Real-Time News: a New Dynamic in the News Business - (5/99)
By Ted Marks

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There is a relatively new dynamic emerging in the news industry, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that editors and publishers alike need to address the issue sooner rather than later if they are to retain control of the editorial process in newspapers, Radio/TV outlets and on electronic networks.

The trend can be described as "real-time news," and it involves the practice of just dumping news and information on the public nearly instantaneously via the latest advances in communications and computer technology.

The Internet and Cable/Satellite TV networks are the primary distribution channels for this phenomenon. Our communications infrastructure has become so ubiquitous, and so fast, that the public has become accustomed to immediate, unlimited access to information – whether it is video, audio or text material.

Examples of this trend abound: when the U.S. starts bombing Belgrade or Baghdad, the public sees live video of the bombing campaign. Ken Starr issues a public document incriminating the president of the United States, and he does so in a digital format which allows transmission of the text of the document around the world in literally seconds.

The danger is not so much the release of the information (though that remains a debatable issue); the most immediate problem is that newsmakers are learning how to manipulate technology (and therefore the news process) to achieve their ends.

In Yugoslavia, Slobodan Malosevic makes sure the world sees live telecasts of the NATO bombing raids in Belgrade (and NATO tries to bomb his television facilities to prevent him from doing so).

When the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Chinese government organized students to demonstrate at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and allowed the demonstrations to be telecast, live, around the world. In a deft countermeasure, U.S. Ambassador to China, James Sasser, regained partial control of the PR initiative (in the U.S. anyway) by giving live telephone interviews to the Sunday morning talk shows in America, describing how he and his staff had become hostages to the Chinese students.

Until the 1990’s, news was presented to the public in a relatively reasoned format at a more measured pace. Reporters tracked down the facts and wrote or produced a story; editors reviewed the stories and made a number of key editorial decisions before sending the story onto the printing presses, or out on the airwaves for eventual consumption by the public.

The traditional editorial time-line, however, has been foreshortened -- to the point where the time-line itself is in danger of disappearing. And as the time-line vanishes, we are losing control of such issues as fairness, balance and fundamental accuracy.

The Real-Time Evolution

In fact, the phenomenon of real-time distribution of news and information is not an especially new one. The concept began in the 1970s, when the financial markets began using electronic channels to distribute pricing information. Prior to then, the financial industry used the equivalent of native drums to gather information about the markets. The stock market had its ticker, where stock trades were distributed on endless roles of paper tape. In the bond and foreign exchange markets, clerks kept up to date with the markets via telephone headsets and displayed prices of fungible financial instruments (bonds, currencies) with chalk on blackboards.

Then the technology revolution began to unfold. Neil Hirsch was a clerk in a brokerage house who used an electronic terminal network to collect and distribute bond prices. He called his invention Telerate because it used telephone lines to link electronic terminals on traders’ desks with a centralized computer. Hirsch’s primitive electronic network started in New York, and then spread to Chicago, San Francisco, and later London, Tokyo and other international financial centers. The Telerate network broadcast bond prices almost instantaneously to other bond traders, and the network dubbed its prices as "real-time" market information.

In the foreign exchange sector, the British news agency, Reuters, developed a similar "real-time" network linking foreign exchange traders around the world. The foreign exchange pricing network rescued Reuters from near bankruptcy, and eventually transformed the once quaint news agency into a global information gorilla.

In 1980, Ted Turner came up with the concept of an all news television network, which transmitted video news via hard-wired cable and satellite links. There were a lot of skeptics in the early days of CNN, but Turner 's 24-hour a day news network has become an institution which is not only drawing competitors; at times it finds itself competing with the U.S. government in terms of providing intelligence to breaking news.

The Internet has become the latest distribution channel for real-time news. As the bandwidth of electronic networks grew ever wider -- and the audience on all of the electronic networks grew larger and larger -- the time it takes to distribute a news story to tens of millions of people has dropped from days, to hours, and then to seconds (and even fractions of a second).

In the third and concluding volume of his memoirs, Henry Kissinger notes the technological revolution has had a distinct effect on the conduct of foreign policy. While Kissinger directs his comments towards presidents and statesmen, his thoughts are also germane to the news industry, as the following excerpts indicate:

"The speed and scale of modern communications will make it increasingly difficult for future historians to render an accurate account of contemporary international relations.….Technology has revolutionized the conduct as well as the content of diplomacy. Preparing a document, reproducing it, then distributing it within minutes all over the world is now accomplished at the touch of a button….Future historians will always be in danger of becoming confused not only by the profusion of documents, but also by their character. Detailed instructions are now relayed so easily and quickly that Presidents and foreign ministers prefer to focus their communications on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day diplomacy rather than on its purpose….Tactics and domestic politics substitute for strategy and whatever strategy exists is confined to the minds of a top few policymakers, who, fearful of leaks, rarely articulate or share it. History turns into an account of the immediate and sensational, devoid of historical perspective or long-term vision."

In his memoir about the first term of the Clinton Administration, George Stephanopoulos described at least three different occasions (Haiti, Somalia and Iraq) when President Clinton formulated a policy position -- and then turned to CNN to track the ramifications of his actions.

When Clinton launched missiles against Baghdad in retaliation for an assassination attempt against George Bush, "CNN served as the president's intelligence that night," according to Stephanopoulos. Later, when the Russian Parliament was being bombarded by artillery from anti-Yeltsin protestors, the Clinton White House kept track of those events via CNN. "Once again, CNN beat the CIA," Stephanopoulos wrote in his book (almost matter of factly).

 

Who Controls the News?

In other words, those who shape global events are now using of the new communications technology as a policy tool. Their acknowledgement of the role of technology in the conduct of their public affairs should serve as a red flag to editors around the world, in print, broadcast and electronic mediums. Editorial vigilance is necessary to guard against public officials using the media to undertake questionable, or even illegal, activities.

For despite all the new technology, one phenomenon is unlikely to change: a free press is the ultimate guardian of a free society, and editors and publishers must adapt to the technological revolution if they are to play a meaningful role in the world they cover.

And that requires that news managers exercise some control over the release of information flowing from events in the public domain. Is the information bona fide? Is it factually correct? Is it appropriate for public release from a national security perspective? Is it appropriate for release according to other, legitimate ethical standards? These are all very tough questions, but the role of news managers is to develop judgements based on their previous experience in managing the flow of news and information into the public domain.

Some critics believe that many senior managers in the news industry are failing in their jobs by avoiding these hard judgements. It's much easier, these critics say, for reporters, editors and producers to simply wave these critical issues off the table and dump news and information on an unsophisticated and even unsuspecting public.

That's not to say that there isn't legitimate debate about how to deal with the real-time phenomenon. There are different schools of thoughts on how to deal with the ramifications of the technological revolution. Some news executives are concerned at the loss of control they are experiencing over their information products through the release of too much information. A second school of thought, however, maintains that democracy demands that citizens have the choice to be fully informed about events as they transpire -- and it's up to the public to make decisions about what information is germane -- and what is not.

It’s not clear which school is correct, but we can expect that the debate about the issue will continue – and even expand. As it should.

 

Ted Marks is president of Marks & Frederick Associates, LLC. Want to comment on this article?  Submit your comments to our Real-Time News discussion forum.

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