Before social media obliterated traditional journalism, we would probably just now be receiving the images: plumes of smoke, fear, and chaos. Details of the event would slowly and intermitently trickle down to the reader or audience. Journalists traditionally have been the collectors, shapers, and distributors of information. The publishers would disseminate the story, polished and refined, to the public.
The Boston Marathon Bombing
"Holy shit! Explosion!" That was the first Tweet reported from the scene in Boston by Kristen Surman, seconds after the bang. Then, the red horror of the Boston Marathon bombing bled through Instagram snapshots, the atrocity shouted across Twitter, videos transmitted instantaneously. News spread through the social media channels raw, real, surreal, like lightning. First-hand reports, photos, and videos informed the audience, fitting a more familiar model for current news media. Information flowed through the now familiar channels, instantly, as if one were in Boston, without journalists as middlemen.
Although we are accustomed to the new media, consumers on the receiving end of information are met with a remarkable challenge, burgeoning in the past few months and years. Through social media, we first hear the stories as if we were present, which places us in the role of near eyewitnesses, close to the event and details. Data flies at us from all directions, mimicking the chaos one feels when actually present at a traumatic event. With the bits of information, we begin to weave a narrative in our own mind. We are the reporters piecing together the story, and the journalists are obsolete at ground zero. They stand on common ground with the public.
The New and Old Journalists Discover the Story Simultaneously
The instantaneity of reportage places a burden on the common person, who must piece together the story on the fly, time fragmented by the influx of texts. This sharply contrasts with the traditional journalism that Merriam-Webster defines as "the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media." Implied in that definition is a slow, linear chronology of events as depicted in the blue section of the illustration above. However, the fragmentation of time, due to the fluid social media, places "we the people" as the eyewitnesses and the first journalists on the scene. We are the ones working the story out of chaos.
In other words, no time lapse exists for reporters to piece together an "authentic" version of a story to disperse. People receive the details directly as they are uncovered. Inevitably, consumers turn narrative pieces into story, before any formal journalism has time to impose its truth, speculation, and timelines.
Although many have written about the shifts in modern journalism, most fail to see the whole picture. Journalism is portrayed as anything from Tweets to Slate articles, but this captures only a minor piece of the complex undercurrent driving journalism today. For the foreseeable future, a new journalist has emerged, one with no credentials or even writing talent, and the story is synthesized in the mind of the individual (as depicted in the red section of the diagram).
This move is both democratic and egalitarian. Mainstream journalists, however, seem befuddled by the whole situation. This is understandable as they stand to lose the high ground in journalism and scuffle for means of making a profit.
Jeremy Stahl in Slate's "Thou Shalt Not Stoop to Political Point-Scoring: A journalist's guide to tweeting during a crisis" is quick to point out the errors, both major and minor, in Twitter reporting. But he lacks clarity about who the "journalist" is because the industry itself is uncertain. Undermining his argument for guidelines and rules, Stahl reveals that one is just as likely to find truth from a citizen reporter as from a traditional journalist.
Stahl claims that we should trust the Tweets coming from official sources (not citizens), but he later reveals "The AP filed a false report early in the afternoon, which was picked up by Slate and others, indicating that authorities had shut down cell phone service in Boston in order to prevent remote bomb detonations." In the face of these journalistic foibles, Stahl attempts to reinforce traditional media. Slate seems as prone to error as the average eyewitness.
Stahl further reveals (a minor transgression) that "I actually retweeted [an error by] BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, one of the smartest and most conscientious journalists on Twitter, and repeated this tidbit on the official Slate account." So whom should we trust?
Clearly, the role of the journalist in the current global community is nebulous, but what stands out from the errors and missteps is that citizens have a role to fill in journalism that has never existed before. Through Tweets, Vines, and Instagrams, regardless of their sources, people must piece together the news as it happens, making sense of fragmented details, some coming from untrustworthy sources. The role of the traditional journalist appears to come somewhat later after the dust has settled. The real journalism takes place in the minds of the audience that scoops the story from the raw data.
You are the new journalist, the first to report and make sense of the story, while revolutionizing an age-old tradition in the process. By the time professional journalists are able to knit the story together, you already have the major pieces in place.
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Before you go, share your thoughts on journalism and reporting? How has it changed and how is it changing?