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Impatient journalism?

/ 04:32 AM August 16, 2011

Do bloggers push the envelop for critically needed reporting with Internet’s new tools? Or are there far too many nerds who trawl the Web from one tittle-tattle to the next?

“Both,” answers a workshop on mainstream and online journalism. Organized by Probe Media Foundation and Sun Star, the Cebu meeting groped for new responses to new technology rocking this craft.

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Huddled in locked homes from Damascus to Deir al-Zour, ordinary Syrians upload those grainy photos of marauding troops we see on worldwide TV. Twitter ripped China’s “Great Firewall” censorship to reveal that 40 people died on a bullet train crash in Zhejiang province.

In London, looters deployed Blackberrys to pinpoint movements by riot police. A Filipino driver groused on TV about lack of warnings in flooded areas. Cyber bullies pummeled him on Facebook.

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“The usual constitutional safeguards against defamatory speech became useless,” wrote

Inquirer’s Raul Pangalangan. Anonymous posts by “new media and social networks, can unleash our worst selves.”

The Internet came on the scene in the early 1990s. There were 16 million on the Net at the start. By June 2011, over 2.16 billion were “wired.” The first cell phones debuted into the market half a decade later. Now, 5 out of every 10 people in the world carry a cell phone.

Asians bought one of every three. Filipinos were the first to wage People Power through text messaging in 2001, Howard Rheingold writes in “Smart Mobs—The Next Social Revolution.”

“Craven Eleven” senators sealed at Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial the second envelop on secret bank accounts. Minutes later, text messages exploded calling for rallies. People Power II drove Estrada from Malacañang within days.

The Lebanese cloned that method and whipped up human waves in their Cedar Revolution. Cell phones were ubiquitous in Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. But they were patchy in Burma’s Saffron Uprising, which was crushed by the junta Syria-style.

“Politicians created an environment in which lying became respectable by calling it ‘spin’. Spinning … is a nice uptown way of saying lying. And people expect no consequences.”

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That’s the Philippines, right? After all, there’s an Internet café at the next block where anyone can say anything. Wrong. That’s the United States in the midst of the Watergate scandal, and the quote is from Benjamin Bradlee, Washington Post editor.

The Internet, cell phone and Facebook move truth—or falsehood—at “warp speed.” In the past, a scoop stood until the next edition. Today it lasts only until the next click of a mouse. “News organizations are already abandoning the race to be the first to break the news,” the Economist notes. “[They’re] focusing instead on being the best at verifying.”

The bogus Ateneo psychological profiles on then presidential candidate Benigno Aquino offers a classic example. Election campaigner Guido Delgado presented them at a press conference. When pressed for evidence, he bristled. “It’s the job of the press to verify.”

“In practice, the lowest editorial standards tend to drive out the higher,” notes a Pew Foundation study. “It creates a kind of Gresham’s Law of Journalism.” Assertion converts the press “into a conduit of politics as cultural civil war.” There is “a growing reliance on polarized argument.”

“Verifying facts is the central function of journalism,” Bill Kovach would drill into Nieman fellows at Harvard University. “The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification. That holds for a network TV news division or a lone citizen blogging on the Internet.”

At work today is a new culture of impatient journalism not dedicated to establishing whether a story is true. Instead we are moving towards a journalism of assertion. And the cost to society is high.

The need is for more, not less, of hard-nosed reporting of facts and commentary anchored on values, the Cebu workshop agreed. A split-second capacity to deliver unverified claims or opinion merely hobbles the functioning of a democratic society.

Countries with festering social issues, like the Philippines, require “sustained journalism,” Andrew Haeg of Public Insight Network told the Cebu seminar. Broader cooperation between mainline and new media can forge journalism that holds powerful people and institutions accountable. It helps make informed choice by citizens possible.

At any given online community, only one percent will create content, Haeg said. But 9 percent serve as editors, modifying content. The 90 percent is the audience. The task is to engage the audience or lurkers.

The Information Revolution, seen on the Internet, Facebook and other new media, is here to stay. “Searching for news was the most important development of the past decade,” notes Pew Research Center. “Sharing the news may be among the most important of the next decade.”

Fact-checking and editing, though, are tough work. Many bloggers bog down in chat, speculation, punditry—even cyber bullying. Talk is cheap. “A new journalism of assertion ignores the discipline of authentication,” writes Tom Rosenstiel in the updated book “Elements of Journalism.”

The emergence of cyberspace diminished the role of editors. Bloggers don’t have a similar resource. They are their own gatekeepers. That spells disaster when some don’t have even a nodding acquaintance with the moral codes that govern this craft. They morph into cyber bullies.

Both mainline and online journalists’ first obligation is to truth. “There can be no liberty for a community,” the late Walter Lippman wrote, “which lacks the information by which to detect lies.”

(E-mail: [email protected])

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