News In The Time Of Twitter

News In The Time Of Twitter

Is the instant relating of news on Twitter forcing traditional news media to pull up its socks?

By Anubha Bhonsle

Published on :

When everyone has a camera and a keypad, does everyone become a journalist? Events have unfolded before eyewitnesses for thousands of years but it is only in the recent past that people have walked around with cameras, smart phones and a technology in their pockets that allows them to capture, showcase and transmit information as it happens. Does that make them journalists? And if so, is that a good thing? And if every citizen, every eyewitness is going to make news, add to the imagery, tweet instant judgments and curate and crowd-source analysis, where would that leave journalists and journalism?

When the Boston tragedy unfolded, I was away from news and the newsroom. The story developed its way solely on my social media timeline – photographs, tweets from close to the tracks of the tragedy, eyewitness accounts of some of those who had participated in the marathon and some who had crossed the finish line just moments ago. Later I was to see compilations of videos on YouTube and other social media sites.

I remember one with a GoPro camera where the first bomb going off had been clearly captured. There was another in which someone had let their camera roll, the audio was panicky and distressed and there were shots of people with injuries and blood.

The videos and the accounts had clear qualities – there was intimacy, first-person horror. Some were loud. Not bothered with presentation, journalism or fact-checking there were clear moments of exaggeration. There was a “me too” feel to it – but all were adding by the minute to this black hole of a resource called “news”. Freed from a particular habit and style of presenting this information “journalistically”, they were doing it more organically, so there was fierceness, instant analysis, and imagery – all in good measure.

Which led me to think, how was this different? This was nearly how we were doing news, especially in situations of “breaking news”, when events had just happened. I was to later go through other sites and see compilations of reportage of the mainstream media.

Here is a sample of what was seen on TV.

“You can’t tell from the video whether these are Americans or not Americans.”

“I shouldn’t say this on TV, but this is a good time when TV unfolds, maybe faster, there is a difference between identification, which everyone can confirm now, right? Everyone is saying it and whether there is an arrest. And the arrest is significant because the 5 pm presser, which is now confirmed, is going to tell us either we have the guy, or it is going to say we need your help finding the guy. And that’s significant for the public, for our sense of safety here. So this may be very different in about an hour if we learn there has been no arrest. But the good news is that there is an identification of an individual.”

I’m going to step away from the clichéd comparison of “old media” versus “new media”. To practice true journalism in this new social media age we need humility and the ability to understand that we no longer have a monopoly over the words or images that define a story. Twitter may give the news, but we need the journalist to give it the context. So when a young girl is raped we do need to see protests on TV, but we also need journalism, to uncover the circumstances, find out why an FIR was not registered, who were the policemen on duty, did the seniors hear about the dereliction of duty and what did they do? The problem starts when news becomes Twitter-like in its information and Twitter is already giving the news.

There is no denying that social media platforms can today spread information and misinformation far quicker than they would have spread a decade ago. The problem though isn’t with technology. The problem is many of us have all but abandoned standards of good reporting, the very basics. The need of the hour is a reporter who will shape a narrative in a cacophony of noise, conversation and abundant content around him/her or on the social web. A reporter who will dig, question, unearth and make the linkages.

Even for the most basic of stories, news can no longer afford to be ad hoc, vague and building on semantics. The ridiculous rigmarole of tremors and reporters rattling with no sense of geography and geology is a relic of the past. Mainstream news must realise that Twitter has in that period brought the information of the epicenter, areas affected, pictures of damage all on one timeline. The news reporter’s primary rival today is not another reporter but the proximity of online testimony and imagery.

Some of the most incorrect information about the Boston tragedy gained momentum because mainstream news organisations were battling for a competitive edge. The problem is that “breaking news”, as we knew it, is now a thing of the past. It’s the hardcore, well-researched, fact checked, double-triple sourced news stories and investigations that are in fact “breaking news”. The anonymous Twitter DM who carelessly spreads a rumour and a TV reporter who breathlessly quotes “sources close to officials” only to step back in the next telecast are part of the same ecosystem.

There is no denying Twitter has made the business of news-gathering and-reporting treacherous. Newsrooms and news editors now have an even greater onus to allow reporters to unravel complex issues, cover areas that have remained on the fringes by and large of both the mainstream media and Twitter.

The social media platforms have now given journalists the tools to ensure that their stories will never and can never be buried. We must make our peace with this new, crazy medium that is constantly updating, and also realise that never before has true journalism, the craft, the context and the basics been so very valuable. The rules have changed for all, not just journalists but newsmakers as well, thanks to everyone’s ability to make news and transmit news. So, a man in Kochi can today bring to light a university scam, a student in Baramati may be taking on a challenge with the local goons and both may or may not be able to put their stories on the world wide web. In this flurry of data what do we want our journalists to do? Even if these stories have been accessed from social media (and they may not have in all likelihood) we need compelling accounts that go beyond 140 characters in their depth and understanding.

Twitter is chaotic, messy and erratic. It would be a fallacy to think traditional media is not like that. The inescapable hurry of the deadline inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality creeps in. But aren’t we accusing social media of that too, of lack of depth and perspective. Journalists still by and large hold the control of access to politicians and those in authority (the Indian politician is still to openly engage on social media, barring a few). Their work, their questions, their research, their understanding are now open to far greater scrutiny than ever before thanks to social media.

A wise journalist once said that journalism is the first rough draft of history (there is more or less unanimity among journalists that former Washington Post President and Publisher Philip Graham must be credited with this line). In the current landscape, many would say that Twitter is perhaps the first rough draft of journalism.
Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter has been quoted as saying, “We provide the information. That’s when we hand off the baton to journalists, to provide context.”

He isn’t wrong. Twitter is in our newsroom. With close to a hundred million tweets uncorked each day, the onus is now more so on journalism to provide context that make this flood of information more meaningful and navigable.