SOME THINGS DON'T CHANGE

Could you ever imagine James Earl Jones intoning, "Trust Twitter?"

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

Change is like the weather.  Everyone talks about it, nobody’s in charge of it.   Over the last year, “Change” became a hit record (Taylor Swift), a political slogan (President Obama), and a hit TV series in Japan (about a teacher who suddenly ascends to the top political job in the country – sound familiar?). 

The first half of 2009 saw the emergence of Twitter and the demise of analog television.  Everyone talks about change, and about how lives and enterprises will be impacted by change. 

Human nature, however, does not change – and because media exist to provide a service to human beings, not to baboons or space aliens, they will always be yoked to the unchanging characteristics of human nature.  Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves of some constants that will remain guideposts to that nature, regardless of which media are swinging the bat.

 Courtesy The Arizona Star.  Check out this cartoon in its original context at  azstarnet.com . 

Courtesy The Arizona Star.  Check out this cartoon in its original context at azstarnet.com

1.   Facts always trump rumors.  Journalists bemoan the decline of traditional news, and newsgathering ethics, in an age of bloggers who seem more interested in promoting a point of view.  Yet it is precisely because it is so easy to buy a megaphone nowadays that the indispensable grunt work of journalism – note taking, fact checking, editing, and developing a reputation for trustworthy information – has become more necessary than ever. 

According to the blog Paper Cuts, more than 10-thousand US newspaper jobs have been eliminated in 2009 alone.   Short term, the former holders of those jobs are in pain.  Long term, that pain will ease, because their core skills will not, indeed cannot, lose their market. 

2.   When facts are at issue, people migrate from social media to mainstream media, not the other way around.   An eight year old understands this intuitively.  I was using the boys’ room in elementary school when a classmate burst in to inform me that President Kennedy had been shot.   That was social media in 1963.  But it didn’t become real for me until our principal piped in live radio coverage for the entire school to hear over our PA system.    As a school, we migrated from rumor to fact. 

Now, consider the recent death of Michael Jackson.  On Twitter, where the story started as a rumor, error messages reportedly peaked at up to 5-thousand per minute, as users frantically re-tweeted messages carrying lots of questions but little reliable information.  By contrast, CNN, although it was not first with the story, logged 20 million page views in the hour after it broke.  

3.  Trust is the coin of the media realm.  Virginia O’Hanlon knew that she could trust the New York Sun to give it to her straight about Santa Claus.  The American public knew it could count on Walter Cronkite to do likewise with world and national events.  If an organization brokering in information loses the trust of its audience, the game is over. 

Trust can disappear in as little as a day or two; it takes long years to build.  This is more than an academic point.  It has financial implications.  CNN, founded in 1980, has figured out how to monetize page views; Twitter, founded in 2006, has not.   And could you ever imagine James Earl Jones intoning, “Trust Twitter?”

4.  Building that trust often involves personal danger.  Each year, I have the honor of working on the Deadline Club Awards, given at the Waldorf Astoria by the New York City Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  This year, even as the editor of The New York Times helped the Club recognize the best in journalism, a Times reporter was being held by the Taliban.  (He later escaped after seven months in captivity.)  

Two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were in prison in North Korea, guilty of doing nothing more than their jobs.  (They were eventually sentenced to twelve years hard labor.)  One of the first honors to be given out on Awards night was the Daniel Pearl Award for Investigative Reporting.  Pearl, you will recall, was the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan by Al Qaeda.

What’s really changing, in other words, is at the margins.  Daily newspapers fold, local radio stations abandon news coverage, reporters apply for unemployment, and analog signals go dark.  Yet people are consuming more information than at any time in history.   Real journalism, in sum, is used more than ever, is as dangerous as ever, and matters more than ever. 

It may seem, at times, to be valued less than ever – but that’s rumor.  Not fact.