Newsday column: News served raw

n news, the more access, the better
Journalists still have a job to do: Help the public interpret all of the raw, unedited events

Jeff Jarvis is an associate professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

Newsday – January 7, 2007

We are in the age of news served raw. And it doesn’t get much rawer than the cell-phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution that made its way to the Internet only hours after the deed was done.

Even as news organizations deliberated about whether and what to show of the execution, the entire event appeared on YouTube, available for anyone who cared or dared to watch.

Get ready for more of the same. Witnesses to any event can now capture and share what they see not just with acquaintances but with the world, and without the filter and delay of news media. And that doesn’t mean just cell-phone snapshots of bombings or surreptitious footage of closed events. We also have access to the guts of news – original documents, full transcripts, unedited video. So anything anyone sees can be recorded and disseminated. Life is on the record.

Journalists, especially editors, may lament this latest loss of control. But again and again I have seen the public gravitate toward raw news. When I started newspaper Web sites, one of the most popular features was a complete, unedited feed of The Associated Press wire, riddled with “writethrus,” advisories and other wire-service arcana. It beat by miles the traffic to a packaged version of the same news.

My students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism tell me how they prefer TV news that is less heavily produced, closer to the source. And those Hussein videos have been viewed a few million times. Not everyone wants to watch every grisly detail or dig into every dull document. But we do want to know we can.

Is this bad for journalism? I say no. How can we object to having more information available to more people?

Does the journalist still have a job? I say yes. The journalist has more of a role than ever – but no longer as the gatekeeper. The information is out there for anyone to find. The journalist can help uncover it, verify or debunk it, and can add perspective and context. Journalists still need to do what they have always done: Find the facts and the people who know what they are talking about – witnesses and experts. Now, thanks to the technology of the Internet, there are new ways to gather and find this information and to collect the wisdom of the experts. Journalism changes but, I argue, grows.

One possible new role for journalists is to educate the public about what reporters learn early – that sometimes, the “facts” outpace the truth. We witness this on cable news, when we see news unfolding before it can be confirmed. Remember the West Virginia mining disaster, when the pealing of the church bells and the happy people rushing by cable’s cameras, together with mistaken reports and rumors, told us that most of the victims had survived when, in truth, most had died.

Similar confusion came often in battlefield reports from Iraq. The fog of war becomes the fog of news. So we in the public must continue to exercise the skepticism and discrimination of the journalist in judging the news. Journalists cannot continue to believe that they can deliver the truth for us in neatly packaged stories once a day.

No, journalists need to arm us with the means to judge the truth ourselves. Actually, that has always been the job of the journalist, only now it is more apparent.

So journalists are no longer here to sanitize the news for our protection. Those of us who want to watch the Hussein execution know where to find it. I see a benefit even in this. For in their efforts to package and polish the news, editors sometimes make the world look neater than it truly is. We can recognize this in the battlefield videos on YouTube, showing us a harsher view from the front. And there can be no clearer demonstration of this than the Hussein execution. Killing someone is never as antiseptic and cold as it appears in the stories about lethal injections in America or in the first reports of Hussein’s death.

Our newfound ability to watch the complete event takes away the pretense of civility some tried to place around the act. So now we can judge it in the light of day. This is the truth, as raw as it gets.