BRATISLAVA – From the relative serenity of Central Europe, I’m following events in Egypt like many of you: scan headlines, surf for more and more voices. To watch history being made in real time is a thrilling, if voyeuristic, experience. Virtual ring-side seats to a title fight between David and Goliath.
But beyond the dominant story-line – that the Egyptian revolution may tip the dominoes across the Arab world – is a significant subplot: the triumphalism of Twitter and Facebook as mighty weapons of war. And democracy. No wonder China is watching so nervously.
Now, I don’t mean to be a buzz-kill, but let’s pause to examine the limits of social media. Because, I’ll wager my payment for this piece on one prediction: the dust won’t have settled in Tahrir Square before certain pundits, activists and academics point to Egypt and sing the praises of “citizen journalism.”
The phrase makes my skin crawl for how it blurs the lines of serious reportage.
There’s no doubt that for protesting Cairenes and embattled journalists, social media is a lifeline to the outside world. Behold Mubarak’s forces, bumbling in futile efforts to stifle the Internet and modern communication. Then, in full view of the world, a disgraceful crackdown on Egyptian and foreign journalists – including one killed. We justifiably toast journalists like Egyptian Sarah El Sirgany, a sudden folk hero for relying on Twitter to persist with her reporting.
It’s become faddish for true-believers to tout We are all journalists now. Anyone dexterous enough with an iPhone is a potential photojournalist. Any grassroot netizen blogging solitarily from a café, or from home in their pajamas, can produce actual “journalism.” Effectively enough to supplant the icky, whorish “MSM.” (The mainstream media, of which I’m a card-carrying member.)
You mean we should ditch the folks who pound the pavement to dig up facts and interview real people? Who provide all that grist for millions around the world to blog and tweet about? Nah, there’s no need for that kind of meat-and-potatoes reporting.
What specifically set me off last week? Two headlines.
The first, courtesy of an email disseminated, via listserve, by an American journalist in Seattle. He provided the link to a trendy laundry list: What apps should every journalist have on their iPhone.
The colleague also jotted a line that made me chuckle. “Now all I need is an iPhone.” He’s a dinosaur, like me. While I actually own an iPhone, I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed that my 8-year-old son has explored its potential far more deeply than I.
That list of iPhone applications is dizzying – and unnerving – for all the names I don’t recognize. And for how Mesozoic my skill-set seems. (Heck, to me apps is still short-hand for appetizers, pre- entrée.)
There’s so much you can do with that sleek, slippery little sucker – photo, film, audio, editing, etc. – that I can imagine an entire one-semester university course devoted to iPhone-produced journalism.
I’m not saying it would be high-quality journalism. After all, I also don’t buy into the hype of the “multimedia journalist.” Sure, I enjoy a slick online package of words, images and sounds as much as any audience member. But to expect one person to produce each of those elements … well?
When I was rising through the journalism ranks in the 1990s, my pad and pen sufficed. Reporters reported, photographers photographed, camera crews filmed, radio reporters collected audio, editors edited. And we liked it! Each was a specialized craft, respected in its own right.
Today, though, many online outlets not only demand that their journalists think multimedially, but for them to perform three or more of these functions themselves. Why hire three staff, when one can do the whole job? From Tahrir Square, some media will settle for mediocrity – and get what they pay for.
On the flip side, for the professionals dedicated to just one of these crafts, it surely diminishes appreciation of the work they do. I’ve honed my craft for 20 years, and it’s still a work in progress.
Which leads me back to Egypt and the second headline that caught my eye: “Defiant Al-Jazeera Asks Egypt Audience for Help.” Shackled by Mubarak’s people, the pan-Arab network “urges Egyptians to send blog posts, eyewitness accounts and videos to expand coverage of the uprising.”
On the surface, nothing outrageous. Of course, eyewitness accounts are always crucial to such events: What did you see? But could that serve as an alternative to journalism? I won’t even get into what sort of hidden and not-so-hidden agendas some of those pitching in with coverage might have. What was conspicuously missing from the Al-Jazeera statement was a call for, say, on-the-ground fact-gathering and interviewing.
For example, who exactly were these men storming Tahrir Square on horse- and camel-back? Anyone can tweet a message “Horsemen are trampling protesters.” Or speculate on who they really are, who sent them, why, etc. Instead, it’s the nosy journalists who try to trace them to Mubarak’s secret police.
Another example: What I myself am writing here, is it journalism? No, commentary. That I insert hyperlinks, identifying sources, is at least journalism-esque. But I see it more as informed, fact-based blogging, to building trust with readers. For original reporting, though, none to be found here.
Drawing a line between the two is quite simple: without evidence of shoe-leather reporting, it doesn’t pass muster as journalism. Or cutesy “citizen journalism.” Instead, you’re little more than a local tipster, calling a newsroom hotline: You won’t believe what I just saw!
To which I’d answer, “Thank you for the tip, Sir/Madam!”
So, hooray for social media. And how it complements journalism. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.