Coverage of events like the Virginia Tech shootings, the London transport bombings and hurricane Katrina would not be complete without a rush to predict the end of news as we know. Robin Hamman at his Cybersoc blog put it like this yesterday: The past few days have pointed to a future where audiences are likely to look first to blogs and other forms of participatory media for first hand accounts of emerging stories before turning to the mainstream media.
Of course mainstream media will still have a role to play - confirming those stories, providing thoroughly researched facts, and gathering comment from credible sources.
Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, did not switch on his TV until the evening on the day of the shootings in Blacksburg.
Instead he “used the online media — including the major news sites — to get the latest information, sifting it, making judgments about credibility and reliability as I read and watched and listened. That, too, is the future in many cases”.
He points out that the “citizen media” component is not new and writes of the home movie footage of the shooting of President Kennedy which became an essential part of the historical record. He continues: In 1963, one man with a camera captured the event on film.
In a very few years, a similar situation would be captured by thousands of people — all holding high-resolution video cameras — and all of those cameras would be connected to high-speed digital networks. That is different.
Gillmor says, “We will still need journalists to help sort things out” and concludes: We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft.
This is not a worrisome change, not if we are appropriately skeptical and to find sources we trust. We will need to retool media literacy for the new age, too. Giving everyone with an internet connection access to much of the raw material of news is new and changes things.
It opens up traditional journalism to more, valuable scrutiny and challenge. But I find it difficult to believe that the mass of people will turn first to blogs, YouTube and Flickr as first sources of news. This takes me back to Pew Research’s latest report on what What Americans Know (figures below are taken from the questionnaire) released this week.
One of the options in the question about sources of news, was “Read online blogs where people discuss events in the news”. The figure asnwering “yes” was 11%. Only listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show scored lower(8%).
By contrast 55% read a daily newspaper, 46% watched nightly network news and 39% CNN. I doubt very much whether people en masse will ever choose to go to unmediated material as their first source of news. It is simply too time consuming and too difficult to make sense of it.
The work of journalists covering any big story is essentially to find, aggregate and select. It is work that requires a team of people, reporters, photographers, news editors, copy tasters… It is not just the reporters on the ground but those in the office who hit the phones trying to find eye witnesses, experts, officials, friends, relatives and anyone else who might contribute to the story.
Added to that mix we now have blogs, YouTube and flickr which produce dramatic stories and pictures. They help to build up the overall picture. Unlike the traditional reporter’s interviews everyone has direct access to the material.
Mainstream media’s websites are also soliciting videos, stills and personal experiences of major events. This “participatory media” is certainly changing the way journalists go about assembling the story.
But that does not mean it is going to take over. Journalists have always had to try to make sense out of the noise of conflicting information, multitudes of sources and confusion. Now there are more sources and that makes the job tougher yet.
It was hard enough when the volume of material was restricted by the capacity of the teleprinter feeds. Then electronic transmission to desktop computers increased the volume and now the internet produces even more material to be read.
Dan Gillmor as a journalist, has the experience to sift information and make judgments on credibility and reliability: most people do not. Neither do they have the time.