Biggest stories of 2014 didn't need traditional news outlets

Are we ready for American life coming at us social-media raw?

Gaza, Ferguson, a casino elevator in New Jersey — this was the year that raw images and social media, not gatekeepers, drove the national conversation.

From photos posted on Twitter to bits of raw video shot on smartphones and surveillance cameras, media reached a tipping point this year in which the most important parts of the biggest stories came to us not in prepackaged formats of network and cable newscasts, front pages or even home pages, but in grainy, shocking bits and pieces of data. They often seemed to arrive out of nowhere to rip through our culture, leaving us agitated, polarized and often confused.

It didn't happen overnight or exactly on a 365-day calendar, but the media story of 2014 is the way changes in technology have led to a hyperdemocratization of news that might be more than we are prepared to handle as a society. It's certainly reached the point at which the journalistic profession can no longer reach any kind of consensus about standards for processing the flood of data.

Think back to the way the topics we have debated this year have careened from tweet to tweet, post to post, image to image — often with almost no continuity or context.

Media were filled with talk of domestic violence after tabloid website TMZ published its first surveillance-camera video in February of Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, off a casino elevator in New Jersey. And just as that conversation seemed to be cooling down, it fired back up to a boiling point in September with jarring video from inside the elevator that showed Rice punching her in the face, knocking her unconscious.

In July, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came into a highly emotional focus after video, often shot on smartphones, showed the carnage in Gaza as Israeli troops stepped up air and artillery attacks and moved troops in on the ground. The campaign came on the heels of the discovery of the bodies of three Israeli teens who had been abducted on the West Bank.

What really inflamed passions and caused an unprecedented shift in the Mideast public relations war were not so much the on-screen reports with video that went through editors and managers in places like New York and London, but rather the still photographs of devastation and Palestinian casualties posted on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr by reporters and civilians on the ground.

Jonathan Miller, of the U.K.'s Channel 4, and NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin were all over social media with words and images that didn't make the nightly news — and yet nothing matched their impact. Miller's smartphone pictures on Twitter of a Palestinian boy killed by an Israeli airstrike as he and three friends were playing soccer on a beach are unforgettable.

Earlier in the conflict, Mohyeldin could get only two minutes on the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" for a superb report that he did as he and his crew came under fire from stun grenades and rubber bullets from Israeli forces — that's gatekeeper journalism.

I urged readers in July to forget about seeing his best work on NBC and follow his reporting, minus the gatekeepers, on Twitter instead.

Mohyeldin, more than any other journalist, embodied the tension within journalism itself as gatekeepers hewing to traditional standards lost their last vestiges of control to social media this year.

The former Al Jazeera correspondent was pulled out of Gaza by NBC News after he wrote on Facebook about U.S. State Department officials blaming Hamas for the death of the Palestinian teens on the beach. He deleted the post, according to a Huffington Post report, but almost immediately after his disappearance from NBC's Gaza coverage, the hashtag #LetAymanReport started trending on Twitter, and Mohyeldin was back in Gaza and on the air several days later.

Since the August shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., it seems as if we have been locked in a nonstop and increasingly angry debate about police-community and race relations. The protests and the ensuing images of law enforcement officers in full combat gear on the nighttime streets of Ferguson were again most compellingly chronicled in amateur video and photographs shot in the street and instantly posted on social media without filter or edit. Remember the tweets and video from Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery as police arrested him for reporting from a McDonald's?

As Chris Taylor, wrote in an Aug. 14 post titled "The Night Social Media Exploded Over Ferguson" on mashable.com: "The discontent had been simmering for days on social media — partly because those pictures cropping up on Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook of police in Iraq-style fatigues and Army-style entourages were getting harder and harder to ignore. Difficult questions floated to the surface of the American conscience. Was this police response happening in America, or a Middle East war zone, or 1968, or all of the above?"

The polarizing discourse that grew out of Ferguson held center stage on cable news for weeks. It has only intensified since a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury declined this month to indict the police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold as a citizen with a smartphone recorded it all. Garner, whom police were trying to arrest for selling loose cigarettes, was brought to the pavement as he said repeatedly that he could not breathe. He died on the way to the hospital.

The images in recent weeks have been of nightly marches in which the deaths of Brown, Garner and other unarmed black men and teens are re-enacted by protesters. Last week, pictures of two dead police officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., were added to the gallery of conflict, confrontation and violence that now populates our fragmented national psyche.

How can we expect citizens to process this flood of images when professional analysts and veteran journalists don't even yet know how to talk about them?

Five years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about TMZ. It sometimes paid for news, and that put it outside the realm of trustworthy journalism. End of story.

But with TMZ posting that grainy video of Rice dragging his fiancee off the elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City, I realized my attitude had been changing.

Given the tremendous disconnect between the man on that video and the athlete who had been celebrated by the NFL and much of sports media as a model player and citizen, I had to acknowledge that I was grateful to TMZ for both for the backstage look it offered at a so-called role model and the discussion of domestic violence that it triggered.

TMZ acknowledged in an interview with me that it paid for the video, though it declined to say how much.

But I thought, "So what, as long as they vetted and confirmed the contents before they published?"

Network and cable TV pay for video all the time — they just use purposefully misleading terms like "licensing fees" to describe what they are up to. And with video driving Web traffic like nothing else these days, why should legacy-owned websites limit their ability to compete by adhering to an obsolete rule from old-school print journalism?

But I guarantee you there is no shortage of experienced editors at newspaper websites who disagree with me. I know. I've heard from some of them.

There were times this year when I wondered if legacy media even knew how to systematically think or talk coherently about changing standards in the face of this torrent of data.

On the heels of several analysts (including me) commending TMZ after it published the second Rice video showing the punch, Gawker questioned such praise, saying mainstream news websites such as that of The New York Times could not have published the video that TMZ did because it had been edited for clarity. Gawker claimed the mainstream sites would have been pilloried for doctoring the video.

But Gawker could not have been more wrong in that analysis. All any site would have had to do is publish both the original jumpy video and the smoother, edited one online, and let the reader decide whether the editing changed the meaning. And any site doing so would have gotten twice the traffic.

But, as far as I know, Gawker's wrongheaded critique went unchallenged, as I and the rest of the pack rushed to catch up to the next set of images exploding through the culture.

Thinking on such issues these last days of 2014 has also had me recalling Bill Clinton blowing his saxophone on the old "Arsenio Hall Show."

I remember looking at a still photo of Clinton in his shades-wearing jazzman pose as I was writing a year-end media piece in 1992 and thinking, "This is the image that matters. It's telling us that the relationship between TV and politics as we've known it since the 1960 presidential debates is coming to an end. Politicians don't need to kowtow to TV news gatekeepers any more — they can get a free ride on entertainment TV any time they want."

I have that same feeling of sea change this year as I look at the unfiltered social media from places like Gaza and Ferguson. But as big as the change in TV and presidential politics was after 1992, it's nothing compared to the monumental shift rocking media and American life today.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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