Network's Impact on Media - Part II

By Sarah Sorensen
July 20, 2009

In my last blog I observed that the network (Internet Web sites and tools) was changing the news industry (print, radio and TV), essentially opening up the flow of information to reduce the control and impact that any one outlet has on the telling of the news. it is also forcing these traditional news sources to look at ways to leverage the network to remain relevant (not to mention solvent).

Information can come from anyone and anywhere and can be distributed worldwide in a matter of seconds. Anyone with an Internet connection can be a reporter. In an industry where speed is of the utmost importance, increasingly, we have seen bloggers "break" the news first. We have seen simple bystanders take on the role of "on the spot" reporters, capturing video footage with their smartphones and providing commentary of an event as it unfolds. "Tweets" on the social networking site Twitter reported the U.S. Airways Hudson River plane crash in January 2009 before most major news outlets realized it happened - eyewitnesses were sending information, including photos, as it was happening.

The same thing occurred in Iran, when the government actively attempted to stop information from getting out around the presidential election and the ensuing riots in June 2009. The world watched videos from the smartphones and handheld video cameras of citizens who were on the streets. As much as the government tried to control the situation and take down sites, there were simply too many individuals and too many sites to stop. This is the power and benefit of the network - people who have traditionally been voiceless, now have a platform from which they can be heard.

Those voices can be used en masse to try to affect change, but on the flip side, the resulting proliferation of sources has some very real challenges. It can fracture and lessen the impact of any particular voice. It can be hard to wade through all the information that's available to figure out exactly what is going on at any particular time on any particular topic.

In addition, because information can come from anyone and anywhere, it is hard to verify. Unlike traditional media outlets, where theoretically they are double-checking their sources and ensuring the validity of their reporting, in the online world, we have seen that often speed versus accuracy is the brass ring online reports try to grab. And we all know that once something is out there, it's virtually (yes, that's a bad pun) impossible "to get back."

There is a somewhat self-regulating function for news disseminated on the Internet, as online populations can question anything that seems suspicious or skewed too far one way or another. Counter posts can voice concerns and challenges that enable the online communities to achieve a relatively objective perspective. However, the burden is on the reader/viewer to question (In fact, do not trust online news outlets that do not allow posts by viewers and readers - that isn't news, that's opinion.) and that may be becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

Because the Internet makes it easy for individuals to find other like-minded individuals, who share their views and interests, there is the potential fear that as people receive all of their information from their favorite (potentially biased sites), the balance of any story might be lost. We have seen this happen during elections, where outlets splintered along party lines and individuals actively sought out the news that most matched their thoughts and opinions. As a result, there is the chance that the "unbiased" news reporting of old could be lost unless we, as consumers of the information, demand open lines of communications and forums that foster points and counterpoints. Because the news can come from all of us, it is our collective responsibility to create an unspoken yet vibrant series of checks and balances in the news we consume.

In fact, one of the values of online news is that can offer analysis that is unconnected to word count or "space available." While there's something to be said for the thoughtful, reasoned presentation of information you can get from professionals who have honed their writing skills, waded through mountains of information and asked the poignant questions, traditional media is restrained by paper, by number of columns, by broadcast time. A web page is cheap. An article that runs until it's over is capable on any online outlet, but not on traditional media due to time or space. Combine that limitless space to cover what is necessary, with the ability of readers to comment and respond to any article, and a single news story can take on a long life of insightful analysis, with contributions from anywhere in the world.

As a result, creators of online content are capable of creating a level of credibility at least on par with traditional media sources. In fact, as we've noted, traditional media outlets are increasingly leveraging the online content in their coverage. For example, media outlet Al Jazeera used Twitter and text posts as part of their coverage of the conflict in the Gaza Strip, condensing the general sentiments on their Web site. (Full disclosure, they had the fairly unique capability of being able to confirm the online individual accounts via the reporters they had actually stationed in Gaza.)

Those organizations that can successfully integrate newer online offerings and channels with their more traditional "offline" delivery mechanisms have been able to thrive. But it's not about creating the same content and simply repurposing it - it's about understanding the medium and creating "content products" that are optimized for that delivery. The New York Times has done a wonderful job at using it's online versions not just to report, but to engage the reader and move beyond text on a background. The NY Times has an iPhone app that is quite perfect for that device's capabilities. The online edition has email and text alerts, video, animation, and live blogging.

The network has the ability to permeate all corners of the globe and create new relationships that tie us all together in ways previously impossible. This is both a benefit and a responsibility, which is incumbent upon us all to nourish and protect in order to ensure we maintain open, honest dialogues on what is happening in the world around us.

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