Monday, November 05, 2007

Old Meets New Media

The average TV news viewer sees TV news reporting as much more glamorous than it is. The few seconds you see a reporter on camera constitutes a tiny fraction of his day, much of which is often spent asking strangers for information and on-camera interviews. You can arrange interviews ahead of time for many stories but for the low crimes that make up much of TV news, you have to put foot to pavement and knuckle to doorknocker, hope that people with answers will open their doors and that you can convince them to go on camera. Those days I was no more than a well-dressed beggar, hoping for a handout. A few scraps of detail or a few bites of sound.

The new interactivity between the media and their readers and viewers might change some of that. Oh, reporters will probably always have to go knocking on neighbors doors. But now if they won't talk when you go to them, you can ask people who knew a murder victim and her killer to come to you. At the bottom of a breaking news article about a murder/suicide, the St. Petersburg Times solicits people who knew the couple to leave a comment or contact the reporter.

Based on the first person's comments, I'd say it's a good thing that you can't libel a dead person. But people are responding. Since commenters are anonymous, there's no way to verify that they knew the victim or the shooter and aren't just making stuff up. (I'd say "alleged" shooter but if the Times isn't worried about libel, neither am I.) That's one benefit of physically going to the scene. If you knock on someone's door, you have at least some assurance that the person who opens it has a connection to the area. You can look the person in the eye and sense if they know what they're talking about. Or whom they're talking about.

I know that ever more of the information we get will come straight from citizens rather than filtered through journalists. Blogs devoted to neighborhood news like The Seminole Heights Blog devoted to that section of Tampa will satisfy many people's interest for neighborhood news. Yes, many of the items refer to and quote material from either the Times or the Tampa Tribune but there's a surprising amount of original reporting.

But who are the reporters? Distrusted as they may be, the big media outlets at least give you someone to hold accountable. They have ethical and stylistic standards meant to ensure that you can trust that their stories are factually accurate. You might believe that the Times' coverage matches the leftward lean of its editoral pages but at least there are names attached to the articles. Names whose credibility -- and future career prospects -- depending on getting the story straight.

I'm glad there are outlets outside the mainstream media for people to read and watch news and information. You're reading the one I write. But if the day ever came when we relied solely on anonymous bloggers for information, we as a voting public would be wandering though the world in darkness.

So those beggars holding notebooks and microphones instead of "will work for beer" signs do have a useful purpose, unglamorous as it may be compared to what it might seem.

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