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Enough with the #CNNFail, or, Why Twitter’s Failings Prove We Still Need Reporters

June 17, 2009

I’m no defender of CNN, or of television news in general. (And if you can’t imagine why, I recommend Katie Couric’s recent performance on Jon Stewart). I think you get more context, nuance and information in three minutes of print than in three minutes of television, but that’s my personal opinion. And it’s confined to information-seekers; passive information-takers, someone argued recently (apologies for forgetting who) may be better grabbed up by the pretty pictures of newsy things that catch their eye during serendipitous channel surfing.

So it’s not out of any bruised love for CNN that I say, Enough. Enough general malaise about the woeful failure of the traditional media. Not just because I have a general distrust for opinion fads, but because it turns out that all this revolutionary social media isn’t all that great at relaying accurate information. There’s even considerable confusion among savvy Web2.0 users about just what’s blocked in Iran, or how much it’s blocked: An Iranian, via Michael C. Hough, says it’s all blocked, while a quick Google search will turn up any number of laudatory articles about the Iranians tweeting their way toward freedom.

(For a round-up of people more qualified to make this point, who make it better than I, read all the way to the bottom.)

An Iranian lawyer giving context to the election results, in a very worthwhile read over at Wronging Rights, also admitted there are problems with Twitter. And then went on to malign the media:

“as someone pointed out, that would typically be the job of ‘reporters,’ but they seem to be mostly absent throughout this whole thing – not entirely their fault, as the government is actively kicking foreign journalists out of the country and confiscating their equipment.”

(Okay, first: Why the cutesy quotation marks? I can write a living will with software that costs 20 bucks, but I don’t call the people who do that professionally “lawyers.”)

Moving on: They’re not mostly absent (corroborate me with a quick Google News check; even beyond the massive number of articles about…sigh…Twitter and Iran, you’ll find actual coverage.). Yeah, CNN blew it. But that’s old news.

One thing about that, though, is right-on. This would ordinarily be the job of reporters if they weren’t…you said it…being kicked out of the country, their equipment confiscated, their credentials revoked, some of them arrested. And remember what happened not so long ago to the freelance journalist who overstayed her professional welcome in Iran? She spent more than enough time in a prison many people never leave, and escaped a lengthy sentence for trumped-up, if watered-down, charges only with diplomatic intervention.

Even fancy new-media outfits rely on professional (“)reporters(“) to do the job right. GlobalPost has a correspondent on the ground in Iran, feeding information to a high-tech multimedia outfit even while following the basic professional principles that make journalism accurate and reliable, as much as breaking news can be. The BBC has had some amazing reporting, like this report, filmed largely in secret (including a covert stand-up) and for which journalist John Simpson and his cameraman were briefly arrested over the weekend:

Even the old Gray Lady has had more than a few boots on the ground; among the many regular news reports its journalists are filing is the work of its executive editor, Bill Keller. Guys at that level don’t normally leave the newsroom that much.

All of these are people who, at considerable personal risk, are not only gathering information but corroborating it, verifying it, and otherwise ensuring its accuracy before it lands in our inboxes (or even our Twitter feeds). I realize that’s now an old-fashioned and unappreciated (and underpaid) skill, but it turns out–and the Iranian election reminds us–we need it.

Or course, there are thousands of Iranians who, also at considerable risk, are Twittering to the world what’s happening. That’s been an amazing thing to witness, even if it’s nearly impossible to verify the accuracy of a lot of what comes over that wire. But I don’t think that we need to denigrate the work of professionals, who put years of training and experience to work on our behalf, in order to celebrate a great moment for new media or express gratitude for those sharing information.

So, really. Lets’s move on now, eh?


    “The core problem that I see with this is that immediacy is confused with quality. In the case of news, it’s a lot like a gossipping knitting circle. Things on Twitter can fester into facts without any verification, and when someone figures out they’re not facts, no one is accountable. Short messages offer no context, there’s no filtering mechanism, there’s no verification. What you’re left with is a series of possibilities in a sea of noise.” —Jeff Putz, programmer, web consultant and former radio journalist

    “Twitter was a mess last night [6/13/09]! I watched the #iranelection tweets on Twitterfall and the amount of actual verifiable information was tiny. Most people were just over-reacting (isn’t that what people claim the MSM does all that time?) calling it a “revolution” when the reports from journalists (like at the BBC) were saying that there were protests in certain parts of town, but that things were quieting down. —Jonathan Coffman, convergence journalist, PBS program manager, and general friend of social media

    “It should also be noted (and I have) that Twitter and CNN are apples and oranges in terms of comparison…. But this does not necessarily make Twitter a superior news source in all instances, unless you believe that Patrick Swayze died last month.” —John E. Bredehoft whose series of blogs called Empoprises suggest his bona fides as a very dedicated new media consumer and producer (but I can’t make out much more than that at the moment, and I’ve spent too much time on this already)

    You can find these people in conversation with each other in the very active comments section of Robert Scoble’s blog post on this topic, which he lays out his own admiration for the Twitterati and in which @ev bought him a whiskey. (Yeah, cuz now I’m that cool, too.)

    And finally, The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder has this handy conceit about how to deal with the Twittering: Pretend you’re a CIA analyst. How would you decide whether what you’re looking at is true or not? (How long before you miss the reporters…er, “reporters,” whose job was to do vet the garbage for you?)

UPDATE: @lydiapolgreenRT @sashafrerejones: Iran/Twitter connect oversold: “They hear about these protests from friends or by SMS.”

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kris Kotarski permalink
    June 17, 2009 4:19 pm

    Excellent take, Jina. As far as #CNNfail, it does not necessarily mean #allmediafail. Evgeny Morozov posted a great comment on the whole phenomenon arguing for something (a publicly-funded station?) to supplement the infotainment on cable TV, and I agree with his take 100 per cent. In either case, I hope that reporters continue to report, since, like you pointed out, we need accurate and reliable reporting to make Twitter/Facebook etc. worthwhile in the first place.

    • June 17, 2009 4:22 pm

      Thanks, Kris! Nice to have you on the blog, and also, much obliged for the link to Evgeny’s piece, too. (Though I credit (blame?) him with some of the #cnnfail craze, too. Maybe unfairly.)

  2. June 17, 2009 5:08 pm

    Good point and thanks for the comment. I think there’s another aspect to this “social media” that moves it beyond a tool. More psychological though, and probably difficult to verify. Social media allows the masses to participate . This sense of self-empowerment and self-identification in very personal – and globally important – events. While I agree that journalists can harness these tools all they want – and probably more effectively than the average person – there’s that opportunity for participation that far surpasses traditional media and engages individuals. Safe to safe, we need both.

    • June 17, 2009 5:10 pm

      Now that’s definitely true. The best the newspaper my parents read when I was a kid could do on that front was the letters to the editor page. Oh, and every year they published drawings by kids. Though presumably those were not supposed to be of revolution.

      • June 17, 2009 6:56 pm

        And just to zap a bit of “reality” into this, from our lovely Andrew Sullivan’s blog:

        Twitter is a method of communication, like the phone. Clearly, people can relay inaccurate information over the phone. But when you want to move information quickly, phones are invaluable. Similarly, twitter is very useful for moving (small amounts of) information from one person to multiple people very, very quickly. Does that sound obvious? It is. And yet for some reason people keep talking about twitter as if it were some sort of alien technology that is hard to understand.

        And, back to the original jest of my first post, “Most importantly, it means that this general atmosphere is converted into a forefront ‘global event’ which survives the media’s ADD.” That’s something the media sure can’t do!

  3. George D permalink
    June 18, 2009 1:05 am

    Wasn’t the whole point that reporters were needed, they just weren’t there?

    • June 18, 2009 1:22 am

      Thanks for sharing Andrew’s item, Siena. Though I think he’s off a bit: The hoo-ha over Twitter is as if your mother called your best friend’s mother and told her something, and then that gossip landed on the front page as news, which implies verifiable fact.

      George: That might have been a salient argument to make about CNN. But it’s patently false about every other major media outlet. Including the ones I linked to. Most reporters anticipated this was a big story and got there; the NYT had three (!) staffers in that one country alone.

  4. June 18, 2009 9:57 am

    George and Siena: Nice to have you on the blog, too! Even nicer, in fact, since I don’t actually know you, and my friend Kris is, as my friend, a biased reader.:)

  5. June 18, 2009 10:52 am

    Funny, it’s a small world. I was covering the genocide prevention conference in Montreal. I believe you must know a certain S. Walker from that event, among others.

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