The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

"Swarm Journalism" in Iran: Media and Political Revolutions

Twitter as crisis journalism. Are you kidding me?

 

The average age of Iranians is under 25. The Islamic revolution, dethroning the Shah and putting in his place a theocratic state with Ayatollah Khomeini at its head, took place in 1979. Thus, the average Iranian is five years younger than the revolution under which he or she has lived their entire life.

student protests in IranIt is these young people who are pushing the protest against the alleged election fraud which re-elected the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has been sanctified by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenimullah and his ruling theocratic council of Mullahs. And the tools of these young protesters and their titular leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, for circumventing news suppression by the mullahocracy, their threatened totalitarian government, are absolutely amazing --, phones, tweets, jpgs, ISPs, TMs, the whole wonderful clutter of what we now call the "new media."

As this uprising is being witnessed around the world, it is rightly describable as disturbing, mesmerizing and ambiguous. But what is most exciting about this unfolding crisis (and opportunity) is how pictures, film, eye witnesses, descriptions, analysis and discussion are getting to print, TV and Internet audiences-primarily through the new media, namely cell phones, blogs, uploads on social networking sites like Facebook, text messaging Twitter tweets and, of course, the increasingly redoubtable YouTube.

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It is largely via these communication marvels that traditional media are getting their information and discussing and analyzing what we are seeing in an attempt to make some sense of what is actually happening and what it portends for the future, for the Iranian people, for American-Iranian relations and, quite possibly, for the complete nest of tangled relations in the middle East.

This is a complete reversal of what has been discussed over the past few year in terms of the fiscal crisis in news services, both print and electronic, whose business models have been found wanting and are floundering searching for some new way to right their economic ships without totally gutting their principal function, gathering news that people need to inform their life decisions.

One of the singular worries and warnings from the old media, is that, without the old media input, wisdom, savvy, experienced journalists, without , their money, their contacts, the online faces of print news enterprises like the New York Times or the Washington Post, The Nation, etc., where would the new media get their news product? News aggregating services on the Internet, like Google News, the Huffington Post, Truthout, AlterNet, etc. would have nothing to print except unvetted blogs which are long on opinion and short on facts and investigative and news synthesizing muscle.

How ironic then, that, what we are now and most recently finding is the old media depending on the new media to provide the pictures, the narratives, the blood, sweat and tears that were once the old media's exclusive provincesboth in print and electronic media like CNN, which utilizes virtually all the new media, all the time and proudly displays it iReporter contributions. ireport

In a very real sense, new journalists, from "reporters" at ground zero, whether it's in Tehran or Mumbai, along with their blogging, Twittering brothers and sisters, have begun to constitute what can only be called swarm journalism (see the Michael Chrichton book, "Prey" for other ideas on subject) . This is a condition where hundreds of individual eyes, ears and smart phones are feeding in tweets, iReports, cell phone video and still photographs to old or traditional journalistic institutions.

swarmSwarm journalists oftentimes are functioning individually but they emerge as a goal-directed collective, like a swarm of bees or geese. They are diverse in all demographic respects, can cover vast geographic areas, offer varied perspectives, and generate products at different moments in time and space, all feeding into and constituting some non-proprietary data base.

Dynamically aggregated, all of this data eventually begins to form pictures of events that no single old medium, no traditional journalistic team or structure, no matter how connected, could hope to achieve. In other words, swarm journalism, especially in instances of crisis, can be seen as replacing an organization of limited numbers of individuals trying to give impressions of a larger picture. Such emergent pictures are nothing new, of course, and have been gleanable from indexing Google search terms for over a decade. Twitter analysts or analyzers of tweets are now doing similar pattern analyses. What is new is that we're now talking about people on the ground, witnesses to history, rather than simply data collected and stored with no agent attached to it.

A swarm of eyes and ears and media tools has become an emergent, de facto news organization, not as a traditional structural model of an organization but as a gestalt, a collection of individual parts producing an emergent whole. This corpus of news is then tweaked and vetted if at all possible, often by end line users and distributors like cnnCNN or the NYT or proto news gathering and broadcast entities like Current TV (whose two Korean-American female journalists are currently under arrest is North Korea).

This is citizen journalism at its most exciting and raw, working with traditional journalism, a coalescence of a new generation of journalists, feeding vital information that traditional news agencies have been financially and resource contracted or politically blocked from covering in other than the most constricted way. Whatever happens in Iran, the news gathering-news reporting torch has been passed.

Call it swarm journalism, call it gestalt journalism, call it new journalism, call it whatever you want, it is definitely an exciting time in the news business and in the world of new media, as a producer, a consumer or just as an observer.

Since all things evolve and in communications field, evolve in future shock time, how new media and new journalism will look and function once they temporarily stabilize-- "temporarily" is the operative term here - is probably clearer to some people than it is to me.

But I don't think we have to worry anymore about how we will get our news if traditional newspapers and traditionally trained and employed journalists are not swept along and become part of the communications evolution. There clearly is a new way that has emerged. It is here. It is now. We are just not exactly sure what it will look like next week, next month, or next year. I mean, seriously, who really predicted that imageTwitter would be the crisis journalistic medium of choice?

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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