Naureen Aqueel

New vistas of journalism

Posted on: April 2, 2012

An edited version of this article was published in Spider magazine, Dawn, April 2012. 

New communication technologies have always driven change in the media world. From Guttenberg to the internet – the media realm has undergone drastic transformations with each new medium bringing methodologies and techniques that have contributed to defining and shaping the nature of journalism itself.

Come the age of the internet and web 2.0 and we are witnessing a media metamorphosis like none other before. Not only has the digital age made information dissemination faster and more efficient, it has fundamentally altered the direction of this information-flow. Gone are the days when information used to flow in a one-way stream “top-down” from the powerful media barons to the passive audiences. Now, thanks to the social media boom, the audiences are actively influencing the kind of content that is aired and published in addition to producing that content themselves. A technologically empowered public has given birth to a new form of journalism all together, popularly called “participatory journalism”, “grassroots journalism”, “citizen journalism” or “crowd sourcing”.

Social media platforms like blogs, micro-blogging sites like Twitter and social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Reditt etc are at the pinnacle of this new media revolution. The development of user friendly, low-cost or free online content management tools like Blogger, Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr etc have helped facilitate the rapid growth and popularity of independently managed websites that are now sharing the role traditionally occupied by the mainstream media.

While some established media owners and professionals have responded to this new “invasion of the audiences” with suspicion, skepticism and even derision, others have gladly accepted it and integrated new media into the newsroom. For those not willing to embrace technology and the change it seeks in methodology and content, the future appears bleak. Audiences, readers or subscribers are now empowered by the multiple choices available in the marketplace that are faster at disseminating news. Add to that the collapse in advertising revenue faced by a large number of media organizations globally and you have the perfect formula that spells the demise of traditional print. Internet journalism in the form of news websites utilizing multi-media platforms, blogs and citizen journalism are now taking the place of mainstream print media.

The diminishing importance of print has been abetted by the competition from television news. News that makes it to the next day’s newspaper has already been broken and repeatedly broadcast on television and news websites. What little role of analysis and in-depth reporting print provided over television news from yesterday is now being taken over by news websites and blogs. By the time a story makes it to the newspaper the next day, it has already been covered with all possible angles on television and print.

Anyone with even a little exposure to today’s social media would be able to vouch for how social networks and micro-blogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been effective mediums for breaking news along with providing discussions and analysis. A number of major news events have been broken and reported in-depth on the social media by citizens. A major example is the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing which was first reported on Twitter by a Pakistani blogger Sohaib Athar when he unknowingly live tweeted the entire episode as US helicopters raided Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Upset by the noise of helicopters in his neighbourhood late at night, he tweeted “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM”. After a number of tweets that served as a live report for the entire raid, Athar tweeted “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

Similarly, reports of a number of bomb blasts have often made it to Twitter first before being reported on the local media. The Mumbai terror incident was also reported first on the social media. Describing the role played by Twitter in breaking the news, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone described how the first Twitter report of the ground shaking during earthquake tremors in California came nine minutes before the first Associated Press alert. “During the earthquake I am referring to, there was a lot of depth reporting as well – 36,000 separate updates on Twitter, which is the equivalent of a fifty thousand word book in terms of content size. And I’m confident that had the quake been worse, the next step would be in journalists using it to find human-interest stories.”

Other incidents that deserve special mention are those concerning the role of Twitter in the Iranian election protests of 2009 and in the Arab Spring movement. When protests broke out after the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in Iran, the government moved to suppress dissent and censor the traditional media. However, tweets by Iranian citizens evaded that censorship and delivered to the world real time updates happening on Iran’s very streets. U.S. State Department officials also asked Twitter to delay a scheduled network upgrade in order to keep receiving information about the protests inside Iran. Mainstream media outlets, facing reporting constraints due to the media crackdown in the country, turned to social media to gather information. News websites like those of The New York Times, The Guardian and CNN incorporated Twitter feeds into their reports with unverified information and videos from citizens in Iran. The Arab Spring was also chronicled via tweets from the people themselves many of which were utilized by the mainstream media.

Media around the world and in Pakistan too have begun to realize the importance of technology and the social media. In addition to introducing citizen journalism segments like CNN’s iReport and DawnNews’ ‘Citizen Journalist’, many news organizations have begun monitoring Twitter for news updates, trends, feedback and to find and create stories. Some journalists have also turned to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to find sources for stories along with its use to report the news and share links. There is also a relatively recent trend being witnessed in the Pakistani media of incorporating Tweets into news reports. Major news events are being live reported with tweets and social media reactions forming a sizable part of such reports.

While these trends show how new technologies and new journalism concepts are being embraced by the mainstream media, there is a need for the media to be cautious in its use of social media. Concerns about credibility and ethics are not unfounded. There is always much risk of inaccuracy, deliberate misinformation and spin. As one of the fundamental principles of journalism holds, being right trumps being first. Only organizations that are able to adapt themselves to changing technology and at the same time hold on to the essential principles of journalism will be able to survive in the future.

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