Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The new news-breakers

The following is ancillary to the main story, which is the struggle of Iranian people for freedom. But, like a shaft of lightning that reveals a new landscape, the reporting of the events in Iran has demonstrated for the first time what the future of breaking-news reporting will look like.

Since the first Gulf War the leading breaking-news medium has been 24-hour TV news. No more. The breaking of this sort of difficult-to-report story is now best done by web-supported diffused networks rather than the traditional media, whatever medium they use. This new landscape has been revealed particularly starkly in the US, where CNN and Fox didn't really follow the story over the weekend (it isn't clear why).

Just the other evening The Daily Show were doing a hilarious hatchet job on the New York Times in which the paper's best rebuttal to accusations of irrelevance was to ask whether The Huffington Post or Google or The Drudge Report had a Baghdad bureau; no, they were all parasitical on 'proper' news organisations such as the New York Times.

Well, that rebuttal looks a lot less powerful now that Western-based bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan have been receiving twitters and emails that in quantity, immediacy and proximity to the story dwarf anything the traditional press could get from their own reporters. This is even more the case now that the Iranian authorities have banned Western reporters from the streets. 

So the web-supported network gathering of news trumps more traditional methods of news-gathering in its quantity, proximity and immediacy. Accuracy, however, will continue to be debated. Yes, tweets and emails from participants in the story will inevitably be raw and partial. They need to be read and interpreted with care. But when experienced - and caveated - through a blog such as Sullivan's The Daily Dish, one you know to be reliable and trustworthy, this primary information is as valid as that informing the reports from traditional news sources.

Anyway, the reliability of the traditional filters and interpreters of eye-witness reports is overdone. Who would you rather get your eye-witness reports from: directly from dozens of people on the spot whose perspective and potential prejudice can be readily guessed at? Or, say, a Robert Fisk character (or even worse, a reporter who you haven't worked out yet is Fisk-like)? Read Scoop for an absurd but not wholly fanciful illustration of this point.

Outstanding reporters - Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, John Simpson - will always have a hugely important role, sometimes one of historical importance. But these won't necessarily be the sole or most important vectors for the hot-off-the-press stories. Their reportage will inevitably be more considered and better written than the flurry of tweets. And as such qualifying, delayed and supplementary. (By the way, they will not necessarily appear in newspapers or on news channels).

To imagine Orwell's Barcelona in the 21st century: we would be bombarded by a lot of first-hand often unreliable eye-witness reports. However, these would be a lot more difficult to control than those manipulated at the time by the Communists. Orwell would then be invaluable in putting these into context and interrogating the facts. Incidentally, he would also now find it a lot easier to get published, his views at the time being unpalatable to the fellow-traveling leftist press. My bet would be that British consumers of news from a 21st century Barcelona would end up much better informed than their 1930s equivalents.

News organisations have always competed in who could break a story first, get the scoop and the poop before anyone else. For the first time blogs, twitter, email, youtube have all come together to demonstrate very powerfully how breaking news from difficult places is going to be most effectively gathered and distributed from now on.

UPDATE: This helps prove the point.

1 comment:

Brit said...

Hard to argue with any of that, so I suppose the question then becomes: just how quickly do we really need our 'news'?

And that leads us to: why do we need it anyway?