Learnings from Boston: a messier sort of news is here to stay

Rob O'BrienIn this guest posting, Rob O’Brien argues that the Boston bombings showed how outdated traditional news reporting has become.

At a Social Media Summit hosted by the New York Times and the BBC College of Journalism in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a consensus was reached that something needed to change in news reporting. I’m not sure why it took the Boston bombings to highlight this, as pretty much every event since social media’s arrival has been characterised by disruption – the iPhone picture, the video or Tweet from the scene.

News is messy now. In the old days, reporters would have gathered in Boston, the cable news wagon would have arrived, set up and began reporting live from the scene, with makeup applied  – but they arrived too late. That’s not a bad metaphor for the state of journalism today: struggling to get its pants on while the rest of the world fills in for its reporting shift.

“The general consensus seems to be that events in Boston have acted as a real game-changer for the relationship between journalism and social media,” a blog posting by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) said on the summit’s findings.

Developments in Boston, it said, were reported and discussed on Twitter on an “unprecedented scale” and revealed the extent to which traditional methods of news reporting such as TV and radio are growing “largely outdated”.

Democratisation of news-gathering has seen huge online crowds moving quickly above breaking stories, mixing commentary with speculation and retweeting occasionally – nay often – false information.

People are demanding news faster, and citizens are – by default, not their own calling – filling in for the shift. It’s an old lie that journalists can be everywhere at once, covering every news story in every corner of the world.

Andrew Kitzenberg proved that: he was in his bedroom when he heard gunshots outside and began snapping photographs of the shootout between Boston police and two bombing suspects in Watertown.

None of this is journalism’s fault: it just highlights the struggle with disruption.

More people are now getting their news from sites such as Twitter and Facebook. In Asia, the disruptive influence of bloggers and online citizens has been palpable, nowhere more so than in Malaysia, where social media is practically driving the current election campaign, images of street violence, protests being shared through  images, videos and blog postings online.

One idea floated at the NYT/ BBC Social Media Summit to improve the quality of information reported through Twitter was a credibility or trustworthiness rating ala eBay. That might be a good way of bringing some authority to journalists on social media. But the concept of ‘news’ as a nicely packaged, perfectly cut product is quickly being taken apart. A rougher, messier sort of news is emerging, that involves citizens and journalists in collaboration.

In the conclusion of a report by the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched earlier this year, it cites a 1992 trip made by Robert Kaiser, the managing editor of the Washington Post, to a meeting in Japan where he received a download on the future of journalism – future methods of news delivery and the impact of ‘multimedia’ on traditional reporting.

His memo back to head office reads: “The Post is not in a pot of water, and we’re smarter than the average frog. But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured – or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism. Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the electronic revolution continues.”

Bloggers and citizen journalists are reporting more and more live news today, and they’re snatching stories that journalists used to be expected to cover – how to harness that is what newsrooms are currently negotiating.

For now, though, it looks like a messier sort of news is here to stay.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist at Weber Shandwick in Singapore. He’s also author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7.


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