The Balkanization of the Media
What are the challenges facing PR practitioners?
The Digital Age has not only opened new possibilities, but has also given way to new challenges to PR professionals. On the one hand, there is a myriad of media channels and formats to convey messages and reach target audiences, and, on the other hand, it has given the audience a greater degree of choice in terms of information consumption.
So, how does this freedom to choose the content upon our preferences that may lead to the creation of separate online social communities affect PR professionals in their day to day work?
Obviously, we can´t reflect on this challenge without taking into consideration media. Although, “journalists often flinch from an inconvenient truth: that without the PR industry their publications and bulletins would be poorer” as pointed out by Stefan Stern, Financial Times Columnist and Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London, the relationship is still mutually dependent and they both have to master new tricks to face the new fast-changing media landscape and tendencies in media consumption.
Across the globe, digital media has a growing importance and has become the main source of information for the public. Also, there is an increased need for personalized content which has lead to the fragmentation of media and proliferation of media channels. As Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO predicted: “Communication will be so good; it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them”. As a consequence, audience per channel is decreasing, but the possibility to consume media content through various channels is increasing.
Still, do we take advantage of unlimited choices of the Digital Age or we just narrowly filter the information we spread as PR professionals and receive as individuals?
The Internet has contributed to globalization and information exchange and information technologies make the distribution of news available and affordable to almost everyone. All of these also imply diversity and freedom for ideas to be spread and innovations to be brought up. On the other hand, high penetration of mobile devices in our lives enables us to access information from anywhere and anytime, but it is also responsible of the media mashing phenomenon, a parallel usage of different digital devices which leads to an instant and less comprehensive media consumption.
Without any doubt, the Internet and digital media have also given us the opportunity to choose what we want to read, listen and/or watch as well as to publicize and share views to reach out and engage with others who think similarly. That gives way to the segregation of people with similar interest into smaller groups which occurs to a degree that they may show a narrow-minded approach to those who have different views. So people now tend to flock to news sights that fit their worldview and follow like-minded people that support their beliefs and block the ones they don´t agree with. In that way, they construct their own isolated media space in which everything they believe is being approved. Therefore, chances to reach them with content that is against their beliefs are almost impossible.
This phenomenon is called the balkanization of the media, Internet Balkanization or cyber-balkanization, a term which is receiving more and more attention within the field of media studies. Originally, balkanization is a geopolitical term used to describe the process of fragmentation of a region into smaller parts, usually due to hostility, but nowadays is used as well to describe the segregation in the media context. The president of the USA, Barack Obama, drew attention to this matter on different occasions stating that the balkanization of media makes it hard to have “one conversation” because, as he emphasized: “You have folks who are constantly looking for facts that reinforce their existing point of view as opposed to having a common conversation”.
In comparison to the pre-digital age when we just had big media outlets which represented a common place to get different worldviews, now we are facing the age of the balkanization of the media when everyone lives into its own micro cosmos, kind of a personal media warren holes, in which everyone agrees upon everything.
In this scenario, when a person creates their own tailor-made media environment, they limit the media discourse only to ideas, opinions and attitudes in common with other like-minded members of that universe. Sunstein (2007) warns against “information cocoons” and “echo chambers,” in which people avoid the news and opinions that they don’t want to hear, but in which even some absurd news can sound realistic if they are in agreement with the common view of the in-group community. This leads to an even more absurd outcome of the digital revolution.
Contrary to what is expected from the Internet, to bring the freedom of information, it has actually encouraged people to cement their attitudes, which in some radical situations can incite hatred and foster discrimination and exclusion of minority groups since it brings together people who have radical and discriminatory viewpoints.
What is curious about the balkanization of media is that it affects all social groups, even the so-called liberal ones. It is not unusual that some texts provoke fierce discussion on social media because the ideas simply don´t fit into the expected “ideology” framework of in-group. Unfortunately, in the Internet era this dismissive attitude has become normal for a lot of people who live in those self-constructed media spaces in which there is no difference in opinion. In that ‘filter bubble’ (Pariser, 2011) the variety of opinions and attitudes is being judged, instead of being appreciated as it has been until recently. So, everyone who disagrees becomes a fascist.
The fact is that we all construct and shape our media world according to our preferences. But, the problem is that not many people leave their preferred media context to enhance their critical attitude. On the contrary, they just make the walls stronger without even trying to see what is happening outside their fortress. That´s why, this is one of the biggest paradoxes the digital media will have to face in order foster critical literacy among new generations.
Undoubtedly, the Internet era has its advantages and disadvantages. But, it is up to us to decide whether we want to live in a global village or in a cyber-balkanized village; whether we want to broad our minds and establish connections or to narrow our views and isolate us from the rest of the world who thinks differently.
And for us as PR professionals, it means that, nevertheless, we have to shape and tailor each and every piece of content to our audience´s preferences which necessarily implies more of our already scarce time. Also, it means that we have to explain to our clients, who sometimes are unwilling to understand, that reshaping the information is an essential step prior to delivering brand´s messages. Furthermore, on the other side of the coin it is a food for thought to which degree we in a way foster this kind of media consumption.
 However, there are also some positive interpretations of the term in the framework of the need for decentralization and sustenance of a particular group or society. Still, these are not the focus of this article.