One of the questions that has challenged me as a CHI fellow is, “What qualifies as cultural heritage?” As a journalism and media scholar, I am often confronted with the tension-filled role journalism fills, a perhaps self-imposed role that is situated between the public and institutions, between individual lived experiences and collective storytelling, and between tradition and innovation. Many storytelling forms have been examined by anthropologists as cultural heritage, including mythologies, fictional works, art, and music. But what of the non-fictional kinds of storytelling, the stories that within their words memorialize a society’s significant events, ideas, and progression as they happen? Can news be considered as cultural heritage?
To answer this question, we must first look at how cultural heritage is defined. In the CHI program, we follow the definition of world heritage as set down by UNESCO:
Material culture (artifacts and objects, monuments, structures, landscapes, etc) and intangible cultural attributes (oral traditions, language, ritual, social practices, traditional knowledge performing arts, cuisine, etc) of a group, community, or society that are transmitted intergenerationally, used and maintained in the present, and preserved for future generations.
This definition includes cultural heritage and natural heritage, all of the creations and spaces that provide a collective of people the ability to sustain life and create knowledge, and then pass those things through the generations. As technology has progressed society, these spaces of heritage have moved to also include not just the physical world, but also the digital. Journalism, too, is physical and metaphysical. It makes the current events of a society documented on paper (or screen) in black and white (or color), and it also provides an intangible, discursive space for collective meaning-making.
This view of journalism has been called the cultural or ritual view of communication. This view posits that mass media, especially journalism and news, has served as the “mediated center” of the collective memory, and as our world has become more globalized and digitized, the role of media in this collective memory process has only become more integral to the fabric of society. It’s also important to acknowledge that there is no singular center at the heart of collective memory, but rather, it is comprised of multiple, interconnected mediated nexuses of subcultures, each jockeying for interpretive authority. Through this view, the news is not information that is transmitted from source to receiver, but it is an “eventsphere” that brings past collective memory, present events, and future projections into conversation with each other. Through the tangibility of media, these conversations are made manifest, preserved, and bestowed upon future generations as archives of what happened here.
Several journalism researchers, often from the field of sociology, have moved this cultural analysis of media forward. These researchers include James Carey, Michael Schudson, Barbie Zelizer, Tim P. Vos, Thomas Schmidt, Matt Carlson, and Thomas Hanitzsch, among many others. What these researchers are pushing for is an examination of journalism outside of its professional role in order to ask: What are the effects of the cultural project of journalism and its utility in a modern society and how can it be better?
This is the question I pursue as a public scholar and interdisciplinary media researcher. It’s a question I hope to pursue not just in my CHI project, but also in my dissertation and future research and teaching as a professor. What is the purpose of journalism in a society constantly experiencing crisis and how can it be better to facilitate healing and community building? I think the answer lies in the way we conduct journalism. How do journalists connect with community members in their newsgathering? How do news narratives both direct and memorialize collective memory? And how can these things be used to create moments of collective storytelling to heal both the journalists telling the stories and the individuals living the stories?
By viewing news through this cultural lens, where news is a part of our collective memory and heritage of our future societies, perhaps we can start answering these questions and moving toward mutually beneficial ends.