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Sparkly things - How new is your news, and how was that G20 conference?

Recent submission to a local newsletter ...

How new is your news?

Back in the old days, news was something we heard from a neighbour, or a traveler from another town, or maybe saw in a daily or weekly newspaper.  It was still considered current events, “news”, because it was new to us. And if there was a choice in publications to follow, we often picked the one that reinforced our own views.

Later on news came via radio and television newscasts, with hourly updates and evening summaries and opinion pieces, but still filtered and summarized and arranged with the appropriate biases.

We then moved to the ability to read news flashes on-line, or tune to CBC or CNN to watch their “live” coverage of a Shuttle launch or a hurricane or a white Ford Bronco driven down a highway by a sports icon. 

Now we have real time connectivity to friends and strangers and events, so that even “newer” news is our for the taking, via the ubiquitous cell phones. Many of these are more than just a phone, they're “smart”, packing in more power than my first computer, and adding features such as two way text messages and web access, and often the ability to take, and upload, photos and videos.

We now can easily have access to more news than we know what to do with, the challenge is to somehow act as our own news organizations. Who or what do we follow, how do we judge the accuracy of all this raw data, how do we keep it in the context of news from other more traditional sources, how do we manage this fire hose flow of information? We can bypass the filtering and spin of the traditional sources, but how do we use what we have to correct or nullify or add to that spin?

Some organizations use Live Blogs to communicate events, with one or several sources adding a few words or a few paragraphs to an ongoing stream of information, along with live comments and links to other information and embedded photos and videos. CBC's Kady O'Malley does this from Parliament's committees, showing the details of the real business of the government. Others may select a group of professional and amateur reporters to collaborate on an event.

Another useful tool is Twitter, granted each post is limited to 140 characters of information, but you can still add links or photos. As a user you choose to follow a particular person or organization, such as @rosiebarton (a CBC reporter) or @CERN (those particle physics geeks) or follow a tagged conversation thread using a “hash tag”, such as #swinelineott (for the latest flu clinic news) or #g20 (for info on G20 summit/protests). And you can reply back to others, or forwar their d “tweets” on into your own stream of data, as a “re-tweet”. Of course, like any tool, it can be applied to many uses, by individuals or governments, positive or negative. Some people will be chatting about what they had for breakfast, some will be reporting on the latest tremor in an earthquake or where a protest march is currently headed. It's up to you to filter and select – and avoid drowning in data. 

I had a chance to compare these various sources and tools during the weekend of June 26th, following the G20 events in Toronto. Not so much the conference itself, as much of that was pre-scripted and pre-released, with many journalists reporting from the comfort of a Muskoka chair on the peaceful shores of the fake lake.  The main coverage I followed was online, of the events outside, the real-time morphing of a peaceful protest into scenes of violence, frustration, and intimidation. People described events as they were happening – the progress of the march, the rioting, the burning cars, too many police in one spot, too few in another, the calm assertion of rights from some, the outright defiance of others, the fear and frustration of people that were told they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that they should have just stayed home and not become involved. We saw an uploaded video minutes after police charged demonstrators singing “Oh Canada”, we saw photos of black garbed youth trashing store windows, seemingly unopposed.  Words from and images of people snatched from the crowd - an angry youth, a TTC employee in uniform, a CBC cameraman. Later on, as groups – whether media, government, police, or demonstrators – held press conferences on their summary, their facts, their spin, there was immediate reaction and commentary on-line, collaboration and challenge, interactive feedback to the news.

I think we have seen a big shift recently in the definition of “news” and a change in how people both consume information and interact with the world. It is true that while there can be thousands on-line both following and part of an event like this, there are many more content with the 11 o'clock news summary, and still more unaware that anything unusual had happened. But for this event, this information and coverage and conversation, this citizenry interaction, did happen and has been noted and quoted and discussed in the “regular” news media, and I hope will affect any assessment and future planning.

For the G20 protest, a recent Angus Reid poll showed 66% of Canadians, and 73% of Torontonians, believed the reaction of police in Toronto was either completely or moderately justified. When also asked how closely they had followed the protests, 57% in Toronto has said very closely - as opposed to 14% for the final G8/G20 communique.  It would have been interesting to see some data on HOW these people had followed the protests, as the focus and spin was very media dependant. I was following Twitter, Live Blogs, Facebook, CBC Network News, CTV news and of course my daily Ottawa Citizen and the Globe and Mail newspapers. In Twitter, I followed mainly the tags #g20 and #cbcg20. CBS also had a Live Blog written by people roaming the city, selected journalists and a few others, using the blog to add more information and links than 140 character tweets.

CBC TV followed mainly the G20 event inside the fence, views of the fake lake, various world leaders entering and leaving meetings, with the occasional tape of what had happened recently outside. CTV had more live coverage of events, and interviews with protesters - and the occasional government or police spokesperson. We saw the burning of cars, the smashing of windows, the Black Block discarding their black garb and blending into the background, the "regular" protesters - confused and angry, the innocent bystanders, the crowd at Queen and Spadina being penned in and rushed by police, protest groups assembling, speaking, peacefully walking out of Queen's Park, the police at the detention centre negotiating with the crowd waiting for friends to be release. And the occasional clip of the G20 meeting itself. Unfortunately, when the TV stations did not have live footage, they just looped the more violent clips they had - still with "live" up in the corner, so giving an unfortunate spin to the days. Newspapers and nightly news summaries also had the same bias towards the more newsworthy and spectacular. Twitter and other on-line media had more current news, but as I've mentioned, the challenge for the consumer is to choose representative and unbiased sources. Unbiased even when the source has just been yanked from a crowd and arrested. Twitter also was a source for clarification after the event, when official statements were correlated or contradicted by photos and videos on-line.

Hopefully there will be an inquiry into how the weekend was handled - a public, not internal one. Looking at both sides, all groups, all decisions, likely finding both praise and blame, seeing "what went well, what could be improved" will be done. And all will learn from it. Although there is a municipal election in a few months, so spin may trump openness. I do have some suggestions for some groups: Toronto - to never host a G20 there again. Police  - to be clear about laws and intentions, and more proactive in not just actions but words. Protesters - to keep focused on their issues, and to clearly dissociate themselves from violent protests. Black Block followers - to realize they will not be accepted if they try to merge with the crowd. Innocent bystanders - to continue to come downtown into their city. Media - to put a bit more effort into analysis and search for bias, and followup on issues. And all of us in Twitterland - to keep on sharing and questioning and learning, getting involved, effecting change in our world.  

So, in spite of the stodginess of some mainstream institutions, this new media continues to spreading. I'm sure society's mainstream media and government and security groups are becoming more aware of the possibilities of this tool for their own purposes, hopefully they will see it as a possibility for positive change and not just a threat, whether the event is protest, a concert, or a Federal election.

There is an interesting post on ConnectedCops.net on what the police learned, or could learn, from social media at the G20. I think they realized that some of the did "get it", but a lot more need to, and use it as a tool not only to gather information but to communicate and build community relationships.  

I know we will continue to see a shift in more and more of this connectivity and interaction with the new “news”.

We do live in interesting times. 

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