Storyteller and source in the digital age
These are important times for the spectrum that spans from journalistic reporting - professionals on the ground interviewing, observing, verifying and analyzing - to that of the citizen sort, in which people involved in the news share information of their own with ever-increasing social media tools.
In a Media Decoder post for the New York Times yesterday, David Carr talked about the two distant ends of this spectrum in the specific context of the ongoing government shelling of the Syrian city of Homs. Verified journalistic reporting has been hard to come by, as the brave few outsiders who’ve ventured in have found themselves targeted in the attacks.
“Absent contextual reporting,” Carr wrote in his post, “it starts to sound and look alike: a shaky video in which the distant thrum of war draws suddenly close, the bullets and bombs land, there is much screaming and running, then the screen goes blank. Many of the videos are shot at great risk and represent citizens’ attempts to capture a horrible truth in their midst, but are the people tuning in to see the truth or a snuff film shot in real time?”
Carr’s description captured a dilemma described in an email I received from a college professor only minutes before. The professor had been watching raw Youtube footage of injured victims of the Syrian shelling.
“How can I integrate any of this?” my professor friend wrote. “It’s messing with me on an existential level.”
It is a conundrum - and a compelling challenge - of this era: How best to harness the rich array of raw social media documentation to tell stories with deeper meaning?
This is something I talked about at length in a telephone interview this morning with Jigar Mehta, a video journalist and new media entrepreneur who is hustling to build GroupStre.am, a company developing streaming story structures for social media content.
In that project, young Egyptian journalists are gathering photos, video, audio clips and more taken by citizens on the street during the 18 days of protest that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. The goal is to create stories from fractured digital dispatches.
“People are creating media all of the time,” Mehta said. “But it’s just fragments. It doesn’t have shape. It doesn’t have context. It doesn’t have narrative.”
Part of the 18 Days in Egypt mission is historical: conserve cell phone photos, Smartphone audio files, Tahrir Square Tweets and more before they disintegrate into the digital distance. But so far, as the Egyptian revolution carries on as version 2012, many of the 18 Days streams are chronicling current events.
Mehta sees such storytelling streams as a natural evolution of the crowdsourced conversation already taking place on web site comment sections, in the click of Facebook “Like” buttons, and with Retweets of individual photos or Youtube videos.
Who creates the streams - professional journalist or citizen on the street - determines, of course, where it falls on the spectrum of verified, contextualized reporting. But the addition of story, no matter the source, deepens understanding.
Whether documenting the celebratory streets of Cairo or the horror of Homs, such streaming could help bridge the gap between news consumer and citizen journalist with a strong narrative arc.
“This is kind of the next iteration,” Mehta said. “What’s your story? Where does your story exist?”