Impact of postmodernism on digital news

By XUE XIANG / 12-09-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

News on the “hot” ranking list of Sina Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media platforms, is sometimes celebrity traffic, instead of content with news value. Photo: CFP

As a witness of and participant in social public life, journalism is currently in flux. Digital news, which is produced, circulated, and consumed online with the help of various digital platforms, is the first to feel such impact. Under the influence of postmodernism, a challenge to reason, intersubjectivity, and a move toward individuality are taking shape, leading to rich and diversified types of news practices, which calls upon digital journalism to better adapt to the changing times.
Contradictions with objectivity
There is a contradiction between the challenge to reason which postmodernism supports and the objectivity of digital news. In a way, questioning reason is a normal state for human society. However, on social media platforms, this postmodern trend towards absurdity is particularly evident. Personal emotions and reactionary expressions are commonplace and they are often more influential than honest representations of the incident itself. News reports present a mixture of rational and emotional content, deconstructing the basic tenets of traditional journalism. As a result, the objectivity of digital news has been severely challenged. 
In fact, a rejection of reason does not equate to a complete abandonment of perceptual elements such as intuition, emotion, and individual will, but enhances emotional and individual experiences in response to the rational facts, so as to better adapt to user-centered information needs in the mobile internet era.This also makes digital journalism’s “emotional turn” increasingly prominent.
Next, the divide between intersubjectivity and authenticity in digital news is a concern.
Intersubjectivity, by definition, is a kind of relationship that considers subject-to-subject or person-to-person interactions. Intersubjectivity becomes human communication, namely dialogue, interaction, understanding, and consensus. 
In the case of a social event going viral, multiple subjects jointly participate in news production and continuously supplement each other with empirical materials based on journalistic facts, so as to display the dominant roles of different sources and reach consensus in the process of understanding meaning. When artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and other intelligent technologies are embedded in the news production process, humans and machines become actors in the network of news production, to accelerate the ecological change of digital journalism in the process of dialogue and cooperation, and affect the authenticity of digital news.
Finally, the contradiction between postmodernism’s pursuit of individuality and digital news value is worthy of attention. Traditional journalism highlights the factual value of news, which consists of timeliness, importance, proximity, attractiveness, and authenticity. In the era of digital journalism, the birth of algorithms has reengineered news production. 
An algorithm is a kind of intermediary agent between man and the object of cognition, which affects not only the construction of cognition, but also the construction of relation. It has changed people’s previous understanding of news. In terms of relations, it also builds a bridge for dialogue between different individuals and groups. 
Under the influence of postmodernism, people are eager to receive more personalized information. Algorithm recommendations answer this call, but they also expose the drawbacks of traffic. In reality, the amount of traffic does not necessarily match the value of news, especially on Sina Weibo’s trending topics where celebrity news and gossip are the most seen, which seriously undermines the presentation of more newsworthy content. Algorithms affect the flow of traffic on digital platforms, and in turn, audience traffic will affect news producers’ value orientation. Therefore, excessive pursuit of individuality may risk devaluing digital news.
Three types of news practices
In recent years, social platforms influence has gradually deepened, and news media has begun to take advantage of their platform advantages to provide users with endless news content. At the same time, users express their personal feelings towards specific news content through convenient operations such as “like,” “forward,” and “comment,” thus giving rise to news with a sentimental value. 
Several studies have observed that the production strategy for this type of news originates from user-centered internet mindsets. Therefore, this type of digital news features targeted user participation. Some scholars have described sentimental news as a type of news formed by assimilating subjective experiences, concepts, and emotions. It prominently features the use of storytelling to report events, which could provoke irrational responses. In postmodern contexts, this type of digital news often uses sentimental language to magnify disputes over controversial topics, and adopts different narrative angles and writing styles to present news stories and reports that users are attracted to and care about.
The next practice is human-machine collaborative journalism, a news type which combines human intelligence and artificial intelligence by applying machine intelligence to human news production and dissemination to improve the working efficiency. In essence, it is a human and machine collaboration in news reporting. Postmodernism upholds intersubjectivity, while opposing anthropocentrism. The introduction of intelligent machines and technologies into human news production activities not only avoids the pitfalls of human-centered mindsets, but also enriches the intersubjectivity between humans and machines, and constantly pushes digital news into the era of intelligent technology. 
The main characteristics of human-machine collaborative journalism can be summarized in two ways. First is human-machine complementarity, which means humans and machines leverage their respective advantages to compensate for each side’s weaknesses and form a greater joint force. Next is human-machine isomorphism, wherein humans and machines integrate their work and become a co-evolving whole. In recent years, the application of smart robots, virtual reality, extended reality, and other new technologies have reshaped human-machine collaboration in digital news.
The third type of news in the digital era is personalized news. Since users have different personalized needs, media outlets seek to push the right content to target users through algorithms, personalized recommendations, and collaborative filtering. As a form of media infrastructure, internet platforms play an important role in modern people’s daily lives. They can accommodate massive information resources and connect people through online communication and real-time interactions. 
Postmodernist culture rejects the concept of unified and coherent individual. Instead, it keenly pursues diversity and individuality. Content recommendation mechanisms can alleviate users’ information fatigue. Through algorithm selection, high-quality content control, and other steps, platform-based media can accurately assemble and push high-quality news content to target users, which not only meets the personalized information needs of users, but also promotes the vertical and refined development of news content.
Going forward 
First of all, the emphasis on absurdity means that the space for rationality is limited. In recent years, constructive journalism has become the subject of heated discussion in academia and the news industry. Constructive journalism is rigorous reporting of problematic situations with a focus on ways those problems might be solved. Rather than merely shining light on what’s wrong, constructive journalism explores what’s right too, offering a fuller picture of our world. This approach aims to spark constructive dialogue and collaboration, so it is forward-looking and shows that change is possible. 
Upon applying positive psychological strategies in the process of news production and circulation, the media is able to stimulate the news consumer’s emotions. In the case of digital journalism, it could help provide high-quality news content, and strengthen the connection between news media and users. 
It must be pointed out that though postmodernism promotes absurdity, it is still necessary to avoid disrupting the rhythm of digital news, to strike a balance between timeliness and timing, and form a media matrix of constructive news to implement at an appropriate time, to enhance the innovative effect of digital news.
As a structural force in society, the internet activates individual enthusiasm as users participate in information sharing and pool wisdom to reach consensus in the process of mutual cooperation. In addition, human and machine intersubjectivity invites different participants into the digital news production process through sharing, verification, and correction, to optimize the circulation effect of digital news. 
Therefore, innovation of digital news cannot rely simply on human reporters, but must ride on the power of technology and machines. This combination not only demonstrates human sensitivity and insight for news topics, but also takes advantage of the availability and efficiency of technology, thus jointly promoting the development of digital news in the postmodern era.
Finally, the pursuit of individuation means that digital news will not be stuck in a fixed narrative logic. It, instead, will seek to adapt to the needs of the times, and create more innovative products. Chinese scholar Fang Huizeng proposed a news product based on data sonification, which translates data relations into perceptual relations using sound signals to make data relations clear. This innovation has changed the traditional visual mode and reconstructed digital news products. 
At the same time, from the postmodernist perspective, media authority can be eliminated. The blind pursuit of an elite grand narrative or metanarrative does not necessarily catch the eyes of users. In this light, if digital news can focus on common people’s daily lives, telling down-to-earth stories that relate to users, it will surely accumulate traffic, thus enriching the postmodernist practice of digital news.
Xue Xiang is from the School of Journalism at Renmin University of China.
Edited by YANG XUE