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Letter From Athens: Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter

The protests and riots in Greece were organized by young people, who text-messaged each other and used social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
 
 
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Editor’s Note: While nearly 500 journalists and media developers met in a five-star hotel in Athens to discuss the state of the media, the city smoldered from riots organized by young people using new forms of communication.

ATHENS, Greece – At the onset of riots across Greece, we – nearly 500 journalists, think tank people, media developers, foundation officials, human rights workers – gathered at the Global Forum for Media Development in Athens to talk about the state of the media and media development. All the while, the city smoldered during the day and at night, stores and cars were set on fire by rioters and looters.

buildingThe story is now familiar the world over. On Saturday, Dec. 6th, 2008, around 9 p.m., a policeman in Athens shot and killed a 15-year-old, sparking protests, riots and looting across many cities for days on end. The spontaneous protests and riots were organized largely by young people, who text-messaged and phoned each other, and who used social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

While we were holed up in a five-star hotel, discussing the crisis of the media profession – how citizen reporting has usurped professional reporting and how the old business model no longer holds, but new ones aren’t working very well either – the social crisis of our host country deepened. We, journalists, media developers and ombudsmen, all, were more or less out of the loop.

According to Pavlos Tsimas, a well-known Greek columnist and TV commentator who also attended the media forum: “Thousands of people were in the street protesting the murder of a boy whose name they didn’t know. Established media have not yet reported the event. TV stations came in a little late. The next day the newspapers did not carry words of the event with the exception of some sports papers that carried the story due to late night printing.”

That is, traditional news media were trying to play catch up in a world full of Twitterers and bloggers.

Then Tsimas warned: “We need to think about the future of our trade in an era when news travels faster [among society] than TV or radio. People turned out on the streets before radio and TV can air stories.”

protestWhat Athens confirmed for me, at least, is that professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, “Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.”

From the earthquake in Sichuan to the subway bombings in London to the recent Mumbai terrorists attack, the initial images and information that reached the public were recorded by citizens who happened to be there. The bystanders, the witnesses – with their cell phones, cameras, camcorders and blackberries – play central roles in newsgathering and news dissemination.

But Cramer said he is not a pessimist. “Here’s a fantastic opportunity for a mature media organization to tell its audience: “Here’s what we know. And here’s what we don’t know. There’s something to be said about connecting the dots.”

In a world awash with content, he said, “context is king.” Hence, that analytical and reflective magazine that covers world events with verve, the Economist, has doubled in circulation since 1997. Whereas mainstream print dailies, especially in the West, with day-old news on the front page, falter, unraveling, in fact, in the Internet age of 24/7 news cycles. In other words, while citizen reporting will inevitably cover the foreground, the context – the intelligent analyses, the framework with accountability and multiple sources, the historical references and so on – remain the realm of professional journalists.

 
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