9 Comments

Summary:

Reports of a Google blockage in China led to a storm of media coverage, but the reports turned out to be wrong. Does that mean the rush to report such events is misplaced? Not at all. Real-time news is a process, not a finished product.

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The reason time exists, Albert Einstein once said, is to prevent everything from happening all at once. In an age of Twitter and blogs and instant publishing of all kinds, it often feels like everything is happening all at once — events occur and are described and interpreted and then the information is distributed to the far corners of the globe instantaneously. In some cases those descriptions and interpretations are very true, but in some cases they are just plain wrong. Take what happened last Thursday night, for example, when reports emerged from Google that its services in China were being blocked. Almost instantly, blogs and other news outlets started writing and publishing the story. The only problem was that it turned out not to be true. Was this a failure of real-time journalism? No.

Less than 30 minutes after the first report, news started filtering out through Twitter that seemed to show Chinese citizens and observers in that country were accessing Google services without any difficulty. Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online, a fellow at Princeton University and a former CNN reporter in China, started re-posting messages from contacts there who said they were having no trouble at all with Google’s website. Meanwhile, more and more news services and blogs were reporting that Google was blocked in China — including blogs like VentureBeat as well as news outlets such as the Reuters wire service and Bloomberg, and publications such as the New York Times.

One of the first outlets to question the reports was The Next Web, thanks in large part to sources on Twitter (including Rebecca MacKinnon) who said that there was no blockage. TechCrunch also had skeptical take, thanks to its use of Webpulse to check and see whether Google.cn was blocked or not. Finally, after several hours, Google confirmed that the reports of its website being blocked were likely an over-reaction to a “small block” somewhere in China that had since been rectified. Posts at various blogs were updated, Reuters issued an updated story, and the news gradually faded from view.

So was this a failure of real-time journalism, or an example of it in action? You can find opinions on both sides of that question. Some commenters on Twitter and various blogs and news sites questioned why anyone would report that Google was blocked without checking with people actually in China to confirm it. Others said — at least initially — that it was enough to take Google’s word on the subject, since it is a credible source, and that being blocked in China was a big enough news story (given the recent back-and-forth between the company and the Chinese authorities) that it justified being published right away and then updated.

From my standpoint, this story unfolded in a completely natural way — if by natural you mean in tune with the way the web and social media function. It may not have been pretty, or nicely packaged, or even coherent at times, but it made perfect sense in era of real-time reporting and what Craig Silverman (in a great post about WikiLeaks at the Columbia Journalism Review) calls “distributed verification.” News breaks, it gets reported, others update that information either in comments on news stories or on Twitter or on their own blogs, that gets distributed, more corrections appear and additional information is added, then posts and news stories are updated, and so on. At any moment, there may be errors, but they are corrected (hopefully) just as quickly as they appear.

This is journalism as a process rather than a packaged product. It may not be pretty, but it is functional — and it arguably does readers more of a service than the assembly-line production system of mainstream media, which often ignores updates and corrections if they are inconveniently timed. Yes, it is often messy and confusing, and that is what journalism in this new era consists of: making sense of that process and bringing meaning to it, both during and after the fact. In a stirring post at Politics Daily, Walter Shapiro argues for a “slow news” movement instead of the rush to publish, but he might as well be arguing for a return to the days of horse-and-buggy transportation. The reality is that we need both speed and thoughtfulness in equal measure.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Robbert van der Steeg

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  1. Deranged Shaman Saturday, July 31, 2010

    Completely Agree, it is a process that may take some time to get right.

  2. The only problem with that model of news gathering and dissemination is that it looks like the tabloids of entertainment news such as TMZ, People and RadarOnline. Entertainment news may not be too dangerous, but political and economic and tech news can be dangerous and caused considerable damages. Just in the last two weeks we see an example of character assassination of MRS Sherrods by manipulation of a video by a blogger. I am still doubtful of that Chenoan affair between North Korea and South Korea and the Nada death affair in the Iranian Election crisis. We have two wars based on false premises, manipulated by some government actors and reported by the media as is. Can bad information and anxious leaders trying to respond provokes wars? Can people lives be ruined? Can government and news organization slanted the news to cause revolution in some country when they know well the information is not credible? Yes, and yes to all to all the aboe.
    It has happened before and I am afraid with the news media in steroid, trying to manufactured bad news for their bottom line since good news does not sell, we are living in a very dangerous time indeed.

  3. This is not journalism, though it may be what passes for it in the U.S. today: news as theater.

    I want my news “pre-digested:” fact and relevance checked, put in context, with thoughtful unbiased commentary as to meaning. It’s not something that blogs and the Internet’s citizen recorders, as opposed to reporters, have even come close to showing they can do on a consistent basis. A few have got lucky, but as the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    Think about this: how would Twitter or the blogs respond to historical situations like the Cuban Missile Crises or 911? Would they help a nervous populace by providing useful information and guidance in a time of real need or would they simply magnify the latest rumor and miss-information? We’ll probably find out sooner or later.

  4. It is great to actually read all three opinions (thus far) in the comments. I think it was a while ago I wrote about the need for context in the age of twitter. (do a search on GigaOM)

    That is more true today than every before. Let’s face it– the tempo of news is only mimicking the lifestyles we live and the always-on, never ending work day needs information flows that go with it.

    What is missing is our ability to actually absorb and question the news and its veracity. What I mean by that — we are seeing the traditional news outlets instead of offering context are skewing more in favor of the “process.”

    I wonder a lot of what Mathew is writing is also because of the fact that the denials, clarifications, facts and follow-ups don’t get amplified as much as the shock-and-awe of the first tweet.

    1. That’s a good point, Om — follow-ups and corrections often do not get the kind of attention as the original report. That is a serious issue.

  5. I live in beijing and was one of the people working to correct the false “news” about a block. http://www.twitter.com/niubi

    All it would have taken was for one of the journalists who first broke this to spend 60 seconds searching twitter and they could have found people in China saying that there were no new blocks on Google. Instead, they wrote a market moving, hugely sensitive story off of an automated report by Google computers, when they had no idea how Google’s machines were generating this alert. Google has refused in the past to disclose how it measures availability (I emailed their PR folks asking about how they are measuring this after a similar false report of mobile blocks a couple of months ago; they wrote back “no comment”).

    In this day and age is it really appropriate for journalists to take at face value what a company, or its machines, say? Isn’t that what PR folks do?

    As a cofounder (not a journalist) of Marketwatch.com I understand that covering breaking news can be very difficult, and I emphasize with the pressure on the reporters to be either first or a close second. But the real time financial newswires like Bloomberg, Dow Jones and Reuters, all of which blew this story, are paid hundred of millions of dollars a year by subscribers to be both fast AND accurate. At one point Google shares dropped $9 and Baidu’s jumped several dollars on this “news”. Iterative, post-publishing fact-finding and error-correcting is not acceptable journalism for professional financial news writers.

    Reuters falls in the truly absurd catalog. They published a story quoting equally absurd analysts on the effects of this new “block”, and the article is still online, uncorrected-http://in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-50509720100729

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. You are right that Bloomberg and Reuters and others should have taken the time to check Twitter and other sources — as I responded to you on Twitter, the nature of “real-time news” is not a justification for running things without even checking them. That’s something I could probably have explained a little better in my post — if anything, publishing in real-time requires more checking, not less.

  6. Hamranhansenhansen Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Sorry, no.

    Reporting that something both did and did not happen is a failure of journalism. You’re writing a journal of what did happen. “That’s the way it was.” The color commentary of a golf game has more integrity than this.

    Please tell me how my life would have been so awfully impacted if I never even heard this story. A router goes down in China and it’s world news? It’s a political incident? Thousands of reporters spending time on this? Hundreds of thousands of readers?

    We have limited enough time as it is. This was noise plain and simple. Just noise.

    We should be asking ourselves what actual true news is not being reported or read or understood while so many people wasted their time on this. The US is in 2 decade-long wars against 2 countries that have no armies, and nobody can explain why either of those wars happened or what they have accomplished, or even what they were meant to accomplish. Hardly anyone in the US has seen so much as a descriptive photograph of what is going on there. And when TIME finally shows us such a thing, they can’t resist using it as pro-war propaganda.

    Real-time is not new. We had telegraphs a hundred years ago. I think you are just blinded … “golly! we did this with computers!”

    The fact that Twitter was a more-reliable news source than journalists in this matter means there is no good journalism. It’s over. The first step to fixing this is admitting we have a problem. We need to take radical steps to fix this, not admire the speed at which the shit hit the fan and what a pretty pattern it made.

    1. Not everyone wants to follow the news from the first report through the fact-checking and updates and so on — but I think many do. And by doing so, they can see for themselves whether the final report about what happened is accurate or not, instead of relying on a single mainstream media outlet to be the judge of that. I think that’s actually a benefit. Thanks for the comment.

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