Saturday, November 1, 2014

When media scandals meet social media

This post is not about the scandal unfolding precipitously around former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. I am not particularly interested in using this space to go through the sundry dirty details of the story, to debate whether or not Ghomeshi has been convicted in the court of public opinion without a trial, or whether or not the only place he’ll ever work again is France. There is no shortage of others filling the traditional and social media horns of plenty with all manner of opinions that pertain to those and other questions, and really, another voice added to those aspects of the discussion is not needed. Instead, I want to examine this story for the way it demonstrates how new forms of media have changed our experience of breaking news and events. That way we sidestep the circus, number one, and number two, even if you don't know who Jian Ghomeshi is, or care about the story one way or the other, there is food for thought contained within.

Now then...

Publishing and broadcasting used to be exalted, almost magical things, a privilege of the few, and therefore a source of enormous power. Now these tasks can be accomplished with the click of a mouse or the tap of an index finger on a smartphone screen. Granted, a single person ‘broadcasting’ a tweet or ‘publishing’ a blog post doesn’t have the same influence as the New York Times or CNN but, with a globally dispersed public as potential workforce, a single message sent out by an individual through the network can impact first hundreds, then thousands, and ultimately millions.

This table is not an exhaustive list but breaks out, I believe, the major distinctions between traditional and digital media in the context of news coverage.

This week many of us have had the experience of taking in the Ghomeshi scandal in a real time, participatory media environment. It has been everything from fascinating to overwhelming to repugnant to addictive. For many it was the first time in the middle of the maelstrom, watching and reacting to new pieces of information, conjecture, and even gossip as it flooded in on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and then news sites. This wasn’t my first time in such a situation as I was living in Boston when the marathon bombings took place in Spring 2013. That was the first multi-modal, in real time, media news coverage I’d been a part of, and it completely reframed the experience for me. The city was on lockdown, which meant I was hunkered down in my tiny bachelor apartment, clock radio with local news going at one end of the room, the TV alternating between the local news station and CNN, and my laptop working overtime, checking Google news and Facebook, and scouring Tweetdeck for new information and hashtags moment by moment.

The stakes are different in the case of the Ghomeshi incident, but no less dramatic. We now know the experience of what Clay Shirky has referred to as the shock of inclusion. We watched as one piece of information dogpiled on top of another; as each lurid detail, wisecrack, or expression of support or protest flashed across our screens. We didn’t know what we should believe, and are unlikely to know the truth for some time.

And it all started because one guy with a podcast and a blog took it upon himself to independently investigate Ghomeshi, based on a tip he had received. It wasn’t the Globe & Mail, the National Post, or the CBC who broke the story, but independent, unembedded journalist Jesse Brown. And if not for his need for libel insurance he could have broken the story on his own, using his podcast and blog and a bunch of hashtags and @ posts on Twitter.

Because this blog is about digital disintermediation, aka the ability to bypass the usual intermediaries and power structures using digital, networked technologies, I decided that the story of this story belongs here. So I got in touch with Andrew Lundy, a journalist friend who has been in the business for 20+ years, and has worked in both old school newsrooms and in exclusively online environments. He’s now Vice President, Digital, at The Canadian Press.

Here are my questions and here are Andrew’s responses:

LK: How would you describe the role of the newsroom as a scandal or crisis unfolds in real time and the digital media avalanche gains momentum every fraction of a second?

AL: For traditional newsrooms, our role is three-pronged. First (and most important I think), we act as a filter, the Dolby noise reduction that assesses the stream of info and discards what's untrue, unlikely, and irrelevant, and amplifies what's true (or at least confirmed) and relevant.

Second, we bring our own resources to bear to advance the story, make it locally or contextually relevant for our audience, and tell it in distinctive ways. Beyond text there are photos, videos, maps, interactives, audio, animated gifs.

Third, we distribute that information on as many platforms as possible. While anyone can be a publisher or broadcaster today, traditional newsrooms still are the gatekeepers to newspapers, TV and radio, and most of the heavy-traffic news sites.

LK: How has your job changed, as things have moved traditional/analog to digital media?

AL: Timing, for one. Everything feels like hyperspeed today. A story can morph a dozen times in a single day now that we have instant publishing and direct access to sources and info, and no control over whom tells the story. So staying on top of a story today is much more demanding than it was 20 years ago.

Related to timing is the news cycle. There really isn't one anymore. There used to be a rhythm to the news day: agendas set in the morning, a lot of action during the day, finalizing stories in the afternoon and early evening, people consuming all that later in the day or the next morning. Hence morning and evening papers, TV news at 6 and 11. Weekends generally quiet and reserved for analysis and long-form storytelling. Sunday New York Times typified that sensibility.

Try following the Rob Ford or Jian Ghomeshi stories on that schedule and you miss everything. News conferences scheduled with minutes of lead time, stories breaking on Twitter at 10pm, the Saturday-night reaction to a social media post becomes a story in its own right. You just never know what to expect anymore, so you have to be ready for anything anytime. And with shrinking newsrooms, that's a real challenge. But there are positives. We can be much quicker to push out info today, and can reach more people digitally than ever before. Digital means everyone is a global publisher. And the range of storytelling options is absolutely exhilarating. In my former life as a print reporter I would have loved to have the range of tools available today to tell some of those stories. Back then all I had was text, maybe a photo or two, and if was very lucky, a flat infographic.  

A few seconds in the life of Tweetdeck this week

LK: I’ve been hooked on my screen for far too many hours watching information come in about this story and one of the many interesting things is that the institutions, the bigger players, seem to be getting many of the parts of the story last…for example, the Big Ears Teddy story appeared in the National Post online about 15 hours after I first saw it come up on Twitter. And before they got it it had been on the Huffington Post and Gawker. How do you keep up as all the information rushes in, non-stop like this?

The old school newsroom:
When accusatory teddy bears didn't have Twitter accounts
AL: Here's where I'll defend traditional media when it comes to speed. I'd hope the lag time pushing new stories is due to the verification process. I know it is where I work today. Being first is great, being right is greater still. Nobody wants to kill Gordon Lightfoot again. Remember the whopping errors mainstream media pushed when the Sandy Hook school shootings occurred?

If traditional media with professional journalists can't set themselves apart from the noisy crowd in terms of accuracy or fairness or consequences like libel, they just become part of the noise.

As far as keeping up, we're constantly monitoring. We always have but the wire and the police scanner have turned into Tweetdeck and targeted Google News alerts. Once something happens on those new platforms, we jump on it and start assessing and verifying.

LK: I’ve heard it said that with online news you can get it right or you can get it first. As part of a professional news organization is there any way you can do both? Or is that an unreasonable expectation?

AL: You can, but the 'get it first' part is tougher today because anyone can push anything anytime. When it comes to enterprise or investigative stories, you'd better do both. The Toronto Star has been very good at that in both their Ford and Ghomeshi coverage, for instance, because they've invested in their investigative resources and have a really strong pedigree in that area with journalists like Kevin Donovan.

And for a taste of the ways the accessibility of information and opinion related to news stories has changed in the age of digital, participatory media:

Here for journalist Jesse Brown's online allegation tracker, moved to the Huffington Post site
Here for the satirical Twitter account @early90sjian
Here for a candid snap of JG at a Hallowe'en party in 2009*
(*Note: this photo no longer available as  Ghomeshi disabled his Facebook account as of late November 2014, where the picture was posted)

...Or view the video below, an op-ed on the Ghomeshi scandal, done in the style of a YouTube makeup tutorial.

(Ed. Note, possibly to self: interesting that I"m using the traditional news term "op ed", which exists to distinguish opinion from balanced news reporting, while media forms like this video comprise a new category.)