How can and should news organizations and others add value to the new news ecosystem that is being used in the Iran story?
Or to put the question another way: The New York Times keeps talking about how expensive its Baghdad bureau is and what a fix we’d be in without it. Well, the essential truth in Iran is that no one has a Tehran bureau (or if they do, it has been rendered useless by government diktat). So we have no choice but to replace that bureau with the people, with witnesses empowered to share what they see.
The New York Times, the Guardian, and Andrew Sullivan, to name three, have been doing impressive work with their live blogs, sifting through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, trying to add as much context and as many caveats as they can. The live blog is print’s equivalent of live TV; it is the way to cover a story such as this: process journalism over product journalism.
But clearly, in that coverage of and by the people, we are experiencing severe filter failure, to use Clay Shirky’s term. Look at the hundreds of tweets that emerge every minute and at the overuse of the word “confirmed” on them, which is meaningless if you don’t know who’s doing the confirming. There’s no way to tell who’s who, who’s there, who’s telling the truth, who’s not.
Note the repeated word: Who. The greatest value a news organization can add to this new news ecosystem is to identify, curate, vet, and train people. Ideally, that needs to happen before the big story breaks. But it can even be done outside the country, as I saw CNN do this morning, talking with a Columbia University student from Iran, who knew who was real and was there from her network of family and friends. Of course, even if you know the people you’re listening to, it’s impossible to know whether everything they say is true unless you can verify it yourself. But that’s the point: You can’t.
So you need to have the best head start you can have. The larger the network of people a news organization can organize, the better shape it will be in when news breaks, the better it can filter the reports that come – whether from people in that network or in the larger network of people those people know. The more people in the network, the more who can go to the scene of news or research closer to it – the more you can ask for help.
Global Voices is an example of this infrastructure: someone who knows someone who knows someone, each able to judge what the next in the chain is saying.
I’ve also been arguing that for journalists, saying what you don’t know is becoming as important as saying what you know. That is all the more critical as misinformation and rumor can spread at the speed of information online. So I imagine a news organization creating a kind of anti-wiki – a dynamic, collaborative Snopes: a list of what we don’t know so we can see what is unconfirmed and so these things can be confirmed – so journalists can add journalism.
On Twitter right now, for example, I’m seeing a great deal about people being taken to embassies instead of hospitals. It is possible for journalists to call their diplomatic sources and confirm at least that, check that off. We need structure around that process.
See also the post below about YouTube holding unique information about the provenance of video. YouTube should not reveal identifiable information about those sources. But news organizations should be able to contact YouTube to help sift through them and find out least which videos came from Iran.
News organizations could also equip their networks of witnesses. Alive in Baghdad distributed cameras to people there. Today, that can be done so much less expensively – think Flip cameras. Bild in Germany sold 21,000 of equivalent devices in five weeks. Michael Rosenblum is planning to distribute 100 Flips in Gaza.
How else can and should news organizations add value and structure to this very disorganized and live new world of news?