Tuesday, February 17, 2015, will mark the 365th consecutive day of The Interpreter’s “Ukraine Live” coverage. To mark the occasion Matt Sienkiewicz, Assistant Professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College, has written an analysis of the merits of liveblogging.
Two poles dominate our current information environment. On one extreme there is the developing field of citizen journalism and user-created content. From Ukraine, from Aleppo and from Ferguson there emerge images, videos and first hand reports of events with world-changing implications. This content, produced sometimes at significant risk, does more than simply provide access to previously under-covered parts of the globe. It also gives voice to those who were once wholly silenced. It blends the personal and the political, suggesting a distant but reachable future in which media’s relationship to democracy will be more than metaphorical or tangential. There is, however, one small drawback to the gigabytes of information that flood our screens each day: it’s a complete mess. By presenting thousands of different perspectives, it fails to tell a single story. This may tickle the closeted post-modernist in all of us, but it also hinders our efforts to convert data into actionable knowledge.
And so, on the other extreme, there are the legacy media institutions. They lumber along, acknowledging that the script is changing only upon seeing that they’re about to be written out of it. And yet, they offer a port in the data storm. Though limited, though biased, though weighed down by centuries of ideology dressed up as journalistic common sense, they consistently offer narratives about the world that are, if nothing else, intelligible. In the process, the finer points, so forcefully present at the other information pole, disappear. Obscuring all but a few, credentialed sources, the mainstream media offer a smoothness in storytelling bordering on the slick. Whereas contradiction overwhelms us when we look solely at citizen-produced information, it is suspiciously, unrealistically, absent when we turn on cable news.
Live blogging, as exemplified by The Interpreter’s “Ukraine Live,” is not perfect. It is, however, the best solution thus far to the problem of our polarized mediasphere. On a daily basis The Interpreter staff combs both traditional and user-created media, devoting tremendous human capital to the project of understanding the complex world of Russian politics. Certainly, they are trying to trim and tame this information overload. Furthermore, they have biases—against Putin, towards the West and so on—that impact the frames they put on the stories they tell. However, unlike the legacy media, they are careful to preserve and present the messy nature of their process. To read the live blog is to watch a story develop, to see moments in which two contradictory explanations seem equally plausible, and to witness a resolution, sometimes tentative, emerge from clearly sourced, clickable pieces of evidence. If the mainstream media prefer their gardens in the French style—neatly trimmed and organized in rows—The Interpreter’s tend towards the English mode—a little messy, but virtuous in their constant reference to the natural reality that lays beneath.
Writing in scholarly spaces, I have identified projects such as Ukraine Live as a key component of the “interpreter tier” that acts as a conduit between the worlds of user-created and mainstream media. By devoting themselves to a story all day, every day, and by taking all news sources seriously but none unquestioningly, they provide us a tremendous service. This was in particularly forceful display during the chaotic days following the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Moments after the plane was destroyed, major media outlets devoted themselves to assigning blame, predicting the fall out and telling the “Big Story.” These are, of course, important things to do. But they cannot be done with speed or simplicity, questionable virtues that are mainstays of both state and corporate media.
The Russian mainstream offered a reductive, frankly specious, version of events that pointed the finger at Ukraine. Supporters of Ukraine fought back, telling an inverted version of the story while drawing from unverified bits of online evidence and rumormongering. The Interpreter did neither. Instead, they looked carefully at both primary evidence and secondary analysis, using Ukraine Live to juxtapose pro-Moscow RT reports with bits of user-provided materials from across the region. Staff members Catherine Fitzpatrick, James Miller and Pierre Vaux combed through countless videos, images and tweets that purported to show BUK missiles traveling through the streets of Donetsk in the days before and after the attack. They also cited the invaluable research of people such as Aric Toler, giving credit to anyone who they believed advanced the investigation. In the end, Ukraine Live came to its own conclusion, offering evidence of Russian culpability. However, this is not the point. What is truly important about live blogging is its ability to allow the user freedom in evaluating complex pieces of investigative journalism. You may disagree with Ukraine Live’s perspective, but to do so requires a careful look at the specific evidence that they and their colleagues across the world have vetted and chosen to present.
The world of citizen journalism offers too much confusion to be taken on its own. At that same time, it has too much promise to be trusted to the world of television, newspapers and the corporate Internet. It must be curated and it must be organized. But it must not be reduced to simply another tool in the belt of hegemonic media institutions. For one year now, Ukraine Live has managed to stand in the middle, not only educating readers, but also providing them the chance to educate themselves. Here’s hoping that in a few years this sort of transparency and creativity is the rule, not the exception, in our media environment.
Matt Sienkiewicz, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Communication and International Studies at Boston College. He is the host of The Interpreter Podcast. His book The Other Air Force: America’s effort to reshape the Middle East through Media is forthcoming from Rutgers University press. Follow him on Twitter.