Jun 29, 2009

The new news dialectic

In this age of well-trafficked digital social networks, two distinct types of news have emerged: the verified and the unverified.

Verified news is what traditionally has been printed on the pages of our newspapers and news websites and broadcast on the nightly news - fact-checked, reported impartially, presented in a coherent and contextualized manner, conveyed as a story of importance to broad segments of society.

Unverified news is what gets printed or broadcast on a variety of online and cellular networks and that also provides context and deals with issues of importance to broad segments of society.

Recently, and most notably with coverage of protests in Iran, the verified and unverified have been fused together on the websites and broadcasts of news organizations that would never have run the latter in the past.

From the New York Times:
“Check the source” may be the first rule of journalism. But in the coverage of the protests in Iran this month, some news organizations have adopted a different stance: publish first, ask questions later.

If you still don’t know the answer, ask your readers. CNN showed scores of videos submitted by Iranians, most of them presumably from protesters who took to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election on June 12. The Web sites of The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian newspaper in London and others published minute-by-minute blogs with a mix of unverified videos, anonymous Twitter messages and traditional accounts from Tehran. ...

Many mainstream media sources, which have in the past been critical of the undifferentiated sources of information on the Web, had little choice but to throw open their doors in this case. As the protests against Mr. Ahmadinejad grew, the government sharply curtailed the foreign press. As visas expired, many journalists packed up, and the ones who stayed were barred from reporting on the streets.
The writer is partly wrong here: News organizations had a great big choice. Pretending the situation was nearly automatic is a cop out.

That doesn't mean that the news organizations made the wrong decision. Indeed, responsible news organizations can act as a useful filter on the open spigot of social networking. Short of being able to verify the flood of information coming out of Iran, news orgs are in a position to begin the work of verifying information publicly while providing important context.

The New York Times, for instance, still has a reporter in Tehran and has a team of editors with institutional memory, so it doesn't have to blindly repeat what it's seen and heard on Twitter updates and YouTube videos. The paper also has staff that can sift through the flood of updates to pick out what is relevant, and help determine sources who are reliable (old fashioned reporter's work).

Again, from the Times:

Even anonymous Internet users develop a reputation over time, said Robert Mackey, the editor of a blog called The Lede for The New York Times’s Web site, who tracked the election and protest for almost two weeks. Although there have been some erroneous claims on sites like Twitter, in general “there seems to be very little mischief-making,” Mr. Mackey said. “People generally want to help solve the puzzle.”

Readers repeatedly drew Mr. Mackey’s attention to tweets and photos of protests in the comments thread of the blog. Some even shared their memories of the geography of Tehran in an attempt to verify scenes in videos.

Over time, the impromptu Iranian reporters have honed their skills. Some put the date of a skirmish in the file descriptions they send. Others film street signs and landmarks. But the user uploads can sometimes be misleading. Last Wednesday, Mr. Mackey put a call out to readers to determine whether a video was actually new. A commenter pointed to a two-day-old YouTube version.
This kind of fact checking is important in this new dialectic between reader and news organization. It's also why it's wrong for news organization to see this kind of collaboration as inevitable. That's passive and short changes readers. Information may be coming more quickly and from geometrically more sources, but news organizations still have a responsibility to avoid becoming platforms for untrue or overly biased information. They should be gatekeepers worth subscribing to.

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