Letter From Athens: Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter
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“It takes a brave journalism organization to say ‘stop the train and let’s just think and think intelligently. Let’s not write articles for other people in the newsroom…,’” said Cramer.
What’s troubling to me, however, is that while major news media organizations – CNN, MSNBC.com, NBC News and ABC, just to name a few – are incorporating citizen reporting, many are also letting go of journalists who might be able to provide the much needed context Cramer was talking about. The streamlining of news makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay. It doesn’t help that the AP – that important organ of the news media body of the West – has cut 10 percent of its newsroom workforce.
As witnessed in Greece, the failure to verify information by the public and media professionals can be tragic. There was a universal assumption in Greece that the teenager was shot in cold blood, and no one bothered to wait for the coroner’s report. The policeman’s claim that he was innocent – that he had shot into the air to disperse the crowd– was summarily dismissed. Several Greek politicians and journalists called it “murder” at the media forum. Everyone wanted to be on the side of the protestors. The policeman who did the shooting was, before his trial, already found guilty and condemned.
When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts. Many shopkeepers have lost their livelihood. Hundreds were injured in the confrontation with the police.
It is a dangerous world, indeed, when citizen reporters are completely trusted, both by the media institutions that incorporate them and by the audience who consume that information. The role of the mature news organization, one should think, is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.
On our last day, since the Parthenon was closed, conference attendees were ushered onto buses and headed to the famed wind blown Temple of Poseidon, where, so goes the old story, King Aegeus once stood waiting for his son Theseus to come back from Crete. The prince had gone off on a vessel with a black sail to slay the minotaur, who consumed Athenian youth sent as sacrifice. Theseus promised his father that, if he were successful, he would change his sail to white on the return trip. Alas, he forgot to do so, having lost his bride Ariadne to the god Dionyseus. Aegeus, upon seeing the black sail at the horizon, lost all hope and jumped into the sea.
From Greek to Shakespeare to modern tragedies, the plot often pivots on misinformation and rumor: think Iago lying to the Moor or the whispers of witchcraft in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
In an age when serious journalism is on the retreat – holed up, literally, in a five-star hotel in my case – and the world is awash with rumors and misinformation, one cannot help but think that the much touted “Information Age” is not what it’s cracked up to be.
*Photos by Andrew Lam