I like to talk about what journalism is and what it isn't with "civilians." There are many different threads to that particular conversation.
It comes from a desire to encourage more people to have realistic expectations of the media, to understand the efforts made by "good" journalists compared with the efforts of the other kind, and to explore the failures in newsgathering that the public has every right to be annoyed with and every right to question.
I've worked in the mainstream and in the alternative press, and I think the problems in both are very similar.
People are generally experienced media consumers; challenges come from the continuous news cycle creating an expectation for 24-hour instant gratification, which combines with a kind of Pavlovian mouth-watering response by media to rumours and "truthiness."
All of us need fast, accurate information, especially when it impacts our lives, but because of this two-way pressure do you think we're getting it?
My case in point comes courtesy of the coverage of the Oct. 27 Haida Gwaii earthquake.
Around 10 minutes after the 7.7 quake hit on Saturday, at 8:16 p.m., the first news I noticed about the quake was from social media, not surprisingly. A Facebook friend in Whitby, Ontario, made a comment about an earthquake in Vancouver. I responded that we hadn't felt anything here, and asked friends in Vangroovy if they had. They hadn't.
I searched for more info from the mainstream press and there was almost nothing still, apart from two or three vague Tweets on CBC Vancouver's running Twitter commentary. Nothing pointed to Vancouver, so I kept digging.
By 8:30 p.m., thanks to hitting the U.S. scientific monitoring websites linked to by friends via Facebook, I knew the epicentre was just off Sandspit in Haida Gwaii, and my interest strengthened because I had worked there on a travel story a few years back. I knew the main airport for the archipelago was right on the ocean in that community, and the town was dead flat and open to Hecate Strait. Yes, it's beautiful and the people are lovely, so it became personal.
In what seemed ages later, but was probably around 30 minutes, the Vancouver Sun posted a "breaking story" but incorrectly stated that it was off Vancouver Island. Then my Facebook feed started being clogged up with worried people who lived in or had loved ones in Victoria, all of whom were waiting for a tsunami.
Other online media, and several radio stations, picked up on the Vancouver Sun's notification and so a self-consuming fire of misinformation and panic took hold for a while.
And it doesn't help that Emergency Management BC put out its first communiqué about the quake 39 minutes after, when its American counterparts reacted within nine minutes.
I decided that while I wasn't officially working, I might be able to supply accurate info from good sources in order to make people I knew feel more at ease. So I headed north, online, to find information as close to the Haida Gwaii as possible.
Around 10 days ago, we were having a discussion around the office about the value of social media in information sharing. Twitter was declared by a colleague to be inferior to Facebook because people didn't use it, and I understood what he meant. Twitter is all about the moment. It is the wire service for everyone.
But often there are problems: one non-journalist mentioned a 37-metre tsunami wave heading towards Hawaii. I pointed out that this was around 100 feet. She blamed CNN. The waves that hit the islands early Sunday were around two to three feet, thankfully.
After the earthquake you could see Twitter's reason for existence. Little compares to 140 succinct characters telling you that the low lying parts of Massett, Prince Rupert or Tofino are being evacuated by the RCMP, that an eight-foot wave surge was being expected in Sandspit, and all in real time, giving you information that is vital, potentially lifesaving. The challenge is to know what is right because there is no filter. In traditional media, that is the role that editors play, and these days they aren't respected.
Given the expectations we all have for accurate information delivered quickly, it is important for the public to know where to source it and for the media to hold back until they are certain they have it.
Apart from finding out that no one had died, here is my favourite Tweet of the night: "Mayor Carol Kulesha of Queen Charlotte City says 7.7 BC #quake preempted her community's Halloween party; emergency staff reported for duty 'in cocktail dresses.'"
As I ponder the above, a hurricane is hitting the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and I've opened up the #Sandy thread on Twitter. Around 100 Tweets a minute are coming in, 10 photos a second are being posted on Instagram, and the storm is still two or three hours from landfall in New Jersey. I'm thinking of friends and family out that way and hoping they have the right information they need to get through this.
As for the rest of us, how do we make sense of it all?
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