Great journalism already abounds on the Internet
By Hans Peter Ibold (MCT)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Amid the withering of newspaper revenues and the ascent of Facebook, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that social media refers to tools for connecting with others and sharing information. These media aren’t inherently transformative. They’re tools with no fixed outcomes.
All media are embedded in cultural contexts that end up determining how and why they’re used. Each technology brings certain constraints and affordances, but ultimately it’s about us. Social media can be used to get us closer to the truth and they can be used to distort. They can be used to enlighten. They can be used to stupefy.
And, as we continue to witness, social media can be used to help topple oppressive regimes around the world just as they can suppress dissent. So I could whip up some anecdotes providing evidence of verified news on social media sites just as easily as I could deliver doom-and-gloom anecdotes. Illustrative? Yes. Conclusive? Not so much. The meteoric rise in social media use since the early 2000s has left journalistic debris in its wake. Distortions! Immediacy trumping accuracy! Cute cats everywhere! Shrunken newsrooms!
Some of this change has been costly for communities and the newsrooms that cover them. In the long run, however, we’re better off. Here’s why. Social media facilitate more swapping and mingling of knowledge and ideas. In the history of media, every major new social medium has brought advances in knowledge and ideas. The recent social media revolution is already fueling advances in journalism and better ideas about how reporters can engage and accurately inform citizens.
Look at the Guardian’s interactive, data-driven stories or any of The New York Times’s socially oriented Beta620 projects. Attend a National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting conference to witness the power of social news. All provide examples of how journalists are harnessing social media to tell great stories with precision. Journalism’s practitioners and scholars are being pushed to define what they do and evolve the craft alongside other burgeoning forms of information consumption and production.
This constitutes a sharpening of journalism, not a dumbing down. And, social media are being used by more and more people around the world to report on themselves. Think of the risk-taking videographers who emerged during the recent unrest Syria such as “Syria Pioneer.” These brave citizens helped provide an accurate picture of life in Homs because of their desire to represent otherwise unreported events.
Still, when we share news on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites, the content we pass along typically originates from major news organizations. Social media sites mostly offer a news agenda built by tried-and-true conventional news media. Social media do something else to support journalism: They help us hold citizen and professional journalists accountable.
They make it easier for everyday people to become what journalism scholar Michael Schudson termed “monitorial.”
“Monitorial” citizens don’t necessarily read deeply, but they do scan the information environment, staying alert to a wide range of issues around which they can be easily mobilized. Thanks to social media, the “monitorial” citizens of the world can track information flows in ways not possible a few years ago.
Most updates on social sites like Twitter are permanently archived, easily searchable and just waiting to be analyzed. For example, I work with a group of computer scientists at Indiana University who created a system — suitably named Truthy — for understanding how information propagates in social media.
Truthy offers everyday citizens, journalists and researchers a zoomed-out view of what’s going on in social media. As a monitor, it’s a potential corrective force against misinformation. This mix of communities reporting on themselves and journalists innovating can get us closer to the truth. In the end, though, it’s up to us, not the tools.
Internet is a Tower of Babel staffed by untrained writers with no standards
By John Adams (MCT)
WASHINGTON — My love affair with newspapers began when I was very young and has continued throughout my life. I still thrill to such names as the Ticonderoga Sentinel, which I discovered while driving through the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Bloomington Pantagraph, where the famous Washington Post columnist David Broder began his career, and the Wapakoneta Daily News, the Ohio hometown newspaper of astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Newspapers such as these do far more than tell you the news. They record our country’s history. They reflect the culture and standards and concerns of our communities. They record the activities of our schools, our churches, councils and Kiwanis, and the births, weddings and deaths that define the passage of generations.
They carry ads for everything you could possibly need, from hardware stores to real estate agents and plumbers to cleaning services. Readers relate to their local papers in ways they will never relate to the Internet. Experts say that traditional media simply cannot compete with the fast-evolving digital offerings of the Web. In certain respects, this is true.
It is the reason that many papers, sadly, have been forced out of business. But the reverse is also true: the Internet is unlikely ever to be able to compete with the public service provided by local papers and their reporters and editors, who love their communities and know every inch of their territory. As local paper reporters gravitate to larger papers, wire services or broadcasting, they bring with them the disciplines of accuracy and fairness and accountability learned at the local level.
All our great journalists, from Zenger to Reston and Murrow to Cronkite, learned their trade and achieved their greatest triumphs in what we now call the traditional media. They have served us well. Their passion for facts rather than ideology has strengthened the foundations of our democracy.
By contrast, the Internet today increasingly resembles a Tower of Babel, with millions of self-appointed, untrained citizen-journalists writing whatever they feel like writing with few editorial checkpoints. Often they are simply purveying their prejudices or ideologies dressed up as news. Many seem to specialize in triggering unnecessary health scares, with concerned young mothers as their preferred target. But as every reader of the Internet knows, once misleading information is posted, there is no easy way of correcting it. The errors remain.
This is even true of Wikipedia, which tries harder than most to be accurate. Newspapers have their faults, including their own biases, but overall they remain the most trustworthy sources of information for the general public. It is a matter of honor for the professional journalists who produce them. But unlike regular newspapers, there are now thousands of “newspapers” on the Internet, ranging from digital editions of The New York Times to look-alikes started almost every week by college students having fun or, more insidiously, by foreign operatives intent on spreading misinformation to deliberately confuse or mislead the American public.
Whereas readers usually know the location of their local newspaper office and can talk with the editors, the location of some of the Internet versions is often shrouded in secrecy. A newspaper or news service with an American-sounding name may be based in China or North Korea. You cannot know for sure. When scanning the Internet for news or other information, therefore, caution is not only desirable but vitally necessary.
The most serious indictment of today’s “new” or “social media” is the continued absence of any rigorous correcting mechanism. Errors can remain forever uncorrected. This is not only dangerous, but presents an especially serious challenge to the millions of young Americans who have come to rely on the Internet as their primary source of information.