Spreading the News

Remember how remarkable it seemed several months ago when a plane sat down in the Hudson River and the first news and photos of the crash came from Twitter? Then the fly ash spill in TVA’s Kingston plant was covered first on Twitter. That was about the time that articles about how the old media just didn’t get digital media started appearing.

An economic meltdown that dumped publishing and media into a period of hard times along with the rest of society came next, bringing a series of new articles and speculation about how media was going to survive and adapt. Newspapers are closing or moving to web only operations, or just struggling along hoping the weather the economic situation.

Media was big news again with the Iran election. Many mainstream media outlets were getting their news from blogs, YouTube, and Twitter. With journalists scarce in Iran, the “organized” media outlets were struggling to get the story by following what they could from the people on the ground who were tweeting and uploading video to YouTube.

Which brings us to the celebrity deaths in the past week, particularly the death of Michael Jackson. TMZ a gossip site with a reputation as trash, broke the story of Jackson’s death. Tweets went out within seconds and the quest for news on the topic was immediate and overwhelming. But nobody wanted to take the word of TMZ. News people wanted to hear from The LA Times or some other big media outlet that they considered “trustworthy.”

That’s a long lead-up to the topic I want to discuss. What are people thinking and saying about the media and the reporting of events regarding Michael Jackson? Here are a few comments.

Pauline from webgrrls reports that she was at the nail salon. In Cyberspace Behavior when Celebrities Die she said,

I was at my local nail salon when the headlines on television caught everyone’s attention: Michael Jackson passed away. As I sat in my massage chair getting a pedicure, I automatically reached for my phone, but unfortunately had no Internet service in that area. I received texts and made a phone call to a friend, while looking up at the television screen to see the news unfold. Other women around me pulled out their phones to call and text the news at a frantic pace. While the shock was palpable in the salon, I started thinking about what was going on in cyberspace.

I first heard the news from Twitter. I told my two grandchildren and they both immediately called their mothers to tell them. As soon as the calls were finished, they started texting friends. But, like Pauline, my thoughts went immediately to how the story was being reported. We had Ryan Seacrest on the radio in the car—oh, the things you must listen to when driving your grandkids—and he was hesitant to confirm TMZ, he quoted CNN’s more tentative reports that it was a coma for several more minutes.

Not to make less of people’s memories of Michael Jackson, but I was interested in the social media aspect of the story from the very first.

TMZ breaks news Michael Jackson is dead; does that also spell the death of traditional media showbiz coverage? from TampaBay.com:

It also raises yet another challenge for traditional news outlets, still scrambling to keep pace with a younger pop culture press moving quicker to break and advance the hottest showbusiness news.

Early in the reporting, people attached caveats to the news. At Written, Inc’s Michael Jackson dead, the comment was,

Ooh, it’s turning into a really bad week for celebrities – if the report from gutter-grabbing celeb “news” site TMZ.com is true.

At BNET, Catherine P. Taylor wrote Michael Jackson’s Death Illustrates How Much Media Has Changed. Her points, which I abbreviate here, are:

1. That, unfortunately, the notion of confirming a story is becoming quaint.
2. That almost everyone wanted in on the story in the name of traffic (I suppose you could include this blog in that … go ahead).
3. That if real-time search has a business model it’s in these huge, spiking news stories, particularly news stories with a heavy commercial angle. While there’s no real commerce to be had in the Iran protests, nor should there be, the sudden interest in a dead celebrity’s entertainment output should mean dollar signs for media.
4. That user-generated content shows the problems with the TMZ age writ-large, when anyone can publish anything, if they feel like it — and distribute it to millions.

Catherine’s points mentioned search. According to Search Engine Journal’s early article called Michael Jackson Dead: Microsoft Bing FAILS in Coverage, Twitter and Facebook Break News, the search engine response to the story was very slow.

In terms of search relevance and breaking news, even with conflicting news amongst various media outlets and social media, Google has not caught up to the rush of Michael Jackson news. Google is showing only ONE headline in its Google News Universal Search Onebox about the rumored passing of Jackson . . .

Yahoo Search News Shortcuts, on the other hand, is right on top of the news. . . .

Is Google Search lagging in breaking news coverage? Indeed it is. Microsoft BING however, has ABSOLUTELY FAILED in their coverage of the passing of Michael

Once the news was finally accepted as real by mainstream media, they went on a reporting frenzy of their own that continues to unfold. Twitter almost crashed from all the comments about Michael Jackson that people wanted to share. Twitter was so full of Jackson tweets that people began complaining that other things were more important. Laura Fitton, aka @Pistashio, commented,

Pistachio But see, Twitter’s about “what do we have in common.” 500 million have just Thriller in common, let alone the rest of his life/career…

We all have pop culture in common, but I think we need to remember that news about Iran’s election was big, too. And when the fly ash story broke it was pre-Oprah, pre-Ashton Kutcher, pre Twitter goes mainstream. Twitter didn’t almost crash over the plane in the Hudson, either. But Twitter has been growing so fast you can’t really compare one event to another one months later in terms of tweets because of increased membership on Twitter.

Big media had defenders for its reluctance to accept the word of TMZ with stories like What the Michael Jackson / TMZ news timing teaches us about credibility at Eat Sleep Publish.

If anything, what this incident proves is that credibility is a very valuable quality. TMZ bet on the accuracy of their story, and they won that bet. Why make the bet? They want to earn a reputation for credibility.

And you know what “old media” has in droves right now? Credibility. Michael Jackson wasn’t, as far as I could tell, widely considered dead until the LA Times independently reported that doctors had pronounced him dead.

It’s not true until I say it’s true. That’s power.

News as a social medium at the San Francisco Chronicle said,

Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at City University of New York and author of the media blog BuzzMachine, said the growing popularity of social-media sites is recasting the job of traditional journalists. He sees them as curating, vetting and giving context to news that bubbles up from teams of reliable amateurs they’ve already recruited.

Curating and vetting. That’s what we saw with the news from Iran. The man in the street tweets something and the journalists curate and vet. Social media feeds the mainstream media. It used to be the other way around. CNN even has a site for citizen journalism called iReport.

In Is Faster Better? Or is it Just Faster? Sarah Perez argues,

You see, I actually watched the CNN coverage and it was good. . . .

It also was a lot more interesting that watching a million “RIP MJ” tweets stream by.

Sarah’s comments relate to the story after it was confirmed by traditional media. Does that mean quality is measured by depth (aka curating and vetting.) Or is it turning into something more immediate? There’s the initial moment when we think, “OMG, Michael Jackson died,” and then there’s the feeding frenzy for details that follows. I think I’m more interested in the “OMG” moment in this article, and not so much in how the week played out after the news was blessed by big media.

An interesting perspective on the overloading of websites relates back to the previous quote from Laura Fitton. In Michael Jackson, Media Convergence and The Decline of the Global Superstar we find:

The mass media’s dependence on new media, especially of this nature, is pointing to a new media convergence that is both liberating and alarming. Do we need this many perspectives to contend with, and how much is verified before stated on air? Immediacy in any breaking event is always a waste of time because details will settle and change, and these social networking platforms are probably the most immediate forms of media there ever were. The crash of these technology-based social networks ostensibly shows an active rather than passive collectivity, meaning rather than experiencing a historical moment together via the exact same channels (limited to a few mass media networks), people wanted to reach out and create their own moment, their own reportage and rapport; however, this crash of systems also points to some intense displays of cultural capital, something a lot of these social networks are built upon.

Waxing Philosophical took a different approach in 3 Unexpected Economic Effects of Michael Jackson’s Death. She talked about money, and her points (which I again abbreviate) are:

1. If Michael Jackson’s death can break the internet, what will we do when there’s a global meltdown for reals?
2. Even a millionaire (billionaire?) needs a budget.
3. Jackson’s debt-ridden estate might just be saved by an unexpected run on iTunes.

In the next news cycle or during the next big story, will mainstream media remain inclined to wait for confirmation from the AP or The New York Times? Or will we begin to accept the word of sources that may be regarded as sleazy some of the time? Is news turning into the world according to Twitter?

See also: Events in Iran.

Cross posted on BlogHer.

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