Twitter, Mumbai and the Climate of Fear

Fearing Fear Itself

In this scene from 25th Hour, undoubtedly Spike Lee’s finest film, Ed Norton’s character rages against New York’s multiculturalism after 9/11. A convicted drug-dealer, he’s spending his last day on the outside before being sent down for seven years. As he reveals at the end of the scene, his anger and bile are an attempt mask a closely related emotion; he is scared stiff.

Fear is powerful. Fear is so powerful it allowed Bush to occupy the White House for eight long years. Simon Jenkins recently said that America and the West must, in Roosevelt’s words, stop fearing fear itself:

“Virtually all comment on the Mumbai massacre has mentioned 9/11 and al-Qaida, and thus invited citizens to continue feeling afraid. No matter that Mumbai appears to have been primarily about Kashmir and the status of India’s Muslims. No matter that Osama bin Laden has no dog in that fight. Any stick will do to elevate al-Qaida as America’s enemy number one.”

In the words of Biz Stone, the cofounder of Twitter, news has now gone real-time. This, in my words, is the perfect incubator for this climate of fear to thrive.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of Twitter. I think its an excellent way for people to meet like minded people and to share things of interest. But, for the time being at least, as a news-breaking platform it is a fundamentally flawed journalistic tool and should be used with caution.

In his blog, Rory Cellan-Jones expands on the lecture we received from him last week:

“Each time a major disaster occurs there is more material available from witnesses – or citizen journalists – and smart mainstream media outlets are having to learn how to access that content. Twitter is the latest.

What Twitter has done is to provide instant information about anything that is happening near its millions of users, coupled with a brilliant way of sharing that information. What it doesn’t do is tell us what is true and what isn’t – and that makes the work of mainstream media outlets and professional reporters all the more relevant.”

Problematically, the modern media climate is preoccupied with 24-hour, up-to-the-minute news coverage and is embroiled in a constant scramble to find and break the story before its competitors. Seemingly within seconds, they’ll then wheel in any expert they can get their hands on for some ‘in-depth analysis.’

This isn’t a new thing. News is a perishable commodity and reporters have been looking for the next scoop for as long as news has existed within a competitive market. But as the digital revolution continues to speed news production up, so the time required to check and re-check facts and to develop investigative, analytical journalism is further compromised. And there seems to be a correlation between quick news and sensational news.

And let’s admit it, there are few better stories more universally interesting and emotionally resonant than terrorism.

At every available opportunity our media reports stories, depicts scenarios, speculates and frets about the latest attempt to destroy our decent, reasonable way of life by some cave-dwelling, nihilistic, self-regarding fundamentalist or some home-grown, bearded and track-suited radical.

The Washington Post, one of the most respected and influential news institutions in the world, has as I write an opinion piece by Richard A.Clarke as one of its lead articles. I stress the word opinion. The piece is titled “Plan of Attack,” and Clarke is ostensibly arguing that the Mumbai attacks are just part of an al-Qaida meta-plan, supplementing his argument with a half-baked dramatisation of Bin-Laden’s latest video. He concludes that the terrorists are winning.

Apart from selling papers, does this sort of journalism equate to the notions of truth-seeking that the industry was built on. Bin-Laden is probably sitting back, having his beard de-knitted and re-upholstering his cave while we do his job for him.

If you combine this mentality with the media’s newfound reliance on citizen journalism, particularly in times of crisis, then you have a potential flammable compound.

One of the first pictures, sent by a witness, of the No.30 bus in Tavistock Square during the 7/7 terrorist attacks.

As Mindy McAdams says in her post Twitter Mumbai and 10 facts about journalism now:

“Breaking news — especially disasters and attacks in the middle of a city — will be covered first by non-journalists. The non-journalists will continue providing new information even after the trained journalists arrive on the scene.”

This, in essence is a good thing. But it places an even greater responsibility on the professionals to do what they are employed to- sift through the dust and unearth the details.

And if they fail to do this- if they allow technology to cloud what their primary role is- we have a situation in which the media becomes guilty of escalating the confusion and hysteria that inevitably surrounds something like Mumbai.

The BBC, the bastion of responsible journalism, have come under sustained criticism and have partly apologised for their use of Twitter to cover Mumbai without checking any of the sources. They forgot first principles.

As Jeff Jarvis says in his post When Witnesses Take Over the News:

“Sometimes events are complicated, and we simply need to wait for more information to emerge before we can understand it. But many of us—not just the pundits—don’t have the humility to accept that. We want to feel in control, at least on an intellectual level, so reasons and theories emerge. But the world is really far too complicated for us.”

We’re in the knowledge and truth business, but we often forget about that. With our ever-increasing exposure to, usage of and reliability on such social-media sites as Twitter to cover breaking news, Cellan-Jones is right to say that the job of taking a step back from the fray and working out what is actually worth knowing and verifiably true is increasingly becoming the primary role of the journalist.

The Talmud sums it up nicely:

“Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side.”


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