Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The real-time erosion of journalism

At a social media summit held by the BBC last week, the news outlet posted the process it follows for verifying user content at their user-generated content (UGC) Hub in London. Matthew Ingram wrote about the process at last Friday. Ingram says there is a desk in the middle of the BBC newsroom with dedicated staffers pulling reports from social media outlets and verifying them.

These staffers sometimes spend hours conducting journalism-style forensics to figure out if a certain photo was taken where and when the photographer claims, if a Twitter post holds water, if a video was really taken minutes earlier at the nexus of a revolution. They do this by studying shadows to verify the time of a photo or video, checking locations based on what is visible in the background, identifying accents and dialects to determine whether a video was recorded at the specific location claimed by the person who submitted the piece.

Now, the BBC has an immense wealth of resources. From what I read about its verification of social media leads, the resources are well-used. Staffers can verify accents, dress, locations as easily as emailing or calling a colleague somewhere else in the world and sending them the video or photo. Throughout the Arab Spring of the past few months, individuals or makeshift news teams have been taking the initiative and creating a narrative that would not otherwise be known to the rest of the world. It’s amazing that people in other countries have had access to this information. And if everyone were approaching real-time news reporting like the BBC, it would be great. There, it seems as though nothing hits the presses or airwaves without having met a rather rigorous test of veracity. That is news. But will all news outlets dive into these uncharted waters with equal integrity? Will other outlets hold citizen journalism to the same standards as traditional journalism?

Did you guess ‘no’?

Andy Carvin has sort of been doing the same thing as the BBC over at NPR during his coverage of the Arab Spring. He’s the guy who “tweeted the revolution”. Carvin starts his reporting process with a non-stop onslaught of information coming in through social media. He also has a stable of reporters or sources that he has worked with and trusts. That’s great. What bothers me is that he sometimes retweets unverified information and asks the “crowd” to help him verify it.

Maybe it’s just me, but Carvin seems like (a potentially legit journalist in other realms, but in this one) a big gossip. How does he know the verification that he’s getting from people besides his trusted group is for real? Who is it coming from? Other people steeped in the revolution? The opposition? Either way, I’m guessing it’s not the most unbiased info.

I know a huge shift in journalism is happening, and it is a necessary one. Given social media and new and better technology, journalism cannot be left behind the curve. It should be ahead of it. But this just seems irresponsible. There are growing numbers of people who applaud Carvin and think he’s at the cutting edge; that news is happening and must be reported in real-time. Personally, I’ll take a two-hour lag in reporting any day if it means I’m getting the most accurate information possible and not something that may or may not have happened…can anyone out there verify?

Ingram says that Carvin is not the only newsmaker that uses crowd verification. Mark Little, founder of Storyful, a tool allowing journos to collect video and content on a specific topic, says that the “human algorithm” is the future of media. The human algorithm is a cool idea, but it’s not news.

It’s true that even if expansive foreign news bureaus still existed, they couldn’t be- and never were - everywhere at once. They could not possibly always be everywhere something interesting is happening on the ground. They could not report the kinds of things that were reported by Egyptian youths during their revolution early in the year. But does that mean that we should move to a model of journalism where the standards are so low? Where everyone is a journalist? I hope journalism still requires a lot more finesse than that.

Ingram argues that twitter news is being disseminated in the same way news has always traditionally gotten out to the masses – a report comes in over the wire, it’s fact-checked, then goes to print or air. It’s then updated as necessary when additional information comes in. He calls Twitter the “real-time news wire for the world”. Well, it’s not exactly like the days of yore, Matt. Back in the day, you know, five years ago, news stories consisted of more than 140 characters. There may have been a news flash as soon as a story came over the wire that could be akin to today’s tweet, but then it was followed with a real, in-depth story with some meat to it.

There was a perfect example of this with the raid on Osama’s compound last month. There was a firefight, firefight, FIREFIGHT!! Two days later, we learn there was never anything coming close to a firefight. The whole thing was eerily non-combative. Who ever said anything about a firefight? How did that ever become part of the story, considering it was pure fiction? Why, in the middle of the biggest U.S. security-related accomplishment in years is the White House having to walk back the story of how everything went down?

I truly loved the concept of citizen journalism when I first read about it. I still like it in theory. But I think it needs to be harnessed. If, as Little suggests, anyone can become a reporter and start producing news, who is going to be consuming it? Is the future of media going to look like a room full of demanding children all jockeying for attention? Wait a minute! That’s already what media looks like. And just like that room full of children, it’s a nightmare.

Little’s human algorithm reminds me of some flash mob videos I’ve seen on youtube. Sometimes there are so many people involved in the mob that when everyone is finished revealing themselves as participants, there’s one schmo left in the food court to watch. What’s the point? And was that guy meant to be left watching, or did he just forget to check his email that morning?

Where does media and journalism begin and end in this new model? The line should be a little blurred, a little amorphous. Technology - for good and bad - has made that unavoidable. But I think there should be a set of people expected to reliably deliver a set of facts and a set of people who can confidently consume that information.

Inherently, there’s nothing wrong, and nothing stopping a citizen journalist from creating a news stream. Part of me can relate to the excitement that approach breeds – the wide open possibility of covering a story, and the possibility of reading about something like the Arab Spring from participants definitely has a certain allure. And maybe that is the kind of situation to which Carvin’s approach should be confined – breaking news, one-of-a-kind, you-had-to-be-there-to-get-it kind of stories. But journalism in general is all about having standards and sticking to them. The general public posting “news stories” willy-nilly as it encounters them and legions of staffers going nuts trying to confirm and verify them has the potential to be chaotic and confusing.

I suppose this dumbed-down, inaccurate coverage may well be the future of journalism. Some see that as exciting and cutting edge. I think it’s unfortunate.