Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Is Mainstream Media DOOMED?

TEHRAN, IRAN - JUNE 16:  A woman attends a sta...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Does the fact that social media has been leading the coverage of the Iranian protests mean the end of MSM, or mainstream media?

My post yesterday attracted a couple of interesting comments from The National’s Jen Gerson and Insurgency Watch’s Christopher Allbritton. Both are highly respected journalists with ‘form’. Jen’s points also led to a thought-provoking post on her blog last night.

So, to continue the conversation, I thought it might be worth taking their points as a Q&A...

Tonnes of the #iranelection tweets were rehashed MSM coverage
A lot of people were retweeting links to MSM pieces, yes. But if you were following close or primary sources, you were also getting the voice of people on the ground. Some of those voices, incidentally, are suspect. You have to take care over who you’re following and how much salt you take with each report. The skill in that is little more or less than a journalist would use to balance sources – and I do think that many people today have a refined enough news sense and awareness of the Internet to be able to make those judgements by themselves. We're big boys and girls now...

Having said that, a guide to decent breaking news is no bad thing - there are a lot of people out there Tweeting links to things that engaged or amused them - and when you start including hashtags, you have a good contextual stream. If you follow the right people, BTW, you get a better editorial pick than if you follow less acute observers. The choice, you will see, is in who you choose to follow. Same with journalism, same with newspapers. I read Jen because I like her writing and find it insightful. I follow @catboy_dubai 'cos he's a pal and is amusing. I like @deafmuslim because she’s a great writer and quite potty – and challenges my view of things. I choose not to read Germaine Greer any more. I loathe the Daily Mail. My choice of, errr, 'media'.

The awesome pics are from wire services
Images from wire services? Yes, of course. They're the images that most Middle East newspapers will use because they haven't got their own snappers on the ground. So I'll take a Tweet of a Getty/Reuters pic today over waiting until tomorrow

But there were also a lot of important images that weren’t wire service stuff. Like this image, for instance, that struck me so much. BTW, at the moment itself I don’t think we’re looking at sourcing halfway decent images – we’re looking at witness report that tells the story. Quality is not the benchmark.

Verifying information doesn’t mean waiting for a second Tweet. It means calling round sources or being an eyewitness yourself.
Although I am, by dint of my own background as a journalist and writer, minded to agree, I also think we’ve moved on a little. While there is undoubtedly room for sober, reflected, contextual analysis (something we see all too little of, BTW, in our regional media as well as international media) there is also room to take the stream of eye-witness report and form a view from that. If you’re seeing 30-40 people on Twitter saying that police are hitting the rioters hard and then getting Tweets detailing injuries, the flow of events would tend to suggest a measure of reality coming from the ground. Combined with real-time reports from newswires or other sources, you’ve got the story in front of you, but the story presented in a way that no broadcaster can equal – eye witness accounts of events unfolding, real people, real emotion, real reaction.

I do think that MSM often fails to meet that standard of journalistic integrity, BTW. Again, particularly in our region, good, balanced reporting that takes the facts, challenges them and searches for balance, completeness and the three sides to the story (yours, mine and the other guy’s) is often notably lacking.

Disinformation is a problem with crowdsourced media
Agree – because you’re actually in the crowd and so you’re as prone to each new rumour and report that’s coming through. Which is why, going back to your first point, it’s vitally important that we DO have people like Reuters and AP on the ground. Or people like yourself or Christopher. But that’s journalism, not media. I have RSS feeds of the major newswires and get the stories as they break. So I can verify the big stuff – which gives credence to the little stuff. And so I can quickly build a picture of which Twitterers are ‘on the money’ if I want to.

But this comes down to the point, I think. I don’t need CNN or Sky to see what’s happening – in fact, the whole #CNNfail thing was about thousands (tens of thousands) of people feeling strongly that CNN’s editorial judgement was deeply flawed in not affording these events top line coverage. I think many news outfits were unprepared, under-resourced and under-educated on the whole Iran story. So what's better, a young, unprepared cub journalist pitched into covering the Tehran story from the Dubai bureau, or witness reports from on the ground?

By the way, I will never forget seeing journalists in my hotel in Amman reporting 'from the Iraqi border' during the Iraq invasion. Not all journalism is bad, but the really woeful stuff has dented public faith in the credibility of journalism a great deal. And no, I don't like that at all.

Blogging triumphalists don't give us enough credit
I don’t much like the tag ‘blogging triumphalist’, you’ll probably be unsurprised to know. I and many, many other people I know feel that we are not being well served by ‘legacy’ or mainstream media. But it’s the media I’m talking about – not journalism. Journalism online can positively thrive, Christopher himself is a brilliant example of that and I’ll add my two personal favourites, AdNation’s Eliot Beer and mUmBRELLA’s Tim Burrows. Both are former print journalists who have taken their work online and who are part of a richer, faster, more agile and more diverse online media that are winning people’s eyeballs because they give us what we want, how we want it and when we want it.

The crucial difference is that we can select what streams interest us. We can follow the people whose work engages us, whether they’re bloggers, Twitterers, photojournalists, writers or videographers.

And, by the way, one of those streams is wire services – the very same ones that fill the majority of the white space on the dead trees that are shoved into the hotel rooms, houses and offices of disinterested readers all over the Middle East every day. I don’t need to wait until tomorrow to read a watered down version of Reuters’ piece on Tehran, it’s on my desktop in two seconds thanks to RSS. And the pictures, too. AND the eyewitness reports that flesh out my own personal understanding of, and emotional attachment to, what's going on.

Twitter is one part of this emerging new media story, one of the information streams open to us thanks to the Internet. As consumers, we are increasingly using these information streams to customise and streamline the content we believe is relevant to us.

We don’t need translators or people to hold our hands and give us the context that we, poor mortals, are too dumb to seek ourselves. And if that’s journalism’s defence (I do not believe it should be, BTW), then God help journalism.

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Anonymous said...

jen gerson is a blogger whose day job is rewriting tourism press releases -- in this universe, at least, that's not the description of a "respected journalist."

Dubai Jazz said...

well, I like the idea of Rupert Murdoch* becoming irrelevant. Wouldn't that be beautiful? as far as cable networks with agendas are concerned, I'd take a citizen with bias any day.

Having said that, there's no real alternative to a quality newspaper. Maybe the tabloids will die away eventually. In that case good riddance.
*what do you think of the fued between Murdoch and Berlusconi? I think it's going to be awesome!

alexander... said...

Anonymous. I don't usually take up comments from people who don't have the guts to comment openly and publicly.

Jen's got my respect, she hasn't got yours. Difference is, I'm making my opinion known publicly under my name, while you're having a pissy little snipe under the protection of anonymity.

Whose opinion counts for more? I'll give you a clue - It's not yours, dick...

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous,
Read this and you'll see Jen's credentials.
Alexander, well said!
(Although I'm also anonymous because I work with JG and don't want her to blush -- believe me, what's published in The National has a very poor correlation with the person's skills and abilities.)

Tim Burrowes - Mumbrella said...

Kind words, sir. But fast and agile? I can't remember the last tiem I tocuhed my toes...


Tim - Mumbrella

Tim Burrowes - Mumbrella said...

or used a spell checker...

Mita said...

Thank you Alastair - I could not have said it better.

Paraglider said...

The short answer is no, it's not doomed, but as your post of yesterday clearly showed, it can get caught napping if it's not careful. It might also retreat a little to reinvent itself more as an analysis service (and I mean analysis, not speculation) which might not be such a bad thing. Much enjoying your writings, since discovering them, by the way.

nzm said...

US asks Twitter to maintain service after Iran vote

who is said...

DOOMED? As cool as the word looks in all caps, no, probably not and thank our lucky stars.

DOOM? You say? Well...

With the hyperfragmentation and hyperpfoliferation of information channels, as well as the unprecedented power the contemporary Viewer has to define the terms of info-consumption in terms of searching, choosing, editing and sharing information, then yes, it would seem in a sense that 'The News' as we used to know it - a single, overarching Truth or metanarrative - would seem to have given way to a new era of News as an entirely personalized construct, as much subject to personal whim as one's choice of outfit on a given day, favourite pasta or preference when it comes to music genre.

Ergo - we don't really 'read' or 'watch' the news these days so much as search, filter, and assemble it on the fly as we choose and as we see fit. We dont just consume information these days either, we also define it.

An awe inspiring concept on many levels, but quite scary on so many other levels, as the old Objectivity threatens to give way to a new era of hypersubjectivity.

DOOM DOOM DOOM? Not so fast.

Instead of all this information overload spelling THE END for Reliable Information as we know it, with Old Media being subjugated to a mindless, Borg-like, mob-rule mentality New Media which caters solely to the whims of the Observer, I would instead argue that, in the end, the system HAS to balance itself out at some point in order to stave off total collapse, with neither Old or New schools ultimately being capable of displacing the other entirely.

Electronic media, for all its speed and malleability, is inherently limited in terms of its ability to estabish itself as an authoritarian, ultimately credible voice.

The very same things that make new media so it powerful make it ephemeral at the same time - it will always be smaller than the Individual somehow.

New media, then, lacks Gravity without something to pull against (like Old Media). Without old media to define itself against, new media tends to dissolve into mere chatter, to be switched off at the flick of a switch or the click of a mouse.

Thus, too much New Media means a need for, or shoft towards, Old Media and vice versa.

Just as we Google things we see on TV or Twitter things we see around us, at the same time, as long as things that we see on the internet gain meaning, or information value, the moment we see them on TV, or in the newspaper, or in a magazine etc., Old Media isn't going away any time soon.

Long live both, really.

rosh said...

lol Alex, never seen you get snippy, and rightfully so to anoymouses :)

Doomed? I hope so! Cross my heart.

the real nick said...

This is all bollocks, my friend. Sorry to burst your bubble. It surely must be flattering to be part of this online 'revolution', being followed by 128 people on twitter and read by 17 Dubai office workers, but let's not forget a few facts here:

The most-read bloggers -who have anything of note to say and therefore worth reading- are either trained MSM journalists like Andrew Sullivan, or well paid economists like Paul Krugman, or are blogs that re-hash news taken from mainstream media and agencies and simply give it a spin, like Slate, Huff'post, or our very own Kipp report...
Last time we talked about this subject I brought up the trivial matter of accountability. You are skirting this issue. I know it's not hip and they don't make T-shirt slogans of it. But it is a fact that blogs and tweets are nothing but personal, biased opinions. The same may be true about newspaper articles, but those at least subscribe to some professional code of conduct and go to some extent to verify information before dissipating it rather that mindlessly twittering about some occurrence, or ruminating rumours - just because one can do so and reach thousands. This I call exhibitionism, not journalism.

So in the red corner you have MSM that reaches millions with a clearly defined product with warranty, and in the blue corner you have millions of self-important wannabe media personalities with millions of individual personal blurbs that are either badly written (writing being a skill that requires training and talent after all which eludes many bloggers), or simply do not reach their audience - because they are to many in too many different places, and because the audience has the attention span of a three day old amoeba.

I know where I put my bet on: online pay per view newspaper editions. That's mainstream media, online. Which is NOT the same as 'new' media.

alexander... said...

No, Nick. You are wrong.

who is said...

Online pay per view newspaper subscriptions? Um, good luck with that one...

As for the rest of the Nick logic - mostly wishful thinking, alas.

Ever since the Great Post-911 Whitewash the MSM has been almost cred-less, with the MSM largely reduced to unquestioningly regurgitating jingoistic BushCheneyRumsfeldian warspeak the entire way through, either wittingly or unwittingly.

One scaredly saw any criticism whatsoever of the war effort in the MSM until the Bush-Kerry election, and even then any criticism was highly curtailed, muted with a "but we do support the troops" askerisk.

Only in the run up to the 2009 campaign did the MSM seen to recover any spine really, and start tackling issues that the web-o-shpere had been through and through for years previously.

Ironically, the MSM's utter ineptitude during the last 4-7 years was probably jsut the shot in teh arm that social media needed to become a credible alternative.

And credible it is - after all, whether you're MSM or Web it's all about the audience you attract and the numbers around Web media speak for themselves, like it or not.

But as I said earlier in the giga-post up there, the MSM and WSM seem to thrive off one another, therefore neither is going away any time soon. The competition between the two will force the MSM to be on alert in order to keep up with the WSM and the WSM will have to bend over backwards in order to maintain a palatable veneer or credibility as the MSM enjoys.

It's all good in the end. Inevitably we'll end all the better informed and more informed for it.

But no delusions - there is no clear winner here and the game has undoubtedly changed. Ratings and hits, ratings and hits my friends.

who is said...

Hmm...and in case anybody is still doubting that the game has changed, they may want to check this little article out:

"Iran Military Warns Online Media"

Seems the Iranian Military doesn't take the Web as lightly as the mainstream media does ;)

the real nick said...

alexander, no, I'm not.

the real nick said...

@ who is,

Online pay per view newspaper subscriptions? Um, good luck with that one...

No need for luck with that. It's a already established that pay per view is the only way quality newspapers can protect their content AND make money because there are indeed enough people out there willing to pay for subscription. Most newspapers that give away content for free online fail to 'monetize' it but continue to lose ad revenue. Why, because they compete with every free for all social networking site or porn site outtathere. Those with pay per view, not.

As for your unqualified blanket statement that the MSM succumbed to a "Great Post-911 Whitewash... with the MSM largely reduced to unquestioningly regurgitating jingoistic BushCheneyRumsfeldian warspeak" - I can only assume that you were stuck out in the Mid West during those years watching exclusively Fox News and that you obviously have little exposure to international and/ or non-English language media, both physically as well as intellectually.

who is said...

A theoretical business model is one thing...I've yet to see pay per view news practiced successfully.

I recall the New York Times tinkering with a suscription model, for example, yet somehow when you visit their website these days it seems to have gone free-of-charge. Hmm.

Happy to be proven wrong though.

As far as journalistic standards in the mainstream media behaviour post-911, it's all pretty well documented by now. Fox schmox - the fact is that none of the large American outlets were much, if any, better up until a couple of years ago - CBS, PBS, ABC, NBC etc.

As for the international press, the only ones I ever saw actually countering the march to war was Al Jazeera (which later seemed to have lost credibility due to a somewhat accurate smear campaign alleging that it was allowing itself to be used as a propaganda tool by Al Qaeda et. al.).

Local media - Gulf News, Khaleej Times - don't even bother to try and correlate those entities with actual Journalism please. More Press releases and syndicated content, with some weak-afterthought local stories grafted on. Harumph.

Other than that, the Economist and the BBC, I'd say, were the only remotely unbiased, rationally critical news sources out there. Personally, the BBC was my beacon of hope but even so they hardly managed to make much of an impression and their approach certainly wasn't the norm at the time, nor did they press the issues very hard.

As an example, I simply do not recall any popular international media outcry as the UN was repeatedly flouted in the buildup to the war, for example. No outcry over GITMO. Nothing about Halliburton. No unfiltered war coverage. Surely nothing compared to the level of vitriol we see directed at Iran or North Korea, for example.

The turning point seems to have been the Kerry election loss, on the one hand, where critical voices began to be heard, but more than anything else it was only after Farenheit 9/11 came out in theatres that the "floodgates" opened and Journalism began to re-emerge.

The Blackwater scandals, Abu Ghraib, Halliburton, wasteful contractors, corruption, the fact that Al Qaeda wasn't really a credible presence in Iraq etc. etc. etc...all of that was online years before it was on the TV or in print.

Ironically all of the above are now widely acknowledged issues and it's pretty safe these days to argue that it was an illegal, futile, mismanaged and misguided war (with no UN sanctions to back it up etc.).

But it took quite some time to reach that point and, as such, YES, the mainstream failed mightily in terms of journalistic intergrity and inquiry and therefore yes, like it or now, its credibility was quite tarnished. Unless you were actually working in the media, of course.

Between the superficial mainstream media and the wingnut conspiracist alretnative media outlets those were some very very dark times indeed.

Unless you were online of course.

who is said...

So yes - the mightly mainstream media - with all its Real Journalism - was in the end outdone by a fat man with a camera.

If that's an indicator of success, I'm feeling rather bullish.

Graeme Baker said...

this chap debunks the 'Twitter revolution' far better than I or any of your correspondents can.

Anonymous said...

"(what's published in The National has a very poor correlation with the person's skills and abilities)"

I always thought that the work a journalist produces correlates to their skills and abilities. Not that I'm badmouthing anyone, it just seems a little strange to say this.

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