Column: David Wilson – Why journalism has changed

   

On July 24, 1984 a gunman went on a shooting spree in Hot Springs, Ark., killing five and wounding one. It made nationwide news.

David Wilson
David Wilson

I was there, at age 22, in my first week as a reporter for The Sentinel-Record, the city’s daily newspaper. After hearing details from the office’s police scanner, a few of us were sent to the address where police were converging.

It was quite an experience, witnessing the search by a SWAT team, amidst a chaotic scene of reporters, television cameras, and onlookers.

I gleaned information, went back to the office, and typed up a story for the next day’s paper.  I typed the story because we didn’t yet have computers in the newsroom.  There was no internet access, no e-mail, no smart phones, no electronic tablets, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Skype.

That evening, and the days that followed, were very busy, as local and national media outlets swarmed the city to follow up on the story. Television crews from Little Rock were there, as well as reporters representing papers from various locations. On the evening following the day of the shooting, Peter Jennings reported on the event on ABC’s World News Tonight.

In those days journalists were all over a story of that magnitude, just as they are today, but some things have changed.

Think about the recent April 15 Boston Marathon bombings and how we learned the details of that horrific event. We have 24-hour news coverage where professional journalists lead the way.

But they aren’t the only avenue of information.

As we saw throughout the week after the bombings, technology enables any citizen to be a reporter, capturing photos and video, and posting observations online or through social media.

The established news providers, whether they are as large as CNN or Fox News, or as modest as the small-town newspaper, do not compete with what may be considered amateur journalism, but rather they embrace it, often incorporating smart phone videos or Skype broadcasts in to their own reports. They also join Twitter and Facebook themselves.

That’s the look of 21st century journalism, a blending of both professional reporting and online interaction among community members.

A lively discussion on CNN on April 21 was insightful, summing up today’s world by saying we now have six major news networks:  ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and Twitter.

Much of the change in media coverage has been rapid.  We need not go all the way back to my experience in 1984 to notice the difference. A lot has changed in the nearly 12 years since 9/11, as AP reporter Jesse Washington wrote on April 21.

“In 2001,” he wrote, “we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends.”

Lynda Kraxberger, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and convergence faculty chair at the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri also commented on the very rapid change in the media.

“We didn’t know social media was going to play such a big role when we moved in to 21st century journalism,” she said. “A lot has changed even since 2008.”

A lot has changed indeed, with more news media options than ever.

The danger in having so many voices speaking at once is a greater likelihood of erroneous information getting out, but there is also the benefit of being able to consider multiple perspectives on any given event.

If the average person wants to enter the arena of public discussion, it is healthy for democracy, but if he or she wishes to assume the role of reporter or broadcaster, responsible citizenship dictates that he get the facts straight.

This is not to be harsh towards those who want to participate. The truth is, the established media do not always get it right either.

The burden is on all of us, as citizens, to wait patiently for accurate information.

As the Boston drama was coming to a resolution on April 20 with the apprehension of the second suspect, President Barak Obama encouraged restraint.

He said, “In this age of instant reporting, tweets, and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens, with public safety at risk and the stakes so high, it’s important we do this right.”

David Wilson, EdD, has worked for 24 years in Missouri public schools as a teacher and administrator. He has studied history, journalism, and educational leadership. You an e-mail him at dwnotes@hotmail.com.