Saturday, June 20, 2009

Are YouTube and Twitter portals or news agents?

Is this really what's going on in Iran right now?

On the day that TV icon Walter Cronkite is reported to be in "fragile condition," TV news itself is in fragile condition, as the main source of information about Iran continues to come from Twitter.

Watching the TV news this morning, I was surprised at how little was available in the way of pictures or up-to-the-minute information - which is what TV used to be so good at: remember CNN and the first Gulf War?

On CBC TV this morning, we got a reporter on the phone from Iran talking about the very limited stuff he'd seen on the street: "a man with a head injury was taken away in an ambulance, but I couldn't tell if he was a protester, bystander, or policeman..." etc.

Twitter directed me to this citizen video on (above), which appears to show student protesters shot in the street. That's the big question mark: "appears to show."

Says a talkbacker on the site:
"It's funny that no one makes mention of any of these killing on the news nor do they show this footage. So many people are getting shot and its the duty of the American news channels to show videos like these so that people can SEE what VIOLENCE is going on in the streets!"
It is odd. If it's true. Further than that, it shows a major problem with online media: there's no way to verify whether what we're looking at just happened, is real, and first-hand news.

I can imagine a nervous traditional media unable to verify any of this and erring on the side of caution by not showing it (something, we can agree, that it should've done on U.S. election night in 2000).

Should it be up to YouTube, Twitter, and iReport to verify it for us? In other words: are these sites simply portals that carry the news, or are they news agents who owe it to their viewers to verify what's posted on the sites?

The jury's out. But today Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine makes the case that "YouTube has a responsibility in the news ecosystem." He says:
"YouTube has unique knowledge it can add to inform the discussion and to not add that knowledge becomes irresponsible, no? They are the only ones who can verify at least some information about the videos for our benefit. So shouldn’t they?"
As he points out, YouTube can't just reveal its users and where they're located, because that would put them in harm's way. But it could perform the role of a traditional news agent by verifying everything it can and letting us know when it has. This would allow content on its site to "go viral" to traditional media sources and, I imagine, increase its value in the news marketplace.

On the other hand, this cautious approach could lead YouTube down a slippery slope: once it has power of verification, wouldn't its newfound role as gatekeeper just turn it into a new version of the traditional newspaper and broadcast media?

"It's not news until we say it's news!" is no business model. But is "it's all news!" any better? And is there a sweet spot between these opposites?

Stay tuned to a screen near you.


  1. I think blogs, YouTube, Twitter et al. have served an incredible role in the democratization of media. It's a tired cliche, but network news is only as objective as the conglomerates that own them. Now, that's not going to say that NBC is going exclude a story from Iran because GE has vital interests there, but there are powerful gate keepers that keep the message in tow and make it very difficult for disenfranchised voices to get their voices out.

    Now that said, as much as bloggers would deride such a philosophy, most (credible) reporters have a post secondary education in journalism, or if not have been true devoted students of the craft. The networks should be providing the resources to afford these professionals the ability to cover these events in a thorough and objective matter. I'm not sure if it's been a motion to cut costs or to keep up with the new "Web 2.0" user generated content trends, but the risk of getting your content from IReport or YouTube or Twitter is that it's very difficult to vet the sources of this information and not possible to trust the objectivity.

    The role that I think traditional media brings to the table and that will always be essential is to be the arbiter of objectivity in the myriad of stories emerging. That is very difficult however when MSNBC and Fox News continue to make journalism so ideologically combative.


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