Monday, 5 September 2011

When Journalism chased the rainbow

Social media has changed journalism for good in a number of ways. Whilst many of the changes have been positive, not all the developments have been positive. On balance, does the positive’s still outweigh the negatives?

Ten years ago when the twin towers fell, social media didn’t really exist but online was suddenly became the most important media for the first time. Twenty four hour rolling news could only cover the pictures and the shock of the images on that day overshadowed the level of factual details of the event.

News of loved ones, details of the initial damage and the need to know what else was happening from billions lead to major news corporations drowning in the additional traffic; Message boards overflowing with comments. It was here that a new breed of internet only websites came to the wider public’s attention.
A few years later, the Hudson plane crash broke as hundreds of New Yorkers saw a plane descending at an unerring height – unsure whether it was a repeat or something else. By the time the plane had landed, the story had been recalled across Twitter countless times and the news stations were struggling to get the story.

Even now the pressure on rolling news sees them chase the story, often in vain. I’m regularly hearing about stories, particularly from other countries.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that rolling news is getting it wrong trying to catch up. Take the bomb in Sweden where Sky and the Sun were heralding the arrival of Al Qaida based on assumption upon assumption until they had built a constructed news story on speculation. The same people a few hours later were making similar claims about far right extremism.

Weeks later the riots were blamed on social media, despite social media being blameless – again because of speculation, guesswork and a desire to push the news agenda on.
Journalists feel the pressure to get results, but they are sometimes missing the trick of making the most of the medium you are in. When I trained as a journalist, I learnt that there were three stages to a news story:

• The initial breaking news
• The detail of the incident
• The analysis of the ramifications.

Then, this could mean a story lasts three or more days. Nowadays all three phases are covered off almost concurrently. As the news breaks, the details are assumed and the guests are wheeled on to discuss the assumptions without having had any time to gather their own information on the event. Relying on the news source, their views are skewed from the beginning.

Traditional media is never going to beat social media to the next earthquake. But it has the resource to get reporters to the scene with professional VJs (Video Journalists) relying more accurate and objective reports than the partisan mobile phone videos, however intriguing they are.
The death of radio has been exaggerated for so long now, but radio realised the power of the theatre of the mind. Emotions seem rawer with a detached voice and evocative wildtrack. Print cannot be beaten for double page spreads of stats and visual layouts that are tricky even on a computer screen. Yet journalists are chasing the big story while missing some of the more popular quirky stories by days – something online news sources and scraping services have been taking advantage for years.

The world has changed with social media but the basics of journalism are being lost. Attributing sources are becoming vague or non-existent. This week alone I heard a news story begin “according to reports on Facebook” – not quite the trusted news mole in the home office or facts based on cast iron documentation. Reports need to be checked and double checked. Many of the conspiracy theorists on 9/11 basis their entire fiction on the misreporting of a confusing and ever changing events of that day. It are these inaccuracies that distort the truth and perpetuate myths and fears.

The world of 24 hour news needs to slow down, play on its strengths and not rush past the story before its even begun - ensuring all three stages of reporting are played out. If they don't, then it is the viewers who lose out.

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