January 2, 2009


Letter From Athens: Greek Tragedies & the News Media in the Age of Twitter

By Andrew Lam
New America Media

ATHENS, Greece – At the onset of riots across Greece, we – nearly 500 journalists, think tank people, media developers, foundation officials, human rights workers – gathered at the Global Forum for Media Development in Athens to talk about the state of the media and media development. All the while, the city smoldered during the day and at night, stores and cars were set on fire by rioters and looters.

The story is now familiar the world over. On Saturday, Dec. 6th, 2008, around 9 p.m., a policeman in Athens shot and killed a 15-year-old, sparking protests, riots and looting across many cities for days on end. The spontaneous protests and riots were organized largely by young people, who text-messaged and phoned each other, and who used social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

While we were holed up in a five-star hotel, discussing the crisis of the media profession – how citizen reporting has usurped professional reporting and how the old business model no longer holds, but new ones aren’t working very well either – the social crisis of our host country deepened. We, journalists, media developers and ombudsmen, all, were more or less out of the loop.

According to Pavlos Tsimas, a well-known Greek columnist and TV commentator who also attended the media forum: “Thousands of people were in the street protesting the murder of a boy whose name they didn’t know. Established media have not yet reported the event. TV stations came in a little late. The next day the newspapers did not carry words of the event with the exception of some sports papers that carried the story due to late night printing.”

That is, traditional news media were trying to play catch up in a world full of Twitterers and bloggers.

Then Tsimas warned: “We need to think about the future of our trade in an era when news travels faster [among society] than TV or radio. People turned out on the streets before radio and TV can air stories.”

What Athens confirmed for me, at least, is that professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of New Media Development, Chris Cramer, “Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.”

From the earthquake in Sichuan to the subway bombings in London to the recent Mumbai terrorists attack, the initial images and information that reached the public were recorded by citizens who happened to be there. The bystanders, the witnesses – with their cell phones, cameras, camcorders and blackberries – play central roles in newsgathering and news dissemination.

But Cramer said he is not a pessimist. “Here’s a fantastic opportunity for a mature media organization to tell its audience: “Here’s what we know. And here’s what we don’t know. There’s something to be said about connecting the dots.”

In a world awash with content, he said, “context is king.” Hence, that analytical and reflective magazine that covers world events with verve, the Economist, has doubled in circulation since 1997. Whereas mainstream print dailies, especially in the West, with day-old news on the front page, falter, unraveling, in fact, in the Internet age of 24/7 news cycles. In other words, while citizen reporting will inevitably cover the foreground, the context – the intelligent analyses, the framework with accountability and multiple sources, the historical references and so on – remain the realm of professional journalists.

“It takes a brave journalism organization to say ‘stop the train and let’s just think and think intelligently. Let’s not write articles for other people in the newsroom…,’” said Cramer.

What’s troubling to me, however, is that while major news media organizations – CNN, MSNBC.com, NBC News and ABC, just to name a few – are incorporating citizen reporting, many are also letting go of journalists who might be able to provide the much needed context Cramer was talking about. The streamlining of news makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay. It doesn’t help that the AP – that important organ of the news media body of the West – has cut 10 percent of its newsroom workforce.

As witnessed in Greece, the failure to verify information by the public and media professionals can be tragic. There was a universal assumption in Greece that the teenager was shot in cold blood, and no one bothered to wait for the coroner’s report. The policeman’s claim that he was innocent – that he had shot into the air to disperse the crowd– was summarily dismissed. Several Greek politicians and journalists called it “murder” at the media forum. Everyone wanted to be on the side of the protestors. The policeman who did the shooting was, before his trial, already found guilty and condemned.

When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts. Many shopkeepers have lost their livelihood. Hundreds were injured in the confrontation with the police.

It is a dangerous world, indeed, when citizen reporters are completely trusted, both by the media institutions that incorporate them and by the audience who consume that information. The role of the mature news organization, one should think, is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.

On our last day, since the Parthenon was closed, conference attendees were ushered onto buses and headed to the famed wind blown Temple of Poseidon, where, so goes the old story, King Aegeus once stood waiting for his son Theseus to come back from Crete. The prince had gone off on a vessel with a black sail to slay the minotaur, who consumed Athenian youth sent as sacrifice. Theseus promised his father that, if he were successful, he would change his sail to white on the return trip. Alas, he forgot to do so, having lost his bride Ariadne to the god Dionyseus. Aegeus, upon seeing the black sail at the horizon, lost all hope and jumped into the sea.

From Greek to Shakespeare to modern tragedies, the plot often pivots on misinformation and rumor: think Iago lying to the Moor or the whispers of witchcraft in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In an age when serious journalism is on the retreat – holed up, literally, in a five-star hotel in my case, while Athens burned – and the world is awash with rumors and misinformation, one cannot help but think that the much touted “Information Age” is not what it’s cracked up to be.

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