A Photograph, 10,000 Eyes and the Future of Journalism
At Bloggasm, Simon Owens offers a terrific examination of the New York Times’s decision to pull down an Edgar Martins slideshow of abandoned construction projects. The Times’s move came after Adam Gurno, a Minnesota computer programmer, suspected the photos had been digitally manipulated and made his case in a comment on Metafilter. (Note that the conversation rolls along in an interesting but conventional manner for nearly 30 comments before Gurno — whose username is unixrat — pops up.)
It’s a fascinating story, one that I think offers a number of lessons for the future of journalism.
1. The Audience Will Be Heard. It’s quite possible that 10 or 15 years ago the deception might not have been noted, acknowledged and corrected. Gurno’s antennae went up when he looked at a Martins photograph of the inside of an elaborately framed but unfinished house — not because Gurno’s a photographer, but because he got familiar with framing a few years ago when his own house was built, and a small detail in the Martins photo didn’t look quite right to him. (It appears that half of the shot had been mirrored.)
Not so long ago, a question raised by a computer programmer about the work of a noted photographer would likely have gotten short shrift if it had been heard at all, but things have changed. Gurno had platforms (Metafilter and his own site) for both his question and his marshaling of evidence, his investigation intrigued others and quickly rocketed around the Internet, and the Times took it and him seriously and took quick action.
2. Crowdsourcing Accuracy. Gurno notes the computer-programming wisdom that “to 10,000 eyes all bugs are shallow,” adding that “it’s an open source thing.” One of the biggest sources of handwringing in journalism today is the fear that the astonishing multiplication of news sources and writers of various stripes will lower journalism standards. I’ve never believed that — in fact, I think those standards will rise. Readers can now talk back to journalists, and publicly point out errors and argue points. Sources can answer back on their own sites, and sometimes post transcripts of emails and recordings of calls. Other writers and researchers can link to stories, criticizing them and building on them. And stories stay online forever, instead of vanishing into the obscurity of microfilm.
This isn’t to knock journalism’s established standards as either faulty or lacking — rather, it’s to note that every story can now have 10,000 eyes. As a result, bugs get shallower. Mistakes and deceptions get discovered; shaky arguments and incomplete/unreliable narratives get challenged. Every reader is now a potential editor, every mistake is public, and there is no statute of limitations. To note just one way this has played out, I maintain that there’s no epidemic of plagiarism in modern journalism. Rather, there’s an epidemic of plagiarists getting caught. Journalists are cribbing from other journalists at about the same rate they always have, but the Web has made papers accessible world-wide and search engines have made copying easy to find. With Google we can all be sleuths in a way we never could be before.
3. Transparency Above All. Martins seemed to regard it as a point of pride that his photographs (which, it should be noted, are eerie and beautiful however they were produced) weren’t digitally manipulated when in fact they seem to have been just that, and this is what has made the story more than a furor over photographic techniques and standards. I can’t say why Martins would claim he never did something he apparently did quite a bit — no one ever can in these cases, which is what makes them so haunting. If Martins had been transparent about the alterations he apparently did make, would his work have lost any of its power? Certainly he wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in now.
4. Crowdsourcing the News Crowdsourcing accuracy and standards is beneficial but also slightly ruthless. But there’s another side to it: What could the people behind those 10,000 eyes be doing in addition to marshaling evidence that someone cribbed a line or mirrored an image? Well, lots of things. They could be providing reports, audio and video from a foreign capital witnessing an extraordinary struggle between theocracy and democracy, between information and control. Or they could be poring over the expenses of Members of Parliament — witness the Guardian’s exercise in crowdsourced investigative journalism, which is also a model of successfully using social media to drive reader participation and loyalty.
Yep, there are a lot of things those 10,000 eyes could be doing. In fact, they’re already doing them.