News in the age of new media

February 10, 2009

I wanted to focus this post on some criticisms of the “utopian” view that non-professional coverage of news (online blogging by non-professionals etc.) can come to replace or compete with traditional forms of media, focusing on the benefits of news that comes from people reporting bound by the rules of professional ethics and by a system of fact-checking and source verification.

 Two years ago, I took part in the Global Governance Symposium at Tufts and one of the panels I attended was entitled “Media and Conflict: Setting the Agenda.”  While I don’t recall the specifics, what struck me were the panelists’ (the panel was populated by professional journalists and photojournalists) responses to the idea that non-professionals could replace, or had come to replace, their role in disseminating news.  

Yes, they admitted, in conflict zones where several of them had been dispatched, it difficult to access sites that had been devastated by war and bloodshed and the work of lay-persons could, indeed, release important information blogging about what they had seen, or taking pictures with their phones and posting them online.

 But they bristled at the notion that non-professional reporting could come to replace their role as news providers, harping on the fact that something was lacking from the content provided by these non-professionals.

 At the time, I found their lukewarm response to online journalism unnecessarily defensive.  If it were not for those hundreds of non-professionals blogging or posting videos of the world as they saw it in order to compete with the distorted news disseminated by the media apparatuses of repressive regimes, how could information be accurately depicted?  And how could it could it be done with immediacy to an event?

 But as I rethought the differences between non-professional reporting and professional reporting, it became clear to me that something is, indeed, lacking from the news that is posted by bloggers or so-called citizen journalists.  What is missing is a professional code of ethics that holds news-providers in the age of new media to a standard of conveying information as impartially as possible and to a standard of obtaining their news from both diverse and verifiable sources. The world has certainly benefited from non-professionals’ immediate delivery of information on the action as it unfolds, and relied upon these non-professionals to challenge or fill the void of information presented by the media under repressive regimes.  But I don’t think anyone can deny the possibility that just as easily as one could challenge illegitimate information spewing from the media under the control of a repressive regime, it would just be as easy for a government to “game the system” by coercing citizens to blog about a fictional event  to fan the flames of xenophobia or nationalism.  (For example, it’s still unclear to what extent the Russian government fanned anti-Georgian sentiment on web forums to convince Russian citizens to lend “bot herders” access to the computers needed for carrying out the massive denial-of-service attacks on the Georgian government’s websites.).

 I think that it is has mostly healthy that trust for non-traditional sources of news has grown in the past several years, and that people living in repressive regimes have access to content that can compete with the propaganda generated by their governments.  But unless, as Patrick optimistically suggests, a self-imposed standard of ethics and professionalism is generated from within the community of non-professional reporters who have shifted toward investigative journalism and, unless, a systematized way (maybe, a system of source-vigilantism) to fact-check is developed, governments will begin to get a better handle on how to manipulate new media and people’s trust of non-traditional sources of news, and what we’ll see in the next couple of years is a depreciation of non-traditional news we can trust.  

–Laura Fong

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