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When the Arab Spring demonstrations were under way in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and reports were streaming out through Twitter and Facebook and text messages and cellphone videos, it was easy to feel superior to the Egyptian government. How could they not realize that information can no longer be contained by blockades or even internet blackouts when everyone has the power to publish? Now the authorities in New York City and elsewhere have been getting a dose of that medicine, with the “Occupy Wall Street” protests being tweeted and live-streamed in real time. As the Associated Press learned this week to its chagrin, we all have newswires at our disposal now.
One of the things the NYC police have been trying to do to keep a lid on the protests is corral and/or exclude journalists from certain areas — and in many cases even arrest them — and then argue that only “registered” journalists are allowed to move freely (in an Orwellian move, the New York police restricted them to what they called “Free Speech Zones”). As Elisabeth Spiers of the New York Observer noted, the rules that govern who can be considered an official journalist for police purposes are convoluted and in some cases even contradictory, since they require that someone report on events before applying for a permit — events that they should not have been reporting on without a permit.
How do you regulate who is a journalist? You can’t
New York’s attempts to regulate the practice of journalism seem as antiquated as attempts in other jurisdictions such as Quebec to create an official licencing system, an idea that in some cases is supported by traditional journalistic organizations out of a fear that their livelihood is being threatened by “citizen” reporters or bloggers. But as journalism professor Jay Rosen has argued many times, the practice of journalism gets better when there are more people doing it, and nowhere has that become more obvious than in places like Tahrir Square — and now in Zucotti Park and other similar locations.
Among those who seem to see this as a threat are traditional news sources like the Associated Press, which chewed out its reporters this week for posting to Twitter about their colleagues being arrested in New York. The AP said later that its response was driven by concern for the safety of its reporters rather than a desire to save the news for its customers — but failed to explain why the memo from a senior editor mentioned only the rule about not scooping the wire, and said nothing about concern for its journalists.
As Jon Mitchell at Read/Write Web described in his post about the use of social media around the Occupy protests, real-time news via Twitter and Flickr and other services, when combined with curation tools like Storify (which was developed by former Associated Press foreign correspondent Burt Herman) can produce a powerful form of journalism that equals — or even exceeds — what traditional sources can provide. Are there errors and omissions and other flaws in this kind of real-time reporting by non-journalists? Of course there are. But they tend to get corrected just as quickly as they would in the mainstream media, if not faster.
One of the real threats to traditional journalism that come out of this phenomenon (if there are any) is that the ability to report and publish and broadcast the news in real time from events such as the Zucotti Park protests can turn anyone into what journalists have traditionally been: namely, a trusted filter for the news. Mitchell describes how one college student created a summary of the event that got tens of thousands of views in a matter of hours and was embedded by the Washington Post. Does that make him a journalist? Of course it does — in exactly the same way that Pakistani programmer Sohaib Athar became a journalist by live-tweeting the raid on Osama bin Laden, something NPR digital editor Andy Carvin described as a “random act of journalism.”
Freedom of the press matters when the internet is the press
As Mitchell points out, Storify is coming close to being a news source that competes with newspapers and other traditional media outlets, by selecting and curating the most interesting reports produced with its aggregation tools. So what are mainstream media entities doing to compete? Are they just telling their journalists not to post to social media networks, as AP and others have done — or are they trying to take advantage of these tools? The BBC has an entire news-desk set up to process and fact-check reports that come in via Twitter and YouTube and other networks, a process that applies traditional journalistic processes to these new information sources. That’s a smart approach, and one that other media outlets could learn from.
The disruption of journalism thanks to the “democracy of distribution” (as Om has called it) is also one of the reasons why laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act are a real danger. What if a site like WikiLeaks or a citizen-journalism service is accused of using copyrighted material in a news report? Their site could be removed from the internet and shut down by payment companies (as WikiLeaks has been) without even a court hearing to prove their guilt. Freedom of the press becomes a lot more important when everyone is the press — or rather, when the internet itself becomes the press.
So what does the world look like when journalism is everywhere? We are beginning to find out. And while it may be a frightening prospect if you are a traditional media company, there is a lot to be optimistic about if you are just interested in the news. A world where everyone is a journalist may be a bit more chaotic and a bit more complicated than the one we are used to, but it will also be a bit more free, and that is clearly a good thing.