As the street demonstrations turned ever more violent and deadly in Iran, I watched CNN in an airport lounge in Grand Junction, Colorado. I also read the news online on a laptop and kept Twitter on a cellphone.
I noticed CNN repeating Tweets shortly after they appeared on Twitter. It was startling, amazing and a real concern. As I read the Tweets I wondered if I was getting first-hand information, or fanciful concoctions. I had no way of assessing from my seat in the airport what was reliable and what was disinformation.
Nor did I have a clue about those posting, one way I assess reliability on this public forum.
Therein lies the problem with citizen journalism and it came to the fore in unmistakable fashion during the Iranian protests. Not only were those of us outside left to judge credibility for ourselves, the clamp down on journalists by the Iranian authorities meant we had decreasing ability to compare the online reports with journalists on the scene.
Left to our devices to accept or reject the Tweets, we were awash in information but I kept asking myself, is it reliable? This is the conundrum we face now with an empowered digital citizenry, the blessing and curse of instant media. First reports of major events are now as likely to come from a cellphone account as from a reporter for a news organization.
As the NY Times reports this morning, what happened in the Iranian protests revealed a new methodology for traditional journalism, a willingness by news organizations to pass along citizen information with limited verification, and in some instances with no verification.
As the article notes, it’s a new form of journalism in which we all become part of the gathering and distribution of the story. It raises several significant questions that will take time to sort out, I think. Which elements are truly significant and which are of only passing importance? How many perspectives can we absorb before we become overloaded and lose perspective altogether? What is not seen that contributes to the story but goes unreported because it’s not visible? What is the veracity of the various reports we receive and how do we sort out disinformation?
Journalism has attempted to deal with these questions among many others by developing a set of procedures and practices that strive to assure accuracy, reliability and context. Despite well-known criticism and some breaches in these procedures, journalists have reached for a level of dependability and trust that has given us quality story-telling and a sense that we could rely on the reporting. And even then we sometimes vociferously disagree with the way a given story is told.
With citizen journalism, we’ve entered a new day and my guess is that it will take us time and experience to decide upon how we will check veracity, dependability and context under these new circumstances. My experience on that day led me to multiple sources. I became engaged at a different level than my engagement with traditional print media. It required a different kind of media literacy and my unspoken but very significant cautionary suspension of belief. I took the information in but with held my belief in its accuracy until I could do more searching, watching and comparing.
That places more responsibility on me as I receive information from many sources. I need greater backgrounding in order to assess claims and make judgments, and I need to become my own fact checker as I suspend belief in all that comes to me from so many different perspectives.
The protests in Iran marked a turning point, not only for Iranian citizens who face repression and violence, but also for those on the outside trying to understand. And in both cases it’s too early to know the outcome. Internal conditions in Iran remain uncertain. The influence of citizen journalism cannot be assessed just yet.
But we do know this: the new journalism is launched.