Archives for category: praxis

Update (2.10.2011): Thank you so much to the folks who, via email and Twitter! have contributed really helpful comments. Please, keep them coming (if you don’t mind)!

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and “hackers” (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc). ((Note that this does not mean my project is centered around the Journalism group that goes by the same name — though I do hope to do work with them.))

This, the first of two documents, is a broad outline of the overall goals and direction of my project. The other doc, located here, is an attempt to conceptualize where the research will happen.

BTW, if you’re with a start-up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.

PhD Research Proposal:
The Makers/ing of the Future of News

US news institutions, in particular, newspapers, are in a state of crisis. While debates may be had as to how and when this moment was reached, and to the size and scope of said rupture, the fact remains that there is a sense of general agreement between lay people, academics, politicians, and those within the industry, that the current model is unsustainable. Popular opinion is the news must “change or die.”

At the center of my research project, is the following question: In the face of an existential institutional crisis, how do the individuals at the heart of the crisis work to create a “hopeful” future. Using an anthropological approach, I seek to explore the ways in which different concepts of the “future,” often containing multiple futures themselves, are introduced, negotiated, transformed, and reproduced in both the interactions of journalists and technologists and in the products of they build. I am also concerned with the ways that, at the same time they are developing new “news” futures, these actors reconcile themselves to the giving up of current presents and pasts.

The imperative for change in the “news” was succinctly crystallized in the following excerpt from a 2009 blog posting by NYU Journalism Professor Clay Shirky, widely circulated and commented upon within in news industry:

There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke… Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
[Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, 3.13.2009]

Shirky gives voice to a dominant view held within and outside the US News industry: “the future of the news” will be found through a specific mode of research and development which imports specific high tech ideals and models of “innovation,” including the web 2.0 mindset (an idiosyncratic mixing of neoliberal and techno-utopian ideologies) and an increasing number of non-traditional actors, including programmers, database experts, and data visualization designers, into process of making the news. Traditional journalists find themselves working side-by-side with these technologists, not as client and service-provider, but instead as “equal” partners in a project to reinvent the news.

At a high level, my research works to map how, at this socio-historical moment in the history of the US News industry, a distributed network of actors, many of whom are from outside the traditional news business, are directly and indirectly coming together dream about new models of “news.” I plan to conduct in a historical examination of the recent history of the news industry and an analysis of the circulation of the various conversations and projects that are currently “in-play.”

Moving from the macro to the micro, the majority of my research will focus on documenting what emerges from specific encounters and collaborations between journalists and technologists taking place in and around a US metropolitan area. Centering myself within a mid-sized to large American city, I will conduct a multi-sited ethnography that, through participant observation and interviewing, seeks to trace the various, and often, conflicting values and visions at play in these interactions. This includes following the circulation of ideas and individuals, tracking how both are mediated through lived encounters — acts of embodied communication and negotiation — and ultimately how they code (and are encoded within) the applications and content that these projects produce. Along the way, I also plan to record how my interlocutors also reconcile their work with changes that they see occurring in journalism practices and institutions. This primary field research will be supplemented with research conducted in relevant on-line spaces, at various trade events, and side trips to external institutions, such as the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which my interlocutors are in dialog with.

Drawing upon my background in semiotic and linguistic anthropology, and previous experience as a professional publisher and web designer, it is my goal to build upon, and contribute to, ongoing discussions in the fields of anthropology, science and technology studies, and communications theorizing how media ideologies come to bound specific interactions and professional, in particular journalistic, practices. Additionally, following the work of Lucy Suchman, Diana Foresythe, Biella Coleman, and Christopher Kelty, I am interested in showing how, as a result of these interactions, specific ideologies become reproduced within software which, intentionally or not, helps shape the ways in which that software can be used to investigate, edit, distribute, amplify, and discuss the news. I also plan to develop my research in such a way that it will be of use to those engaged in the broader project of reinventing the news.

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and hackers (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc).

This, the second of two documents, is a broad outline of how I hope to structure my fieldwork. The other document, found here, is my attempt at defining the larger (still too large) scope of my project.

BTW, if you’re with a start-up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.

Outline of scope and approach for ethnographic fieldwork

This project is conceived, following the work of George Marcus and others, as a multi-sited ethnography. While the majority of my fieldwork will be anchored within a US City, the nature of this study requires me to follow my interlocutors as they, and their words and works, circulate within a broader network of individuals and institutions collaborating to “dream” the future of news.

The choice of city is based on weighing four primary factors. First, the ability to conduct research within and around existing, “legacy” news institutions engaged in news R&D. The second factor is the presence of start-up news enterprises. These range from community media outlets to start-up organizations specifically working to develop new “news” applications. The third factor is the presence and activity level of industry networking groups such as “Hacks/Hackers,” which work to foster conversation and collaborations between journalists and technologists. Finally, I am also looking for cities in which there are academic centers which are actively involved in the study of the future of the news.

As part of this research involves mapping the terrain of this collaborative space of dreaming, in addition to local research, I also plan to conduct supplemental research at a number of extra-local sites, in particular, trade meetings and conferences. Because the size, scope, format, and influence of these events can vary greatly, the choice of which ones to attend will be largely shaped by the priorities of my interlocutors. In addition to these sites, it’s my hope to conduct brief in-person research sessions at one or two of the non-profit institutions, like the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which are helping set and shape these discussions at a national level.

Additionally, I also plan to follow my interlocutors on-line, as social networking tools have become a critical part of the day-to-day productions efforts that I hope to track. In addition to staying abreast of discussions carried out via blogging platforms, I plan to conduct participant observation around various news related “tweet-ups”, regularly scheduled chat sessions in which groups of journalists hold guided open, public discussions about a specific “news topic.” My research methodology for this aspect of the project will draw upon the tools of linguistic and media anthropology to consider the interaction of individuals, culture, and mediating software, while, at the same time maintaining attention to the embodied grounding of all interactions.

This post is part of the revived Carnival of Journalism, a monthly event, organized by David Cohn, in which journalists and academics will blog on a given topic. I fit into the later group of participants, as I’m not a journalist, but an Anthropologist who is studying the transformation of journalism within the US. That said, I have a particular ongoing interest in this month’s CoJ prompt: Reflect on the Knight Commission‘s recommendation that universities should “Increase the[ir] role…As hubs of journalistic activity” and “integrate digital and media literacy….”

In recent months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Applied Anthropology, sometimes also referred to as Public Anthropology. What specifically is the role of Anthropology in public discourse? Or rather, what could it be? What follows is a brief meditation on what Anthropologists, who lets face it, largely reside in Universities, can do to increase journalistic activities.

Roughly a year ago, anthropologist Chris Kelty wrote an insightful analysis of the situation in a post Savage Minds ((an academic blog specifically focused on the practice and culture of Anthropology)) entitled Why is there no Anthropology Journalism? In the article Kelty proposed three big barriers to the integration of Anthropology into journalism:

  1. “Because there isn’t as much Anthropology as there is science [or humanities] to report on” – in other words, when looking at the wealth of research being conducted across the various disciplines (sciences, social sciences, and humanities), the amount of actual anthropological work is relatively minuscule.
  2. “Because journalists already do what Anthropologists do, only better” – We are sister disciplines/professions/crafts, so there is crossover. But one thing that differentiates us is time scale. Journalism works to report immediate facts. Anthropology then takes years to build theories of what was happening behind those facts (or why a certain set of facts, as opposed to others, were taken as “the facts”). Journalism works at the speed of hours and days. Anthropology typically works at the pace of years.
  3. “Because Anthropologists [and Anthropology journals] do not report on their research” – Anthropologists (and many academics) have a tendency to talk mainly among ourselves, typically in big and scary words, and rarely, if ever, condense our research down to publicly consumable “elevator talks.” Instead, that the focus to publish in (pay-walled) institutional journals and respond, in long form, to ongoing Anthropological conversations renders our work inaccessible to the general public.

There’s a lot in Kelty’s analysis that’s worth addressing. For this post, I’d like to side-step points one and two. Let’s assume that regardless of quantity of output, anthropologists have something valuable to say, and that this knowledge can be applied to events as they unfold, as opposed to focusing on retrospective events.

Instead, I’d like to concentrate on point three (lack of reporting) and think about it in terms of another recent anthro post. Almost a year after Kelty’s article, Miami University’s Mark Allen Peterson made the following pronouncement in a post on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s blog:

One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic Anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established.

Peterson goes on to suggest a number of ways for individual anthropologists to build “public expertise,” including constructing homepages and maintaining blogs, editing Wikipedia pages, adding content to YouTube, and using social media. All of these are steps that make sense, and can help raise one’s “Google index,” making it more likely for a journalist to find you when they are researching a story. But it does little, at least in the short term, to increasing engagement.

The big issue ((The second issue is that, by and large, Anthropologists, especially since WWII, have allowed our focus on where we are studying (field site) to overshadow what we are studying when we get there. So when someone is reporting on a medical crisis in Haiti, for example, its easy for a reporter to think about how they can integrate Anthropology into a story. Unfortunately, if it’s a story about medical crisis in general, reporters, and most of the general public, are not trained to think that a Medical Anthropologist has much to say on that topic. This operationalization is our own fault, as, in many ways we operationalized ourselves years ago when, post WWII, the field tied it’s overall program to area studies, ceding the majority of direct engagement with modern, western culture to sociologists.)) that Anthropology faces is that we’ve, for the most part, bought into a “field of dreams” sort of mindset: if we produce good scholarship, they will come and interview us. This tends to ignore the barriers that prevent journalists from “getting at” that scholarship (firewalls, arcane language, expectation that you’re at least familiar with the texts/arguments that one is engaging). It also ignores the reality of the practice of journalism, especially how fast stories have to come together. As I keep re-learning through interviews with journalists, the average journalist doesn’t have the luxury of reflection when facing a daily (or even weekly) deadline.

Here’s the immediate problem: the values that shape “good Anthropological scholarship” render that scholarship useless to journalists. The impasse that needs to be acknowledged and resolved is that, up to this point, the expectation is that the journalists are supposed to bridge the gap.

Peterson’s posting is a nod towards changing this. And in general I agree with what he’s saying. But outreach on social media is fundamentally different than direct outreach to journalists (and journalistic institutions).

So, what can be done on the institutional, university level? Beyond the usual “change tenure requirements” ((a topic over which so much blood, sweat, ink, and pixels have been spilled that there’s little I can add, and given my state in the overall process, any attempt at addition would be the height of presumption)) , here are a couple tactical ideas based on my discussions with journalists and my past experiences as a visiting professor:

  1. Accept that journalists are not undergraduates. Regardless of how interested they are in a topic, they typically don’t have time to read and absorb the paper, the chapter, or the book. The responsibility of boiling it down is on you (and note that I said boiling it down, versus dumbing it down). Which leads to…
  2. When it comes to publicizing your work, take TLDR (Too long, didn’t read) to heart. Love  the 140 character limit – if you can’t make me at least curious in 140 characters, there’s little chance of convincing a journalists to pay attention. Likewise, in interviews, start simple and let the journalist guide the conversation.
  3. Embrace existing institutional solutions. The majority of universities are already engaged in press outreach, go talk to these people. Get registered as a subject matter “expert.” They can help with access to various media outlets, because the more an individual scholar is seen as an expert, the more the institution is seen as the home of experts.
  4. Begin to cultivate individual relationships with reporters and editors who work in topic areas of interest. One method of getting at them is via the letters to the editor page. Other options include direct email engagement and …
  5. Building off Peterson’s point, start to follow journalists working within your field, especially on twitter, and be ready to respond. This isn’t about them following you, though that’s a hopeful outcome, it’s about you following them.
  6. Pitch stories. Seriously. There are a number of amazing academic journalist engagements going on right now – see The Atlantic’s ongoing publication of Syllabus-as-Essay feature as one example of this sort of collaboration.
  7. Write content for public consumption [thanks to Josh Braun for reminding me that this should explicitly be stated]. Anthropology, especially in the first half of the century, had a history of doing this (See Mead, Benedict, and Powdermaker as examples). Like it or not, the chances that most journalism outlets are going to add a social sciences beat are slim-to-none. Again, that doesn’t mean that content needs to be “dumbed-down” through the removal of any nuanced analysis. And, btw, learning to write this was is a challenge unto itself (for one of my attempts at finding the “sweet spot” check out this post on the inescapable politicization of the Tucson shooting which tries to work with Sahlins and Evans-Pritchard without getting too “academic-ie”)

Much like Smokey Bear reminds us that “only you can prevent Forest Fires,” at this point, only Anthropologists can make Anthropology relevant again. Doing that will requires an active engagement with the press.  And said engagement means that we (Anthropologists) need to come more than half-way in order to reestablish a relationships that was largely lost quite some time ago.

note: Short version for TLDR types: While the motives that drove the Tucson shooter do not appear to be political, looking at the facts of shooting, and placing it within a specific cultural moment, I’m positing that there was no way that the event could not be avoid being politicized. This post is my explanation as to why that was the case.

Please, if you’re going to comment, please read through the post first. And note that this isn’t about who was right/wrong. This essay is about why the politicization itself took place.

From the moment coverage began of the Tuscon Shootings, there have been accusations about attempts to politicize the event. Accusations were almost immediately thrown right and left (both figuratively and politically) about what motivated the shooting to occur. In the last few days we’ve entered a second round of accusations, this time questions what motivated the first round of accusations.

Based on current data, it appears that the shooter’s actions were a result of mental illness. Yet, I’d like to argue the shooting, taken as a whole, was political. Or, more accurately, for a wide range of socio/cultural reasons tied to the specific moment in time that we are currently at, the shooting could not escape being political.

Why this apparent contradiction?

Though it began with a mentally unhinged individual’s senseless attack on people at a public meeting between a Congresswoman and her constituents, the Tucson Shooting was far more than just that event. It has come to include, all of the responses to the event, and the responses to the responses.  I’ve found it helps to think of this unfolding using anthropologist Peter Redfield’s definition of crisis:

[Crisis is] a general sense of rupture that demands a decisive response, as most dramatically exemplified by the convergence of media coverage around episodes of conflict and disaster. War, famine, and calamities such as earthquakes (once ascribed to “acts of god” but now designated as “natural”) are thereby given narrative turning points, organizing the prose of everyday existence into more poetic, if only partly analytic, chapters. (336)

Redfield’s argument is that a “crisis” is created and sustained, first and foremost, through attention. If a tree falls in the forest or an earthquake happens, regardless of how much damage occurs, if no one shows up, it’s not a crisis. ((This is an intellectual cousin to Mel Brook’s quip that “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”))  So, for example, the attention given to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil leak created the larger news/historical event of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis. Likewise, despite the fact that last year far more oil was spilled in the Niger River delta than the Gulf, lack of attention means that, at least to Americans, the various ruptured pipelines in Nigeria remained just “facts.”

So the question to ask is why/how did the act become a crisis?

That question require us to, building off of the work of Marshall Sahlins, consider the relationship between cultural structures, individual agency, and the “creation” of history (and the news). In the book Sahlins argues it is “not that culture determines history, only that it organizes it” (11). Events are incorporated (or left out) of historical accounts based on their ongoing resonance with specific sociocultural issues. ((Orwell ominously notes this cultural making and remaking of history in 1984 when he writes in chapter 3: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”)).

This notion of cultural resonation is key, as it helps understand why, for example, we remember Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience as a key moment in the US Civil Rights struggle, and miss the stories of Claudette Colvin,  Sarah Louise Keys, and Irene Morgan, all of whom were African American women who, prior to Parks, refused to comply with race based seating arrangements on public transportation. So, while there is no doubt, that on Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks made the personal decision to give up her seat, this action was amplified and curated, first into news and then into history, because she was the right person (a middle aged, married, African American woman with a stable career) at the right pace (in Montgomery Alabama, which beyond its location in the South, was home to activist Martin Luther King Jr and a group of attorneys who were at that time looking for a case to use in a challenge to the bus segregation laws) and at the right time ((On the subject of timing, note that 1955 wasn’t Parks first experience of discrimination on a bus. In later interviews, she recounted personal stories, dating back to 1943, of various discriminations committed to her on public buses)) (a moment in history where increasing attention was being payed to the question of civil rights). ((In the interests of space, I won’t go further into the specific cultural facts and frameworks that assisted in the “elevation” of Parks into the public/historical consciousness. See her Wikipedia page for a good summary. ))

In other words, individual agency (people making choices within the world), meet structure (overlying cultural insitutions that shape the way we view the world). Structure, meet agency. Together meet history.

News, like history, is organized from current events (be they caused by individual or collective (in)action) that culturally resonate in the “now.” If those events resonate enough, they become a crisis. And that resonance is based on their relationship to an ever emerging socio-historical moment.

Returning to the point from above, the actions of the shooter are not, as of this writing, believed to be political. But, if we look at how the shooting-as-crisis has unfolded, we can quickly find many reasons as to why shooting-as-crisis is political. These include:

  • Timing: Politics in general, and the Republican party’s ascension, are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Not only does the shooting occur shortly after a rhetorically charged, contentious election, billed by pundit, politician, and citizens alike as a “revolution”, it happens within three days of the swearing in of the new Congress.  That ceremony marks one of the three biggest moments of rebirth/transition ((election days and presidential inaugurations being the other two)) in the circular time of American Politics. Along with rebirth comes a moment that must be defined. Thus accompanying it are lots of speculation, as well as various forms political ritual and performance – the reading of the Constitution, sleeping in offices, the planned symbolic House vote on health care. Still the definition of this moment is largely “open” meaning that an event like the shooting, happening at this time, takes on additional relevance, especially given that things are just starting (rather than being well into the year).
  • Placement: Since the proposal and passage of SB 1070, Arizona has become a powerful and oft invoked symbol for both the right and left to represent “what’s wrong with this country.” Beyond issues of immigration, migration, and race, I challenge anyone to identify a state more nationally associated than Arizona with the debate over questions of the rights and duties of States vs. the Federal Government. This suggests, in some ways, for better or worse, as Arizona, so goes the nation. It also makes it a place that is imagined (versus experienced by people day-to-day) as a location that is ready boil over at any time.
  • Individuals immediately involved: Congress people function in multiple roles at once. They, at once, represent of their constituents (the local), the Federal Government (Federal), and their party (National). So this attack on Giffords could be, and was, interpreted through each of these lenses. Her personal history assisted in the politicization, including her status as a “Blue Dog” (giving, for example, a reason for progressives to hate her), and the recent close race won against a Palin supported tea-party candidate who had upset the planned mainstream Republican candidate. Further the since at least 1994, there has been a tendency to make the election of Congress people, traditionally local issue, a matter of national attention. Also note that the involvement of a Federal Judge in the shooting only led to further debate.
  • Gun imagery: Without getting into a discussion on guns, the presence of the imagery (and regardless of which side is using it, the fact is the imagery is still present). From the cross-hairs ad ((note also that the decision to remove the ad from the Internet, only increased the association between the image with the ongoing event)) to Gifford’s opponent’s decision to host a campaign fundraiser centered around firing military/assault weapons, the event was surrounded by a gun aesthetic that could be, and was, re-appropriated in various ways.
  • Focus on Categorization: Much of the last three years has focused on various attempts to categorize people. These groups (“Real Americans”, Patriots, Tea Party vs Republicans vs “RINO’s”, Democrats vs Progressives, Socialists, Crypto-Marxists, Christians vs Evangelicals, Muslim vs Islamists, Secular Humanists, etc) become shorthand for understand “us” versus “others” and understanding models of action, knowing what people are capable of. Given this focus, it seems impossible to avoid working to situate the shooter into one of these. The cross the board and contradictory nature of his “likes,” the chaotic nature of his YouTube ramblings, reports of drug use and that, four+ years ago, he had been a radical liberal in high school meant that he was the “perfect” cypher for anyone to read anything into.
  • Rhetorical Climate: Ignoring the question of whether or not rhetoric can inspire violence,  the argument can be made that the level/heat of rhetoric is at a relative high. Historically speaking, there have been other times when it has been equally, if not more viscous. But acknowledging that history does not in any way invalidate the observation that things have been elevated for quite some time.
  • Rhertorical Ideologies: A key underlying assumption about the news, and political speech, is that the act of communication can lead to transformations within individuals. So the conventional wisdom (re)circulated by pundit, politician, and citizens alike was that Tea Party “won” (broadly defined), in part, because it, and its allies, were able to reach the hearts and minds of the people and get moderates “back on course.” Now, also note that the media (broadly taken), also expresses, at the same time, a (possibly) counter ideology, that in the end it’s people who chose to change, rather than are changed. Still, many people, regardless of political persuasion, have been using this to blame one side or the other.

In addition to all of that (and I’m know I’m leaving lots out), the timing of the shooting in regards to news production was crucial in creating the “crisis.” Because it occurred on a Saturday, a traditionally slow news day, that 24-hour only had that to follow, focusing even more attention on the shooting and requiring a constant production of content.

Saturday also meant that many poeple were off from work, allowing them more time to focus their attentions to track the news coverage and participating in it (see previous post), via venues like Twitter, Facebook, News Sites, discussion boards, and blogs. ((In fact, one of the most prolific sources of “new” news of the event Twitter, Anthony De Rosa (@antderosa) mentioned to me that if this had not been Saturday, its unlikely he would have been able to dedicate as much time to the issue. If he was removed from the equation, Caitie Parker (@caitieparker), the source who provided much of initial substantive background on the subject, might never have come to light. The material Parker provided, in turn, provided an important role in bolstering the early accusations/speculations (again from both sides) about the political ideologies and motivations of the shooter.))

Tweak any of the above (switch the target from a Federal Official to a State Offical, move the shooting from Arizona to a more Northern and “Blue-er” state, shift the day it occurred to Tuesday, or the time to being at night, etc.) and you can imagine different possibilities for how the discourse developed. But once you combine the decisions/actions of a specific unhinged individuals (along those of other people, including some incredibly heroic individuals), the specific place where it occurred, and the particular sociohistorical moment that encompasses all of this, there was no way I see that this could not have been politicized.

In part, that’s because politicization is a way which we can bring order to chaos. Like the Azande’s use of magic, which according to Evens-Pritchard, is used to explain radical contingency (why the grain tower fell of me (70-5) ), the idea of political motivation  allows us to take a random event and fit it into a larger cultural system. And, at the national level, there is perhaps no more common integrative tool than politics – especially among those most predisposed to closely follow the news.

What also led to the politization was the public nature of many of the reportage platforms. Even before *professional* pundits ((note also that the very business of punditry, where one’s reputation is often based on their perceived record and verbal performance (identity politics on both sides) versus their actual predictive abilities, means that there’s little possibility to step down from inflammatory rhetoric. Any attempt to really step back undercuts the pundits reputation. At best, if all sides had called for a truce then there would have been a temporary pause. But like Economists playing the Prisoner’s Dilemma, successful pundits know that the moment that one person starts taking instead of coorperating, it’s typically in their best interests to take as well.)) had begun to politicize the event on the airwaves, people were working to understand this event through the creation of a politicized narrative (the shooter represented the Tea Party (or was a Marxist) or it wouldn’t have been if there was more gun control (or if the laws allowed more people to carry). And the public nature of this speculation and ordering, going on in real time via Twitter, discussions boards, and comment threads in blogs, only inspired more commentary.

Thus, despite the fact that the shooter was not political, the shooting always was. But what’s also important to realize, getting back to wrestling with causality, is that this sort of framing, storytelling, and rationalization has gone on with every major cultural event. Perhaps, why this one feels so much more charged (beyond our immediacy to it) is the way the platforms that we experienced it through, made that process of framing so immediate — allowing us to watch as, along side reporting, we saw layperson and professional alike doing their best to argue for their perspective. And, given the glut of information they had at their disposal, it was pretty much possible to argue for anything.

Works Cited

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E., & Gillies, E. (1976). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (p. 265). Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Redfield, P. (2005). Doctors, Borders, and Life in Crisis. Cultural Anthropology, 20(3), 328-361. doi: 10.1525/can.2005.20.3.328.
  • Sahlins, M. (2004). Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa. University of Chicago Press, USA.

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”. ((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).)) 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 Twitter ((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.)), 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. ((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.))

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:

  1. Reporting — Same as Cronkite, information was shared about what people understood to be true.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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 (a la Cronkite bringing us the news). Note, that these acts are not necessarily performed by traditional “reporters.”
  2. 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 TLDR ((Too long, didn’t read)), 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. ((For additional background on this see, NYC The Blog’s curation of various media outlet’s public requests via Twitter for interviews with Parker.)) 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). ((It’s my hope to “deep dive” into De Rosa’s acts of journalism, and in particular this interview, in a future post)).

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?