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More on Mumbai/Twitter

I posted earlier about Mumbai/social media. Svetlana Gladkova says more about Twitter as a source of news and conversation about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Svetlana references an excellent piece by Mathew Ingram, who addresses the question whether Twitter can be trusted as a news source since “messages posted to Twitter aren’t verified in any sense of the word, and in many cases could be wrong, or could perpetuate misunderstandings or factual inaccuracies” (thought inaccuracies are often if not usually corrected in other messages). He notes that traditional media sources also often make reports that are incorrect. I think this became more common with the advent of cable news channels, then the Internet – news stories are more likely to be broken as they happen, and there’s less time for analysis and verification. Now we can all get the raw data, correct or incorrect, and we’re learning to interpret for ourselves what’s real, helped by evolving layers of analysis added by the journalists and experts that used to have sole ownership of the data.

Svetlana doesn’t

know why it should be important at all if Twitter is a good source of news or not – it is good in what it does and you can call it news since this is exactly what people share with us – news. And I don’t really think that people sending updates from their cell phones to let the world know what was going on were really trying to act like journalists – they wanted to share the news with anyone who was interested and that’s it.

She goes on to say that

Twitter is just the right place to get the information – and get it quick. When mainstream media takes time to bring reporters to site or at least find and verify a couple of sources and even bloggers taking a few minutes to type a post and hit that “Publish” button, Twitter is already here with multiple reports from people witnessing the entire situation directly where the situation is. And no, hardly all the facts will be correct but you will get to know something is happening – and you will have at least some understanding of what is going on. Besides, the wrong facts will probably be corrected soon right there on Twitter and if you watch with attention enough, you will get a more or less comprehensive picture.

That’s not just true of Twitter – we said the same about blogs before Twitter appeared, and we said the same about other forms computer-mediated communication, like email lists and online discussion forums, before blogs appeared.

Svetlana acknowledges that there are many levels of “noise” in the Twitter feeds, a combination of direct reports and quotes from media sources, facts and opinions.

But while noise at this level is typical mainly for Twitter only, there is another problem that Twitter shares with media outlets. The thing is that at crazy times like this you can never really trust anyone – be it a tweet from a person in the thick of things or a report from a reputable news organization. Simply because even news professionals can be wrong because their reporters can hardly get the full picture on site and often report mainly what they see themselves – which is not very different from what simple bystanders get to know. And we need to understand that when everything is equally disorganized and chaotic you will hardly find any source that will be actually reliable.

I found this especially interesting because it reminds me what I was thinking when I left journalism school for the English department 35 years ago (ouch! I’m getting grey). However hard you try as a journalist, you’re always presenting a limited set of facts and a limited interpretation. However well you try to adhere to standards of objectivity, in every piece you write you’re applying your particular cultural filters and biases, and you’re always working from a limited set of facts, even if you’re close to the story, sometimes even if you were in the middle of it.

This has been reinforced for me over and over through the years. In every case where I’ve been close to a news story, the published version was always inconsistent in some way with my awareness of the facts. It wasn’t that the reporter was “wrong” or I was missing something – we just had different perspectives. If you want to get closer to the truth, better to present the multiple perspectives, and the facts as ‘raw’ as you can make them. Journalists add context, and that’s valuable – we can’t all pore over the details of every story – but it’s good to know that we have the opportunity.

When I shifted my focus from journalism to literature, it was because I thought literature was better at capturing the truth. I was especially interested in the novel, which at its best presents a story from many perspectives in an attempt to capture what’s real. In the late 80s and 90s I was drawn to the Internet’s potential to do this – to provide the whole complexity of the narrative – around any subject or event. I made a career commitment to the web and social media because I could see the potential for the kind of writing I’d been interested in when I had wanted to be a journalist years before.

So now we have a complex narrative, nobody owns the truth, and everyone has the opportunity to think through the meaning of events like Mumbai. You can draw your own conclusions, and that’s powerful. As with everything that’s powerful, it carries responsibility: we should all learn to be far more media literate than broadcast media ever allowed us to be. But I see that happening, and I see in my many younger friends who have been living and breathing the Internet since grade school a better grasp of this democratization of knowledge, this opportunity to create a shared narrative.

The way we’re responding to Mumbai brings this into focus, but this is the new world of knowledge, and it’s the right evolution for the times we’re in – because our need to live sustainably is met with solutions built on knowledge as the key natural resource. Knowledge as a process is as vital in today’s world as industrial heavy equipment was in the industrial world of resource extraction and heavy infrastructure construction.

So what’s happening on Twitter – not just where Mumbai is concerned, but every day – is critical evolution, in my opinion.

Comments

  1. That is such a full thought Jon. Your post gets me thinking about the economic challenge that traditional news industry is facing in the wake of the ginormous wave of citizen-based news coverage.

    What will the industry look like on the other side of the transformation that is taking place? I imagine you have some very good vision on that based on what I can tell by your post.

    Ever since citizen journalism reached a critical mass, the profitability drivers are depleting quickly it seems. From my limited perspective, what I see occuring is a reluctance (denial) by news industry to accept what this change means. Namely, if it is going to be saved, the business managers need to invest more heavily in building expertise in collaborative management. Also they should care more about attracting and retaining the best journalistic talent.

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