News 2.0: The Future of News in an Age of Social Media Ira Basen August 17, 2009
The way news is collected and transmitted is undergoing fundamental change in an era of social media where the values of immediacy and speed dominate. Basen argues that a turning point has been reached. Newsgathering has become a collective pursuit of many types of communicators, and many types of journalism. The result is not only a more complicated news process but new and difficult editorial and ethical issues.
For more than a century the tools of journalistic production -- the ability to report, photograph and videotape events, and distribute that material to a mass audience -- have resided in the hands of a small group of people who, by convention and by law, have been called journalists.
But in the early years of the twenty -first century, the tools of production now belong to just about everyone. Thanks to “Web 2.0” technology -- blogs, wikis, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and video sharing sites like YouTube -- billions of people can transmit text, photos, and video instantly to a worldwide audience at virtually no cost. Journalism in a 2.0 world is no longer the exclusive preserve of professional journalists.
There is much to celebrate about News 2.0 and the potential democratization of the media that it portends. A.J. Liebling once famously declared that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Well, now everyone can be their own press. Mainstream journalism is no longer the only game in town, and the new players aren’t playing by the same rulebook. They have created their own standards and ethical guidelines, and have left many traditional journalists trying to cope with the changing realities.
Take, for example, the critical question of verification. In their classic textbook, The Elements of Journalism, authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that “in the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art. Journalism alone is focused first on getting what happened down right.”
Now, there’s no question that in mainstream journalism the “discipline of verification” often breaks down, and has sometimes been rather undisciplined. The New York Times recently acknowledged that an obituary of CBS newsman Walter Cronkite contained no fewer than seven factual errors, despite it having been reviewed by five different editors. Journalism is also a very competitive business, and in the race to beat the other guy to the “scoop,” it is not unusual for reporters and editors to skip a step or two on the road to verification. Still, the notion that “it is better to be right than first” is one of the central tenants of mainstream journalism.
But in News 2.0, being right often takes a backseat to being first. Take the case of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The notoriously secretive Jobs has been the subject of several erroneous Internet stories about his health. The most recent example occurred on the morning of October 3, 2008. iReport, the unfiltered, unedited citizen journalism site run by CNN (the most trusted name in news), published a story by a correspondent named johntw claiming that Jobs had been rushed to hospital suffering from a massive heart attack.
IRA BASEN began his career at CBC Radio in 1984. He has created and produced several network programs and special series, including Spin Cycles, an award winning, six part look at PR and the media, that was broadcast on CBC Radio One in January/February 2007 (). He also created and produced News 2.0, a two- part examination of the future of news in an age of social media broadcast in June 2009.
Ira has written for Saturday Night, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He is also a columnist for www.cbc.ca. He has won numerous awards, including the Canadian Science Writers Association Award, the Canadian Nurses Association Award, the Gabriel Award, and the New York Radio Festival Award. He has developed several training programs for CBC journalists, including courses on short-form documentary making, spin, ethics, and user generated content.
He has a BA from Carleton University and an MA and ABD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently teaches at Ryerson University in Toronto, and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario. He is the co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists (Knopf Canada, 2005).
“My source has opted to remain anonymous,” the post read, “but he is quite reliable. I haven’t seen anything about this anywhere yet, and as of right now, I have no further information, so I thought this would be a good place to start.”
That iReport story was immediately re-posted and re-tweeted around the world. Shares of Apple went into freefall, losing nearly $5 billion in value in just twelve minutes. Moments later, an Apple spokesperson declared there was absolutely no truth to the story, and iReport pulled “johntw’s” post off the Web site. Apple shares rebounded as quickly as they had fallen. Security regulators immediately began an investigation to determine if someone had planted the story in order to profit from the fluctuation in the stock price. It later turned out that “johntw” was an eighteen year old who did it just for the fun of it.
But “johntw” had unwittingly exposed one of the great fault lines between News 1.0 and 2.0. For journalists in a 1.0 world, this story is about as bad as it gets. Any reporter or editor who would publish an unverified tip from an anonymous source on an economically sensitive story would almost certainly be looking for a new job that same day.
But within the world of news 2.0, the Steve Jobs heart attack story is seen not as a failure, but as a triumph. The self-correcting mechanism of the Web, the ability for readers to identify and correct errors quickly, had worked precisely as it was supposed to. The story was born and died in less than half an hour.
Mathew Ingram, who writes on technology for The Globe and Mail in Torontoand is also one of Canada’s leading tech bloggers, was one of the people who re-tweeted the story that morning. He originally saw it while checking his Twitter feed on the commuter train he was riding to work. “I saw what appeared to be a credible report,” he recalls. “So I posted it and said ‘There’s a report,’ just as simple as that. I can’t say really whether I believed it or not. I mean it was literally just a sentence and I thought “this is interesting.” It’s interesting if it’s true, it’s arguably interesting even if it’s not true,”
In hindsight, Ingram says he feels badly about misleading his readers, even for a few minutes, but if he had to do it over again, he would probably make the same choice again. “It sort of highlights a whole pile of issues in that gray area,” he points out, “what is journalism? What is newsworthy? When should you report things? I can’t possibly check everything, especially when I’m sitting on the train. So does that mean I shouldn’t re-post things? To me there’s a benefit to being even just a distribution mechanism for interesting things. I can’t possibly verify them all. So then the choice becomes either don’t post any of these things until I can verify them, or rely on people to make their own judgments and research.”
What Ingram and other News 2.0 proponents are talking about is journalism as a process, rather than a product. In a News 1.0 world, reporters and editors try to make their stories as good and as accurate as possible, because once their product has been delivered, it is not likely to change. Not only is it physically difficult to make changes to print and broadcast stories, but mainstream media is notoriously, and often infuriatingly, reluctant to admit to making errors.
Verification by Readers
But that’s not how it works in a 2.0 world. “In professional journalism, we look at mistakes and corrections as a mark of shame,” asserts Jeff Jarvis, who teaches at New York University and publishes the influential blog Buzz Machine. “In the blog world we look at mistakes and corrections as a mark of honesty. In fact, a correction will enhance your credibility, not tear it down.”
Jarvis believes the key is simply admitting that the information upon which the story is based is incomplete and imperfect, rather than attempting to claim infallibility. “If you recognize that a story is a process, that it never begins and it never ends, then it can always be corrected, and it can always be better.”
So if you look at the Steve Jobs story from that perspective, you can argue that “johntw’s” post was never really meant to be taken as true. It was always intended to be the first step in the process of determining the story’s accuracy. “I have no further information,” he wrote, “so I thought this would be a good place to start.” And when readers quickly concluded there was nothing to the story, it died the death it so richly deserved. Getting it out there was more important than getting it right, because in a 2.0 world, without an editorial gatekeeper, getting it out there, and turning the job of verification over to the readers, was the only way of eventually getting it right.
Proponents of these kinds of “open systems” argue that they represent a different path to verification, and that while they may initially result in a higher number of errors than traditional “closed systems,” readers are more likely to see those errors corrected quickly, and with less hassle, than in mainstream media. But only if readers notice. News 2.0 shifts the burden for authenticating information away from people who are trained and paid to do so, and places it squarely on the not-always-reliable shoulders of the “wisdom of the crowd.”
That’s not a concern for Mathew Ingram, who finds himself in a unique confluence of the 1.0 and 2.0 worlds. Ingram say s he doesn’t think of himself as a journalist when he posts on Twitter, but acknowledges that people who read him in the Globe and Mail, sometimes have difficulty understanding where the journalist ends and the Twitterer begins.
In the Globe, he follows the traditional standards of verification. But on Twitter, “people say that they actually see me as a human being as well, not just a journalist, and in some cases the things I post are just me talking or noticing something and thinking ‘this is interesting’….I think it’s important to recognize that we’re all trying to find a happy medium between the old traditional world of media where roles were strictly defined and the way you communicated with readers or interacted with readers was very rigidly defined, and we’re trying to experiment with new ways of reaching readers but allowing readers to reach us with information that’s important.”
The “happy medium” that Mathew Ingram is looking for is one that many mainstream journalists will struggle with as they cross the digital divide between a 1.0 and 2.0 world. Who am I when I post on my blog or on Twitter? Can two sets of standards co-exist within the same person?
But that’s not the only place where social media poses a challenge to the mainstream on the issue of verification. On big breaking news stories – terrorist bombings, plane crashes, nasty weather etc. – the first people on the scene will now almost certainly not be professional journalists, but amateurs who can use their mobile devices to post text, video, and pictures to the Web.
But what do mainstream media outlets do with that material? The “discipline of verification” demands that some effort is made to determine the authenticity of the material, to investigate its provenance, to try to establish its context. But that can be hard to do when the text or picture may come from an anonymous source and may already be in wide circulation around the Web.
In the case of johntw’s post on iReport, the decision was fairly simple. No mainstream outlet would have published that without some attempt at verification. But the Twitter feeds and YouTube videos coming off the streets of Tehran last June presented a much more complicated decision.
The Iranian election clearly was not unfolding as the regime had expected it would. The “winner” had been declared, and yet thousands of demonstrators continued to protest the results. In an effort to control the story the world would be seeing, the Iranian regime kicked the foreign press out of the country.
But they could not control the Iranian people, who were taking pictures and shooting videos and texting messages right from the front lines of the protests, and then uploading them to the world on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube. Some videos showed a young woman lying in a pool of her own blood. She had been shot dead by Iranian security forces.
This free-form reporting left broadcasters around the world in a quandary. Here was an international story of potentially enormous significance. An authoritarian regime had gambled that by restricting press access, they could shoot at their own people with impunity. The only thing that stood in their way were anonymous Twitter messages, blog postings and unverified videos. What to do?
At CBC Newsworld, the cable news outlet of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, there was a lot of discussion about whether to air the videos. David Millan, who was the senior producer that Saturday in June when the video of the girl first appeared, recalls, “We knew that some kind of turning point was being reached. This was no longer an abstract discussion.”
But Newsworld chose not to run the video that night. “We didn’t know enough about it to put it on air,” Millan explains. “We couldn’t confirm or verify it and we were using our normal journalistic standards. We were trying to be fairly cautious, but we knew something was changing, and our thinking about how we were going to use pictures like those was evolving.”
The big American cable networks chose a different route. They acknowledged on air that the videos and text messages were unverified, but broadcast them anyway, as quickly as they came in. In this case, the power of the images, the importance of the story, and the obvious competitive pressures all combined to overwhelm the “normal
journalistic standards,” and the protesters in Iran were undoubtedly happy they did.
The CBC’s David Millan was right. A turning point had indeed been reached. On CNN, anchor Rick Sanchez declared that “newsgathering is becoming a collective pursuit, and we welcome that.” The journalistic landscape has become much more crowded, and he decision making process for those who work in the mainstream hasbecome a lot more complicated.