Saturday, April 21, 2007

DILEMMA: Without 'control point' -- is media alarmingly out of control?


POSTED: Friday, April 20, 2007

New-media culture challenges limits of journalism ethics

By Joe Garofoli
San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer

The Virginia Tech shooting is the first major U.S. news story in which
traditional media and new-media technologies became visibly interdependent.
Yet how that combination of old and new enabled the world to see the final
ramblings of mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui raises an uncomfortable question:
When everybody can publish in the world of new media, what will the world
see next?

As new-media expert Jeff Jarvis wrote on his blog Thursday,
ÿÿThere is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone ÿÿ witnesses,
criminals, victims, commentators, officials and journalists ÿÿ can publish
and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news
and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished,

NBC News anchor Brian Williams called the photos, videos and text Cho mailed
directly to his network a ÿÿmultimedia manifesto.ÿÿ The network released only
heavily edited parts of Choÿÿs submission, enough so it could convey ÿÿthe
mind-set of the troubled gunman,ÿÿ Williams said.

Now, some media analysts are wondering what the next multimedia manifesto
will contain. Will somebody upload a live hostage situation?

And given the ÿÿlet-the-masses-decideÿÿ ethos of this new-media landscape,
some want NBC to release everything Cho sent.

The questions and concerns about the boundaries of openness are being raised
not just by traditional media fuddy-duddies but by leaders of new media,
those who often praise the virtues of a ÿÿdemocratizedÿÿ media world in which
anyone can publish his own writing, video or photos.

The Virginia Tech story offered the most vivid example yet of how
traditional news sources, like cable news networks, and new-media sources,
like the social networking site Facebook, are jointly creating a mosaic of
news coverage. Yet the Cho video showed how that marriage of technology
could be outpacing ethical standards.

ÿÿIt is future shock,ÿÿ said Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal
Democracy Forum, a New York think-tank that explores the intersections of
technology and politics. ÿÿThe technology has developed so fast that the
culture hasnÿÿt caught up with all of it.

ÿÿOn one hand, you have the advocates, who want NBC to release all of (Choÿÿs
manifesto). On the other, you have people who are saying, ÿÿWait a minute.ÿÿ
This is a very challenging moment.ÿÿ

As Sifry wrote Thursday on his blog,, ÿÿThe father
in me doesnÿÿt want my kids finding this on the Web . . . the openness
advocate in me agrees that we donÿÿt make horrors go away by hiding them.
Iÿÿm conflicted about this.ÿÿ

ÿÿConflicted is the right word,ÿÿ said Dave Winer, a pioneering blogger and
influential figure in new media. He would like to see NBC release all of
Choÿÿs material. ÿÿYes, I realize that itÿÿs unfortunate right now that this
guy gets to control the discussion.ÿÿ

On his blog, Winer wrote Thursday, ÿÿWe hadnÿÿt foreseen this
use of the technology because, as utopians, we tend to look for the good
stuff. I liked to think I had a balanced view, and could see where bloggers
werenÿÿt doing good, but I hadnÿÿt seriously considered our tools used to
further such a bad cause.

ÿÿWhen you see a suicide bomber with a camera strapped to his or her head,
youÿÿll know that the bad has caught up with the good.ÿÿ

But Winer and Sifry donÿÿt think the answer to these ethical dilemmas is to
restrict the freedom of people to publish. ÿÿWhat works best is an
open-networked system,ÿÿ Sifry said, ÿÿItÿÿs the difference between trusting a
few people to make decisions for everyone and trusting many people.ÿÿ

Yet after a day of repetitive airings of Choÿÿs images on news outlets, Fox
News was among the news outlets that promised to restrict rebroadcasting.

ÿÿWe believe that 18 hours after they were first broadcast and distributed
via the Internet, our news viewers have had the opportunity to see the
images and draw their own conclusions about them,ÿÿ said John Moody, Fox News
Channelÿÿs executive vice president of editorial. ÿÿWe see no reason to
continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images. We
reserve the right to resume airing them as news warrants.ÿÿ

By Thursday, the other networks also decided to limit or eliminate showing
Choÿÿs video.

Traditional outlets acknowledge that current technology enables offensive
material to circulate, no matter what they do.

ÿÿIn the end, itÿÿs going to get out there,ÿÿ said Jay Wallace, executive
producer for news at Fox News Channel. ÿÿEven if every newspaper and cable
news channel doesnÿÿt put it out there, somebody will.ÿÿ

ÿÿThe lesson for this week is that the news is everywhere. The news is on
Facebook,ÿÿ said Jennifer Sizemore, editor in chief of Like other
news outlets, MSNBC turned to social networking sites like MySpace and
Facebook to find students to interview about the Virginia Tech slayings.

ÿÿI donÿÿt view them as the competition,ÿÿ said Sizemore. ÿÿI see them as
enlarging the conversation.ÿÿ

That broadened conversation has contributed to ratings spikes. The 1.8
million people who watched Fox on Monday, the day the shooting occurred,
represented a 115 percent jump in ratings over Foxÿÿs average for the first
part of this year. CNNÿÿs 1.4 million viewers were a ratings jump of 186
percent for that same period. had 108.8 million page views
Tuesday, a record for the site.

Both new and traditional media leaders know that many people following the
story on TV were also checking it online, monitoring social networking sites
and other online news outlets for the latest developments.

That partially explains why cable news networks broadcast Virginia Tech
coverage nearly exclusively through Wednesday. They didnÿÿt want to risk
losing viewers to another outlet.

ÿÿIn those early hours, it is a feeding frenzy,ÿÿ said Foxÿÿs Wallace. ÿÿWe know
that people are flipping around everywhere for news.ÿÿ

Jarvis said the future of cable news ÿÿ in which viewers are likely to watch
television on their computers ÿÿ could be different. With bandwidth cheaper
and broader, perhaps there will be a CNN channel devoted exclusively to
saturation coverage of the big story of the day. If viewers prefer to hear
news from Iraq or Washington or China, they could flip over to the regular
CNN channel.

When Jarvis wanted to check out the latest developments from Virginia Tech
this week, he said he went home after a day of reading online and did
something that might sound surprising, given his new-media identity: ÿÿI
flipped on the television. Part of it was habit. But there are some things
that the big outlets still do well.ÿÿ

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