25 June 2009

Next Step Journalism

The death of Neda Soltani, the young Iranian woman who has become the tragic human face of the nation's post-election turmoil, demonstrates the process involved in what Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute calls "next step journalism."

A distraught bystander captured video of the killing on his phone and e-mailed it to a friend in the Netherlands. Within five minutes, the video was on YouTube and Facebook -- and became international news.

Mitchell says our news increasingly will be shaped by a similar process, one that begins with an event and is characterized by the collective sharing and enhancing of information. The process "provides lots of opportunities for journalists and non-journalists alike to assess what a story needs next, figure out what he or she is best equipped to contribute, and move the story along."

In Soltani's story, he identifies seven elements of this kind of storytelling, some more in need of professional journalism skills and values than others. Their common thread is the importance of collaboration.

* Documentation: Two cell phone videos captured the crucial moments after Soltani was shot Saturday evening, including the frantic efforts to save her. The low resolution of the videos and chaotic movement of the cell phone cameras did not get in the way of telling this critical part of the story, Mitchell points out.

* Context: The videos left many questions unanswered. But Soltani's fiance provided some context in an interview broadcast by Aljazeera, describing her views on recent events in Iran and explaining why she happened to be on that street corner.

* Transmission and Distribution: It was initially unclear how the videos made their way from the street corner to Facebook and YouTube. The Guardian filled in the details above. Other information came from The New York Times and the CBS Evening News, among others.

* Verification: Some of the initial postings about the shooting included a message from someone identifying himself as a physician who said he witnessed the shooting and tried to save her. A series of tweets and re-tweets from around the world confirmed this information and identified the doctor.

* Correction: Some of the details distributed on the day of the shooting, such as the identity of a man standing near Soltani, turned out to be wrong. Within two days, a Los Angeles Times correspondent had tracked down the man and identified him as her music teacher.

* Analysis: Mitchell says the best analysis he has seen of the significance of Soltani's death has come from journalists, particularly highlighting an essay on Time.com by Robin Wright.

* Sense-making: "It's still too early in the Neda story for anyone to be able to provide the perspective and wisdom required by this stage the process," Mitchell writes. "Who will do it best? Journalists? That physician who tried to save Neda? Historians?"

More important than the who is the what, he concludes. This tragic story "has taught us plenty about what this kind of storytelling will require -- and what it can produce."

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