THE 1990 film, The Bonfire of the Vanities, has a great exchange between drunk hack Peter Fallow (Bruce Willis) and Robert Corso (Geraldo Rivera, now a Fox News correspondent).
“He’s on the level with this one right? That means the story’s legitimate right?” asks Corso. “Personally, I don’t give a shit. When I get finished with this story though, this kid’s gonna be a saint. It’d be nice to know if it’s true.”
“Oh it’s true,” assures Fallow, fag dangling off his lip.
In 2010, a fact exists as long as I say it exists.
If I tweet, “I’m pregnant”, then I’m stating that this is a fact. If I then delete that 10 minutes later, it ceases to exist. The statement of fact only existed for 10 minutes. So am I pregnant, or was it just a joke?
I would hope that I am mostly trusted by my friends and colleagues on Facebook or whatever social medium I might gush forth upon. And in every story I write, I work to ensure those purchasing bosses above me trust my work.
The public doesn’t know who I am, and doesn’t care. Facts for them are what their mate has just twittered. It’s the mobile phone photo from the night out. It’s even the link to a Family Guy clip. The content is trusted because there’s a relationship there. You ‘share’ the trust.
Really, it’s not much different from trusting the community minister or priest a century or more back. The medium for communication was different, slower, but they trusted the voice.
Now we’re on the verge of Google Wave, a development that could allows website users to see content appearing in real time as it’s typed.
It could allow subs to type a real-time libellous headline that appears online, then immediately correct it. But the libel existed, however briefly.
Belief is now more important than fact.
‘Birthers’ in the US don’t believe Obama was born on American soil and therefore should be impeached. They have been shown the ‘fact’ of a birth certificate but it’s not enough. They don’t trust anyone who says otherwise. It has nothing to do with speed of information, but with opinion, gut reaction, racism and trust.
In the UK and elsewhere, news ‘hubs’ have deliberately bought into technology to allow ever faster output of information. Those words, pictures and video get reduced, packaged, shot outward through an aggressive cannon of media shouting, “Read me! Read me! Read me!” and “Please pay for that!” Yes, the information will smack someone in the head, but will they trust it as fact?
We have an insatiable need – as anyone obsessed with Facebook will tell you – “to know what’s going on. . . now”.
Does the speed at which a ‘fact’ assaults you make you more likely to believe it? Does its shock value? Does its source?
Michael Jackson’s death was a good example of the shift in the flow of information, its speed, and its sources. For those who would not believe – during the hours before ‘facts’ appeared in print – they turned to a source they could trust: their online community. “It’s legitimate, right?”
As one young friend said: “When someone told me that Michael Jackson died, the first thing I did was go on twitter to see if it was true, then I turned onto BBC News 24.”
If we’re having a debate about the future of journalism, some core element of that debate will have to be outside of how to use technology to make money. There’s not much point tweeting a news headline to someone’s incontinence iPad if they don’t trust you.
Speed can’t save us. Technology is just a varied and vague extension of ourselves – the key is the relationship that someone behind the technology can offer. I am handing this newspaper to you; our hands don’t meet except through the technology of the paper.
We want people able to critically test what is a fact, and to trust that the source of that fact has been substantiated.
How do we confirm the tweets of Iranian protesters? How do we substantiate them? Without a capacity to determine facts – professionally as the media producing information, and personally as the community receiving it – then everything is fair game. Anything goes and journalism dies.
We bring ourselves down to the level of “I’m in the loo” tweets, but expect to be trusted above that. Will that speed of technology save us?
So the question isn’t about what technology to use, whether you’re charging enough for your iPhone newspaper apps, whether the iPad will save us all. It’s about trust.
If you don’t trust the source of truth, then you’re certainly not going to hand over cash for its manufacture. And if we don’t find a way to look the community in the eye and prove we offer fact, then we have no hope that they will believe it.
Tristan Stewart-Robertson is a freelance reporter and photojournalist operating as the W5 Press Agency. He doesn’t yet tweet.