In the Seventies, Peter Herford, CBS bureau chief in Saigon, used to send his stories the physical way: rolls of 16 mm film, usually shot with an Eclair (a French camera) and sound tapes (recorded on a Swiss Nagra recorder, a jewel of those analog times) were shipped to HongKong, courtesy the US Air Force, and then transfered to a regular US-bound flight, with a stop in Hawaii or Okinawa. “The CBS Evening News was hosted by Walter Cronkite who wanted half of its newscast filled with Vietnam stories”, Herford told me. Hence the daily routine. But once the stories were sent, Herford and his staff had time for reflexion, for working their sources and for thinking about the next stories. No satellite link, no cell phones. “Today, I would be stuck doing live reports all the time.” Hereford is in no way nostalgic about this totally analog era. As he was in Paris for a conference, a couple weeks ago, he was constantly taking pictures with a professional Canon camera. Today, he teaches journalism at the Shantou University in China and still exudes unabated enthusiasm for journalism.
Revisited with today’s journalistic tools, coverage of the Vietnam war would be different, in many ways. Live would be de rigueur. Think about it. We would have had:
- a TV correspondent doing a standup (or rather a duck-down) right in the midst of the Khe-Sanh siege
- the Tet offensive twittered or live-blogged
- a retired general bashing the “delicate” tactics of carpet-bombing on his blog
- a heavily linked-to chemist-blogger, for his expert depiction of the horrendous effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant spread for ten years over the jungle (400,000 deaths, 500,000 birth defects). We can be sure it would have triggered a national outrage in the US, forcing the Kennedy/Johnson administration to stop
- the My Lay Massacre inevitably leaked, thanks to a disgusted soldier posting a video on YouTube soon after the the fateful day of March 16, 1968. Instead, we had to wait 18 months for a reporter for the Saint-Louis Post Dispatch to break the story; his name was Seymour Hersh, he was to become an iconic investigative reporter, bound to reveal the 2004 Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq;
- for good measure, North Vietnamese bloggers would give the world a different perspective on the war as, on the other side, US soldiers-bloggers would have lifted the veil on the low morale, drug abuses among the troops, and their acceptance of inevitable defeat;
- in the end, the April 30th, 1975 evacuation of Saigon would have been reported live using citizens and evacuees cell phones and twitters.
We can safely bet the war would have ended sooner. Years sooner. Public pressure would have been unbearable on the four (1959-1975) administrations. We know widespread media coverage can’t prevent absurd wars (cf. Iraq) but it can shorten them.
Other things would have been lost in the process. That is, mostly, the literary, the epic dimension of the war: endless stories in papers and magazines; photographers taking incredible, dramatic pictures, mostly black and white ones; exceptional books such as Michael Heer’s Dispatches (1977) or Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie (1989). I’m not sure the Iraq war will produce such literature — or maybe it’s too early to tell.
Back to 2009. As I’m writing this, the twitter frenzy is overwhelming the journalistic sphere. You can’t see a reporter firing up his laptop without noticing a Twitter dashboard flashing on the screen, with text-bites arranged by sources, hundreds of them. It reminds me of the heights of Netvibes, when people were poring over a multitude of RSS feeds. Will Twitter’s fate follow a similar arc?
Probably not. For one key reason: Twitter works both ways. As the Iranian post-election demonstrated (and before that, many one-shot events such as plane crashes), the micro-blogging service stands at the heart of what is now called hybrid journalism, that is a mixture of user-generated content and classic reporting. This genuine two-way relationship prompted media analysts to suggest newspapers ought to close their RSS feeds (so 2006…) and switch to Twitter. This story on the British blog Journalism, by columnist blogger Malcom Coles, outlines four reasons:
- readers can easily track what’s popular, what’s not
- 140 characters provide enough context in addition to the headline, RSS doesn’t
- followers of a Tweet feed can “RT” (Respond to Tweet) and therefore promote stories
- stories’ development are easier to track than on RSS.
- Twitter is conversational, RSS is a one way thing.
All of the above can hardly be disputed. Then, two questions arise: how to deal with the Twitter trust factor, and, in actual practice, how to manage and filter the flow?
Most often, categorical statements erupt: Twitter is the modern newswire. I tend to be skeptical for several reasons to be outlined below.
(Disclosure: I’m doing consulting work for Agence France-Presse although I don’t thing it changed my perspective.)
- Twitter is unbeatable for breaking stories: accidents or quickly unfolding events such as Mumbai attacks or unrest in Iran. But it is highly cyclical. Michael Jackson dies and Iran suddenly flattens on Twitter’s seismometer. Newswires tend to be steadier, whatever the fad of the day is.
- In the end: it is a question of money and professionalism. On a field such as Iraq, big news organizations (newswires, but also BBC, CNN, The NYT) spend between $1m and $3m a year. They maintain correspondents, but also a web of freelancers, each one equipped with a sat phone and a digital camera. These individuals are carefully selected, coached, managed on a day-to-day basis by the bureaus who centralize, edit and send the production back to London, New York or Paris. That’s he opposite of bloggers who quite often have their own personal agenda. During the Gaza war, for instance, bloggers where invaluable for snapshots of the situation; but, for an unbiased view, local news correspondents, driven by seasoned bureau staffers, proved to be more necessary than ever.
Today’s news coverage needs both: a professional approach as described above AND a well organized structure to deal with the overwhelming flow of user generated material which can’t be ignored but also can’t be used without filtering. Last March, with some fanfare, Sky News appointed a Twitter correspondent assigned to monitoring the micro-blogging service. More discreetly, the BBC has created its own UGC (User Generated Content) hub, one that is managed with rigorous guidelines.
To get an idea on the complexity — and the time spent — of seriously dealing with UGC, have a look at this segment: it details the kind of precautions the New York Times is taking when dealing with user originated videos. (The Times maintains a remarkable blog titled The Lede, largely fed by carefully edited UGC).
The facts are in: News organizations face another challenge. It would be suicidal for them to scorn the avalanche of UGC; instead, they must quickly learn how to deal with it. Not an easy task: according to this NYT story (“Journalism Rules Are Bent in News Coverage From Iran“), CNN received 5,200 Iran-related video submissions on its IReport site and approved about 180 of them for use on television. Filtering is a daunting a task. —FF