Melbourne Noir, Immediacy and Stories: How ‘to-the-second’ demand can affect quality in the realm of social media.

a beautiful night for… from Jason Cheetham on Vimeo.

Introduction

While shooting for #melbournenoir, my team and I faced rejection following a request for permission to shoot on location. The rejection led to the need for a creative backup plan, which brought to light a larger issue: the demand for immediacy and the effect it can have on the integrity, quality and credibility of a story.

In our case, we intended to shoot images with a product in the store window, as well as the surrounding public space outside the store. Once rejected, we quickly worked with a backup plan, however, our personal feelings were that the quality of our content was not necessarily equal to our original plan, which we had spent more time detailing. When immediacy is so important, attention to detail can suffer. In this post, I will examine some of the impacts that immediacy has had on the media industry and social engagement with news.

Immediacy and Interactivity in the Age of Social Media

Immediacy is not a new phenomenon, live television broadcast was certainly more immediate than print, the printing press more immediate than handwritten manuscripts, and so on. Web 2.0 and Social Media, however, have seen a new demand for immediacy increase via the introduction of, as Karlsson articulates, “interactivity” (2011). The reidentification of news consumer as news contributor arguably has an effect on the reliability of news and, as Karlsson suggests, “…does not harmonise well with traditional methods of truth-telling” (2011, pp. 292). To better articulate the relationship between immediacy and interactivity, I turn towards the case of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American male fatally shot by Michael Slager on April 4, 2015. Among other cases of similar circumstance, the shooting was captured by a citizen on the camera of their mobile phone and has been a provocateur in the Movement for Black Lives. The most contested aspect of the case and part of Slager’s case for innocence is that “Scott had wrested his Taser from him during a struggle” and therefore, he “felt threatened” (Knapp 2015).

Frame 394

Toronto-born Daniel Voshart explains in the documentary film Frame 394:

I offered my video skills to help indicte the officer. Finding frame 394 was an accident. The work that I’m doing, in a legal setting, would be considered the work of an expert witness. I am not an expert witness. Prior to a month ago, I had no idea that this job even existed.

— (Voshart qtd. in Williamson 2016)

Voshart stabilised the footage and made a GIF of what appeared to be Slager planting a Taser on the deceased body of Walter Scott. The GIF became “the most commented GIF ever posted to Reddit”. However, upon closer analysis, Voshart realised that Slager “planted a Taser for 30 seconds… it’s more like he would have planted a Taser, had a camera not been there”. Voshart also analysed the earlier scuffle between Scott and Slager and realised that it was likely that Scott had, in fact, thrown Slager’s Taser before turning to run. However, upon posting these new findings to Reddit, Voshart recalls how “generally no one cared” (Williamson 2016). The story was no longer immediate and the public’s lack of interaction meant that, although ‘published’, the new revelations were quickly lost in a newsfeed, failing to penetrate public conversation.

Reddit was great for perpetuating the ‘this cop is evil’ story and it was awful for telling a more nuanced story. You want to be able to say: this person is evil, this person is not evil. This is not that, this is real life. Someone is kind of lying, kind of not lying. You have someone running, because it makes sense to run, but it’s against the law…

— (Voshart qtd. in Williamson 2016)

Here, we can see how immediacy and interactivity have complimented one another in undermining the quality of truth in this story. Immediacy meant that Voshart could see the video in Toronto, Canada, simultaneously with those seeing it for their first time in North Charlestone, USA (where the incident occurred). The Internet and Social Media have cut out the delay or the need to wait for the evening news. Interactivity meant that Voshart could then, seeing something he was unsure about, participate in it, becoming a producer himself. Immediacy may have influenced fast turnover, so as to ride the current news cycle. Interactivity from other participants helped draw attention to Voshart’s work. However, upon later discovery, immediacy meant that Voshart had published something he now regretted. Immediacy also, arguably, meant that the publishing of truth, at a later stage, was not immediate enough to gain traction or garner attention in the same way as the previous story.

An important aspect of interactivity is that, due to this blog, I can comment on this story and publish those comments. I can state that I share Vosharts discomfort in “almost building a case for someone I initially didn’t like” (Williamson 2016), or that I would argue, regardless, that shooting someone in the back is not the answer to a scuffle over a Taser. The larger question may be, am I qualified to publish such opinions? At the time of writing, I’m a 23-year-old student from Melbourne, Australia. I am not an expert witness.

“I am not an expert witness”

The relationship between interactivity and immediacy has been touched on time and again. Some other notable cases are the Boston Bombers, or, closer to home for myself, the ‘Sydney Siege‘. In response to coverage of the Siege, media academic Julie Posetti noted:

While some journalists wrongly declared on Twitter – and later in print – that the flag being held up to the café window by a hostage was an Islamic State flag, others stated that they were holding back from revealing any details about the police operation and the hostage-taker’s demands, to avoid interfering with the police efforts.

Sydney TV station Channel 7 was – with its offices situated opposite the scene and its cameras trained on the drama almost instantly it erupted – in a prime position to report on the siege before staff members were evacuated. And, despite elements of sensationalism and risky initial reportage of police manoeuvres, the comments I heard on an ABC radio stream from one of their reporters demonstrated proper professional caution.

— (Posetti 2014)

This demonstrates the contrast between a professional broadcast situation, in which producers can be briefed and information verified, versus an immediate social media in which a flag with Arabic script equates to ISIS. Much of the danger comes from the lack of “professional gatekeepers to check quality” (Westernman et al. 2014) which may be a result of the lack of gatekeeper, ie. the case with citizen journalism, or the lack of time present for a gatekeeper to do the gatekeeping.

However, many media scholars praise the new horizons. Twitter, it has been argued, “levels the playing field” and can (although, it should be noted, may not completely) counter journalistic elitism by offering journalists access to a diverse range of voices  (Broersma & Graham 2013, pp. 461). Cambridge philosopher Onora O’Neill notably explained that due to new technologies:

Openness and transparancy are now possible on a scale which past ages could barely dream.

— (O’Neill 2002)

It has been noted that immediacy, in fact, is a required criterion that consumers look for when determining the credibility of a source (Karlsson 2011, Westerman et al. 2014). Empirical evidence has not been conclusively provided in support of either argument (Karlsson 2011, Westerman et al. 2014), however, I fail to see the correlation.

How does this affect my work? – A Conclusion

It is important to keep in mind that the demand for immediacy isn’t going anywhere. Therefore, we need to learn to work within the scope of immediacy and interactivity, as discussed. For me, I’d aim to undertake O’Neill’s notion of transparency, as well as a professional preparedness that can help to safeguard against any immediacy or demand-based obstacle, such as the one our team faced in this project. That preparedness may mean, but is not limited to, prior research in order to be equipped with the required knowledge, creative backup plans and rapport-building/advanced liaison. In the landscape today, it may be important that content creators have a sort of ‘broad preparedness’, ie. a bag of facts that they can whip out about a particular subject, or a provocative subject whose Tweets they can utilise in a last-minute story. And then, the content creator should listen to her ‘audience’. We may not be expert witnesses, but we can all be vigilant critics.

Works Cited

Graham, M. B. (2013, 05 30). Twitter as a News Source. Journalism ractice, 446 – 463.

Karlsson, M. (2011, April 26). The immediacy of online news, the visibility of journalistic processes and a restructuring of journalistic authority. Journalism, 12(3), 279 – 295.

Knapp, A. (2015, Aoril 06). North Charleston officer faces murder charge after video shows him shooting man in back. Retrieved from The Post and Courier: http://www.postandcourier.com/archives/

O’Neill, O. (2002). A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Posetti, J. (2014, 12 06). Q&A: how the Sydney siege was reported by the public and news professionals. Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/qanda-how-the-sydney-siege-was-reported-by-the-public-and-news-professionals-35518

Westerman et al.(2014, 01). Social Media as Information Source: Recency of Updates and Credibility of Information. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 19(2), 171 – 183.

Williamson, R. (Director). (2016). Frame 394 [Motion Picture].

 


*Featured Image Credit: Bridewalk – Evan Rowe

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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