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Wednesday, June 16 2010

Is There Life After Depth?

News20 HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

In a thoughtful personal essay published in The Guardian on Monday, the paper’s new Jerusalem correspondent, Harriet Sherwood, looks at the challenges foreign reporters face, particularly in light of new media.

Sherwood, a 16-year veteran of traditional media, notes that many of The Guardian’s foreign correspondents have embraced the immediacy technology offers to find new ways to tell stories. But as their lenses widened to include new media, the depth of their reporting seemed to suffer, she suggests.

Foreign correspondents – expensive assets – should be encouraged to spend a large proportion of their time in the field, finding things out, talking to people, reporting what they see . . .

But correspondents also now found the emphasis on competitive news coverage inevitably meant less time to invest in original and distinctive reporting. If you're filing several times a day and possibly through several media, there is simply less scope to find things out.

Sherwood’s comments echo one of the larger debates taking place in media today – whether the imperative for speed is “dumbing down” news and information. In a more extreme version of the debate, respected writers such as Nicholas Carr argue that the Internet is actually changing our brains and making concentration more difficult.

But while long-form journalism may be suffering from the shift from print to digital, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of journalism. While the Internet forces reporters to file reports quickly, it also demands constant updating. As reporters continue to “find things out” – over days or even weeks – they can update and improve their articles in a way that was never possible in print.

This new ability allows reporters to give readers the facts as they emerge, either through official sources or through the sort of activities Sherwood recommends for foreign correspondents – talking to people, reporting what they see.

While Sherwood laments that the new media may be blocking “original and distinct” reporting, it may be that what’s truly original is only starting to take shape on the news pages of newspapers’ Internet sites. A new sort of depth of coverage may be starting to emerge – a trans-media approach that informs the public using a variety of voices and dynamic media.

Sherwood herself notes the limits of field work while covering her first major story on her new beat – the Gaza flotilla.

I did indeed get "out there" – to the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon, and to Gaza – during those first few days.

But there were times when I felt my colleagues in London knew better what was happening than I did. That's inevitable: they were monitoring a wide range of news sources, while my laptop stayed slung over my shoulder most of the time.

It takes courage and intellectual honestly for a reporter to admit that others know the story better than those on the ground. Here’s hoping those qualities continue to define Sherwood’s reporting on Jerusalem throughout her tenure.

Previously in Alex's series: The New Checks and Balances



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