February 20, 2012 in debates
At this time a year ago, the Egyptian people were considering their country’s future after a popular revolution that toppled the autocratic regime that had governed the country for decades. Though it was just one chapter in the story of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s Tahrir Square became the focal point of media coverage of events happening across the Arab World. The world watched. It watched on television. It watched on YouTube. And tweets from the ground complemented traditional newspaper articles.
Even as news editors were deciding whether to dispatch correspondents, the events on the ground in Egypt were being coordinated via Facebook and images of violent repression of protests were tweeted to audiences around the world. It wasn’t the first time social media was used to coordinate mass protests — social media had been used extensively in the Iranian election protests in 2009, for instance. Still, the unfolding of the Arab Spring has not only demonstrated the political power people can wield using these new media tools but demonstrated as well how such tools accelerate the shifting sands of journalistic authority. These lessons can help give form to the next phase of journalism and help inform the rules of the changing journalistic game.
What is today’s journalism?
As a journalist, this question has both intrigued and tormented me. I have debated definitions with colleagues and defended journalism against harsh critics. For my own academic research, I investigated the collision of old and new media through the eyes of foreign correspondents who covered the Egyptian Revolution. While universally heralding new media tools as a “game-changer” for journalism, many correspondents resist the changes these new media tools are imposing on them. For generations, newsroom editors held the keys to the tools of mass communication, but that is no longer the case.
To be sure, grainy cell phone videos and a few tweets do not journalism make. Still, everyday people are increasingly witnessing, capturing, and sharing important moments in time. Intentionally or not, some of these moments constitute acts of journalism, if only because they reveal a kernel of truth about the happenings of the world. Mainstream media companies are increasingly seeking out these videos and reports, verifying them, and wrapping them into their own reports. So-called user-generated content has been a significant part of some of the most important stories in recent years, from the video of a young woman being killed by Iranian security forces during the 2009 protests (graphic) to images from the ground during the Japanese earthquake to the multitude of videos and pictures that were posted online during the London riots. This is particularly important for telling foreign stories. As the number of foreign correspondents dwindles, everyday people are now stationed on journalism’s frontline, cell phones in hand. But most journalism institutions still maintain what they produce isn’t journalism until refracted through the prism of mainstream journalists.
It is fair that journalists often resist these emerging definitions of just what constitutes journalism today. Many charge that objectivity is the dividing line between information and news, that objective reporting trumps ordinary witnessing by people in the thick of the story. The acts of journalism on behalf of the public at large are often about perspective. They don’t meet the journalistic standards of objectivity and therefore aren’t considered journalism. However, this definition is proving itself to be more and more out-of-touch. The images from Tahrir Square that were broadcast by mainstream media may have lacked objectivity, yet they fueled the journalistic telling of the story. In many cases, the greatest strength of these grainy, poorly shot videos was their first person perspective. In this new media environment, it is the true story behind these acts of witnessing that matter. The perspective of real people embroiled in such struggles is undermining the often distant and disconnected objective journalism of old.
For a new public journalism
American cultural theorist Henry Jenkins describes this new world order as convergence culture, “both a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer driven process”. The transition from an analogue past to a digital future – from mass media to media for the masses – is a bumpy one. Corporate media and public service broadcasters are trying to do more with less. More and more, mainstream media are relying on tweets and cell phone images posted by members of the public to drive their own news agendas. Journalism itself has become broader and harder to define. It has become more networked. In a time when trust in media has been on the wane for years, it is all the more important to recognize the power of this networked journalism. Acknowledging the public’s role in the journalistic process, enshrining it, and celebrating it could help restore the public trust in journalism. It would also properly reflect the face of these new journalistic forms.
The lesson of Egypt is that the public can harness the networking power of these new media tools to topple a repressive government. The Mubarak regime recognized the power of these tools during the protests. For a few days, the Internet was shutdown in an effort to disrupt and silence the protestors. While foreign correspondents were flocking to Cairo with their cameras and notepads in hand, the government saw the sharing of videos, images, and ideas on the Internet as its greatest threat. Much of the world may have heard of Mubarak’s resignation via traditional media, however it is fair to ask whether this moment would have arrived without the legions of Egyptians telling the story from the front lines.
Thomas Ledwell worked as a journalist for ten years. He is now a writer and media strategist with a number of companies in Montréal.