Digital media, bloggers and tweeters have enriched our understanding of news events by offering a personal dimension
Emily Bell - guardian.co.uk, Friday 8 June 2012
|'Bloggers and individuals who tweet from within conflict zones give a perspective|
international news outlets cannot replicate.' Photograph: Chris Batson/Alamy
How do news events make us see others and understand the world? The answer is often distressingly one-dimensional: rockets in the Middle East, famine in Africa, factories in China, royalty in Britain, debt in Greece. We all suffer at distance from a lack of nuance and context in the eyes of the rest of the world.
A pre-internet head of BBC News once lamented the problems of covering difficult overseas stories for television audiences. He pointed out that the penultimate five minutes of the evening bulletin were often given up to what was informally known as "the naughty policeman round-up".
Often important international stories of ongoing conflict were condensed into a few seconds of generic footage; riot police baton-charging protesters, rock-throwers running from police tear gas, armoured vehicles trundling along dusty roads of a Middle Eastern town or a sub-Saharan African state engaged in civil war.
The evening news bulletin is no longer how the majority of the populace catches up on its news, and the internet has carried a world to our fingertips which can take us to the doorsteps and into the homes of those in conflict zones. Chronic situations like that in Gaza seldom make the front pages of newspapers, or even the 15-minute summary cycles of what's going on in the world right now. News organisations struggled and failed for many years to create real engagement around stories that were alien to their domestic audiences.
The web ecosystem is feeding a different parallel narrative. The voices and personalities of bloggers and individuals who tweet or update their Facebook status from within conflict zones or areas suffering other forms of humanitarian crisis give a perspective and continuity that international news outlets cannot replicate. When Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon founded Global Voices out of Harvard's Berkman Centre in 2004, it was with an insight that networks of the non-mainstream media would become increasingly important in telling narratives from the perspective of the informed local.
Browsing the feeds and blogs about Gaza, it is easy to find less professional but more profound snippets of existence that add an element of intimacy to a political story. A camera phone video of a lengthy and ultimately fruitless struggle to ignite a domestic generator, and descriptions of the tedium of charging phones and laptops without a consistent electricity supply; mundane faces, biographies, interests are scattered among hashtags for hunger strikers such as #FreeSarsakAndRikhawi. It is also impossible to flick through these streams as a journalist without thinking about authentication and verification. We saw how the western press, the Guardian included, tumbled into the trap of wanting the Gay Girl In Damascus to be real so badly that it made her so, despite the numerous red flags.
It is the wrong question though to ask whether these bloggers, tweeters and activists can enrich the news cycle. They already do. The more testing question for those who are passionate about informing the world is how the alternative narratives told from the everyday perspective can be more effectively used to inform the situation.
A number of new organisations have joined Global Voices, which seek to highlight more authentic voices in the larger sweep of international news. Storyful is a Dublin-based news start-up which takes on the role of a "field producer" to the multiple streams of information citizens, bloggers and commentators who are close to the story. In an email exchange with Storyful's global advocate Claire Wardle, I was told that : "In both Gaza and Egypt, a long history of official media or media affiliated with one or other political group has now been replaced by a vibrant ecosystem that combines blogging, journalism and simple citizen witness."
Advocacy and human rights organisations have become more adept at feeding story cycles with individual stories powerfully told. "Hashtag activism", a way of describing how advocacy groups understand and influence the news cycle, is a new ingredient that brings with it new challenges for news organisations and for interested audiences. Peeling back the layers of authenticity, the motivation, support and training that might have gone into telling one powerful personal story now goes beyond the business of just checking that your witness is who they say they are, and not a lugubrious male academic pretending to be a Syrian lesbian.
There is nothing new in the idea that people follow people rather than policies and institutions. It is why tabloid newspapers sell more than broadsheets, it is why a wedding is more interesting than a planning meeting. The fabric of understanding of the world is being altered daily by how people tell their stories and how these are related to larger events. For those raised on the naughty policeman roundup it is an enriched, better, but nevertheless confusing landscape that emerges.
• Today the Guardian's live blog on Gaza looks at the impact that Hamas rule and economic and political isolation by Israel have had on Gaza's 1.7 million people.