(Note: This will appear tomorrow as an op-ed piece in the Washington Examiner newspaper.)
Once again, horror has given us a glimpse of our media future: simultaneously conversational and distributed, mass and personal.
The killings Monday at Virginia Tech brought to the forefront the remarkable evolution in media over the past few years. And as we move into a time in which we will be saturated with data, we need to be clear on some of the implications of democratized media.
We’ve had any number of glimpses already in this new century. On Sept. 11, 2001, we read blog postings and watched citizen videos of planes smashing into the World Trade Center towers. During the Asian tsunami, tourist videos showed waves smashing onto shores. A man in the London underground, wielding a mobile phone camera, took the image we all remember best from that day.
The scope of the media shift was clearer again on Monday. Some of the most widely viewed images came from a mobile phone camera aimed at the police response by a student, Jamal Albaughouti. His video made its way to CNN and other media, and was seen by millions.
But others on and off the Blacksburg, Va., campus were also using conversational media in highly visible ways. Social network communications, blog postings, email and a host of other technologies were brought to bear by people who were directly and indirectly part of this huge event.
The students’ words were achingly poignant. They were straight from the source, not pushed through a traditional-media funnel as they’d have been in the not-so-distant past.
They brought to mind a blog post I spotted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by a young man in Brooklyn, N.Y., across the river from the World Trade Center. He wrote, “Now I know what a burning city smells like.”
The democratization of media is not just about creation, though that has been the most notable aspect so far. Putting the tools into everyone’s hands has produced an explosion of media creation, as blogs and sharing sites such as YouTube and Flickr show us.
Traditional media think of distribution: making journalism or movies or programs and sending them out to consumers. This is inverted in a democratized media world, where we all have access to what we want, as well as when and where.
I didn’t turn on my TV yesterday except in the evening, to watch a national network’s news report. I wanted to see a summary of what a serious journalism organization had to say about what it knew so far.
Instead, during the day, I used the online media — including the major news sites — to get the latest information, sifting it, making judgments about credibility and reliability as I read and watched and listened. That, too, is the future in many cases.
It’s also worth noting that the citizen media component of this terrible event is not a new to the digital era. When President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas back in 1963, Abraham Zapruder caught the gruesome killing on a home movie camera — footage that became an essential part of the historical record. But the difference between then and tomorrow is this:
In 1963, one man with a camera captured the event on film. In a very few years, a similar situation would be captured by thousands of people — all holding high-resolution video cameras — and all of those cameras would be connected to high-speed digital networks.
That is different.
Remember, too, that the passengers aboard the airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, were making voice calls to loved ones and colleagues with mobile phones. What if they’d been sending videos to the world of what was happening inside those doomed aircraft?
We will still need journalists to help sort things out. But the “burning city” words from 2001 revealed something.
We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft. This is not a worrisome change, not if we are appropriately skeptical and to find sources we trust. We will need to retool media literacy for the new age, too.