When witnesses take over the news

I’m writing a Media Guardian column on the news after Mumbai: When witnesses take over the news, the impact on our experience of news, the impact on the news event itself, on the role of journalists, on what new we need in news (organization), on what comes next (live video, of course, and assigning witnesses). As always, I’m grateful for your observations, opinions, and links.

: Great collection of links here (via sujeet).

: Wonderful observation about the absurdity of joining pundits on American TV to talk about news from Amit Varma, who found safety in a hotel hard on one of the attacks.

I was on Larry King Live on CNN about three hours ago. They called me and asked me to be on the show as an eyewitness, at which I protested that I hadn’t actually seen anything, I was merely in the vicinity. But they’d read what I wrote in this post earlier, and they wanted me to talk about that. So I agreed, and came on briefly. King asked me if I’d actually seen any terrorists—I felt guilty that I couldn’t offer him any dope there.

Deepak Chopra was also on the show, speculating that the attacks had taken place because terrorists were worried about Barack Obama’s friendly overtures to Muslims. (I know: WTF?) That sounded pretty ridiculous to me, but such theories are a consequence of our tendency as a species to want to give gyan [knowledge]. A media pundit, especially, feels compelled to have a narrative for everything. Everything must be explicable, and television expects instant analysis.

This is foolish, for sometimes events are complicated, and we simply need to wait for more information to emerge before we can understand it. But many of us—not just the pundits—don’t have the humility to accept that. We want to feel in control, at least on an intellectual level, so reasons and theories emerge. But the world is really far too complicated for us. Yet somehow we muddle along.

The right kind of gyan, in the immediate aftermath of this, is historical perspective, which Christiane Amanpour provided on King’s show. Anything else is premature.

: Amy Gahran tries to track down the rumor – and that’s what it is; an unconfirmed and unsourced reprort – that Mumbai police asked tweeters to stop.

: Mindy McAdams on 10 changes in the news.

  • m sen

    Twitter has done a greatjob in keeping me informed across news channels. I could only deal with 3-5 sources of info at a time. Twitter kept me abreast of loads more. There was a bit of rumour mongering, quickly self monitored. There were calls for sources whenever anybody tried speculation and rumourmongering. Journalism 2.0 is brilliant – does so much more than traditional journalism. i feel more informed, more in control, ready to help and now have the means to contribute when my skills are required.

  • my thoughts on this subject…

  • Feel free to mention twitscoop (www.twitscoop.com) as a tool to quicky visualize breaking news on twitter.
    For instance, this page: (http://www.twitscoop.com/twits/search?q=mumbai&graph_format=3d) features a graph showing the mentions of “mumbai” in tweets. The figures on the vertical axis represents # of tweets mentionning this word / minute. So when the news broke out, we had approx 750 tweets / mins about mumbai, ie. >10 per second.

  • carsondaly

    interesting to see big companies like @wipro and @capgemini tweet about their staff in mumbai. at least they are interacting in the events i guess

  • Bona

    Jeff, Mumbai+Web convinced me that journalism isn’t dead, but that journalists will have to become like crack Special Forces operatives to deliver the good stuff.
    Twitter was largely just an empty echo chamber of shocked observers sitting behind keyboards and clicking their mouses at the horror of it. I wasn’t at all informed by the realtime Mumbai channel on Twitter. It’s only value was in acting like a radio station, with occasional useful links to breaking articles, real emergencies (“patient needs more blood at xx hospital”), and links to Flickr. But frankly, most photos of the destruction on Flickr were boring. For journalists to remain valuable they need to go where the average man can’t go and get the photos we can’t get, and talk to the people who don’t want to. The web amplifies all the media around a story, but sadly most of it is noise – and it takes judgment to filter the good from the bad.

  • bernielomax

    Crowds are good at basic analyst tasks such as gathering, verification and repetition. But they are terrible at strategy and analysis. The second should be the job of the media and politicians, but they hardly master the first. Still, as a spectator and responsible person it is easier to make up your own mind. I am still disgusted at all the violent gut reactions and I’d love an update and enforcement of RFC2822 *.

    The first time I really found that the internet was better than TV for news was 9/11 – more ad hoc then because the Internet broke down under the stress. That day CNN did after all change TV – it bugged quite a lot at first – that ticker on the bottom of the screen is still scrolling.

    Both katrina and the 2004 tsunami had similar coverage – but then not that many were familiar with the tools.

    As for this. Livestation and discussing with indians on getting the background of the situation was more informative than any article I’ve read today or previously on the situation on India. With all this knowledge in vicinity it is easer to be slightly disgusted by the quick and formulaic response from the “anti-terrorist” countries and feel despair because the buzz you hear isn’t a rally for constructive progress – but revenge.

    * http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/rfc2822.html

  • bernielomax

    Err, an edit error: The TV streams (and not the big news channels), the odd in depth article and discussing with indians on the subject was better at giving me the background of the situation that I’ve read today…

    I must say that the moderated liveblog of my local newspaper was also great for filtering out the noise. For me twitter still feels at the level of a room doing play-by-play of eurovision.

  • Twitter came first, and Flickr second, with the publication of pictures.
    Reactivity is an asset but the authentification of the transmitted news still remains an unsolved problem

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  • Timely post, Jeff. I blogged on roughly the same topic this morning: citizen “journalists” are really just people who alert the world to events happening around them:



  • bernielomax

    Oh god – not my day today – RFC1855 is the right standard obviously – http://www.faqs.org/rfcs/rfc1855.html

  • I would agree with Bona above. Yes, real-time reports from witnesses are vital to any full report of an event, and technology has made those so much easier to get. But it’s like the blind men and the elephant – reading all of these reports doesn’t necessarily give you the whole story. That’s where a journalist is still of tremendous value, checking, verifying, following up, sifting, contextualizing and presenting the story in a compelling, thorough way. There is room — and necessity — for both.

  • I’ve eliminated some hateful and exploitive comments here. It’s a shame one has to.

  • Jeff,

    What the media has done inside and outside of India is shameful.

    Specially the Indian newspapers.

  • I’m glad you linked to Amy Gahran’s post, because it illustrates the difference between what eyewitness reporters do and what journalists do. My comment to her is germane here, so I’ll repeat it:

    “I saw those ‘please stop tweeting’ tweets yesterday as well, including the one from MumbaiUpdates, and wondered about their source. I’m glad you looked into it. While tweeters perform a valuable service in reporting what they see and hear, you’re doing journalism – analyzing and explaining.”

    The photos Vinu posted at Flickr are another example of this difference. Vinu did a fantastic job. His photos were raw, emotional and – near as I can tell – first. But they were also repetitive, and that diminished their impact. Part of a journalist’s job, especially today, is editing, and that’s what Vinu needed.

  • There is the issue of news coverage informing the terrorists inside buildings of commando movement outside.

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  • Liz

    A ridiculous comment that someone’s photos of a crisis situation at Flickr were “boring”. I assume they were amateur photos and their goal was to capture a moment, not to entertain people. My sense is that people were trying (for better or worse) to share what they knew about the situation and the public can’t expect a highlight reel in real-time reporting especially from nonprofessionals.

    There is going to be some confusion in real time reporting, I think people just need to ask about sources and make sure that more isn’t being claimed than what is evident. I know that I was passing along Tweets from a person claiming to be in Mumbai until some doubt was cast as to whether the person was even present in the city. I was impatient for news as the mainstream news wasn’t updating their Twitterstreams and settled for what was being said without considering its veracity. I learned my lesson (I hope!).

    People naturally seek explanations and meaning for unexpected events of all kinds whether they are international crises or personal traumas. We need to recognize that hunger for easy answers and not feed it until we have sufficient information that we feel is accurate and not pure speculation. And people in the spotlight who just talk off the top of their heads should be challenged as well to provide some basis for their conclusions.

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  • Say, Jeff, did you intend to include a link too?

  • Mindy,

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  • twittering should never be regarded as journalism.

    at best it is a lead that can be verified and broadcast.

    at worst it inaccurate, slanderous and biased.

    rumour and speculation have never been regarded as news before and this is not the time to start.

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