Paul Carr has written a thought provoking post for TechCrunch looking at the role of social media and real-time citizen reporting in last week’s Fort Hood shootings.

He asks how, even with the best intentions, how many of us are often drawn into a acting in a way of “look at me looking at this” and may be losing a sense of our humanity:

…none of us think we’re being selfish or egotistic when we tweet something, or post a video on YouTube or check-in using someone’s address on Foursquare. It’s just what we do now, no matter whether we’re heading out for dinner or witnessing a massacre on an Army base. Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.

He then points to this video, which seems to summarise these darker sides of our human nature.

Balancing such difficulties and how to best report breaking news is something that journalists are trained to do, although mistakes do happen particularly in the highly competitive atmosphere of 24 hour news. Journalists also usually work as part of a team and rarely does news go live without editorial decisions being made.

Although not wide spread, when consuming news from main stream sources many of us have learnt how to interpret what we are hearing, reading or watching. We have learnt some basic literacies, such as the brand identity, the ownership of a newspaper, editorial standards, advertorials, PR. We also roughly know, or think we do, the agenda or philospohy of a media player, mention any of the following and you will immediately have thoughts about them: Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Channel 4.

We have learnt these skills over time, and as much as there is a need for citizens to be aware of ethics and their humanity around what they broadcast, we also have a responsibility to be literate in understanding what our friends, colleagues, followers broadcast to us and how we respond. Do we repeat what’s told us – which is now only takes a click – or do we take a few moments to consider a different response, to question what’s being told us, whether it breaches someone else’s privacy, whether it is appropriate?

In some ways these problems aren’t new. Gossip and news has always travelled quickly. What’s different is that the reach and speed now possible and the wider and deeper impact there in.

Also see the reflections on Paul’s post by Euan Semple and Antony Mayfield.

UPDATE 6pm 8/11/2009: In preparation for some other work later this week I came across the Charter for Media Literacy written by the Media Literacy Task Force which was set up in 2004 with support from the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The task force state that: “A media literate society is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons”.

And it has has high goals:

If people are to participate fully at work or in their community, or communicate effectively with family, friends and colleagues globally, or consume media intelligently they need to be media savvy. They need to understand how media works and to feel comfortable questioning what they watch and read. They need a sense of who knows or owns what, and to what extent what you see is really what you get. And, very importantly, they need to become confident in using and exploiting the possibilities of new devices and media channels.

[Full Charter here – PDF]

Updated in July 2009 it deserves commendation and has been signed up to by many of the major media organisations and educators in the UK.

But what it possibly lacks is the need for awareness around some of the more legal and ethical issues that surround social media. Not only that of privacy, accuracy and verification, but also issues such as copyright and data protection.

It’s more than just media literacy really. As Antony Mayfield summarises it is literacy across “social/digital/media”.

UPDATE 10/11/2009: Also worth reading on this subject: Bill Thompson’s BBC column for this week.


  1. Re: This American Life.

    “Seems to summarise…” is right. Seems.

    Sorry – that video is really hokey.

    I recall kids at my school standing around cheering on people having a fight and teachers having to come and break it up and we didn’t have a news team craze going on….

    It may say something dark about human nature, but it has nothing to do with how the urge to be reporters overcomes our instinctive humanitarianism.

    It may also say something about how some graphics and a pondering instrumental in the background can make a mildly diverting anecdote deeply meaningful when it isn’t.


    1. Points all well made.

      Even if you do follow the moral it tries to tell it leaves more questions than it answers, which I think I realised this morning when I posted the above, but must have chosen to ignore them in return for bright colours and animation, as you rightly comment. Caught red handed!
      Questions such as:

      Authoritarianism as an answer to social problems?
      ie. does confiscating and burning solve the problem? (no)
      Do the bullies reappear next day? (yes)

  2. Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Kathryn.
    I forget that not everyone has had the advantage of the type of education I had. Coincidentally, yesterday evening, I Googled for the first time Julian Petley who was one of my lecturers when I was an undergrad, years ago.
    Professor Julian Petley’s specialist area is media censorship. When he taught me, he was probably one of the very few teaching art, design and art history undergraduates to consider and question the nature of censorship in contemporary film and television.
    The reason why I looked up Julian last night was because the issues of censorship, citizen reportage and broadcasting, and who uses social media for what messages had echoes in my memory of debates in our seminars many years ago. I have been finding myself wanting some more carefully considered views from people on the subject. There are plenty of very personal opinions aired; and there is often a rather rapid knee-jerk response to specific news items or incidents.
    I have been so disturbed at times by the mob mentality I sometimes see on Twitter, that I have considered whether I should leave the Twitterverse. As someone who has been involved in making or influencing decisions as to what information is made public by public organisations, and how it is communicated, I think that these issues are crucial for our society to consider. I also think that it is time we paused to consider what we do online and how it affects us all.

    For further information about Professor Julian Petley’s work see:

  3. Someone has probably already sent this in, but just in case, there was an extensive debate on this subject in the Seventies, after a TV news person– who had plenty of time to intervene– recorded a protest suicide instead. Everybody weighed in on it, journalists, philosophers, the works. Just so you needn’t reinvent the wheel. Sorry I can’t remember the names involved, but it’s 35 years ago.

    1. (Warning: some may find the following comment and link upsetting)

      Jeremy Noble (@neversleep90) has been in touch to say that he thinks the awful case you may be referring to is that of American politician Budd Dwyer.

      Dwyer, “on the morning of January 22, 1987, committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth with a revolver during a televised press conference.”

  4. Any proposed accomodation to twitter or facebook that assumes human nature will somehow change will obviously not work. Gossip has always been with us and is not going to go away; xenophobia and the need to distinguish ‘them’ from ‘us’ is not going away. It may be possible to put breaks into sites like twitter, analogous to the restrictions on automated trading, that mitigate mob effects. It might work to change the way we understand information. Big ‘might’ however.

    I recently developed and taught a 9-12th grade (i.e. high school for those not in the USA) curriculum which had the grandious objective of using information science as the basis for the schools techical curriculum. I’m not sure how useful it was in the end, but one thing was very clear: The schools do not provide an environment in which people can learn to evaluate what they hear or what is taught to them. We might change this, we might get people to think about the information they are propagating or consuming. Big ‘might’ though.

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