05 May 2009

The New Professionalism?

I was watching "Attack of the Show" on G4 the other day - it's a sort of news show focusing on video-game-related stories. While one of the anchors presented a story, another anchor jumped out from the side and sort of tackled him. I thought it was hilarious, but it got me thinking about how you would never see something like that on Dateline or 60 Minutes. That made me think about the kind of places people in my generation get their news - things like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" - and how they were presented. Most of these kind of shows tend to have a heavy emphasis on entertainment, and old ideas of professionalism are either downplayed or completely done away with. The anchors on "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" still wear suits and sit at desks, but their shows are performed in front of a studio audience that reacts audibly. Guests may be asked serious questions, but they are also asked things that are designed to either ridicule the guest or their work, or simply make light of the situation at hand.

Not that I think any of this is a bad thing, necessarily. Does news have to be stuffy to be informative? I don't think so. But it did make me wonder what happened to cause this shift. Could the internet, where the uber-casual and the prim and proper live side-by-side, have influenced the change? Or is it simply the prevailing attitude of our age that serious equals old and fun and frivolity are the domains of the young?

Personally, I believe that the internet has played a large role. Between YouTube, blogs, and podcasts, there are plenty of avenues for do-it-yourself "newscasts", which can range anywhere from actual reporting on current events to a rundown of what you ate for breakfast. Then, there's the merging of the professional with the casual. Twitter and Facebook, which seem to have started as purely casual affairs, have mutated into a way to keep up with your favorite celebrities, politicians, and yes, even current events, as well as your friends, family, and people you've never even heard of.

Then there comes the question of who decides what "professionalism" means. Does it just mean high-quality? There are certainly plenty of amateur videos on YouTube and podcasts to subscribe to that are of the same or better quality as that of those being paid to do similar jobs. Is it a matter of content? If so, what makes the 5 o'clock news's "household item that could kill you" feature any more professional than a podcast like "This Week in Technology" or, indeed, a cable show like "Attack of the Show"?

Then, I came across this article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/29/exclamation-mark-punctuation. It raised some new questions for me. Are exclamation marks unprofessional? Formal communication may not need the punching-up that might be required to communicate a point in casual online conversations, but the exclamation mark sure can be a handy tool for adding urgency! Are there other punctuation marks that could convey a sense of professionalism or unprofessionalism? In online media, whether casual or formal, I have noticed that the dash has become increasingly popular. I have a tendency to overuse it myself. I have heard that the dash is also a more casual mark than, say, a comma or semi-colon, where appropriate. So, why it's online popularity? Could it be that the dash is more easily read than the smaller comma, making for a more prominent pause in an environment where many things are hastily skimmed? Or is it just another example of the shift in what is considered professional?

I do think that age has some merit in the discussion, though. New technologies are most frequently, by definition, owned by the younger generations. Although their parents and grandparents may use these tools, young people are the ones creating most of the content and therefore, driving the standards for appearance, format, and content. Wittiness and humor are highly prized and rewarded - almost every new meme that comes down the pipes has some kind of ingrained humor to it.

Obviously, some of this comes down to the ability of media consumers to process and separate out information from entertainment. Issues of literacy could also come into play. How do we judge an authentic, credible news source? If professionalism is to be used as a criterion in determining these things, we need to have some yardstick for measuring professionalism against.

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