For Peter Beaumont, this newspaper’s foreign affairs editor, the revolution in Egypt revealed more than the power of the people in triumphing over repressive regimes; on a personal level, he discovered something new about his working practices.
Beaumont trained as a journalist in the days before the world wide web, but, like most of his profession, he has integrated new technologies into his news-gathering techniques as they’ve emerged. Covering the events in Cairo during the internet blackout in Egypt was like taking a step back in time.
“We went back to what we used to do: write up the story on the computer, go to the business centre, print it out and dictate it over the phone,“ he says. “We didn’t have to worry about what was on the internet; we just had to worry about what we were seeing. It was absolutely liberating.“
The web’s effect on news reporting is considered the most clear evidence that this is a revolutionary technology: news editors – and in some cases, the governments that they observe – are no longer the gatekeepers to information because costs of distribution have almost completely disappeared. If knowledge is power, the web is the greatest tool in the history of the world.
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The process that happens before a story is published has also been transformed. The web has become the go-to point for the globe when it comes to getting information; it’s the same for reporters. Online, they find a multiplicity of perspectives and a library of available knowledge that provides the context for stories. Increasingly, the stories are coming from the web.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and former editor of Guardian.co.uk, identifies coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 as the incident that foreshadowed how events are covered today. “Linear TV just could not deliver,“ she says. “People used the web to connect to the experience by watching it in real time on TV and then posting on message boards and forums. They posted bits of information they knew themselves and aggregated it with links from elsewhere. For most, the delivery was crude, but the reporting, linking and sharing nature of news coverage emerged at that moment.“
For reporters in Egypt, however, their greatest frustration was not that they were disconnected from the context provided by the network, but that they struggled to get their stories out. In fact, Beaumont found the silence a relief. “The way [Egypt] was reported didn’t have all the ifs and buts coming from looking over your shoulder to try to figure out what the world is doing at the moment or who’s saying what. You just had the news and the news was happening right in front of you.“
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More generally, technology has improved the processes of identifying stories that are newsworthy. Feeds from social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter provide a snapshot of events happening around the world from the viewpoint of first-hand witnesses, and blogs and citizen news sources offer analytical perspectives from the ground faster than print or television can provide. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC2’s Newsnight, uses these tools to get an angle on what’s happening and what’s important. “If you are following 10 key economists on Twitter and some very intelligent blogs,“ he says, “you can quickly get to where you need to be: the stomach-churning question, ‘OK, what do I do to move this story on?’“
Nonetheless, such tools are still only one element of the news-gathering process. This may mean that large organisations appear to break stories days after they’ve appeared on Twitter. “First-hand witnesses cannot see the big picture,“ says Yves Eudes, a reporter with French broadsheet Le Monde. “They’re not trained to understand whether what they’re seeing is relevant to the big picture or to see what really happens. They’re trained to see what they want to see. If you only rely on Twitter or Facebook, you might end up howling with the wolves.“
Indeed, in 2009, American TV networks found themselves in a very public mess when they reported the “Twitter line“ on the story of a killing spree by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood US army base – that the killer had terrorist links. The details turned out to be false.
Eudes‘s caution does not mean he discounts the value of the tools the web offers its army of citizen journalists; Le Monde was one of the organisations, along with the Guardian, that worked with Julian Assange to publish the WikiLeaks cables last year. “Suddenly, we have all these new competitors that, if they’re bold and well-organised, can change the course of news worldwide in a way that was completely unthinkable before the internet,“ he says. And loose organisations such as Global Voices, a network of international citizen journalists reporting on a global platform about local stories, offer windows on events around the world that are increasingly ignored by local papers.
Ultimately, however, Eudes believes the fundamentals of news-gathering have not been transformed by the web. “I need to know how to write or take a photo and I need to be good at analysis,“ he says. “Learning how to use tools is different from saying everyone is a reporter. Anyone can make bread, but it’s lousy bread. You need to spend time like a true, professional baker to learn to make good bread.“
Part of that learning process for newshounds, it seems, involves leaving the web and pounding the pavement for stories. For Beaumont, working from Tahrir Square without web access was a reminder of a purer form of journalism. “You forget that the internet, for all its advantages, is a distraction: you’re always wondering whether what you’re reading by others matches what you’re witnessing yourself. If you don’t have to worry about that, you can concentrate on pure observational reporting. Which,“ he says, “is a pleasure.“