When I first heard of the explosion in downtown Oslo, I immediately created a column on my Tweetdeck for all tweets containing the hashtag #norway. The tweets started coming in so fast that it became impossible to read them all. A few came from witnesses of what had just happened. A great number expressed sympathy for the victims and for the Norwegian people. What was the use of these hundreds of short, similar messages? After an hour, I scrapped the column, it being more distractive than instructive.
Nowadays, speed seems to be the main concern of commentators, be they professional journalists or citizens. Traditional as well as social media aim to react to events and express points of view as rapidly as technology permits. One wonders: Can the brain follow? There was a time, not that long ago, when an editorialist took many days before writing his or her opinion on an event. Today, a commentator who takes more than one day to write about a story risks becoming irrelevant.
“Nowadays,” I say. Sorry, I’m being nostalgic. In fact, history shows that speed has always been a major preoccupation of the media. 24-hour news, the internet, and social media have considerably accelerated the news tornado. But the driving motive of news organizations is the same today as it was decades ago: to be the first to report an event and the first to explain and analyze what happened. The acceleration is particularly apparent on television, where journalists and experts are required to react to a story while it is unfolding, if not before it happens. We saw a lot of that in the few hours after the Oslo blast last Friday. An exploded car, shattered windows, grey dust everywhere: it looked so much like 9-11 that most reporters and talking heads assumed al-Qaeda was behind it. They were wrong, and maybe should not have speculated thus. Yet the important thing is that the same media worked very hard so that we could know who was the real culprit and what his motives were.
Last Friday afternoon, when the scale of the tragedy had become clear, I, no doubt like many colleagues in other newspapers, thought about writing an editorial for Saturday’s edition. After a couple of hours spent weighing the pros and the cons, I decided to wait. I did not feel I had enough of a grasp on what had happened and I could only speculate as to who had committed such a heinous crime. In the evening, I felt guilty: Was I being prudent or lazy?
Relief came on Saturday morning: Had I written on Friday night, I would have lacked essential information on the author and the circumstances of this rampage. Not all editorialists were as lucky as I.
We can deplore the media’s obsession with being the first on a story, but it will be in vain; that is the nature of the beast. Journalists, however, have to work ceaselessly on attaining a proper balance between speed and quality. In the early days of the 24-hour news cycle, many mistakes were made. Deaths of celebrities were announced prematurely, erroneous election results were aired, etc. Television newsrooms realized that they needed to tame this new animal. Similar adjustments are being made now in regard to blogs and social media.
In today’s world everything moves faster. The media both follow and contribute to the trend. But speed need not compromise quality. Good journalists will remain good journalists because they will know when to hit the brakes – when moving fast is detrimental to the quality of their reporting or their analysis. They will choose the right tool – Twitter, Facebook, editorial, book – depending on what they want to say and who they want to say it to. And citizens will have access to an unprecedented array of sources of news and opinions.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.