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The Physics of News

-first posted at RTDNA.org on June 23, 2009

I was lucky enough to be a small boy in the 1960s, a time when science was at the forefront of the American experience.  Men were rocketing into space to prepare for a trip to the moon, doctors were developing artificial hearts to implant in people, and physicists where making advances inside the atom to learn more about what makes our world tick.

Sure, the astronauts were cool.  I wanted to be one just like every other boy back then.  But I always really found the physics stuff to be interesting, too.  I was fascinated by how we were able to figure out the rules of how everything fits together.  Maybe I first got that interest from my father.  There were times when I asked him one of those “why is the sky blue?” questions children always ask, and he would give me a one-word answer: “physics.”  Other times, when he wanted to be a bit more verbose, he might mention something that sounded more like an adage than a bit of science, things like “water seeks its own level” or “rust is always on the job.”

Truisms like those gave me the idea early on that there are forces behind the ones we see in everyday life—forces that work their way even when we’re not looking.  As I grew up and moved away from considering a career in science, that thought never left me.  Instead, I began to apply it to the rest of life.  And now, there are no better examples of the relentlessness of the forces of life than there are in news.  To coin my own phrase about it: “news finds its way out.”  There are laws of physics at play here every much as there are in the worlds of atoms and molecules.

We’re seeing the results of the physics of news now all over the world, but particularly in Iran.  The leaders of the nation have worked to prevent journalists from reporting freely there.  Just this past weekend, officials in Tehran expelled the permanent BBC correspondent there, closed his bureau, as well as closed the offices of Dubai-based Al Arabiya.  The reasons given for these and other limits put on international media in Iran to cover the election and its aftermath were that reporters are supporting the “hooligans” in the streets.  Now, if I’m the BBC, then closing down my bureau is a big deal.  It keeps me from covering one of the biggest international stories of the year.  Oh wait, that’s only if I’m the BBC covering the election like I have every other election in the past—with press passes, officials crews, and traditional media methods. But that’s not necessary anymore.

News finds is way out.  Through cell phone pictures, through Twitter messages, through YouTube videos, the stories from Iran are skirting any official’s attempts to stop it.  Pulling the press pass of a British bureau chief does no more to stop the world from hearing about what’s going on in Iran than would the silencing of one voice in Haft-e-Tir square—the others still go on shouting.  In Iran right now, “citizen journalism” is hitting the big leagues.  I put that phrase in quotation marks since it’s such a catch phrase these days.  But separate the marketing hype from what’s really happening here and you see that news is using the latest technology at its disposal to find a way to reach an audience.

Some of the ways we’re seeing the news are raw, right off the street.  Unedited phone video and pictures provide a vantage point the BBC couldn’t dream of getting through a traditional approach.  Since the technology has reached a point that allows us to really see and hear what’s going on, these unfiltered looks from the center of the storm provide an immersion that’s seldom seen on the evening newscasts all of us produce.  That is not to say that the only way I want my news out of Iran is as an unfiltered stream of noisy, shaky video.  I don’t.  But I want this option as a way to supplement the other points of view I’m watching and reading.

The same goes for Twitter, where math meets physics.  Would-be reporters don’t face any deadline to meet, any lengthy columns to fill, or any hard-edged editors to please.  They just type in their short messages whenever they like and send them.  But multiply those 140 characters (about the length of the Pledge of Allegiance) times several thousand thumbs typing over and over, and you have volumes of news leaving the scene of the story.  As with the raw video and pictures from the cell phones covering the story, this stream is a bit unfiltered, too.  But add the tweets to the phone videos and the overall view of the story gets a little clearer.

Traditional news sites, along with brand new players in the news delivery game, are trying to make some sense of these streams by aggregating them into some order based on date and content.  On the traditional side, CNN’s iReport brand might be the most familiar.  Content from amateur reporters lands there for all to see on-line, with some going on to air on the CNN networks.  But CNN warns its iReport stories “are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post.”  That’s the nature of unfiltered news, putting some new, non-traditional sites in the running to be a source for news, too.  The big player in on-line video—YouTube—has a number of options for watching news video from around the world.  Some, like “CitizenTube,” are the attempts of specific users to play editor and deliver content on a theme.  Or visitors can use the old-fashioned (can I really use the term “old-fashioned” when I talk about YouTube?) approach of wandering from video to video, led only by what pops up at the end of the one playing now.

But perhaps the sites like Mashable.com offer the clearest insight into delivering the fragmented news leaving a scene like Iran.  The site mixes Wikipedia posts, tweets from Twitter, photos posted on Flickr, and videos from YouTube.  As a one-stop shop for social media-generated news content, the site does make some sense of the torrents of information from any big story.  It reflects the need for consumers of news to have editors control the flow of what they receive—even if those editors don’t review the actual content itself.  This helps make some sense to what’s out there by allowing people to browse all the content across platforms by subject matter.  That’s a comfort to anyone who’s tried to follow a few hundred people on Twitter at the same time.

But the other need for an editor—the need traditional media found centuries ago—still asserts itself in these new media time.  Just yesterday, traditional media in three countries aired photos they reported to have come from a camera found amidst the wreckage of Air France flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean.  The photos show two horrible scenes—shot from the inside—as the rear part of an airplane is ripped apart.  In one, a person is visible being tossed out the rear of the dying craft.  Television broadcasters in Poland, Bolivia, and Holland breathlessly aired the photos, at least one claiming they came from a “reliable” source inside Air France.  In fact, they did not.  It’s still not clear where the pictures came from, but it is clear what they depict.  It’s a scene from the American ABC network program “Lost,” showing the breakup and crash of fictitious Oceanic flight 815.

Pranks and hoaxes can obviously sneak into traditional media through the guise of citizen journalism and social media—or something that looks like it.  But that doesn’t tarnish all the content coming out of the hot zones in Iran and around the world.  It’s just too important.  Governments try to stop the news they want to control from reaching an audience, whether it be the imprisonment of journalists like Laura Ling, Euna Lee, and Roxana Saberi, or the acts of violence against thousands now in the streets of Iran.  But for every voice they muzzle, hundreds more speak up.  They speak through Twitter, YouTube, iReport, Facebook, and countless boards and blogs on our sites and their own.  The laws of physics are at play.

News finds a way out.

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