Journalism in the Anthropocene: Living in Liquid Worlds

By Dominic Hinde

“All that is solid melts into air”, wrote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, a line subsequently borrowed as the central frame to Marshall Berman’s later seminal book of the same name on how we experience modernity. The idea of solid turning to liquid as a condition of both modernity and modernisation was subsequently popularised by Zygmunt Bauman in his concept of ‘liquid’ modernity, the idiom being widely applied to economics and social relations in the present.

It is not just our social relations and economies that are liquid, however – climate change means that the physical world is beginning to lose its solidity too as all that is solid melts into air and water, with uncertain results that challenge the idea of nature as a reliable and static component of our realities. The same year that Bauman wrote ‘Liquid Modernity’, the chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer posited the concept of the Anthropocene, a period in earth history in which human impact was so great as to warrant a new geological epoch.

Journalists – environmental, technological and political – have taken up the Anthropocene concept as a kind of self-reflexive zeitgeist, using it as a catch all term for the hypercharged disorder and pace of change which have come to characterise the present. Some see it as a disruption and a moment of conjuncture beyond which a relatively bright (if somewhat different) future waits, others as an inescapable spiral of uncertainty and destruction.

As the change and desolidification of the Anthropocene have become increasingly apparent, environmental journalism has found itself subject to an increased liquidity too, and is along with the media industry more generally engaged in an ongoing existential dialogue about its purpose and financial foundations. Discussion of the phenomenon of liquid media is relatively widespread, with the media scholar Mark Deuze in particular using the idiom as a conceptual framework to describe the disruption and attrition experienced in news gathering and journalistic work worldwide in the past few decades, but also of the changes to social relations created by liquid media as part of ‘media life’.

Since the early 2000s, environmental journalism has been in strong decline as print media and the generation of environmental correspondents it fostered has crumbled. The torch of environmental reporting has to some degree been passed to new media startups, as click-hungry sites have discovered that climate change stories – both positive and negative – can attract huge audiences. These sites have not, however, generally tried to reframe climate change or environmental problems as structural phenomena, and in fact mix alarmism with clear ecomodernist reports on successes in innovation as part of a globalised and headline hungry news cycle.

Although they differ from what is known as legacy media in their delivery mechanisms, new outlets also still participate in a heavily market-driven tradition of Anglo-American journalism. Moreover, despite being innovative in many ways, such new outlets accentuate a tendency towards desk-bound ‘screenworkers’ who do not report but merely collate streams of information in a structured repackaging of reality. A clear symptom of this is a preoccupation with animal content and emotive imagery, creating what researchers have identified a ’10 animals affected by climate change’ framework which seeks to popularise a dry topic to some effect through ironic cuteness. As the geographer Jamie Lorimer surmises, engagement with the ‘charismatic organisms’ for whom we have concern takes place in print, online or on TV rather than in local interaction (interestingly, this also raises the prospect of a Blade-Runner scenario in which we manufacture simulacra of wildlife, literal electric animals, for our own pastoral ends).

Some of this reductive targeting has been lauded for its effectiveness, together with an idea that climate and environmental change is a complex phenomenon that requires simplification. There has also been a corresponding highbrow movement in environmental journalism to push an ecomodernist agenda. In order to develop better ‘realistic utopias’, a particular class of environmental journalists have begun to suggest possible solutions to the multiple environmental problems we face. This style of elite journalism, characterised by its moral authority, is still reliant on relatively high modern ideas of the journalist as a knowledge provider and intellectual guide.

The response of journalism studies as an academic discipline to the challenges of the Anthropocene has been mixed – there is a glut of research on the transmission of climate science and of the role played by new media in raising the profile of the climate, but little linkage made between the practice of journalistic work and the global situation itself, or of the relationship between media practice and meta-narratives of modernity.

Ultimately, measuring clicks brings us no closer to understanding how we structure the experience of living in the Anthropocene. A central problem in understanding the Anthropocene is that its liquidity brings together long and short histories of deep and contemporary time in ways that we are not accustomed to. Humanity has caused the world to speed up so that geological events now happen on everyday timescales.

Likewise, media still operates using genres of expectation about the present and the future that look increasingly outmoded under liquid conditions. The genre scholar Lauren Berlant has said that global transition ‘has not found its genres for moving on’ as relations of cause and effect break down and the way the world narrates itself suffers from ‘genre loss’. Under liquidity, instead of temporary crises that disrupt a solid settlement, environmental catastrophes will become an integral part of the present and relationships of cause and effect will become ever more difficult to discern.

There is a consensus that what is coming in the next thirty years will be unlike anything else in human history. Things are about to get fast and weird in a way that will likely transform not only the planet but also the experience of humanity and the modernity we inhabit. Media work is also subject to disruption in the same way that other forms of professional competence are; news work is not separate from the economy at large and the automation of the media workplace (as well as the precarious gig culture) is found across media industries to an even higher degree than in the wider economy.

Liquid journalists are characterised by mobility, flexibility, editorial self-judgement, and multiliteracy, but also the interactional nature of their practice. Although the rise of ‘screenwork’ has characterised the early transition to liquid media, the ultimate trajectory of liquid journalism may be to abandon the desk entirely and for the extant processes of filing, commissioning and genre reporting to melt into air too. It is through this kind of innovation that journalism might keep its important and democratic role as, in the words of John Hartley, ‘the primary sense making practice of modernity’. These post-environmental journalists will have to abandon their electric animals and instead tell stories about systems of which they are themselves an integral part.

This may sound so abstract as to be of little use to practicing journalists, but liquidity as a perspective is a strength as well as a challenge. Journalistic practitioners who understand their own position within a fluid system, and who embrace the messiness of their subject, will be those who can most effectively convey the realities of the Anthropocene’s dissonant temporality and need for resilience and adaptability in the face of unprecedented change.

Dominic is a journalist, writer, translator and media academic based between Edinburgh and Stockholm. He tweets at @DominicMHinde.

Originally posted 25th October 2017

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