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This Just In: Twitter Destroys CNN… In Journalism Contest

June 16, 2009

Do you remember when Twitter was exclusively used to tell people that you were heading to the grocery store?  Since when does CNN out-do that service on inconsequential details and banality?

The answer is since CNN chose to basically ignore the protests in Iran over the weekend and allow bloggers like Andrew Sullivan to expose the irrelevancy most of us have felt but few of us could quite place or provide evidence for.  Until now.

What we’ve seen on Twitter are up-to-the-second updates of precisely what is going on in a major world crisis.  And precisely what CNN advertises itself as its job, though clearly it has abdicated its responsibility this weekend.

Instead, American blogs have been aggregating tweets directly from the ground in Iran, dutifully including the opinions of both sides, conducting numerical analysis, sharing graphs, and engaging in conversations with readers who have their own expertise to share.

Everyone knows that newspapers are dying.  Craigslist has dropped the price of classified advertising to zero, and virtually no one under 30 reads print anymore.  Most bureaus have been downsized so much, it’s a wonder we don’t just read stories directly from Reuters rather than consulting middlemen like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or St. Louis Dispatch.

At first I thought this was a dangerous thing for democracy.  Without reporters to filter sources for us, the public might be exposed to dangerous misinformation and rumor.  In an earlier time, the voices journalists collect for their stories would have no outlet and thus misdeeds would go unknown and unpunished.

However, this new coverage reminds me of great American philosopher Charles Peirce’s pragmatic vision of the truth.  Extolling the virtues of peer review, Peirce compared knowledge to the accumulated data points in a scientific experiment.  Each separate data point, by itself, tells us very little about the ideal, objective truth.  One observation, without context, is just as likely to be an outlier as it is to nail what is really the case.

Traditional news stories are just like scientific experiments with one or two data points.  If we are lucky, we get a primary source we are supposed to be able to generalize from, but the selection process for this source is hidden and subject to the reporter’s bias.  For all we know, the reporter has unintentionally filtered out all but the outlier (or has experienced only the outlier because he/she is on deadline and can’t afford the time to collect more sources).  Never mind the fact that eyewitness accounts lose much of their reliability by the time a newspaper journalist has a chance to conduct interviews.

Non-traditional media is much closer to Peirce’s ideal.  Instead of relying on a few data points, we make the sample size great enough that we increase the probability the average reflects the underlying reality of the experiment (for we can never experience objective truth, but only approximate it).

In other words, if we experience enough first hand accounts we will get a very clear sense of what is actually happening during a crisis, even if some of the individual observations are hyperbolic or even made up.  Our sense of the mean is constantly updated, and reasonable people observing the situation will be able to hold with skepticism any new information that seems to contradict the vast body of other accounts taken from other sources, whether these sources are each individually verified or not.

Blogs like the Daily Dish have facilitated this aggregation by escaping the physical and temporal limits placed on traditional sources.  They don’t have to worry about word count so they can post updates as short as 30 characters and as long as 30 paragraphs at a time if they want to.  RSS feeds ensure that if a blogger mistakenly interprets a situation, you will actually read the retraction.  This eases the necessity of getting it exactly right in the first place, which slows our awareness and understanding of the events as they unfold.

We have entered a wilder world of journalism, one with less control over primary sources and places a greater burden on readers to use their critical faculties instead.  However, it is not by its nature a less truthful world.  Our understanding and accuracy will only improve the more citizens participate, whether by creating, aggregating, or interpreting the aggregation of the instantaneous raw observations.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2009 1:17 pm

    The Jonas Brothers interview with Larry King has gotten round-the-clock coverage the last two days, but hardly 30 minutes with Christine Amanpour has been devoted to the revolution in Tehran. It’s mind-boggling and infuriating.

  2. June 16, 2009 4:24 pm

    Great commentary, David. As an erstwhile (before you were born) daily newspaper reporter, I have long bemoaned the decline of American journalism and its devolution into Infotainment. Any more I rely almost exclusively on electronic media (Salon, Slate, The New Republic) and bloggers (chiefly Andrew and his confreres at The Atlantic.) I’m overwhelmingly impressed by their commitment to Iran’s tweeters. The lack of response by traditional “journalism” outlets is disgraceful.

    All the best…

    Richard Jasper

    Emory (M.Ln.) 1985

    • June 17, 2009 6:07 am

      We’ve come a long way since Watergate, haven’t we? The funny thing is that CNN secured its journalistic role in Middle East crisis coverage, and yet they seem to have forgotten that Americans actually care about events going on there — as long streets are burning and people are blowing cars up, of course.

  3. June 16, 2009 8:14 pm

    Thoughtful and insightful. I can’t wait to see the emergence of “Twitter Agents” who create real time links between citizen reporters and traditional media. It can’t be far away. Hopefully, some of the traditional value of old media (reflection, integration with other information, comparative analysis) will integrate with this new phenomenon to create new “news” models. The only thing I am certain of is that it won’t come from NY Times/CNN/ABC/NBC/CBS/etc.

    • June 17, 2009 6:17 am

      That’s a great idea. Maybe one of the dying newspapers in a smaller market is willing to take a shot. The Huffington Post extracts a lot of value from free reporting.

      Though, I’m not sure if the phrase “Twitter Agents” sounds frightening to me based on its Orwellian or Carrollian overtones.

      Thanks everyone for commenting!

  4. June 18, 2009 6:20 am

    Do you think the Administration has had any say in the US Media’s lack of reporting on the Iranian protests? Clearly Obama’s having a hard time figuring out how to handle the aftermath of the election, and to prevent the US public from pressing any kind of action, the Obama-friendly media has kept quiet on what’s going on to buy Obama time. I’m not suggesting state-run media in the US, but naturally there’s communication between the two. Or do you think it’s all Iran shutting down the foreign media?

    • June 18, 2009 6:30 am

      Honestly, I think it’s more a lack of curiosity on the part of the major networks more than any conspiracy to help Obama out. Perhaps the cable networks think so lowly of their viewers that they now assume we aren’t interested in the affairs of another country unless they can spin it somehow to relate to the political horse-race. Problem is they have it backwards — only the MSM talking heads are genuinely interested in that stuff, mostly because you don’t need to know what you are talking about to prognosticate on the subject. Iranian politics not so much.

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