“You should see my four-year-old with an ipad / mouse / iphone / tv remote / [insert relevant period technology]“.
This is one of the phrases that winds me up most when I’m at a conference, listening to someone speak about the internet with the new-found fervor of the recent convert. Don’t get me wrong, I love converts and their enthusiasm. I love tech-savvy four-year-olds – but I don’t want to be sitting in an audience being lectured about a 10 year old behaviour pattern they’ve only just discovered. That’s stage 1: zealotry. Tonight was all about stage 2 but more of that in a minute.
It was Jon Williams of the BBC who raised my heckles. “Twitter is nothing new, it’s just like another tips line” he said, clearly feeling no need to put any qualification around that, and “social media doesn’t replace journalism, it complements it”. Of course he ended the discussion saying “we are privileged to be reporting such extraordinary moments” but only after he’d sidelined twitter as just another source. In fact, it was left to Jon Snow to be excited – to point out that the difference with twitter is that one comment can lead to another and another from multiple sources which can lead to links, data, pictures and video – and all within seconds because the scale and range of the network is so huge in comparison with anything we’ve known before. Sadly this glimmer of excitement and enthusiasm quickly faded as he realised that he was supposed to be chairing – but it seemed like he knew more about social media than anyone else on the panel.
Stage 2: Ennui.
‘It’s nothing new. We’ve seen this before. The story isn’t the technology, it’s the people. The technology is just a platform.’ These are all phrases with enough truth about them to cause plenty of damage to a media organisation. They cause damage because they breed complacency and they downgrade awareness of and investment in new technology.
At this point, I should caveat that I don’t know Mr Williams (@WilliamJon). In fact, I used to work with Sky’s Sarah Whitehead (@swhitehead1) when she was at the BBC, but other than that, I don’t know the panellists and I haven’t worked inside a news broadcaster for 10 years – so there’s a chance that last night’s panel wasn’t the best representation of what goes on within the BBC, Sky, ITN, Al Jazeerah, etc. But seeing as the second half of the evening was supposed to be dedicated to debating whether social media had been shown to revolutionise broadcasting in the case of the Arab Spring, I felt we didn’t even scratch the surface. Ironically, but not surprisingly, there was no hashtag for the debate, but thanks to @IanKearney for tweeting.
The stories on covering conflicts were impressive, harrowing, fascinating. The journalistic credentials were unparalleled. But the level of digital media debate was low. Perhaps I was in the wrong place, but it’s not just that I wanted to hear more geek talk. It gave me genuine concern that a lack of discussion might cover a lack of knowledge or interest…
Stage 2: Ennui is what happens when Media Executive A has gone through the excited digital stage. In fact, they’ve been through fear, opportunity, hope, excitement, over-excitement, disappointment… and now they’re just bored of the excitable digital-types who used to invade their newsrooms (publishing offices, media centres etc etc). Now they know all the TLAs, they’ve been on all the digital media courses, they know the difference between a follow and a retweet – and to the bosses on high (who know they don’t know anything) they sound digital. Or digital enough.
The panel was made up of hugely experienced and esteemed journalists with long and decorated careers in journalism and broadcasting. Sadly, there were no other voices involved – none that could have talked through the importance of social media. Oh for a Clay Shirky or Jay Rosen or Jeff Jarvis or Emily Bell or Aleks Krotowski or Kevin Anderson or any of a long list of others. Steve Herrmann (@BBCSteveH), the BBC’s News Online Editor would have had an interesting perspective, perhaps.
There was no discussion of ‘twitter to break the news, facebook to organise, youtube to share’. There was no mention of journalists being held to account by online communities who know the subject matter better – and by the impact of that on working processes – how being part of an ecosystem or a conversation has revolutionised reporting at the Guardian and other media institutions. Yes, I could have spoken up – but questions from the floor by digital media practitioners always end up sounding like rants – and that never helps the cause. The debate itself needed to be more balanced – or at least more focussed on the practice of using social media in newsgathering. Yes, there were interviewees in the VT piece about social media who knew what they were about, like Alex Gubbay (@alexgubbay) (formerly, BBC News social media chief, now moving to Johnston Press), but these weren’t the voices on tonight’s panel.
There was some good conversation stimulated by @stewartpurvis around impartiality. But there was scant discussion of anonymity and the essential and interesting place it holds within internet-based discussion. And there appeared limited awareness of the fundamental scale of social media and the power of the scale of the network.
Second source? How about hundreds?
There was mention of getting a second source – but this wasn’t extended into the idea to get multiple sources – that scale means mass-corroboration as well as mass-collaboration. I’ve always found an important premise is to understand a user’s provenance online – their history and profile within the community and conversation ecosystem where they reside.
[alert: incoming personal anecdote confirming experience of conflict reporting and internet heritage]
When I worked on the Kosovo Special Report on BBC News Online in 1998, there were 3 of us in the team. I handled what we’d now call the data journalism of updating the daily record of allied bombings. But if social media had been around I could have corroborated those stories – I could have shown pictures of schools bombed-out when Nato said it was an armoury. However, this also highlights the issue of scale again: with twitter, facebook and youtube – and the need for broadcasters’ representatives to reside in the online community so that you can know the reputation and reliability of a source, or to use mass-corroboration as your principle – you need resource, huge resource, to be able to effectively operate as a broadcast journalist body. It’s a manpower challenge.
What worried me most about Mr Williams comments – and the rest of the panel – was that there seemed to be no sense of being in a media revolution. As Clay Shirky says (and I paraphrase)
“In a revolution, no-one knows how it’s going to play out – not even the revolutionaries”
But if you think twitter is just like another tips line – then you might not have your eyes on the horizon. You might not realise that we don’t know what the next massive step will be in the digital impact on how we report news, cover elections, reflect revolutions. And if you’re not constantly adapting and working on changing your organisation to the next technological thing that comes out, then you risk missing the nuances of revolution because all you can do is react to the barrage of voices that hits you when massive news stories break.
Why does any of this really matter? The panel all agreed that our journalistic purpose is to uncover truth – to go, to see, to tell what we see – but my worry is this: if you’re not alert to the nuances of technology; if you think that we’ve been through the digital revolution and we’ve got it covered; if you think that all your journalists are more than capable and digital-enough then the risk is that the authorities, like those in Bahrain, will learn to use the internet and social media in better and more effective ways – and truth will just become increasingly difficult to find. Complacency about the need to be alert, to invest and to adapt our media organisations to the ever-moving point in the revolution of digital media felt heavy in the air tonight. I hope that digital revolution in these companies is still going on and that we haven’t slowed it down into a complacent, bored, regressive stage in broadcaster evolution.
It would be a mistake to judge an entire organisation by the one person who was picked (or available) to speak on a panel. I’m sure there are some excellent digital people in those companies and I would ask Bafta, next time, to get them in on the debate.
Tonight’s panel was chaired by Jon Snow ( @jonsnowC4) with
James Brabazon, Freelance Journalist & Trustee, The Rory Peck Trust – @james_brabazon
Ghazi Gheblawi, Libyan Author and Blogger – @Gheblawi
Bill Neely, International Editor ITV News – @billneelyitv
Jacky Rowland, Senior Correspondent Al Jazeera English – @jackyaljaz
Sarah Whitehead, Head of International News, Sky News – @swhitehead1
Jon Williams, BBC World News Editor – @WilliamsJon
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