Yesterday on the way to church we caught part of a radio discussion on SAFM hosted by Ashraf Garda, discussing the relationship between traditional journalism, citizen journalism and social media. Those taking part were mostly from traditional media, and one of the points they were making, quite validly, was that traditional journalists have a code — check sources, check facts, which is not always followed in citizen journalism, and is very rarely followed in social media.
One participant, however, pointed out that in Zambia, where she had been working, traditional journalists often used social media as news sources, with little checking. A story breaks on Twitter, and it is in a remote part of the country. The journalist has a choice: write the story, and risk getting facts wrong, or drive for several hours to check, only to find that the story is old and no longer news. Younger journalists tend to think that social media are the main source of news, as reliable as any other.
Ono thing that was not mentioned, and perhaps traditional journalists would not think of it, is that citizen journalists are often more independent, and while they may not have as many sources available, their bullshit detectors are more sensitive.
One example from the last year has been the Ukraine crisis. In reporting on it, most of the Western media said very little about what has happening on the ground in Ukraine. What they reported, again and again, was what David Cameron or Barack Obama said about Vladimir Putin. If you wanted to know what was actually happening in Ukraine, you would need to go to blogs, and possibly social media, because what Cameron said about Putin was all the “mainstream” media were interested in.
The mainstream media operate under certain constraints, imposed by the capitalist system. The thing that puts most pressure on the editor, and the editorial staff, is the need for rising circulation and rising profits. If the editor fails to deliver that, the editor is history.
What sells papers?
To judge from the newspaper placards we see driving down Tsamaya Avenue in Mamelodi at 9:15 on a Sunday morning, the formula for success is sex, soccer and celebs.
When politial differences are presented, they are usually presented in terms of personalities — who is up and who is down? who is in and who is out? The issues are almost never presented in the mainstream media — for that you have to go to the bloggers, to those who are more concerned with what is happening than with who it is happening to, because the readers love a good fight, and so the pressure is on the mainstream media to present every difference of opinion as a major battle.
One of the points many of Ashraf Garda’s panel made was that blogs and social media were more opinion than news. And that is true. But to balance it, one needs to see that the same is often true of the mainstream media, though it is often better disguised. Cameron’s opinion of Putin was more important than anything that Putin did or didn’t do. And as neither of them was in Ukraine, it was pretty far removed from what was happening on the ground.
From the point of view of readers or viewers, the “consumers” of news, the news is a manufactured product, and independent sources, like blogs and social media, can be valuable in giving a balanced viewpoint.
If I want to know what is happening in Russia or Ukraine, I watch Al Jazeera — they don’t have a dog in that fight. When I want to know what is happening in the Middle East, I watch Russia Today. And when I want to know what is happening in South Africa, I check out the Daily Maverick. Yes, it’s biased as hell, but who isn’t, these days?