Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion
as we know how they are made.
~ John Godfrey Saxe (2 June 1816 – 31 March 1887)
This past Saturday, those of us who were on Twitter, following news of the Tuscon Shooting, quite literally, got to see the “journalism sausage” being made. While public displays of journalism have been tweeted before, I’m not sure that they’ve been quite so “public” or “visible”.1 I suspect that the first 12 hours of reportage on the shooting are going to be looked back upon, for various reasons and different aims, as an important moment in the ongoing transformation of journalism within the US.
One thing that backs up that belief is how a foundational figure in modern American Journalism, Walter Cronkite, has been invoked to help frame and understand how the coverage unfolded.
More than a year ago, techcrunch writer MG Siegler made the claim that “In the age of realtime, Twitter is Walter Cronkite” arguing that, as tools that allow for realtime reporting increase, we will increasingly turn to these networked information channels for news as it breaks:
[R]ight now, Twitter, the brand, is the winning channel for this new type of news consumption. It’s the Walter Cronkite for realtime information. And when the next major event happens, an increasing number of us will be huddled around our computer screens, watching. And even more the time after that…
Following Siegler’s prediction, when news of the shooting hit, people did turn to Twitter to get updates and to discuss/debate the event as it unfolded. The result was a flurry of chaotic activity, simultaneously full of brilliance, outrage, worry, and sympathy, accurate and inaccurate information.
On Sunday, concerned with the amount of incorrect information that was reported, circulated, sourced, and amplified off of Twitter2, Chad Catacchio, posted a rebuttal to Siegler. Catacchio argues that “Twitter isn’t the new Cronkite – it needs the new Cronkite(s)” that, in the face of uncertainty, some restraint needs to be practiced, and that the reports need to be sorted through some means that promotes/amplifies/delivers the most accurate information.3
In reflecting on what I observed on Saturday, I can’t help but wonder if this search for Cronkite (much likeof waiting for Godot) is a futile action, and misses the scope of what was playing out on Twitter.
In 1963, what America saw via broadcast media, was the end product of journalism: Cronkite interpreting of information from various sources announces that Kennedy had been shot.
Two days ago, those of us on Twitter saw far more than that. We saw all (or at least something close to all) aspects of journalism being conducted; we saw the sausage being made in realtime.
By my count, at least five things were happening all at once on Twitter:
- Reporting — Same as Cronkite, information was shared about what people understood to be true.
- Amplification — Retweeting. People were sharing information with their networks, often trying to draw attention to specific facts, questions, and ideas that they felt were the most important to the unfolding situation.
- Commentary and Discussion — At the same time, people were actively discussing/disputing the facts of the shooting (often working to weave the shooting to various, grander socio-political narratives) and expressing concern for parties involved.
Ok, so far, nothing particularly out of the ordinary. This isn’t the first time these activities have occurred around a breaking event on Twitter (and for that matter on blogs prior to the advent of Twitter). It’s the final two categories that I think are particularly of note:
- “Acts of Journalism” — Twitter was used to publicly interview people in real time, crowdsource information and confirmation. In these cases, we (the non-journalism public) got to see the actual process of journalism enacted, not just the results (à la Cronkite bringing us the news). Note, that these acts are not necessarily performed by traditional “reporters.”
- Meta-Commentary and Meta-Discussion — Along all of this, we also saw a number of people involved with journalism publicly commenting, via Twitter, on how the coverage of the event was unfolding both on Twitter and across the other forms of reportage going on.
In future posts that follow, I’m going to try and trace out categories four and five, showing how examples of each unfolded. For the moment though, in trying avoid TLDR4, I just want consider why I think attention has to be paid to these last two categories of action.
For Cronkite, the medium (one-to-many broadcast) and the conventions of what he was doing (news anchor), meant that his voice was the only immediately present in the broadcast. These factors also gave him the luxury of having time to sort, decide, and reflect.
What we saw on Saturday was an example of, following Joshua Meyrowitz’s arguments in No Sense of Place, how, at least on Twitter, the medium not only encourages realtime reporting, but greatly increase the parts of the process that we, the public-at-large see (and participate in) — traditionally hidden backstage work (investigation, checking sources, editing, writing) was folded into the traditionally public frontstage performance (reporting of information).
On Twitter, for structural/programmatic reasons, acts of journalism cannot be concealed in traditional ways. You can’t have a private conversation on Twitter unless both people are following each other. So, for example, when Caitie Parker (@caitieparker) revealed via Twitter that she had known the shooter in High School, the only way she could be contacted on twitter was via the use of the public “mention” (@) protocol.5 Thus, the initial interview conducted with Parker happened on Twitter, in public, in real time. And, in addition to being amplified via retweets and mentions within other media, the interview was also immediate parsed on a “meta-level” by individuals looking to politically frame both Parker’s answers about Loughner and and the questions of her interviewer, Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa).((Of the course of a few hours De Rosa would be simultaneously accused of both liberal and conservative bias by those who came directly across his feed or retweets from it)) All of this, interview, reporting, amplification, debate, and meta-debate took place publicly, in real time (and is also archived as part of Twitter’s public record).6.
Returning to the debate between Siegler and Catacchio about Twitter and Cronkite, it seems that the real question is not if Twitter is Cronkite, or if we need Cronkites on Twitter. Rather, I think it is the case that on platforms like Twitter, where a specific notion/value of “ immediate publicness” is hard-coded into the functionality, the possibility of the practice of Cronkitesque journalism/authority has been all but eliminated. I suspect that it impossible to use Twitter to cover an unfolding event without exposing the sausage making process. And, as Saxe points out in the above quote, that act of exposure undermines traditional ideas of authority.
The hopes of finding/creating a new Cronkite seems to contain within them the hope that at some point, individuals involved with journalism can reestablish (demarcate) public/private boundaries for their practice. The question I wonder is when/if the platforms that are being used to conduct journalism will stabilize enough to allow such a boundary to be erected. And if not, then who might become the new ideal?
- This has more to do with the nature of the story being covered. This event was/is a sort of socio-cultural “perfect storm”, if you will (something I hope to write about later). [↩]
- For an excellent curated view of incorrect information reported by major media outlets see Regret the Error’s Craig Silverman’s exhaustive compilation of misstatements. [↩]
- See Dan Gillmore’s Salon essay, Arizona shootings: Take a slow-news approach, for another good take on the need for reflection in the realtime coverage of events. [↩]
- Too long, didn't read[↩]
- For additional background on this see, NYC The Blog’s curation of various media outlet’s public requests via Twitter for interviews with Parker. [↩]
- It’s my hope to “deep dive” into De Rosa’s acts of journalism, and in particular this interview, in a future post [↩]