Real-Time Responsibility: Journalism's Challenges in an Instantaneous Age. (Perspectives)

By Jukes, Stephen | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Real-Time Responsibility: Journalism's Challenges in an Instantaneous Age. (Perspectives)


Jukes, Stephen, Harvard International Review


In the weeks following September 11, US "reality TV" shows, from Survivor to Temptation Island, took a dive in the ratings. This was hardly surprising when 24-hour cable news stations and major networks were broadcasting uninterrupted coverage of the most devastating attack on the US mainland in history. Stage-managed reality gave way to the real thing. But the technological revolution, which enabled the world to watch a plane plunge into the World Trade Center live on television and has since brought Afghan tribal commanders directly into US living rooms, is causing fundamental changes in the relationship between governments and the media. Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to control the flow of news and to spin it in their favor. At the same time, the pressures of the never-ending news cycle and the demand for instant analysis are placing core journalistic values of objectivity and accuracy at risk.

The 1991 Gulf War is often considered the first conflict to be played out live on cable television, and live coverage of the first strikes against Baghdad put CNN on the media map. But 10 years later, the attacks of September 11 and the US-led war against Al Qaeda have cast issues of government action and media response into the spotlight like never before. Both governments and the media are struggling to come to terms with the new world and the way news now affects public perceptions and public policy.

From Pigeons to Satellite Phones

It has been more than 150 years since Baron Julius von Reuter started using carrier pigeons to deliver news stories and stock prices from Brussels to Aachen in Europe. Within a year, technological advances and the introduction of the telegraph were already transforming his fledgling news business. The story today is no different. The media world is again being turned upside down by new technologies, including faster and more efficient means of gathering and transmitting news across traditional geographical barriers via the Internet.

The pace of change in the last two decades has been nothing short of staggering. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the news business was just making the transition from typewriters to primitive electronic terminals. While computer terminals had been finding their way into US newsrooms for several years, London's Fleet Street, the traditional heart of the British newspaper industry, was in turmoil as unions objected to the introduction of new technology that could potentially cause job losses. Violent street clashes escalated into pitched battles with police as newspaper owners sought to revolutionize production and cut costs.

The first laptop computer for correspondents in the field was a suitcase that felt as though it were stuffed with bricks. The screen was the size of that on a two-inch wide GameBoy and transmission speed was slow and unreliable. It was dubbed the "portabubble," but few correspondents who used it would call it portable. It could take up to an hour to transmit one black and white photograph, and even that was after the film had been developed and a print was made and strapped to a drum transmitter. By the time of the Gulf War the first true laptops had emerged, but some correspondents were still wrestling with acoustic couplers, trying to wedge foreign telephones into two usually inflexible cups to transmit a signal and often failing to make a connection. Somehow over the next 10 years everything fell into place.

Today, the laptop is hooked up to a satellite phone. Images from digital cameras are edited on a laptop and transmitted via the Internet within seconds from the site of a breaking story or sporting event to the reporter's central office. Wireless technology means court reporters can now type key verdicts into a Palm Pilot and transmit them back to editorial headquarters during a hearing. Miniature video cameras have transformed television news gathering, leading to the demise of big team camera crews and the opening of the news world to a generation of freelancers prepared to "go it alone" in dangerous conflict zones to secure footage.

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