70 Comments

Summary:

Since Wednesday afternoon I have been glued to my computer screen in search of updates on the situation in India. Despite the tremendous volume of information — and its immediacy — coming from Mumbai via Twitter, getting context about the situation has been a struggle. And it has left me to wonder: How does one make sense of the torrent of information that comes with this immediate media? And what role, in this environment, does traditional media play?

All TV news is now glocalIncreasingly, every time there is an unfortunate tragedy — be it a raging fire or a terrorist attack – we geta torrent of stories heralding the legitimacy of Twitter as a news source. Their core arguments are always the same — that social media tools allow for information to be dispatched far faster than the lumbering old media. 

Indeed, Twitter’s simplicity gives virtually anyone the power to send dispatches from the front line. Traditionally, eyewitness reports would first go through an editorial grinder; now they hit the web as soon as the people that type them up hit the proverbial send key. The question, however, then becomes: How does one make sense of the torrent of information that comes with this immediate media? I first wrote about the “immediate media” phenomenon last year:

This immediate media is information simply adapting to the new methods of distribution. At the turn of the last century, [the] telegraph was used to spread the news. Telephone technologies gave newspapers a new sense of urgency and made distant events a weekly, and for some, a daily affair. Radio broadcasts made news more real time, making it part of our daily life. TV brought news into the living room, [and] made it more personal. Cable and the birth of CNN made news a 24/7 phenomenon.

The Internet in its early version upped the tempo, and with the rise of high-speed, always-on connections, information is now an unending stream. If you follow that thread, then [you] can easily see that with each transformation, technology compressed the news cycle a little, and made distribution a bit more efficient. The more we connect, the more we want to know but in less time.

That idea of the future has arrived much faster than we thought, but as we struggle to make sense of all the readily available information, it’s important also to understand how the role of media outlets has changed. Such a need became especially clear to me over the past few days as I watched the ugliness unfold in Mumbai.

 Since Wednesday afternoon I have been glued to my computer screen — actually three of them — watching the CNN-IBN News and NDTV News feeds, MSNBC and Fox News, Wikipedia, and most importantly, Twitter, for updates on the situation in India. (Check out FLickr for getting visuals that show life after the attacks and how the armed forces are taking action on sea.) 

Despite the tremendous volume of information — and its immediacy — coming from Mumbai via Twitter, getting context about the situation has been a struggle. While a few people have been tweeting firsthand accounts, much of the information has been re-tweets or just rambling, reaction-based tweets. Maybe I was overcome with emotion, but the sheer volume of tweets and lack of clarity only fed my frustration with Twitter. (I’m sure it’s the same kind of frustration people feel with blogs at times as well.)

Over the last 12 months, video on the Internet has essentially turned global news into a local broadcast. Yet even with all the news coming at me from the local Indian channels by way of streaming on the web, no one was offering context, analysis or a comprehensive overview of what was unfolding around them. CNN, MSNBC and others didn’t exactly have a grasp of the situation either, and I was left guessing what was actually happening. It wasn’t until The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times offered up their reports that the whole time line and sequence of events started to make sense. It was only then that the sheer ugliness and audacity, the horror and the madness, hit home. 

And that’s when I realized that the future of media is being split into two streams: one that consists of raw news that comes like a torrent from sources such as Twitter, mobile messages and photos, the other, from old media. The eyewitness dispatches (and photos) via social media are an adjunct to the more established media — which needs to focus on providing analysis, context, and crucially, intelligence — in real time. And yet it is old media — and their next-generation counterparts, the blogs and other Internet outlets — that will have to adapt to this. Of course, the biggest adaption will need to come from the public, those of us who aren’t there ourselves.

  1. That’s a great point, Om. I think in a lot of ways, people are now being exposed — through Twitter and blogs and Qik and so on — to the kind of firehose of information that journalists have traditionally been exposed to through wire services, eyewitness reports, etc.

    Some people like that never-ending cascade of information, but there is still a lot of room — and maybe even more need — for the adding of context and thoughtful analysis (not to mention fact-checking). That’s where the real potential for journalism lies, I think, whether it’s delivered by “traditional” journalists or not.

    Share
  2. Really good point. I think there’s a definite role which has been suggested for ‘traditional media’ to becoming curators and contextualisers of the torrent of content which is being produced on a second by second basis, and as Mathew said above, it’s where the skills of journalism should be utilised to provide fact-checking, analysis etc.

    I think there is also progress to be made around contextual filtering of the information – as simple as having a separate hashtag for Mumbai news, or Mumbai reaction, or a method of selection and filtering by the end user. I don’t have a particular example in mind, but having gone through the aggregation of friends and content from various locations to single locations like Friendfeed, it seems like the next logical step for the sheer weight of content that results.

    Share
  3. Really good point. I think there’s a definite role which has been suggested for ‘traditional media’ to becoming curators and contextualisers of the torrent of content which is being produced on a second by second basis, and as Mathew said above, it’s where the skills of journalism should be utilised to provide fact-checking, analysis etc.

    I think there is also progress to be made around contextual filtering of the information – as simple as having a separate hashtag for Mumbai news, or Mumbai reaction, or a method of selection and filtering by the end user. I don’t have a particular example in mind, but having gone through the aggregation of friends and content from various locations to single locations like Friendfeed, it seems like the next logical step for the sheer weight of content that results.

    Share
  4. It is a shame that Twitter had to end SMS services in the UK & Canada as this threatens the raw news stream. Great article though I can only imagine the emotions you would experience while trying to make sense of the torrent of data coming in.

    @mathewi Thanks for posting the link to this blog on twitter.

    Share
  5. @Mathew

    I agree. I think it is a scary prospect for the media establishment because I think most still confuse large for impactful. I think the industry is going to be smaller, nimbler and more participatory or else someone will figure out a way to do this better.

    Share
  6. It’s only receiving Twitter via SMS which has ended, so uploading to the raw newstream is fine – and I’d suspect trying to receive it via SMS would leave you bankrupt and infuriated pretty quickly. For consumption it’s Smartphone and wifi all the way!

    The other aspect will be the addition of video via Qik, Seesmic etc, alongside images via Flickr/TwitPic etc, plus text via Twitter.

    The question of how to filter, particularly with content that is unlikely to be tagged (I’m in an earthquake – should I use earthquake or just quake for SEO metadata?) is an important question…

    Share
  7. It’s only receiving Twitter via SMS which has ended, so uploading to the raw newstream is fine – and I’d suspect trying to receive it via SMS would leave you bankrupt and infuriated pretty quickly. For consumption it’s Smartphone and wifi all the way!

    The other aspect will be the addition of video via Qik, Seesmic etc, alongside images via Flickr/TwitPic etc, plus text via Twitter.

    The question of how to filter, particularly with content that is unlikely to be tagged (I’m in an earthquake – should I use earthquake or just quake for SEO metadata?) is an important question…

    Share
  8. Om,

    I’ve long held the belief – even before I left newspaper journalism – that traditional media should adopt to the immediacy of the Web by focusing on telling people what things mean (context) as opposed to what happened (news). It’s an important difference but newspapers, in particular, have failed to embrace context as much as they should. People still appreciate context, which is why the NYT and the Wall. St. Journal should use this kind of reporting as a strategic pillar.

    Mark

    Share
  9. It’s certainly an interesting post addressing a real problem. I know a number of people are experimenting with the notion of putting the unfiltered information side by side with vetted traditional media reports. Check out the CrisisWire page on the Mumbai attacks, there’s certainly a wealth of information both raw and with context. It may not totally solve the problem, but it’s definitely a start.

    http://crisiswire.com/2008/11/mumbai-attacks

    Share
  10. Om
    Ive thought about this over the last 72 hours as well – I found 3 levels of journalism. At one end was Twitter that broke news. At the other end was the TV networks in the US that did as you describe above. What was new and really useful was The BBC that did a great job of analysis based on short bursts of emerging data – analyzing a few hours worth of detail that brought context to help ascertain progress or deterioration over the course of each day.

    For me the summarizing of snippets of information served as a much better accompaniment to the immediacy/fragmented/repetitive updates from twitter. The big networks in the US, and the poor sensational reporting and rhetoric from the Indian channels was of little use.

    If I hear IBN call the situation “action and drama” once more, I’m going to puke. This is not a bollywood shoot.

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post