Something happened in San Francisco last night. The Giants won the World Series for starters but also there was a flurry of activity in the Mission that was covered six-ways ‘till Sunday online – by citizens.
I work up UK time and as is my wont, logged into Twitter desk-top style. The front page log in carried a tweet remarking on mainstream media not bothering to cover the San Francisco riots. (an approximation of their words, not mine). I work in daily global news and I drew a total blank. What riots?
My mind spun through ideas of the LA riots, of Iranians fighting in the street, people bleeding from their faces, looting, burning and chaos. I wondered what would have happened to my friends in the West Coast tech city….and then I took a closer look.
Language, as we all know, is an incredibly emotive and powerful form of communication. Your choice of words can make the difference between the end of the world and the end of the street. It’s how journalism works – since the invention of the headline. Write something that will attract enough attention or be important enough to people to sell your pages. These days of course, to generate online ad revenue (maybe – but that’s a different debate).
So, to rioting. I searched tweets and videos to see what was around and if I could gauge the severity of the happenings. Indeed there was trouble and fire in the streets. Police were out, things got broken, but not too many people, so that’s a mercy. I was glad to see that the rioting was more of a post game set of street fights rather than an all out movement to take over the city.
Meanwhile the methods were coming into focus. It’s no surprise that people were creating their own reports. Videos and images were being uploaded. Take a look at this video for me –
One thing that strikes me about the footage as different say from the poll tax riots in the UK, is the amount of people taking photos. You can see this more easily of course because it is dark and people are using flash to light the scenes in front of them. It’s like an arena concert where you can spot the people with cameras.
Twitter of course had been running hot. A check back on the stream with a time references shows the usual spark and growth, retweet and maximum capacity of data being added from wry comment to real photos. After a while it becomes noisy and unreadable, as you would expect from any breaking news event seen through social platforms.
Images appear on twitpic and flickr all tagged with the appropriate keywords. #sfriots, #violence, #fire. I think this gives us a gauge and danger level. If you have taken an image in a moment of crisis and then taken time to tag that image and upload it, I would hazard a guess that your life was not in danger and you felt you had a little time to do this without too much concern.
Then the extraordinary move to create a check in point on 4square for the rioting. From that point on, much of the feedback online sounded as though it related to the greatest Night Club in the mission. The meaning of checking in had been gamed and changed – so where next for this type of move? Are there boundaries of taste for check-in services? Does the use of a social location application damage the reputation of an event? What is the etiquette for checking in at a funeral – next to the casket with a picture or once the earth is in the grave?
I realise I am pushing the lines there for sensationalism, it’s more for theory than a realistic expectation – so far.
The questions that arrived for me out of this situation were those of choice and application. I still maintain that citizen journalists and accidental reporters are providing some of the most vibrant and interesting footage of our times. The candid images taken on mobile phones are becoming the ones that we associate with news headlines.
The power of these raw images (the ones that have not been tampered with – not that I saw this from #sfriots) is that they explain the situation immediately. The problem comes with the wording.
I realise that this will be stacked because I come from a traditional print, radio and mainstream background. Journalists know how to write. Many citjos do too. But those who upload without view to being citizen journalists can often choose word that either lead to misinformation or misrepresentation.
I’m not saying there was no riot in San Francisco. But I do think that the levels of hyperbole were a signifier that social news should be carefully read and translated. It is good that everyone has a choice for where they get their news, but hopefully the skills for reading the truth in the depiction are going to catch up with the volume of data that appears on the web. People will tell the news in their way, raw, affected and subjective. Passionate, illuminating and biased. It’s human.
I also believe that further reading, objectivity and pace are vital for reporting on the world around us. I needed to know that my friends in San Francisco would be safe and one tweet driving up the angst and misrepresenting the action in the Mission was telling me the wrong story.
In a more positive vein, another area that was revealed via these reports is that which is important to the local citizen. Probably you have been disappointed in the past that something happened near you, that you didn’t hear about in the news.
The fact of the matter is that as news organisations shrink and the money to support them flows away, there is little in the way of resources to support local news. Large outlets may be coming to rely upon social news updates from local people, if they are covering local headlines at all.
If I had an apartment in the Mission last night, I would probably feel a shared sense of community if I could open a newspaper in the morning and see images of my neighbourhood. Images that tell me others acknowledge that the community is there. I used to feel a certain validation when my home town was mentioned in the papers for whatever reason. It put us on a map of consciousness in a way, we were there.
Those papers are gone now and the local news comes directly from people in a slightly scattered and sometimes questionable form. The truth of the communities remains unsupported sadly unless there are ways to check and represent these stories and those lives with a little more cohesion.
Further reading –
Gawker has a fair selection of images and video
Twitter search – knock yourself out
Twitter map – tagged and tweaked by who and which images do you think are important for telling the story – from which angle?
Discuss ~ JK