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New Media Models in Action: “Old Guy on a Plane” Fails Again

Time and again, I get sucked in to doing some panel on “the death of journalism” and I wind up saying the same thing: journalism isn’t dying, it’s just changing. Which winds up pissing everyone off, because the room is usually full of dead tree journalists who are either unemployed or scared about losing their jobs. Which I understand. But their emotional response to the very idea makes it almost impossible to communicate the point that Glenn Greenwald’s post this morning on Afghanistan reporting makes so clearly.

Glenn shows how both the New York Times and CNN got sucked into printing the Pentagon’s version of events about the February killings in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan. The CNN headline unquestioningly stated as fact that the killings were “honor killings” by Taliban militants:

But yesterday, the NY Times was forced to admit that the version of events was false and that US troops had killed them.

As Glenn says, Amir Shah of the Associated Press had a much more credibly reported version — simply by picking up a phone and calling a relative of the dead.  So did Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency that publishes war reporting  by Afghans.

The “old model” of journalism is predicated on the belief that some guy from the New York Times who has been “professionally trained” and can be on the ground in Afghanistan is the only one who can truly and accurately report what’s happening.  And that the sad loss of revenues for traditional newspapers means that the Times (or the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or whatever you choose) can’t afford to have someone there, and thus the public is suffering a terrible loss.

While I don’t believe this loss of revenue or the cutbacks in international bureaus are a good thing, the idea that “news” can only be accurately reported by an “old white guy on a plane”  bringing his American perspective to the ground in Afghanistan is an archaic notion.  To begin with, articles published by the New York Times around the same period indicate that they had staff and stringers in Afghanistan:

January 29, 2010 – War Plan for Karzai: Reach Out to Taliban By MARK LANDLER and ALISSA J. RUBIN; MARK LANDLER REPORTED FROM LONDON, and ALISSA J. RUBIN FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN. TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN.
February 6, 2010 – U.S. Military Faults Leaders in Attack on Base By ROD NORDLAND; TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN, AN EMPLOYEE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FROM LASHKAR GAH, and ELISABETH BUMILLER FROM WASHINGTON.
February 13 – Coalition Troops Storm a Taliban Haven By C. J. CHIVERS and DEXTER FILKINS; C. J. CHIVERS REPORTED FROM MARJA, and DEXTER FILKINS FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN.
February 17 – Taliban Arrest May Be Crucial for Pakistanis By CARLOTTA GALL and SOUAD MEKHENNET; CARLOTTA GALL REPORTED FROM ISLAMABAD, and SOUAD MEKHENNET FROM FRANKFURT. TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN; SANGAR RAHIMI FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN; AND SCOTT SHANE FROM WASHINGTON.

These reporters may well have been tied up on other stories.  But if that’s the case, more accurate reporting was done by someone at the AP who troubled themselves to pick up a phone.

Perhaps more importantly, the Afghan News Service report was based on interviews with actual witnesses, local investigators as well as the Pentagon version of events.  It was published on the same day by Afghan reporters, and reflected not only an accurate version of events, but also fairly represented what various parties to the incident had to say about it.

In its 2009 report on the State of the News Media, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism singled out the GlobalPost, which networks and syndicates the work of reporters across the world.  Member papers can suggest ideas for reporting and then communicate with local journalists and receive reports.  It’s just one of many new models for connecting papers that can’t afford international bureaus with journalists who are writing about what’s happening in their own back yards.

Because as we found when Gaza was closed to journalists last year, someone with a flip cam can walk out and take a video of white phosphorous raining down and put it on the internet.   When journalists were ejected from Iran, Nico Pitney’s liveblogging on the Huffington Post — based in large on citizen reports coming out of the country on Twitter and other new media forms — was followed by journalists everywhere as the most authoritative source of moment-by-moment information.

People who live in a particular area of the world, who have an intimate knowledge of what is going on, can now provide tremendous insight into local events in a way that they could not do before the existence of the internet.  Through pictures, videos and personal stories, they can quickly communicate what is happening to them.  It’s a mistake to dismiss all of this as the “work of amateurs” or “unreliable.”  It’s source material and it’s immediately available to anyone with online access.

All of this isn’t meant to denigrate the value of having someone who is professionally trained get on a plane and report from location, imply that one can replace the other.  But there’s a lot more information that can be accessed and digested than there was 20 or even 10 years ago.  I can now go over to opensecrets and in 5 minutes have campaign contribution reports that would have taken a team of researchers a week to compile even a few years ago.  It would have been a week long front page series in a local news paper.  Now it’s a link at the end of any post.

You can see someone’s face as you’re talking to them on Skype.  You can shoot documents back and forth as email attachments instantaneously.  YouTube and other video outlets allow people who are in the right place at the right time to do what entire news crews can’t.  It doesn’t replace the value of a professional news crew, but a good “new media” journalist is able to use all these tools to cover a story and provide an added dimension to coverage that a “old guy on a plane” who isn’t well versed in using them can’t.

As Nico found, the challenge is often to separate what’s reliable and what’s not, and then compile information quickly in a well-informed way that meets the need for speed that the online media cycle demands.  That’s a skill set that a lot of “dead tree” journalists just don’t have, and many new media outlets have found much to their regret that it’s not easy to transition those trained in one into another.

Those who are concerned about the future of journalism would do better to figure out what can be covered quickly and efficiently by new media models.  In this case, someone with a phone and a computer (the AP) and those who are already reporting on what’s happening in their own back yard (the Afghan News Service) provided more efficient coverage than the New York Times and CNN who didn’t.

The challenge is not to replace all “old media” with “new media” and think that one can completely fill the gap left by the other. Rather, it is to understand the value add that “new media” can bring to reporting, and what it can’t, and then supplement those efforts with traditional methods.   Because pining for the demise of the dead tree model and endlessly seeking to replicate it is neither efficient, realistic nor desirable.

CommunityFDL Action

New Media Models in Action: “Old Guy on a Plane” Fails Again

Time and again, I get sucked in to doing some panel on “the death of journalism” and I wind up saying the same thing: journalism isn’t dying, it’s just changing. Which winds up pissing everyone off, because the room is usually full of dead tree journalists who are either unemployed or scared about losing their jobs. Which I understand. But their emotional response to the very idea makes it almost impossible to communicate the point that Glenn Greenwald’s post this morning on Afghanistan reporting makes so clearly.

Glenn shows how both the New York Times and CNN got sucked into printing the Pentagon’s version of events about the February killings in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan. The CNN headline unquestioningly stated as fact that the killings were “honor killings” by Taliban militants:

But yesterday, the NY Times was forced to admit that the version of events was false and that US troops had killed them.

As Glenn says, Amir Shah of the Associated Press had a much more credibly reported version — simply by picking up a phone and calling a relative of the dead.  So did Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency that publishes war reporting  by Afghans.

The “old model” of journalism is predicated on the belief that some guy from the New York Times who has been “professionally trained” and can be on the ground in Afghanistan is the only one who can truly and accurately report what’s happening.  And that the sad loss of revenues for traditional newspapers means that the Times (or the Washington Post or the Boston Globe or whatever you choose) can’t afford to have someone there, and thus the public is suffering a terrible loss.

While I don’t believe this loss of revenue or the cutbacks in international bureaus are a good thing, the idea that “news” can only be accurately reported by an “old guy on a plane”  bringing his American perspective to the ground in Afghanistan is an archaic notion.  To begin with, articles published by the New York Times around the same period indicate that they had staff and stringers in Afghanistan:

January 29, 2010 – War Plan for Karzai: Reach Out to Taliban By MARK LANDLER and ALISSA J. RUBIN; MARK LANDLER REPORTED FROM LONDON, and ALISSA J. RUBIN FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN. TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN.
February 6, 2010 – U.S. Military Faults Leaders in Attack on Base By ROD NORDLAND; TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN, AN EMPLOYEE OF THE NEW YORK TIMES FROM LASHKAR GAH, and ELISABETH BUMILLER FROM WASHINGTON.
February 13 – Coalition Troops Storm a Taliban Haven By C. J. CHIVERS and DEXTER FILKINS; C. J. CHIVERS REPORTED FROM MARJA, and DEXTER FILKINS FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN.
February 17 – Taliban Arrest May Be Crucial for Pakistanis By CARLOTTA GALL and SOUAD MEKHENNET; CARLOTTA GALL REPORTED FROM ISLAMABAD, and SOUAD MEKHENNET FROM FRANKFURT. TAIMOOR SHAH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FROM KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN; SANGAR RAHIMI FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN; AND SCOTT SHANE FROM WASHINGTON.

These reporters may well have been tied up on other stories.  But if that’s the case, more accurate reporting was done by someone at the AP who troubled themselves to pick up a phone.

Perhaps more importantly, the Afghan News Service report was based on interviews with actual witnesses, local investigators as well as the Pentagon version of events.  It was published on the same day by Afghan reporters, and reflected not only an accurate version of events, but also fairly represented what various parties to the incident had to say about it.

In its 2009 report on the State of the News Media, the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism singled out the GlobalPost, which networks and syndicates the work of reporters across the world.  Member papers can suggest ideas for reporting and then communicate with local journalists and receive reports.  It’s just one of many new models for connecting papers that can’t afford international bureaus with journalists who are writing about what’s happening in their own back yards.

Because as we found when Gaza was closed to journalists last year, someone with a flip cam can walk out and take a video of white phosphorous raining down and put it on the internet.   When journalists were ejected from Iran, Nico Pitney’s liveblogging on the Huffington Post — based in large on citizen reports coming out of the country on Twitter and other new media forms — was followed by journalists everywhere as the most authoritative source of moment-by-moment information.

People who live in a particular area of the world, who have an intimate knowledge of what is going on, can now provide tremendous insight into local events in a way that they could not do before the existence of the internet.  Through pictures, videos and personal stories, they can quickly communicate what is happening to them.  It’s a mistake to dismiss all of this as the “work of amateurs” or “unreliable.”  It’s source material and it’s immediately available to anyone with online access.

All of this isn’t meant to denigrate the value of having someone who is professionally trained get on a plane and report from location, or imply that one can replace the other.  But there’s a lot more information online that can be accessed and digested than there was 20 or even 10 years ago.  I can now go over to opensecrets and in 5 minutes have campaign contribution reports that would have taken a team of researchers a week to compile even a few years ago.  It would have been a week long front page series in a local news paper.  Now it’s a link at the end of any post.

You can see someone’s face as you’re talking to them on Skype.  You can shoot documents back and forth as email attachments instantaneously.  YouTube and other video outlets allow people who are in the right place at the right time to do what entire news crews can’t.  It doesn’t replace the value of a professional news crew, but a good “new media” journalist is able to use all these tools to cover a story and provide an added dimension to coverage that a “old guy on a plane” who isn’t well versed in using them can’t.

As Nico found, the challenge is often to separate what’s reliable and what’s not, and then compile information quickly in a well-informed way that meets the need for speed that the online media cycle demands.  That’s a skill set that a lot of “dead tree” journalists just don’t have, and many new media outlets have found much to their regret that it’s not easy to transition those trained in one into another.

Those who are concerned about the future of journalism would do better to figure out what can be covered quickly and efficiently by new media models.  In this case, someone with a phone and a computer (the AP) and those who are already reporting on what’s happening in their own back yard (the Afghan News Service) provided more efficient coverage than the New York Times and CNN who didn’t.

The challenge is not to replace all “old media” with “new media” and think that one can completely fill the gap left by the other. Rather, it is to understand the value add that “new media” can bring to reporting, and what it can’t, and then supplement those efforts with traditional methods.   Because pining for the demise of the dead tree model and endlessly seeking to replicate it is neither efficient, realistic nor desirable.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Firedoglake.com. Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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