The international reaction to the video that circulated last weekend showing the murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, point to the challenges and realities facing the the practice of journalism in the Internet Age.

Bill Mitchell , Leader of News Transformations at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla., wrote an excellent article yesterday speaking to the challenges of reporting out this story.

Independent verification of raw footage posted on YouTube that provided context and filled in details as to the events portrayed in the video was a critical part of the journalism process.  Mitchell speaks eloquently to the challenges of developing such a story and reminds us that often the first facts and impressions of such an event contain elements that invariably are proved wrong by deeper, more thorough reporting after the fact.

He lays out the essential process of producing contemporary news reporting as “Next Step Journalism” - a series of seven steps.

  • Documentation - the initial recording of a situation or event
  • Context – the ability to create a narrative story out of assembly of more facts than those revealed in the initial documentation.
  • Transmission and distribution – Using  both mainstream media and social network tools as channels to interconnect globally.
  • Verification – checking the facts into “the story” coming from initial documentation and further elaboration.
  • Correction – the ability to amend facts presented in the first two steps that proved to be wrong, when further reporting has been conducted.
  • Analysis – the need to put any story in a fuller, historical context. Any story speaks to the specifics of a given situation while simultaneously containing seeds that connect to larger truths about the human condition.
  • Sense-Making – the ability to explain the consequences of the story for the average citizen.

The challenge I see is that modern technology affords immediate access to the world via Internet-based and/or mobile telephone publishing platforms. Meanwhile, social networks ensure that such material is likely to receive wide circulation nearly instantaneously.  Distribution of initial material inevitably outstrips the ability to provide more thorough reporting so crucial to establishing context.

Using such distribution channels to add subsequent fact development and context enhancement is difficult even if reporting conditions are optimal.  Enabling a better system for tracking new facts and expressing context elaboration will be essential because providing analysis and sense-making are crucial parts of the journalism task.   This is particularly true when reporting is occurring in countries where governance includes policies deliberately designed to hamper independent journalism as a check and balance on abuses of power.

Journalism that informs and educates may require very different mechanisms of story expression and presentation from those existing currently on websites or various mobile platforms.  Rethinking the presentation of breaking news and creating better hooks to amateur contributions certainly seems worthwhile as a development effort, particularly for those professionals not working presently for mainstream media organizations.

It is clear that certain raw material for story-telling will be supplied in the future by non-journalists who have technology to create powerful communication such as the  37 seconds of video that showed some of Neda Soltan’s last moments.

Ideally, part of the new revolution in journalism and communication focuses on tools and training to provide amateurs with the ability to most helpfully mesh their contributions with reporting by professional journalists.  Each part of the activity would be designed to provide valuable information and story context to an audience.  In the age of “instant content distribution”, there is a clear need to more quickly move through the reportage process elements listed by Bill Mitchell to reduce the gap between initial reporting and the subsequent correction/expansion of facts, so critical to a well-functioning journalism process. If we cannot create a system where updated context follows initial reporting through all the distribution channels seamlessly, then it will be very hard to ensure that all citizens have the same access to the latest, fullest reporting on stories.

In cases where journalism-produced context and sense-making could mean the difference between beneficial citizen action and the spreading of dangerous, disruptive fear-mongering as a prelude to chaos, such story presentation design may matter greatly.