Is social media writing the new first rough draft of history?

Posted on December 19, 2012

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During recent weeks, I’ve felt somewhat suffocated by the media and social media coverage of events like Sandy Hook. I’m normally a news junkie, but lately I’m struggling to cope with the onslaught of information, of bitsy and incomplete pieces of coverage and comment across every platform I use. This is probably no great surprise – public interest in Newtown coverage exceeds all mass shootings since Columbine, so there has been a lot of it. But I think the mass of live-time comment like this has really brought home to me just how much open publishing platforms are really shifting the way we communicate about significant news events. After all, there is no mediation with social media.

Where once news organisations were where we first caught wind of the significant events of the day, it now seems that social media is where the new first rough draft of history is being written. When even the Israel Defense Forces first announce that they’ve just started a military campaign via Twitter, one starts to get the sense that this is where news takes place before it makes it into the capital ‘N’ news.

But the continuous news cycle, which simultaneously feeds into and on social media, does lead to mistakes being made; or as  puts it, it’s not Twitter, this is just the way the news works now. (New research is looking into the possibility of utilising machine-learning to automatically assess the credibility of disaster-related Tweets). This isn’t a new problem. It’s just that, as Ingram writes,

In the past, this chaotic process of journalistic sausage-making was kept mostly hidden from TV viewers and newspaper readers. Inside the newsrooms at these outlets, reporters and editors were frantically trying to collect information from wire services and other sources, verifying it and checking it as best they could, and then producing a report at some later point.

Even with checking and verification, news filed within the first day of an event is often shown to be inaccurate 24 hours later, as this piece on how continuous access to rich digital news archives is presenting complexity shows. The Guardian’s writes:

Readers have hitherto accepted that each edition of a newspaper is a snapshot of the available information at the time the newspaper went to press. For instance, estimates of casualties in a catastrophic event, or details about a suspect in a crime, may change as more information becomes available.

Where these early iterations of the story remain on the site, the Guardian has relied on the date stamp and time of posting to indicate that this was the state of knowledge at the time it went up on the site. Where we find a story was significantly inaccurate or misleading based on knowledge at the time of publication, we amend the article and publish a footnote to explain the change as well as a published correction.

The news archive is flattening out, and becoming super-available (paywalls notwithstanding). Indeed, with so much of the Guardian’s content accessed 48 hours after it was originally posted (nearly 40%), there is growing demand from some judges for news organisations to remove material from their online archives that could prove to be influential to jury members in criminal cases. But at least news organisations have some guidelines and mandate to publish corrections to their work when its found to be inaccurate. Social media users have no such mandate.

Live-time coverage that feeds on and draws from social media still needs the establishment of codes and conventions, perhaps like declaring what a reporter won’t report as well as what he/she will. As this 2011 discussion of the practices of news curator (yeah, I said it) Andy Carvin reports, “[t]here are few established rules or journalistic policies” for real-time, crowd-sourced approaches to news. Still, this social-media form of reporting and comment is adding a new layer of publication on all events of significance.

So what does all of this means for museums exactly? Well, maybe it doesn’t mean anything directly. But if social media is, indeed, where the new first rough draft of history is being written, and museums are heritage institutions, then we need to be paying attention and trying to make sense of how it could impact curatorial practices. Or research. Or history. Or everything about how we understand our world.

How do we – as institutions or society – deal with and make sense of this increasingly unsettled discourse, filled with so many more voices than were ever possible before? I don’t know that we are equipped to do so yet. How do we capture the ones that are, and will be, important (without buying Flickr and other sites)? We cannot simply hold onto the front page of the local or national newspaper and feel that the job is done. It cannot work like that.

I leave you with some thoughts from an interview with David Stout, domestic correspondent for the Continuous News Desk of the NYTimes (2008):

I think we are indeed writing the rough draft of history, although some drafts are rougher than others. I think writing history, as opposed to daily journalism, requires a certain distance in time and dispassionate reflection. It’s also, of course, far more detailed. For that reason, I have read a lot of history. It helps me to keep my perspective, and reminds me that many things run in cycles.

What do you think? Do you agree that social media and live-time reporting is becoming the new first rough draft of history? And if so, what does that mean?