Since the founding of the United States, one of the fundamental freedoms of the nation has been Freedom of the Press. Made possible by Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press was intended to keep the citizenry educated and informed, the theory being that such measures could prevent tyranny. It is a great theory. However, over the years, political machinations (yellow journalism), business interests (media consolidation) and sloth have weakened the Fourth Estate of the United States. The final blow to Freedom of the Press may well come from the tech sector as the tech sector is currently eroding some of the last definitive standards of the mainstream press.
The speed of the Internet has steadily eroded journalistic integrity as media outlets – and individual online sources – race for a scoop. The most prominent example of this came only a few weeks ago when, in a race to beat SCOTUSblog to the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, major news outlets like CNN and FOX began coverage early, misreporting several key facts about the decision! The major news outlets issued retractions and made apologies, but it was bad journalism for them to start reporting without actually knowing what it was they were reporting.
Now, The Washington Post is pushing that envelope even further, using modern technology. For the London Summer Olympics, The Washington Post intends to use footage using the iPhone app Socialcam to both present the news and appear on The Washington Post’s website. The footage will not be coming from only reporters from The Washington Post; in fact, the vast majority will come from Socialcam users who are at the Olympics. While this might seem like a clever novelty, it represents a dangerous trend in journalism.
First, The Washington Post – by attempting this social and journalistic experiment – is seeking to remove the reporter from the process. Reporters provide a valuable service as they provide a whole view, including context, of a newsworthy event. One need only watch a thriller or play a first-person shooter game to know just how subjective a video from one angle can be. Removing reporters from the process of telling news stories invites hyperbole, sloppiness, and a system where speed is rewarded above substance and accuracy. Second, while The Washington Post claims that its editors will be responsible in the videos they choose from Socialcam, they are setting themselves up to be scammed. After all, it does not take a genius – only an ambitious person with video or photo manipulation software – to alter a video and post it as authentic. Olympic footage seems especially vulnerable; if you don’t like the fact that your runner came in second, alter the footage by speeding up only that runner so that they appear to win. Do we honestly believe that the editors at The Washington Post will be technically adept enough to recognize a forged video like that?
The real question is, in the quest to get the scoop and for fans of Internet videos to post the next viral video, will journalistic and editorial integrity win out over speed? There are innumerable examples of late where mainstream media has been fast and sloppy (like FOX News running a picture of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin when talking about a real event at which the actual Sarah Palin spoke) and simply issues an apology or retraction when the truth comes out. The fact that these incidents continue to happen with alarming frequency suggests that the media has already found a strategy that works for them. Unfortunately, their “report now, apologize later” strategy does not serve those who rely upon the media well at all.
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