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[EDITORIAL] How to Understand What the Aurora Shooting Aftermath Says About the News

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, July 25 2012

On Reddit, eyewitnesses prove they were where they said they were, saw what they said they saw.

It's time to quit all of this wringing of the hands about the "future of news." We're in the damn future of news. People genuinely concerned about its direction ought to cancel their next speaking gig pontificating about that future, whether dystopian or bright, and put their hands instead to shaping it.

There's no better example of the problem and its solutions than the latest round of navel-gazing in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colo., late into the night of July 19. What began as an earnest attempt to understand a tragedy and then to parse this country's collective response to it has devolved into just another "journalists vs. bloggers" bull session. It's a false dichotomy, as almost everyone in that argument has already conceded.

Citizen media and "mainstream" media aren't even two sides of the same coin. There is no longer such a thing as "citizen media" or "'mainstream' media," as far as I'm concerned, because each is now such an integral part of the other.

Michael Barthel's useful point is that it doesn't matter where the news comes from. In a piece for Salon, he argues that news is at all times written by people who are often surrounded by the traps and tropes of modern media, and can suffer its shortcomings. The only problem is that this is couched in language that perpetuates rather than attacks the spurious claim that news delivered first on the Internet, by Internet people, is somehow different from news broken by people who work for a traditional media outlet. If it's timely, informative and verifiably true, there is no difference.

Barthel was responding to Mathew Ingram's ongoing series of essays that seem to position online communities like Reddit as prepared and able inheritors of the obligations of local newspapers, which are, in Ingram's telling, dead or dying with no clear successors just yet. A Ph.D candidate at the University of Washington's communications department, Barthel argues instead that citizens "crowdsourcing" the news are just as unreliable, potentially inaccurate, and just as capable of an unhealthy fixation on the sensational or salacious. Here's the crux of his argument:

One of the weirdest things about the Web is its eagerness to obsessively criticize every other form of media except the Web itself. Traditional journalism is dying, and it’s just a matter of time before the Internet figures out a new and improved form that will make everything perfect forever. Ingram couches his assessment in the more reasonable terms of citizen journalism being a useful addition to journalism rather than a replacement for it, but he also claims it can be an improvement, and elsewhere uses the same apocalyptic rhetoric familiar from less cautious corners of the Web, with media dying out, closing its presses, etc., etc., etc.

But there’s another possible objection: citizen journalism is doing more or less the exact same thing that traditional journalism has always done, except not as reliably or sustainably ...

What's missing here is that "mainstream" media and "citizen" media are part of the same loop and both of these interlocutors know it. Some reporters and editors, in fact, are so habituated to finding anecdotes and bits of news on social media that what people on Reddit or Twitter decide are interesting often drives news coverage from the "War on Women" to Trayvon Martin. Recall also that the Washington Post owes its 2008 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings in part to the work of Jose Vargas, who went on Facebook to find interview subjects. So some people on the mainstream-grouch side of this debate have for years been taking advantage of the current absence of that fourth wall, the one between traditional media consumer and networked media participant, without being entirely honest about its non-existence.

Stories are produced "about" what happens on Reddit or Twitter as if those social networks are distant from traditional media and its reporters. This is Kabuki theater. Similarly, people who actively participate in community discussions about the news on social networks can't rail at the "mainstream media" as if they're somehow incapable of starting a dialog with individual reporters and editors, some of whom have even made appearances on Reddit.

In the course of making their cases about the Aurora shootings, both Barthel and Ingram cite a comment thread started by someone who was in the theater next to the one where 24-year-old James Holmes is accused of killing 12 people and wounding dozens more.

"Someone came into our theater at the midnight release of Dark Knight Rises and began opening fire," she wrote, in a post that quickly rose to the front page of Reddit. "Who here on Reddit can help me calm my nerves?"

Mainstream media commentators thronged to the post. Columnists noted how other people who escaped from the same Aurora cineplex joined the thread to share their own stories. It was hailed as a thing belonging wholly to the Internet and described in newspapers as almost foreign.

But that Reddit thread was guided in part by people who actually work in the news. Some early contributors to the conversation were producers up late at night at news stations around the country, like this person, identifying as a news producer at a Dallas TV station, and who passed along updated information as it arrived in the newsroom.

This person offered Redditors a perspective from Holmes' apartment complex. The user posted photos and the perspective of someone who lived in the same set of buildings as the suspect, and delivered an update to Reddit on the media and police circus swarming the alleged killer's home — but only after talking to NPR first.

One of journalism's own, Jessica Redfield, pursuing a career in sports journalism and an intern at a radio station, died in the Colorado shootings. Her colleagues noted how she posted exuberant personal notes on her Twitter account about how excited she was to go to the movies up until shortly before her death.

This "future of news" conversation too often focuses on industries and buzzwords. This bothers me because it should be a conversation about how people who belong to communities — whether that's Reddit or Aurora, Colo. or the United States or Shifang, China — seek to understand their changing world, and about how journalists can help them to do that.

I spent the first three years of my career in the newsrooms of community newspapers, between fluorescent lighting and aging carpets, and I am here to tell you that neighborhoods and social networks are interactive in similar ways. If you write a good story about an issue before the community board, it will come up at the next meeting. If you write about a local family fallen on hard times, someone will come up to you at the bar to ask after them. Woe betide the colleague who writes about a school principal, only to run into them at the supermarket the day after the paper goes to press. The same is true of communities on the Internet. If you write about an online community of gun owners, people in that community will have something to say about it. Why pretend each side of this conversation sits across from the other, separated by a wall that is no longer there, and hasn't been for some time?

For years, people have been talking about what the future of media might hold: An interactive, dynamic, chaotic, loud and not always pleasant place, one where reputation and trust is earned — though not always through respect for the facts — rather than given by default to the biggest institutions. One where the market demand for information far outpaces the willingness of people to pay for it. One where anyone can become known for delivering reliable news and anyone with the right savvy can spread a convincing lie for their own personal gain. One where some guy in Roger Ailes' basement at Fox News headquarters is a couple of Gawker posts away from being just another guy in his apartment.

That precisely describes the media through which people now identify serious issues, argue and lie about them, struggle to understand tragedy, and reach out for support, as we saw just last week. Framing media as a rigidly divided environment that still has any sort of real separation between people on the Internet and people on TV is just dated and wrong.

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