Toronto’s Globe and Mail’s main story today on riots in China featured five photos that originally appeared on Twitter from citizens in China.
The wire service Reuters originally curated the images, and the Globe and Mail grabbed them from the service, citing both Reuters and Twitter for the photos. China is a country with tight media controls and a vast Internet filtering strategy that would have traditionally made it difficult for photos like these to be made public. But social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Flickr are making it hard for China’s censors to keep up with its citizens.
The Internet, and social media in particular, are making it difficult for authoritarian regimes around the world to control the flow of data into and, perhaps more importantly, out of their countries. China’s fabled “Great Firewall of China” is really intended to keep citizens from accessing information produced outside of China on such hot button topics like democracy and Tienanmen. The Great Firewall was not designed to keep information from flowing from Chinese citizens to the wider world, especially in real time.
Social media is having a big impact on both journalism and the wider world. While western news agencies struggle to get images out of China and Iran, Twitter and other social networks are providing a near limitless flow of information and media. In this case, a mainstream media story was combined with photos from a social network to tell a more complete story of the current unrest in China.
Rather than fear social media and other emerging Web technologies, news organizations should embrace these new technologies. In this case, the Globe and Mail was able to print five incredible photos that illustrate the upheaval and deadly violence in China. These photos would not be possible without social media, and the world would be poorer without these photos.
And while this is a journalism site, it’s pretty amazing to also see the impact that Twitter and other social media are having on totalitarian regimes like China and Iran. It may have been possible a few decades ago to keep unrest under wraps or at least limit its exposure to the world, but that is no longer the case. People have stories to tell and social media is emerging as the premier platform to tell individual stories, especially in the face of oppression and censorship.
It’s also worth noting that the Globe and Mail didn’t turn its nose up at non-professional photos on its front page. While the photos grabbed by cell phones aren’t award-winning quality, they are often more than adequate to tell a story. These photos are powerful not because of the technology behind them, but rather because of the subjects they capture and the stories they tell.
People all over the world are constantly taking photos and posting them to social media sites. News organizations need to learn how to harness this mass of information. While many of the photos are duds, there are plenty of gems.
To find these five gems, journalists at Reuters had to sift through many photos. As social media continues to proliferate, curation will become an increasingly important skill for journalists to have.
It’s starting to become a little ridiculous for people — many of them old-school journalists — to deny the power of Twitter, especially in light of what is happening in Iran right now.
I can offer no great insight into who really won the recent presidential election, but it is clear to everyone that many people in Iran are not happy and feel they have been screwed over. Again, however, it is social media leading the way for coverage. If you want to know what’s really going on in Iran, Twitter is the place to be.
Right now, four of the top trending topics on the service are IranElection (No. 1 right now), Tehran, Iranians and TwitterReschedules. The last topic is about how Twitter has rescheduled routine maintenance, as not to disrupt the current chatter about Iran. It’s a good thing that Twitter at least recognizes the seriousness of this situation, because many in at traditional media outlets haven’t paid much attention to this unfolding story.
The Iranian government controls the media. The BBC even believes that Iran is responsible for their satellite signal being blocked in the region. That’s exactly where a subversive social media technology like Twitter comes in.
Decades ago, a totalitarian government could have made it extremely difficult for the outside world to know what was happening in their country. To this day, North Korea and its internal workings are shrouded in mystery. State-run media can silence dissidents internally as well.
But no government has found a way to silence the broader Web. Sure China tries, but even the great firewall has great cracks. In Iran, we are seeing that the Web — and more specifically social media — cannot be silenced.
What makes Twitter such a subversive tool is that it is so hard to block and stop. Anyone with a mobile phone (and there are many more mobile phones than computers in the world) can post to Twitter. Those with more advanced phones can upload photos and text via the service. It’s difficult to stop millions of people from sharing their experiences via a network like Twitter.
Sure, Iran is trying to block all this information from coming out, but that’s far easier said than done. On the Web, even if the government finds a way to block a Web service, it won’t stay blocked for long. Alternative proxies and other workarounds quickly propagate throughout the Internet.
Beyond the merely technically is the shear scale of the problem for the Iranian government. There are lots of social media sites out there to try to block, and even if the government managed to block all of them, it would still have to contend with millions of blogs. The beauty of the Web is that it allows anyone’s voice to be heard.
For the real story, one needs to be on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc. The mainstream media like CNN have been woefully inadequate in covering the turmoil (although they have been coming around). In fact, for most of the weekend, CNN.com did not feel the unrest in Iran was worthy of being the top story.
Ironically, it was Twitter users who slammed CNN the hardest. #CNNFail become a popular hashtag on the service as angry users slammed the network for taking such a caviler approach to this issue. Ever since then, CNN.com has taken a far more serious and in-depth approach to the upheaval in Iran.
Here is what some Iranians are saying on Twitter:
“I’ve learned something today. Americans DO care about the world outside America. Their media just doesn’t.”
“Non stop sound of shooting heard in Tehran.”
“Just saw pics of dead bodies. Bodies of young iranians. Got sick and cried for hrs.”
“Good night. viva freedom. viva truth. Hope a better coverage by media. That’s our only support.”
“I’m so tired and going to get some rest while I know there r people & students in streets fighting for justice.”
YouTube big in coverage too
Not only are people sharing powerful images and text via Twitter, but a myriad of user-generated video is appearing on YouTube. These are the kinds of video that traditional media outlets rarely get. These are also the kinds of video that the MSM may hide from the public because they are too raw (read: to real).
For instance, take this video of a crowd of protestors being shot at:
Here is another video of protestors chanting into the night:
Professional journalism bringing analysis, insight & context
There is, of course, room for professional journalists in this equation. Professional reporters can make sense of all these tweets, photos and videos. Professional reporters can also offer additional on-the-ground insight.
Beyond that, professional journalists can offer analysis and try to answer the why question. The ideal future of media involves a collaboration between citizen and professional journalists.
These are the kinds of stories you won’t find originating on Twitter:
- Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered an investigation into charges of voter fraud
- BBC Iranian affairs analyst Sadeq Saba looks at the key questions in the wake of the county’s bitterly contested presidential election result
- In Iran, an iron cleric, now blinking
- ANALYSIS – No-win situation for Obama team on Iran
All of these photos come via Flickr, another social networking site that is helping to spur this revolution.
Liveblogging offers a lot of promise for a future model of journalism that features professionals, sources and citizens working together to provide a more complete picture of the world around us.
In a previous post, I discussed liveblogging and its current forms. There are three main categories: first, there’s the liveblog that covers events we can all see, televised events like a World Series game. Second, there’s a liveblog that covers events we can’t see, like a court case. Finally, there’s the “this just in” brand of liveblog for a breaking news event or a crisis, where up-to-the-minute coverage is needed.
First, let’s discuss televised events. In some cases, liveblogs here make little sense. Few people watching the State of the Union would need a separate commentary during it. The State of the Union is an uninterrupted event, like a film.
You don’t need a reporter during a speech, just like you don’t need someone whispering in your ear during a movie. A liveblog of the State of the Union might serve for someone who couldn’t watch but wanted to keep up with it as it happened. It could also serve as a transcript for later readers. Most people, however, would probably prefer a brief synopsis.
Liveblogs hold more potential for televised events where there’s a break or a lull in the action. Baseball and football are good examples where there’s plenty of time that’s ripe for good observations about the game. If the liveblog is set up as a chat, the fans can set the agenda of the conversation, rather than just listen to the announcers; it creates a community space, like having a bunch of buddies watching the game with you.
Liveblogging’s greatest potential is for events where we can’t see all the action or wouldn’t easily comprehend it even if we could. These include court proceedings, political events, terrorist attacks, wars, natural disasters or, on the bright side, space landings and major scientific breakthroughs. Livebloggers become our eyes and ears on the ground, valued for their ability to get details and separate facts from rumors.
We’ve had live coverage for decades, in radio and television. So to imagine what liveblogs could end up doing for reporting, let’s look back at the evolution of live coverage.
One of the major events in live television coverage was the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Live reports came within minutes of the shooting. Reporters came to us by the hour with new information, but it was largely a one-way conversation, reporter to viewer. For public reactions, reporters went to the streets. Take a look at this NBC News “man-on-the-street” session after the assassination (Note: you may need to reload the clip).
With liveblogging, this type of reporting stands to change a great deal. First of all, getting people to talk about such a grave subject will no longer demand the television reporter’s awkward question, “How do you feel?” The reactions will come naturally, remotely from the audience.
Whether through liveblogs or other forums, people will send reactions in text, audio and video form. A middleman on the street will no longer be needed for such events; the audience will send their feelings and coverage themselves.
Abraham Zapruder was interviewed immediately after the assassination, but it took 12 years after JFK’s death for his film to come to light. A modern-day Zapruder could have done it with an iPhone and had it on an iReport or NowPublic within minutes. As sites allow multimedia reader commentary, such footage will become easy to add to a liveblog.
Next, let’s take a look at coverage of 9/11. Here’s CNN on that morning. Whereas in ’63, you had a one-camera shot of a reporter, here our attention is constantly divided. We hear the reporters, while we see a video image. The screen divides at times into a video image on one side and live reporters on the other, while audio of the reporters is mixed in.
Take this to the next step: television coverage may begin to rely on the Internet. Soon news coverage will feature not just windows for video images and reporters but also for tweets and liveblogs. Already Twitter feeds get a space on many CNN broadcasts, and liveblogs will be just one more window on our screens, where users throw in their accounts, their photos, videos, audio, etc.
News organizations will need to find a way to filter it all, perhaps with a minute delay on entries to delete anything obscene and flag possibly inaccurate information or by hand-selecting which user-generated content appears. In the end, however, interactions between readers and news agencies on liveblogs will serve both groups well.
For example, in the 9/11 scenario, notice the CNN reporters telling us they’re calling their sources and trying to get information. On-air, they struggle in their discussion with Sean Murtaugh because he can’t see certain things from his “vantage point.” In a liveblog scenario, tons of eyewitnesses could contribute their vantage point and speed up the process of information-gathering, helping both users and reporters.
Meanwhile, when reporters contact their trusted sources, if they do so transparently via liveblogs, we as users can follow along and interact directly. Liveblogs then become a kind of online news conference where users directly address sources and reporters. After all, if Murtaugh is willing to speak on national TV, why shouldn’t he be wiling to take our questions?
At the present time, Twitter’s “direct message” feature allows us to single out a person for communication, and this is an early model of the structure for conversations in liveblogs. Imagine first a window where the reporter welcomes all his sources and readers, then sub-windows where sources either offer their own chat or readers can request a chat with them.
As news travels faster and faster, there’s an increased risk of misinformation. One of the issues that Oliver Stone’s 9/11 film “World Trade Center” captured was how quickly rumors spread on that day. With everyone on their phones and PDAs, plenty of false information spread about who was responsible and what had happened. Our urge to get information out before verifying it will only grow with the advance of technology, and it will be crucial for the reporter to become a voice of authority, while staying connected to their audience.
Despite that risk, liveblogging will allow for a much greater sense of empowerment and community among citizens in the pivotal events of the future. When we watched the Kennedy assassination and the 9/11 attacks, many of us were glued to our TV sets but felt powerless. With the integration of liveblogging technology, we will be able to air our questions and concerns in a joined forum of citizens, reporters and, hopefully, reliable sources.
Beyond crises like JFK’s death and 9/11, liveblogging has great potential in areas so far untapped. Think about liveblogging in war. So far, we’ve had plenty of live reports in war, but usually reporters answer to an anchor, not directly to the public.
If democracy keeps up with technology, liveblogs could easily arise where reporters, news consumers, parties involved in the conflict and people affected by the conflict are all converging to interact. There can be liveblogs of assaults on American forces or of other big events. War blogs will be one area where a multimedia environment will make a huge difference, as commenters can post video audio and photo with their posts.
The only thing that can prevent liveblogging from revolutionizing live coverage is corporate and political bureaucracy getting in the way. The potential is there for transparent open conversations, where those of radically opposing opinions can speak and link us to the evidence for their opinions. There will be a need to verify identities, distinguish fact and rumor and define what is too objectionable to air, but I believe this can be done while still advancing this a revolutionary and open form of reporting.
Imagine a liveblog transmitted from space years from now as we land on Mars. Astronauts, reporters and viewers will be exchanging information and questions.
Sound crazy? Maybe.
But the future is full of potential.