What Journalists Could Learn From NASA
Public trust in the media’s coverage of important foreign policy stories is, in my very unscientific poll of my friends and colleagues, at an all-time low. From Syria to Libya, Iraq to Afghanistan, the public is occasionally made aware of fantastic instances of reporting, but the media’s overall coverage of these conflicts is generally still perceived as poor. A fantastic example of this crossed my Twitter crawl several weeks ago, as Egypt’s military began pumping bullets into Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and downtown Cairo looked like it was in the midst of a civil war. Abbie Fielding-Smith, the Beirut correspondent for Financial Times, offered this thought:
Journalism may be dying, but have to say hacks in Cairo have been doing a particularly good job of old-fashioned reporting. I salute them.
— Abbie Fielding-Smith (@AFSmithFT) August 16, 2013
Who could argue with this? Newspapers, online news outlets, and both cable and broadcast news outlets, in media organizations based across the world, have produced some extremely compelling and important work on the crisis in Egypt. The coverage I saw was both informative and emotionally powerful, often while still retaining impartiality and objectivity. Without this coverage, there is a possibility that we’d have to sort through a propaganda war between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, we had fantastic insight into the realities on the ground in Cairo, as well as visual and eyewitness reporting as dramatic and compelling as its subject matter deserves.
So why is “journalism dying,” and what makes these field reporters a bunch of “hacks” in the eyes of contemporary media criticism? Before I discuss the problems with the media’s Egypt coverage (there are many), let me first highlight my initial reaction to Abbie’s tweet:
@AFSmithFT foreign correspondents aren;t the problem. Field journalists are often great. It's newsrooms and editors that are the problem
— James Miller (@MillerMENA) August 16, 2013
@AFSmithFT and the anchors on the TV (and their script writers), and whoever makes all these business decisions
— James Miller (@MillerMENA) August 16, 2013
— James Miller (ميلر) (@MillerMENA) August 16, 2013
Field Journalism Is Important
I am not a field journalist (though I have done some extremely limited field anthropology). Instead, for the last four years I’ve run a virtual newsroom where I analyze user-generated content (a fancy word for “news” material posted on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube), I aggregate reports by other journalistic outfits and experts, I attempt to contact residents in the countries I cover, and I coordinate with field journalists from media organizations who are sending journalists to these countries. In other words, I sit in a chair and write the news. Before I defend the merits of what I do, a lot of journalists have already assumed that I would be the kind of person who thinks that field journalism is obsolete and it’s the old-fashioned “hacks” who just can’t get with the newfangled methodologies that are holding journalism back.
I’m here to argue the opposite. We need field journalism just as much as we ever had, and there are a lot of field journalists out there who may be the best field journalists we’ve ever seen. In order to discuss this point, however, let’s compare field journalists with an analogy that is perhaps easier to grasp. Field journalists are Apollo astronauts, and people like me are “Mission Control.” As we’ll see, this is a very good analogy, though not a perfect one, because while I believe that astronauts were essential to the Apollo program and are still important (and should never entirely be replaced by remote control robots), real human field correspondents are far more important than contemporary astronauts for the survival of their respective sciences.
The problem with most media outlets is that Mission Control (the editorial staff and the newsroom) is inadequate or missing, the people who make the business decisions (somehow this is extra appropriate in this analogy at the current moment) are consistently making short-term decisions that hurt the mission of reporting informative news, and even good astronauts (the journalists) are too few, too spread out, and ill-equipped to cover the stories that they are charged with reporting.
Mission Control and Data Journalism
Any NASA space mission doesn’t start with the astronauts, but it starts with the scientists behind the scenes. A goal is proposed, like traveling to Mars. Experts are contacted in order to determine which scientific experiments can be run and what can be learned. These are people who have studied Mars with telescopes and satellites and robots, so they know everything that is known, but they also know exactly what they would like to study if they could go themselves. Those scientific endeavors are then assessed by a technological and logistics team that decides how best to study these questions while accomplishing the overall goal. At this point, astronauts are chosen, are trained on the science and technology, and are launched into space to get the job done.
To go back to journalism, in many circumstances some (or almost all) of these elements break down. Nobody in the newsroom is “watching the telescopes” enough to fully understand what questions are worth exploring and how to best go about exploring them (note, for instance, my use of the past tense to describe all that great Egypt coverage). Instead, field journalists are deployed to the latest developing story. How many field correspondents were rushed to Cairo at the height of the violence? Perhaps a better question would be, how many of them were elsewhere in Egypt? A diverse country such as Egypt requires probing from many different directions, and while the focus is typically on Cairo, often the biggest stories are in places like Port Said, Alexandria, or some even smaller towns and cities (like Ismailyia) that escape the attention of the media (until a Youtube video goes viral, anyway). Why does every reporter need to be in Cairo, talking to the same people and asking the same questions? Obviously, there is important news in Cairo, and each reporter may learn something new and important, but there are already a tremendous amount of journalistic resources in Cairo. Furthermore, certainly major news in Cairo won’t go unreported as it’s such an important city with so many residents. Some Twitter feeds and Youtube channels have been pumping out reliable and verified news for years now, so chances are that if fewer reporters were there then very little would have been missed. In other cities, social media sources may be more limited and their reliability less established, heightening the need for trusted field correspondents to go and establish contacts.
So if media outlets were perusing purely journalistic goals, the unanswered questions are elsewhere and the journalists would be sent elsewhere. The “purse strings,” however, demand video footage from the most dramatic area, the city that everyone has heard of in Egypt. And the editors and newsrooms who are sending these journalists out may have no clue where else to send them. So, Cairo it is.
This is the same reason why hundreds of news trucks were parked in South Boston’s waterfront several weeks ago to report the results of the “Whitey” Bulger trial. No cameras were allowed inside the court room, and surely, a few reporters and a few cameras could have done the job. But instead, every news outlet in the world, it seems, dispatched a field journalist and satellite truck to cover a story that was almost completely broken via Twitter. All the while, much more complicated stories, which take more effort to report, desperately need these kinds of resources, but may generate fewer dollars in ad revenue, go completely unreported each and every day.
Where Does Mission Control Get Its Data
If we think of journalists as astronauts, then we can sometimes think of social media sources as sensors that NASA’s technicians have placed across the spacecraft. Sometimes, false alarms happen when sensors broadcast erroneous information. In a spacecraft, there should be many more backup sensors, so any one sensor can be triangulated against the rest. In journalism, the “sensors” are far more random and far less trustworthy, but in an ideal situation (like Cairo) the analogy is still a good one because there are so many sources that can be used to triangulate and verify information. When lots of sensors go off, or when the reliability of sensors is unclear, that’s where a good astronaut can step in. Sometimes, they can report that there is no fire when the sensors say there is. Or the opposite. A good astronaut can install, fix, and diagnose any given sensor, leading to better diagnostic capabilities in the future. Most importantly, a good field correspondent, and a good astronaut, can determine when there are no sensors present, or when an important event is occurring that is beyond the scope of what the sensors are picking up.
But in Egypt, the astronauts are where the sensors are, and there are few if any astronauts checking the rest of the system.
Furthermore, now that the focus is on Syria and not Egypt, there are still some field reporters in Cairo, but the rest have been removed or are focused on a different story. No one is watching Egypt’s “sensors” either, and few journalists are spending any time looking through the telescopes. When the army kills more people, a parallel army of reporters will flock to Egypt just to be shocked at another explosion of violence in a place that most journalists, and very little of the public, have even the most basic understanding.
And this problem is at its least worst in a country like Egypt, which remains one of the most connected and most familiar countries to the West outside of the West. The situation is far worse in a country like Syria, where there are even fewer journalists, fewer alternative resources for reliable social media reporting, and many both inside the country and outside of it who benefit by broadcasting false information.
Syria, and countries like it, are where the media really breaks down. Field journalists risk their lives to cover stories, yet sometimes net very few answers. Furthermore, journalists who have not been monitoring the telescopes and sensors, the social media outlets, will have problems reading and interpreting the meters that these sensors give off, especially when there really is a fire.
And some of the journalists who rush into that fire will die.
On February 22nd, 2012, I was on the phone with a man who lived in Homs. He put me in contact with several other residents of the city that was being viciously bombarded by Assad forces. The story the witnesses told were heartbreaking. There were also hundreds of videos to back them up, compelling videos that could be verified through a variety of processes I describe elsewhere.
In short, we knew exactly what was happening in Homs. Significant questions remained, however, about what was happening elsewhere – in Damascus, Idlib, Daraa, Aleppo, Deir Ez Zor… But we knew what was happening, and no one was in any additional danger because of our work. The residents of the city would be subject to Assad’s artillery whether they uploaded Youtube videos or not, and it was, after all, their fight in their country.
On that same day the news broke that Marie Colvin, a veteran war reporter who had been indispensable to the press corps, was killed by an Assad artillery strike. She was in the most affected area of the hardest hit city in the Syrian conflict up to that point.
It sounds horrible, but I didn’t learn a whole lot from Marie Colvin’s work in Homs. I sure could have used her in Idlib, and she’d still be here today. A lot of journalists were killed in Egypt this month too, and their deaths were often witnessed by dozens of other journalists who also could have died, but I’d still like to know what’s going on in Ismailyia besides that Youtube video, and I definitely hate having friends of mine shot at.
We’ll continue to look at alternative methods for covering crises like Syria, but here is the most important point:
The field journalists are crucial to the world’s understanding of a crisis like Syria, or Egypt. But far too often that journalism doesn’t capture all of the data it could have, because not enough editors are watching the telescopes. And covering a conflict by utilizing more “Mission Controllers” and better placed field journalists is a lot cheaper, significantly more effective, and a whole hell of a lot safer, than facing down gunfire in Homs or Cairo.