This week the New York Times published a story about the relationship between traditional media and blogs in the news cycle, based on a paper just published by Cornell University called “Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle.”

According to the research (or the New York Times story at least) when it comes to reporting news, traditional media lead and blogs follow, but personally I question whether the reality is quite as cut and dried as that. Firstly, the research focused on blogs. which are rapidly maturing into a platform for publishing considered views rather than news. So perhaps a comparison between blogs and newspaper comment and opinion pages might be more appropriate. Secondly, the research didn’t include emerging platforms like microblogs (e.g. twitter) or social networks, which is increasingly where news reporting happens in social media.

I’d suggest that when it comes to reporting news traditional and social media are increasingly playing complementary roles. This creates a great deal of interdependency between the two. Take the recent situation surrounding the Iran elections as an example, where you can break the media reporting of events down in to three stages:

1. The news about the Iran elections and the public protests that followed broke on twitter
2. The quality of the “news information” on twitter quickly became diluted by the volume of people outside Iran using the platform to express their support for the protesters or opinions on the situation as a whole…some more intelligently and constructively than others!
3. “Traditional” media outlets and established blogs like the Huffington Post then stepped in, providing their own informed insight and, crucially, aggregating and filtering the content produced online (tweets, pictures, blogposts) to create stories.

While this was happening, social media continued to provide a great forum for public engagement, both for people outside of Iran to express support, and citizens living in the country to organise their protests. In a situation where the activities of credentialed media outlets like the BBC are heavily censored, these content aggregation and public engagement roles are particularly important. Iran, like China, has an approach to censorship based on the principle that the state needs to protect itself from information on the outside getting in, normally from established, recognised sources. They’re simply not equipped to deal with situations where the people on the inside begin producing the content themselves, which of course is precisely what “traditional” media need to produce reports. Its media and technology creating a powerful democratising force.

Tim Callington (@timcallington)

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