Gil Scott-Heron told us in his unforgettable 1970 song/rap that the revolution will not be televised. He goes on to list instantly recognizable icons from popular culture at the time. It’s a collection of non-sequiturs that form a greater whole. While no one or two of these snippets of Willie Mays, Johnny Cash, Hertz, Xerox, Richard Nixon, Green Acres, Hooterville and soap operas of the day by themselves mean much, the listener can step back to watch the compelling mosaic of racism in America and the anger it generated come to life. The basis for each line is more emotional than factual in some cases but it works and it works well.
Perhaps ol’ Gil was about four decades ahead of his time. As the events in Egypt unfolded last week, Twitter was alive with 140-character snapshots of Tahrir Square and the events of the day. Once it was clear that this was a revolution rather than a simple demonstration, the government quickly shut down the internet. The young people of Egypt were using Facebook and Twitter get the word out. In effect, social networking provided the center of gravity for what might have otherwise been an earnest effort left to collapse under the weight of its own chaos.
For those of us not in Egypt, Twitter provided instant, sometimes it seemed like more than instant, feedback. In Gil’s day, it was miraculous that Walter Cronkite could show us what happened in Viet Nam just the day before on the CBS Evening News. Later, satellite technology enabled news networks to show us the Gulf War live as it happened. But even live, it was coming from journalists and controlled by news directors in Atlanta in the case of CNN.
As the proud holder of a journalism degree from San Jose State University, I might be biased. But I don’t think some oversight is a bad thing. I think it’s fantastic to get these tweets from the epicenter of an event like the one we witnessed in Egypt. But it lacks context without some effort to fill in the blanks and to do what we called in J school, “fact checking.”
I was tweeting with another SJSU journalism grad, Jon Swartz. Jon is a Technology writer for USA Today and does a tremendous job covering Silicon Valley for the paper and is a great user of social networking. Jon tweeted :
As Jon rightfully points out, this wasn’t a flashmob at the local shopping mall. That this was an outpouring based on those three decades he mentions was perhaps was lost on Americans that were too caught up in the spectacle itself. Twitter can be an extremely useful tool. It can also be an entertaining toy. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the tenets of good journalism shouldn’t be disregarded and clearly have their place. Our former ‘news organization-centric’ information gathering model added the context and, usually, the balance to the story.
With power comes responsibility. The new ‘anyone with a smartphone-centric’ model leaves it to the news consumer to seek out context and balance necessary to convert the snippets into the story. Are we up to the challenge?