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Real-time responsibility: journalism's challenges in an instantaneous age
by Stephen Jukes



In the weeks following September 11, US "reality TV" shows, from Survivor to Temptation Island, took a dive in the ratings. This was hardly surprising when 24-hour cable news stations and major networks were broadcasting uninterrupted coverage of the most devastating attack on the US mainland in history. Stage-managed reality gave way to the real thing. But the technological revolution, which enabled the world to watch a plane plunge into the World Trade Center live on television and has since brought Afghan tribal commanders directly into US living rooms, is causing fundamental changes in the relationship between governments and the media. Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to control the flow of news and to spin it in their favor. At the same time, the pressures of the never-ending news cycle and the demand for instant analysis are placing core journalistic values of objectivity and accuracy at risk.


The 1991 Gulf War is often considered the first conflict to be played out live on cable television, and live coverage of the first strikes against Baghdad put CNN on the media map. But 10 years later, the attacks of September 11 and the US-led war against Al Qaeda have cast issues of government action and media response into the spotlight like never before. Both governments and the media are struggling to come to terms with the new world and the way news now affects public perceptions and public policy.


From Pigeons to Satellite Phones


It has been more than 150 years since Baron Julius von Reuter started using carrier pigeons to deliver news stories and stock prices from Brussels to Aachen in Europe. Within a year, technological advances and the introduction of the telegraph were already transforming his fledgling news business. The story today is no different. The media world is again being turned upside down by new technologies, including faster and more efficient means of gathering and transmitting news across traditional geographical barriers via the Internet.


The pace of change in the last two decades has been nothing short of staggering. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the news business was just making the transition from typewriters to primitive electronic terminals. While computer terminals had been finding their way into US newsrooms for several years, London's Fleet Street, the traditional heart of the British newspaper industry, was in turmoil as unions objected to the introduction of new technology that could potentially cause job losses. Violent street clashes escalated into pitched battles with police as newspaper owners sought to revolutionize production and cut costs.


The first laptop computer for correspondents in the field was a suitcase that felt as though it were stuffed with bricks. The screen was the size of that on a two-inch wide GameBoy and transmission speed was slow and unreliable. It was dubbed the "portabubble," but few correspondents who used it would call it portable. It could take up to an hour to transmit one black and white photograph, and even that was after the film had been developed and a print was made and strapped to a drum transmitter. By the time of the Gulf War the first true laptops had emerged, but some correspondents were still wrestling with acoustic couplers, trying to wedge foreign telephones into two usually inflexible cups to transmit a signal and often failing to make a connection. Somehow over the next 10 years everything fell into place.


Today, the laptop is hooked up to a satellite phone. Images from digital cameras are edited on a laptop and transmitted via the Internet within seconds from the site of a breaking story or sporting event to the reporter's central office. Wireless technology means court reporters can now type key verdicts into a Palm Pilot and transmit them back to editorial headquarters during a hearing. Miniature video cameras have transformed television news gathering, leading to the demise of big team camera crews and the opening of the news world to a generation of freelancers prepared to "go it alone" in dangerous conflict zones to secure footage. And as the tools of news gathering have become smarter, the relentless, insatiable 24-hour news cycle has become the norm.


The integration of text, pictures, and video on the Internet, which began to take shape in the United States during the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, truly emerged in the wake of September 11. It may not yet be profitable for all the players, but it brings a powerful combination of multimedia news, which will become ever more detailed in the next few years as news items are linked to each other through a vast web of "metadata" (data about data) tags. The dissemination of news is now instantaneous and global. The Internet has broken down geographical barriers in a way satellite television has failed to do.


The No Spin Zone


What does this revolution mean for those governments that have invested large amounts of time and energy in trying to ensure that their viewpoint comes across? The job of controlling or spinning information is one of the world's oldest professions. Today, the technological revolution in the media world is making the task far more complex and arguably more difficult. Government actions, whether in Washington, London, or New Delhi, are now tracked live on television. Governments have become much more transparent, and their actions are subjected to instant analysis and opinion polling.


With transparency comes new accountability and a clear dilemma: should governments rush to comment on a major event or disaster before they have all the details? Or should they wait until the facts of the event become clearer? In a world of instant media judgment, the patient government risks being accused of indecision, lethargy, or even carrying out a cover-up. Regardless of their decisions, governments no longer have full power to spin the news. Consumers of news in many parts of the industrialized world now have a real choice and are no longer at the mercy of one or two local media outlets for their daily interpretation of events.


A US television channel such as Fox News, which has overtly supported US President George Bush's fight against terrorism, has seen its ratings soar as its correspondents enthusiastically and patriotically back the US campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Fox has tapped into a rich pool of viewers who are dissatisfied with the perceived liberal bias in the US media. Some disgruntled television viewers in the United States have sought out online news offerings on the war in Afghanistan from various international organizations such as Reuters, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Guardian in England. The number of visits to these sites has soared since September 11.


The ability to scrutinize media sources beyond national boundaries and to compare the differences in how stories are handled means that any bias becomes far more transparent and any attempt to manipulate local media becomes more obvious. Governments are forced to adapt their tactics to this new technological landscape.


In the field of war reporting, foreign correspondents covering a military campaign used to be at the mercy of an army's communications officer. Stories or pictures often had to be transmitted to an editing center via military communications. If an officer did not like what was written, the story might conveniently be forgotten, delayed, or put at the back of a very long queue. Today, as long as the batteries are charged, correspondents in the media pool with the US Marines in Afghanistan can send their dispatches from their own satellite phones, breaking the age-old dependency on the government messenger.


This innovation means that a government or military operation needs to change its approach. One option is to physically block access to news. This is the oldest game in the book, but it can often backfire and result in negative publicity for a government. It can also take on more subtle incarnations, in which media pools are cut back or held away from front-line action and fed a diet of strictly controlled news that cannot be independently confirmed.


Another option is to enlist the support of correspondents themselves in suppressing news by appealing to their sense of patriotism or self-censorship. Shortly after September 11, Bush's team of top advisers appealed to the US media not to broadcast unedited video of Osama bin Laden. Ostensibly, the concern was that the video might reactivate "sleeper" agents in the United States by sending a coded signal. Most US broadcasters, who have generally supported the war, went along with the request.


The same appeal made to broadcasters in London fell on deaf ears, and bin Laden's words are freely available on several websites. In this Internet age, there is nothing to stop US citizens from surfing the Internet to watch streaming video and to read what is not available through their own media outlets. The onus is now on journalists to exploit this new freedom and turn their backs on the daily diet of spin served up at news briefings. To parrot the official line back to readers or viewers is to ignore the journalist's key duty to question everything.


In this ever-changing climate, some governments continue to resort to traditional means of controlling the news, preferring to place tight restrictions on news gathering and dissemination. President Robert Mugabe's government in Zimbabwe has passed a tough new media law that many news organizations believe could seriously stifle their ability to report from the country, a concern that attracted international attention during the presidential elections in March 2002. A once thriving independent press is under attack and many foreign journalists were refused permission to enter the country. China has consistently blocked its citizens' access to many foreign websites, but it remains to be seen how successful it can ultimately be in preventing millions of online subscribers from freely accessing sites the government does not approve.


Put simply, the barriers are either coming down or being placed under increasing pressure. The ability to report in real time on a breaking news story makes it more and more difficult for government officials to ensure that their interpretation of events is the only version that is disseminated. The immediacy of news in this modern media age is also increasing the impact of journalism and putting pressure on governments to react far more quickly than they have in the past.


After World War II, it took months for stories of Nazi war crimes against Jews to emerge. In the Bosnian conflict of the 1 990s, it took just weeks or sometimes days to uncover crimes against civilians. Fast forward to Afghanistan, where the execution of an injured Taliban soldier was shown frame by frame in newspapers the next day. No sooner does the 24-hour news cycle report the news than analysts begin to demand a government reaction. It was arguably the incessant drumbeat of reporting out of Sarajevo during the Balkan crisis of the 1990s that increased pressure on the United States to intervene decisively in that conflict.


Reporting in Real Time


For journalism, both the opportunities and the risks afforded by modern technology are enormous. Ismael Khan, a Northern Alliance commander in Afghanistan, was weighing his military options in a fight with the Taliban outside the city of Herat when his satellite phone rang. The voice on the other end was that of Reuters reporter Andrew Marshall, who, within minutes, had relayed around the world news that the city was under siege. "In the days before handheld satellite phones, Afghanistan would have been a black hole for news," Marshall said.


But the growing ease of reporting, aided by technology; has also made the work of foreign correspondents more dangerous. The average war criminal does not want to be caught red-handed on 24-hour cable television committing an atrocity. As seen most recently in the case of Daniel Pearl, the intimidation, abduction, and killing of journalists has become the norm in too many countries. As correspondents in Afghanistan have found, however, it is not just the ability to report in real time that makes them vulnerable. Expensive equipment has made them a target for attack; indeed, at the time of this writing nine correspondents--including two from Reuters--have been killed in the current conflict, several with robbery as the apparent motive.


At the same time, the world of instant news places huge responsibilities on media organizations and their journalists. Digital cameras bring two new dilemmas. First, thanks to cheap, lightweight video cameras, a new generation of "backpackers," or freelance journalists, is going into war zones and taking risks that few major media organizations would sanction. Those freelance journalists know that the closer they get to the front line, the more likely they are to get marketable footage. Are news organizations encouraging journalists to take risks by paying for such videos? This presents a moral dilemma with which the industry must grapple. Secondly, digital images are notoriously easy to manipulate. There is a new burden of responsibility on news organizations to verify that material being offered for purchase is genuine and has not been doctored for propaganda purposes. Yet many news organizations around the world have cut back radically on their own expensive networks for foreign news gathering and are rely ing more than ever on the work of contractors or freelancers.


Real-time news coverage also means that it is more important than ever to frame news events in their proper context. Several recent examples have revealed the confusion that stems from failing to obey one of the core principles of journalism. Television footage of a minority of Palestinians celebrating after the September 11 attacks was aired widely around the world. But that footage was often broadcast without commentary or any attempt to place it in the broader context of the Islamic world, which widely condemned the attacks.


The raw process of news gathering and the confusion that sometimes accompanies it have also been laid bare to the public at large. In the moments following the US Supreme Court's decision in the case of Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 US presidential election, correspondents rushed down the steps of the Supreme Court building gasping for breath and trying to decipher complex legal rulings live on the air. Needless to say, the commentary was not entirely coherent, and it took nearly half an hour for the true picture to emerge.


At what point, then, does instant reporting turn into entertainment and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life as a journalist? The rush and competition to be the first to deliver the definitive news led major US networks into the debacle of presidential election night, when the results of the Bush-Gore race were declared prematurely.


In the fog of September 11, news reports had the Capitol building in Washington struck by an airplane and a car bomb exploding at the US State Department. Both reports were false. Of course, in the chaos and drama of that day, anything was possible. But it is clear that in the world of instant news, media organizations must be more vigilant than ever in ensuring accuracy, objectivity, and freedom from bias. That is the one thing that technology has not affected: the core principles of good journalism.




A PERILOUS PROFESSION                                                

Europe 17%
Middle East 5%
Africa 10%
Asia 35%
Americas 33%

The left graph shows the number of journalists killed in 2001 in 10
representative nations, including Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and the
United States. The right graph represents the journalists killed in five
geo-graphic areas as a percentage of the total number of journalists
killed worldwide in 2001.

International Federation of Journalists at www.ifj.org

Note: Table made from pie chart
  STEPHEN JUKES is the Global Head of News for Reuters.


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