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We live in a world where most past predictions of the future never happened, yet the unimaginable does. What was planned is laden with unintended consequences and what is planned can’t be assured.
Going forward, we have to expect an ever-increasing half-life of change and unthinkable surprises that come with the day’s news.
For journalists, there is a new normal. It starts with the recognition that everyone with a smart phone and a Twitter account can report from a scene, often before and with easier access than a seasoned professional. A teenager can—in an instant—achieve greater societal reach than Alexis de Tocqueville had in his lifetime of observations. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and YouTube are quicker delivery systems for breaking news than national newspapers and network news.
That’s today. Even those portals will be exceeded or replaced with tomorrow’s technology, all with immense impact and no filter. Well-nigh universal (“viral”) coverage comes without editorial vetting, ethical standards or journalistic integrity. Content doesn’t merely spread, it multiplies and mutates in an expanding information universe that’s virtually permanent.
This compares to the old normal where opinion was clearly identified in newspapers and on broadcasts. Where the Fairness Doctrine, before its revocation by the FCC in 1987, mandated that television and radio license holders (stations) make equal opportunity available on air for the responsible discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial local subjects. Where community ascertainment surveys required local stations to research and address those local concerns as an obligation for their license renewals.
The goal was to give the community fairness and balance (and accuracy) as fundamentals, not as a promotional slogan. Of course, there was no “cloud,” no endless technological library to store the content as there is today. But in TV news, at least, the time to develop film provided time to develop the facts of a story. It was not a requirement. It was, however, the standard that the media generally respected.
Now it’s different. Our hyper-Googled media landscape has no hard and fast news deadlines. Citizen journalists compete with traditional media. They both shoot, hit “Send” and upload to the world. In the process this new media has aided law enforcement and reported to the public. Perhaps no better example exists than the Boston Marathon bombings. But no worse examples exist, too.
With a lack of hard facts, an excess of airtime, but no shortage of journalists on location, television news turned to reporters of all stripes to recount what they knew or heard. Out-of-town crews rushed to Boston. However, unfamiliar with the city and unable to develop their own sources, they looked down the sidewalk on Boylston Street to find talking heads they could show back home.
Across America, audiences saw stories break and break apart; announced, retracted, corrected and confirmed.
Video was sourced from seasoned reporters with their professional camera crews and ordinary citizens with their iPhones. First-person impressions and second-hand hearsay played out; some accurate, some riddled with unsubstantiated “facts,” misleading information, or totally false reports.
Days after the attack, AP, CNN, Fox News and even the Boston Globe got caught erroneously reporting that arrests had been made. The story-of-that-story then intensified through social media and was criticized and lampooned by competing news organizations, late night talk shows and comedy programs.
A week later, CNN chief national correspondent John King, the first to report news of the arrest, told Washington, D.C. radio station WTOP, “The one thing you have to do is look straight in the camera and say, ‘We were wrong.’”
While The New York Times noted that the bombings “gripped the nation with some of [tje] most startling, and at times unnerving news coverage in years,” another quotation, generally attributed to Mark Twain, bears consideration. “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.”
The New York Post unwittingly or perhaps uncaringly provided contemporary testimony to Twain’s opinion. In the midst of the horrifying week, the newspaper ran an inflammatory front page cover proclaiming, “Bag Men.” The paper used both pictures and words to inform its readers that two young men depicted in the photo were those sought in the investigation. It was not true. But before amended, the story sent amateur and professional techno-sleuths combing the Internet to identify the individuals in the cover photo, requiring—among other results—that a not-involved 17-year old Moroccan found himself having to insist that he was innocent. He discovered that proving a negative is just as impossible for a blameless person before the court of public opinion as it is for a scientist in a philosophical debate.
In another case related to coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, word spread via social media that a Brown University student, missing since March, could be one of the terrorists. The student’s name went viral until police set the record straight through traditional media.
Slate.com writer Will Oremus focused on the account in a blog post, “Dear Twitter, Don’t Believe Everything You Hear on a Police Scanner.” He wrote that Twitter “lit up several times with reports that people are taking as true because they heard them on the scanner.” In a classic Catch 22 scenario “…the false information that Twitter was getting from the scanner was actually false information that the police on the scanner had gotten from Twitter.”
The family of the male student issued a statement which underscored how painful the speculation had been.
In times of crisis, the media and law enforcement reach for the same tools. Remote video such as rooftop surveillance cameras, TV station and city traffic cams and police video positions capture the activities and pulse of a city. At street level, ATMs, store security cameras, and ordinary citizens with high quality still and video devices record their lives and those around them. And then there are databases of all sorts. This was the content that drove some in the media in the wrong direction after the Boston Marathon bombings and—ultimately—the suspects into a shootout in Watertown, Massachusetts.
In the hands of law enforcement, the recordings serve to eliminate a Rashomon effect (different interpretations or views of the same event) with improved clarity and definition. They help to protect us in public where there is no legal expectation of privacy. These eyes and sometimes ears offer Big Brother-like access to what is going on that George Orwell decried in his novel, 1984, but that most Bostonians would presently argue is a welcomed member of the community.
However, the volume of all the available content in today’s intense 24/7 news cycle defies the ability of most newsrooms to evaluate it ahead of the need to disseminate it. Reporters increasingly become selectors and interpreters of what others have seen or posted. They work in-the-moment in a morphed media without journalistic silos, shooting video as print writers, writing blogs, tweeting from their TV standup locations, and commenting on-camera about things they often know little about, but may be experiencing, deducing or overhearing. They wear multiple hats and they must stand out. Many are encouraged to be known as personalities, to have an extreme point of view, and to amplify the reportage.
In-the-moment and live? It’s hard not to keep talking and it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Moreover, sometimes reporters have no choice but to report what is happening to them.
During an altercation at the 1964 Republican National Convention, NBC reporter John Chancellor was escorted off the floor by RNC officials. He broadcast live, “This is John Chancellor somewhere in custody.”
Four years later, Dan Rather was hit by a security guard at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He reported to anchor Walter Cronkite and viewers then tuned to CBS, “This is the kind of thing that has been going on outside the hall, this is the first time we've had it happen inside the hall. We... I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that. What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being hauled out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant the security people, well as you can see, put me on the deck. I didn't do very well." Cronkite responded, "I think we've got a bunch of thugs here, Dan.”
Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein achieved celebrity journalist status for their Watergate reporting. It even led to a popular film adaptation of All the President’s Men where their “characters” were portrayed by actors Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
More recently, the issue has taken on emotional dimensions as news reporters have actively participated in their stories. ABC News’ Bob Woodruff helped distribute food and water to Hurricane Katrina victims. He maintained that reporters shouldn’t participate with the cameras rolling. Acting as a concerned citizen was another matter.
CBS News correspondent John Roberts tried to avoid scenes where he and his colleagues dispensed aid, though in one instance his crew shot video as they threw a line from their boat to a man struggling in the water. “Out here, every boat is a rescue boat, even ours,” Roberts reported.
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported how he provided health care following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. ABC’s Robin Roberts helped bring Haitian orphans to the United States.
A term for reporter-involvement has emerged—“Emo-journalism,” short for emotional journalism. Mike Lyons, an Assistant Professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia has researched the growth and influence of this popular style of reporting, which emphasizes the heroic nature of the reporter. In an interview following the Boston Marathon bombings he told New York Times reporter Brian Stelter: "Recent examples like the CNN video of Anderson Cooper rescuing a child in the chaos of post-quake Haiti…indicated that journalistic ethics are changing. Cameras can go anywhere now and they can constantly be running.” The audience’s appetite for reality leads to “those telling the stories would become part of the stories.”
Without a doubt, the demarcation between the sideline and the inside is becoming blurred. So are ethical tenets previously forged by scholars, seasoned journalists, and venerable news organizations.
“Seek the truth and report it.” That’s the first principle from the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
The ethics guidelines of the Radio Television Digital News Association maintain, “Professional electronic journalists should present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest.”
The New York Times ethical standards state, “Though this topic defies firm rules, it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias.”
A notable example of a journalist maintaining integrity while involuntarily becoming part of the story for others comes again from the Boston Marathon bombings.
Boston Globe reporter David Abel was at the finish line. Abel was shooting footage for the paper’s Boston.com Web site. The first bomb exploded. He rushed closer and gave the world a staggering view of the second explosion. The newspaper’s Web video went viral, clearly underscoring the full emergence of convergence journalism and propelling Abel into national and international prominence as a go-to interview subject, which included high visibility on the Globe’s Web site. Addressing the camera directly he said, “I was watching the scene with despair, with dread and it’s something I’m never going to forget.”
His comments are a powerful reminder that reporters are human; that situations are requiring more than point, shoot and broadcast or write and publish.
We exist in fleeting moments of a constantly evolving, adrenaline-driven world. The cliché is no longer “Film at 11.” Reporting is live and immediate; both professional and amateur; bearing witness to the truth and with great danger of spreading information that is false.
Ethics matter and require constant evaluation. So must our view of how fast decisions are made and what occurs in the moment. When it comes to the established news media and the ethicists’ debate over whether a reporter should be part of the story, we’ll increasingly find situations where we’re thankful a reporter was involved – no matter how.