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David Skok: Why we need to separate our stories from our storytelling tools

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are great. But they’re not everything.
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Edward R. Murrow was a pioneer in television who has shaped the way we tell stories in that medium for over 60 years. He has been immortalized in film and even has a J-school named in his honor. But Murrow’s career began not in TV, where he is most celebrated, but in radio, where he cut his teeth as a war correspondent, broadcasting live from the rooftops as the Blitz rained down on London. Throughout his years in television, Murrow applied the journalistic principles he’d honed through experience to the new medium of sound, pictures, and, eventually, color. You’ll see his legacy in any HD television newscast today.

Murrow found himself at a precipice, and chose to look back to find his way forward.

We are now at another precipice in journalism: The decisions we make about news’ direction in the digital world have the potential to shape how stories will be told for decades to come. So who will be our Murrow?

The problem is that the answer may be more about “what” rather than “who.” In the digital world, the tools we use to tell the world’s stories — Twitter, Google, Facebook — control us as much as we control them. I am a digital journalist, and I’m enthusiastic about what our new platforms can provide us in terms of telling stories. But I also wonder whether we’re letting our tools define, rather than serve, the stories we tell. I wonder whether digital journalism’s Murrow won’t be a journalist, but rather a tool that journalists use.

In this age of crowdsourcing and participatory journalism — this age in which, to some degree, everyone can be a journalist — some would argue that those concerns are moot points: that we don’t need a Murrow anymore. They might say that “transparency is the new objectivity” and that it’s perfectly justifiable for the editor of a technology news site to also run a venture fund. But principles are principles only if they can withstand the changing of circumstances. And dismissing the links to our storytelling past can set digital journalism on a dangerous path.

Mark Coatney, the Tumblr evangelist who left his job at Newsweek to help bridge the gap between journalists and his new parent company, pointed out during the Online News Association conference last week that 105,000 jobs were lost in newspapers between 2001 and 2008. One upshot of that grim stat, as Coatney put it in the talk: “We’re all our own best agents” now.

That may be true for Coatney and for the handful of other journalists who’ve found ways to make names for themselves in this new age, but here’s the unfortunate reality: When those 105,000 reporters, producers, editors, and managers left the profession, they took with them 105,000 versions of professional experience: the experience that comes from covering news events in environments ranging from small towns to war zones. Those 105,000 reporters, producers, editors, and managers, in another time, could have acted as mentors for the new generation of reporters — the young people still predominantly employed by traditional media outlets — that will likely mature in the industry without obvious role models.

Given the changing state of our craft, though, those trends aren’t irreversible. Here are some ideas to get us back on a course that would make Murrow proud.

Put the “digital” back in digital journalism

Twitter, Google, and Facebook – to take the most prominent examples – are wonderful tools that open up a whole new universe of communication, interaction, and reporting. But that’s all that they are: tools. And they are tools, of course, that are provided by profit-driven companies whose interest lies as much in their own benefit as our own. Google News got applause at ONA this weekend when it announced Standout, the new tag that will allow publishers the chance to get a better ranking in their news search results. The line between “journalism organization” and “technology company” has never been thinner. And that may be because we aren’t asking the right questions.

War correspondents are experts in covering war. Health correspondents are experts in covering health. It seems fitting, then, that digital journalists should be experts in covering digital technology news. So the next time you’re at the “launch” of a new product, even one that could be beneficial to the news industry, don’t be afraid to ask questions not just about the product itself, but also about the company’s overall take on privacy, competition, and security. Or about the implications all these tools are having on journalism and on the First Amendment.

If digital journalists – who understand the technology better than most reporters — won’t ask these questions, who will?

Seek facts…but also seek verification

By now we’ve all heard that social media and the Internet in general are magnets for hoaxes, fake photos, and errant reports. It’s not that these things didn’t exist before the digital age, but that now, with social media, these reports can be spread rapidly and then be immediately amplified. It’s unrealistic to suggest that inaccuracies can be fully debunked during the initial germination phase, so the responsibility lies with social media editors and producers to fact-check and verify information before amplifying false reports.

For their ONA panel, “B.S. Detection for Digital Journalists,” Craig Silverman and Mandy Jenkins created a terrific slideshow with some tips on how you can detect incorrect information before reposting it online. And of course, the inimitable Andy Carvin is leading the verification charge via his consistent — and very public — attempts to fact-check the information he curates on Twitter.

Those are good starts, but they’re also efforts that need more systematic adoption. As Murrow knew: No matter what the medium, nothing kills credibility faster than reporting false information.

Foster dynamic mentorships

Traditional journalists often trot over to their (often newly-hired) social media editors and digital aggregators and ask those journalists for practical advice: how to use Twitter, how to navigate Facebook, how to mine data for stories. What once felt like a war between traditional and digital journalism has now settled into a somewhat uneasy truce – and into a (sometimes grudging) recognition that, increasingly, “digital” and “journalism” are inextricably connected.

But we’re all in this together, of course. And the onus is on digital journalists to welcome veteran reporters into the future’s fold — to help them navigate the new tools that will inform, if not define, the shape journalism takes going forward.

But the onus is also on digital journalists to learn from the veterans – to learn reporting methods and narrative techniques and skills that have nothing to do with Google or Facebook or Twitter, and everything to do with journalism as it’s been practiced throughout its history. The veterans may not be able to show you how to create Fusion tables, but I can promise that, from them, you’ll learn something new that will help your reporting more than the latest tools ever could.

Image of Edward R. Murrow via the Prelinger Archive used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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Joseph Lichterman    April 22, 2014
Four-year-old startup Benzinga is growing thanks to a free consumer site, a paid news wire, and online financial service marketplace.
  • http://twitter.com/getconduit Conduit

    What I like most about this piece is how it asks so-called “digital journalists” to really question the creators of the new technology they’re using (and what impact that has on their own work and journalism as a whole). It does seem as though social proof (i.e. mass appeal) has worked in the favor of these tools more than traditional journalistic investigation. It’d be nice to see really in-depth reports on new technology that really question more than just whether or not the product is good or if it’s popular.  

    Another great point that David made was that journalists both young and old need to seek advice from one another. Younger journos need to articulate the importance/impact of these new tools to the more experienced crowd, who in turn, need to elicit the need to practice solid journalism.

  • http://twitter.com/getconduit Conduit

    What I like most about this piece is how it asks so-called “digital journalists” to really question the creators of the new technology they’re using (and what impact that has on their own work and journalism as a whole). It does seem as though social proof (i.e. mass appeal) has worked in the favor of these tools more than traditional journalistic investigation. It’d be nice to see really in-depth reports on new technology that really question more than just whether or not the product is good or if it’s popular.  

    Another great point that David made was that journalists both young and old need to seek advice from one another. Younger journos need to articulate the importance/impact of these new tools to the more experienced crowd, who in turn, need to elicit the need to practice solid journalism.

  • http://twitter.com/grhansen Glenn Hansen

    Great post, and I often say that same things for communication in general: We need to communicate well using any and every tool, and the “best” tool is the one that most efficiently engages your audience. 

    But I do then question why you need to emphasize being a “digital” journalist, and not just a “journalist.” Murrow took his great journalism skills and applied them to radio, then TV, and perhaps he’d do the same today digitally. But he’d still be a “journalist” first, I bet. 

    Thanks

  • Johnkerrison

    I was interested in this post because it talked about being faithful to the narrative which drove the likes of Edward R Murrow to deliver the stories that defined news.

    The piece asks who will be our Murrow. I don’t know the answer to that question and I can’t be sure it even has an answer.

    Our old text books tell us that mass media was one way communication to an audience, and then the message in that story was interpreted, and deconstructed by the viewer or listener. Social media shares the power, and people now have some greater say in not only providing feedback to the media organisation, but also by helping build the narrative around what’s defined as news.

    Here’s a scenario: A reporter turns up the scene of bus crash an hour after the accident. He asks three people about the event. The police say a dog ran out in front of the bus, forcing it to break and hit the curb. The bus driver says he glimpsed what he thought was a child so swerved into the curb. A witness says there was no dog or child, and the bus seemed to be swerving for a hundred meters before crashing. The journalist makes an assessment of what he’s seen and heard and produces the story. In the old model he controlled the narrative at this point. His employer, keen to get ratings, says the lead will be ‘Confused driver swerves off road to avoid hitting a ‘child”. What happens if all the people involved in this case are able to contribute to the story by adding photos, video, multiple perspectives, context, opinion on multiple tools such as twitter and facebook? Who should have the final say over ‘truth’? This is what’s exciting about narrative. It will no longer be only in the domain of media organisations.

    There are many, many thousands of journalists who are losing their jobs and our profession is changing. It remains unclear what this will mean, but as media literacy and media skills in time pervade the general population, that population becomes reporters.

    The new news-story narrative is a shared one for the people involved in the event. We will be by bound by the news ideal to find the truth by giving other people with access to media tools an ability to share their version of the event.

  • Johnkerrison

    I was interested in this post because it talked about being faithful to the narrative which drove the likes of Edward R Murrow to deliver the stories that defined news.

    The piece asks who will be our Murrow. I don’t know the answer to that question and I can’t be sure it even has an answer.

    Our old text books tell us that mass media was one way communication to an audience, and then the message in that story was interpreted, and deconstructed by the viewer or listener. Social media shares the power, and people now have some greater say in not only providing feedback to the media organisation, but also by helping build the narrative around what’s defined as news.

    Here’s a scenario: A reporter turns up the scene of bus crash an hour after the accident. He asks three people about the event. The police say a dog ran out in front of the bus, forcing it to break and hit the curb. The bus driver says he glimpsed what he thought was a child so swerved into the curb. A witness says there was no dog or child, and the bus seemed to be swerving for a hundred meters before crashing. The journalist makes an assessment of what he’s seen and heard and produces the story. In the old model he controlled the narrative at this point. His employer, keen to get ratings, says the lead will be ‘Confused driver swerves off road to avoid hitting a ‘child”. What happens if all the people involved in this case are able to contribute to the story by adding photos, video, multiple perspectives, context, opinion on multiple tools such as twitter and facebook? Who should have the final say over ‘truth’? This is what’s exciting about narrative. It will no longer be only in the domain of media organisations.

    There are many, many thousands of journalists who are losing their jobs and our profession is changing. It remains unclear what this will mean, but as media literacy and media skills in time pervade the general population, that population becomes reporters.

    The new news-story narrative is a shared one for the people involved in the event. We will be by bound by the news ideal to find the truth by giving other people with access to media tools an ability to share their version of the event.