Monday, 22 April 2013

Note to news media: slow down, and don't be too self-critical

There's a fair bit of self-flaggellation within the media over boo-boos committed during coverage of the Boston bombings and the subsequent chase in pursuit of the suspects a few days later. One example of this is by Andy Carvin, National Public Radio's social media strategy head, given as a keynote at the recent International Symposium for Online Journalists symposium in Austin, Texas.
Whether it's Boston, or Newtown, or some other breaking story, we all kick into high gear. At every newsroom, it's all hands on deck - battle stations. These are the moments where the public expects us to do our jobs, and do them well. These are the moments we pride ourselves in our roles as professionals. And thankfully, many of us rise to the occasion.
The bottom line, Carvin says, is: "No. Dead. Air." It's like what Jill Abramson, the New York Times' executive editor, said during her talk at the same event. Here's what I wrote on Facebook after listening to Abramson speak.
Listening to NY Times executive editor talk abt Boston bombings coverage. She's saying nothing about how the media can examine the underlying motivations of the suspects, and the matrix of ideas that sits underneath all the stories that appear. All she talks about is the chaos of the bombings and how her newspaper had journalists running in the race. Why do "big news stories" like the Boston bombings get journalists so excited? They seem to thrive on adrenaline, and eschew the more contemplative approach of the long form.
Carvin's role in social media for NPR means he's on the cutting edge of reporting, pushing out tweets to the audience, some of whom are glued to the various receivers available: be it the TV, the radio or Twitter. But that's not the whole population. A lot of people just tune in occasionally. Like a friend of mine who yesterday complained to me about the way the media got caught up in the traps of the rushing mechanism during the Boston coverage, and as a result made mistakes. It may be important to NPR or CNN to keep the feed rolling, delivering non-stop information to a seemingly insatiable public, but it's not the only way to go. As for reliability, I stuck to two news websites during the period in question: the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times. The Twitter feed had too much noise, most of which I didn't need.

I think that news organisations feel compelled to scramble like fighter pilots when the air-raid siren sounds, but that's just their instincts kicking in. A little sober reflection would tell them that what people want is the best possible news available in the shortest period of time. In that order. A media company might be terrified that if it slows down it'll lose eyeballs. So be it. The race to be first works as a kind of drug, with the result that the product quality is compromised.

In any case, these bouts of self-reflection really miss the point. For people who want 24/7 news saturation, a few small errors along the way will not matter. So don't fret, is my advice. As Monica Guzman put it in a piece published on the Seattle Times on Saturday:
News is not just something we check every now and then. It’s not just a job, for some people, or an interest, for others. What goes on in our world and how we come to understand it tells us more than we know about who we are and how we’re connected. There are facts and reports and updates. Those are the bones. But there is also feeling, reaction, emotion. That’s the blood. 
And it’s pumping.
If you're going to engage with the audience on Twitter there are going to be errors. The same rules for factualness that applied in the more placid routine of the morning news era don't apply. If you are going to be out there mixing it with the news junkies, the trolls and the civil authorities, you are going to slip up. Live with it. Noone really cares.

Postscript: That final remark does not apply to the New York Post, but it's a Murdoch vehicle, so what can you expect.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Burrows said...

Thanks for the post.

I sometimes feel a sense of concern with the inaccurate, and close-minded views of people on social media. I notice it mostly in political arguments on Twitter. It concerns me to think that votes and our future could be shaped by harmful views.

But then again, maybe I just notice a lot of it, as I tend to spend quite a bit of time checking the news and people's tweets. So for me it might be a matter of saturation.

But if most people spend a minimal amount of time and effort following news and current affairs, are we at risk of building a future based on the unstable footing of misinformation?