance of discussions about equality, racism and politics. But it's notable that what we might call the jargon of the highly engaged and the extremely online might not be translating to the general public.

The Culture Whats?

For example, look at “culture wars”, a beloved term of op-ed writers and Substack grandees:

[…] tiny minorities associate culture wars with many of the sorts of issues that have been prominent in UK media coverage of this area: just over 1% link the term to the Black Lives Matter movement or debates over transgender issues, while under 1% make a connection to the removal of statues, for instance.

Apparently writing in polarising terms about transgender rights is great for building a paying Substack following, and pretty terrible for connecting with the general public.

And yet:

New media content analysis using the Nexis database shows there has been a huge surge in media coverage mentioning “culture wars” in recent years: 808 UK newspaper articles talked about culture wars anywhere in the world in 2020 – up from 106 in 2015. Even more strikingly, the number of articles focusing on the existence or nature of culture wars in the UK has gone from just 21 in 2015 to 534 in 2020.

The pause before the culture storm

It feels like the UK, unlike perhaps the US, is still in a narrow window where these issues can be brought into a wider public discourse without generating the extreme polarisation we've seen elsewhere. And that presents us, as journalists, with a challenge: do we want to bring the tribal warfare of Twitter to the general public, or do we want to explore the underlying issues in more nuanced ways that might facilitate a more reasonable debate and political resolution?

It's clear that some politicians would just love to import US-style polarisation to the UK (and other countries). Do we aid them? Or do we do out best to keep everyone informed?

And, more to the point, this is perhaps a good reminder that the concerns of the Extremely Online of Twitter are very seductive to the journalists who live online there, but don't always match well with where the general public are, politically or culturally — or even linguistically.

While it's still hard for journalists to avoid Twitter (and they probably shouldn't), it's also worth remembering the simple maxim: you are who you follow. If you lose yourself in the media clique, you'll end up with a distorted view of the world.

Tinworth's Two Rules of Twitter

  1. You are who you follow
  2. You are who you amplify
  • 💉 How did Facebook get on with weeding out anti-vaxxer groups? Oh.
  • 📲 Snapchat's new Studio app looks interesting. Another one in a proliferating field of social media content creator apps.
  • 🤬 Paul Bradshaw has compiled some useful guidance on dealing with online abuse.
  • 🔬 Yet another excellent piece from Zeynep Tufecki, looking at how we've become too quick to dismiss as yet unproven ideas. Science is a process, that sometimes plays out over years, and which can lead to what is “known” changing.
  • 🦠 A good chaser to the last link: some fantastic journalism on how scientists got it so wrong on aerosol spread of the novel coronavirus. Turns out it's all down to a bad conflation of two ideas 60 years ago, which became dogma…

The new language of video

This is a really useful breakdown of the new styles of edits that are coming to define social video. It's a very different language to traditional video.

25 Edits That Define the Modern Internet Video
And create the vocabulary for an absurd, ingenious art form.

We know what you did in lockdown

This is one of the most powerful bits of filmmaking as journalism I've seen in a long time. If you click on nothing else in this email, click on this. (You'll need about 20 minutes. Get yourself a drink first.)

And Finally

The tech world keeps throwing itself at smart glasses of various sorts. And they keep failing. I can see why. As someone who has had to wear glasses since I was a pre-schooler, moving to contact lenses was one of the great joys of my life. I still remain sceptical that large numbers of people want to voluntarily wear them for a large chunk of time.

Oh, and these ones look even more ridiculous than usual.

Snap’s new Spectacles let you see the world in augmented reality
Snap announced augmented-reality Spectacles, the fourth generation of its headset. It uses dual waveguide displays to show AR Lens effects that you can record and upload to Snapchat.
culture warsSocial Media

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.