May 08, 2007

The news after Virginia

At 7.15am, Seung-Hui Cho walked into Emily Hilscher’s room and shot her and another student dead with a semi-automatic handgun. He then walked across the Virginia Tech campus to post a parcel to the New York offices of NBC, post-marked 9.01am. Inside was his ‘multimedia manifesto’. He then murdered another thirty people, before killing himself.

Even during the most appalling atrocity, the perpetrator found time to contribute to news bulletins around the world and make himself a star. Even after they asked ethical questions of the material – Should we show it? When should we show it? – most news organisations showed the tape. Even while dead, the killer took the credit, and offended the victims’ families even more.

It’s probable no-one has questioned the benefits of the modern news more than those families.

Cho’s video was a clear sign of the times. Broadcasters now compete for user-generated material, each keen to better reflect their audiences and imbue a sense of belonging with one outlet rather than another.

Not all of the material broadcasters use is sent to them directly. During the Virginia shootings, broadcasters relied on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube for first-hand accounts of what was happening.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis believes that the role of the journalist in the event of breaking news is to ‘link’ between reports, some of them from newswires, many from the public. But does this require more skill or less? Jarvis suggests that in time, citizen journalists will be capable of broadcasting live to the internet. Under what circumstances would broadcasters use this material live?

These changes set the scene for rolling news channels to become news aggregators. As the number of potential news feeds grows to include every person on every street, the role of the traditional broadcaster might be little more than to choose between them, rather like the now-unpopular concept of users choosing ‘alternate angles’ on a DVD. Bulletins, in turn, might become the place for a ‘best of’ compilation of the day’s best bits, with senior journalists behaving as ‘analysts’ of the day’s events rather than ‘reporters’. The appointment of Roger Harribin as BBC News’ Environment Analyst symbolises the trend.

Many traditions continue though. Hundreds of satellite trucks rolled into the Virginia Tech campus, transporting news anchors to the heart of the story. As much as the public wants to see every angle, every nugget of information, from every source, they also want it packaged together by someone that they trust.

But where does all of this leave the investigative story? The citizen journalist doesn’t have the resources to investigate the news in any depth, and is less likely to check their facts properly. Political blogger Guido Fawkes has found this out the hard way after suggesting the BBC’s political editor was one of his sources, when he was anything but.

CNN has been most explicit in its wooing of potential citizen journalists. Its ‘i-Report’ project has received hundreds of videos and photos from viewers who want to be on the cable news channel. The project’s TV trailer boasts of how you can say “I-Report for CNN”.

Many students at Virginia Tech did just that, sending in many of the most iconic images of the media ‘event’. But in the days that followed the tragedy, families and friends grew increasingly tired of the media’s gaze. Psychologists spooled through every frame of Cho’s words, and the relative anonymity of the internet was invaded as the media sought to ‘cover’ people’s emotions.

But it seems there are lines that still can’t be crossed.

Viewers expect quality as well as quantity. Few would be comfortable with the intrusion that the media’s stare brings, and audiences seem to rebel against invasion of privacy almost as often as the victims of it. And surveys of viewers’ opinions often suggest they want more foreign affairs, suggesting that they tune in to learn about the unknown rather than to hear about the mundane. It is up to editors to mediate between what people say they want, and what they actually expect.

When participatory politics is little more than a concept in a textbook, participatory media should be a good thing for society. Except neither broadcasters nor viewers quite know the parameters of this dialogue yet. Only through events such as the Virginia shootings is this new relationship being tested to its limits. And based on the evidence from Virginia Tech, broadcasters need to proceed with great caution. An unfortunate slip, and they could easily lose the trust of the audiences they pursue.

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