Bearing Witness, Or Wearing Us Down?

The firehose of social media allows both reporters and citizen journalists to reach massive audiences in real time. David Carr weighs the ups and downs of this immediacy when it comes to war reporting:

Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal, but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection. It is unedited, distributed rapidly and globally, and immediately responded to by the people formerly known as the audience. It has made for a more visceral, more emotional approach to reporting. War correspondents arriving in a hot zone now provide an on-the-spot moral and physical inventory that seems different from times past. That emotional content, so noticeable when Anderson Cooper was reporting from the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has now become routine, part of the real-time picture all over the web. …

So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those.

Mathew Ingram’s take:

Although Carr doesn’t get into it, the other downside that some have mentioned is that the news environment has become much more chaotic, now that everyone with a smartphone can upload photos and report on what is happening around them — including the terrorist groups and armies that are involved in the conflict that is being reported on, and the ultimate victims of their behavior. Hoaxes and misinformation fly just as quickly as the news does, and in some cases are harder to detect, and those mistakes can have real repercussions.

At the same time, however, there are some fairly obvious benefits to the kind of reporting we get now, and I would argue that they outweigh the disadvantages. For one thing, as Carr notes, we get journalism that is much more personal — and while that personal aspect can cause trouble for reporters like Mohyeldin and Magnay when they stray over editorial lines, in the end we get something that is much more moving than mainstream news has typically been.

But Micah Zenko fears that this environment has encouraged “chicken-littleism” to run rampant in the media:

The long-standing phenomenon of “if it bleeds, it leads” is now significantly amplified and spread in near real time via social media. For example, virtually anyone who uses Twitter for news gathering will notice that tweets run overwhelmingly toward the alarming, negative, or just horrific. Social media also makes this bad news more intimately personified, since a photograph of human suffering will generate more clicks, retweets, and favorites than a 140-character description alone. Incredibly brave activists, researchers, and journalists in conflict-prone countries wittingly feed this insatiable demand with emotional stories of intense heartbreak or tragedy, and an occasional story of personified heroism in the middle of all the chaos.

Dismal descriptions and perceptions of the world are reinforced by the near absence or minimization of positive international news stories. Now if it doesn’t bleed, it isn’t even newsworthy.