Comment: Justifying Citizen Journalists

Columbia Journalism posted a discussion: How Should Journalists use Twitter?

Their Staff Writer Megan Garber critiqued a few of my tweets. Some of the criticisms were justified, others were, in my opinion, unstudied. Below, I have transcribed Ms Garber’s comments and my response.

But, then, I wonder about theory versus practice in this case. So many of the Twitter feeds I read about the Mumbai attacks were — to me, anyway — extraordinarily frustrating, not just in their general lack of depth, but also in their impulse toward speculation. (From Arun Shanbhag’s Twitter feed, the one mentioned in the Times article above: “THis is wise strategy! The terrorists are at it for 48+ hours! Are they not tired, restless, need to use bathroom? food? #mumbai” and “If there are too many hostages, danger they may all attack hostages! particularly if they know they are going to die! #mumbai” and “We all agree with the meticulous planning, training and support they had; No doubt they started off from Karachi!”)

I don’t mind, necessarily, the personality-driven nature of Twitter, or even its prose-be-damned approach to news narration. But I do worry that this kind of speculation run amok — “No doubt they started off from Karachi!” — can easily get out of hand, edging more into rumor-mongering than newsgathering.

I also wonder about the sheer quantity of the Tweets that a user must sort through to get anything resembling a true narrative. Sure, every once in a while, there are diamonds in the rough, hidden among all the lumps of Tweeted coal…I just don’t know whether the diamonds are plentiful (or, for that matter, brilliant) enough to warrant the time and effort it requires to gather them.

Posted by Megan Garber on Tue 2 Dec 2008 at 02:25 PM

Here was my response:

I was one of the ‘citizen journalists’ discussed in the NYTimes article and Ms Megan Garber, one of your Staff Writers, critiqued my tweets above. I would like respond to the comments (and accusations) Ms Garber has made regarding my tweets.

First, Ms Garber does have a point: a tweet restricted to 140 characters (spaces, punctuations and tags included) does not leave room for Shakespeare. Further, when sending a flurry of 1-sentence tweets, as in SMSs, it is common to make typing mistakes and even grammatical errors. And yes, I did make several. Ms Garber picked one. After sneaking around the security cordon I twitted about hearing blasts in different parts of the Taj complex, as well as multiple types of gunfire. Also I wondered why hostages did not attack terrorists. The tweet should have read, “If there are too many hostages, danger they may all attack “terrorists” (and not hostages attacking hostages, as I erroneously typed) …” As this was part of a series of tweets discussing hostage issues, my typing error would have been clear to a person following my tweets in real-time,.

But Ms Garber highlights one particularly tweet as speculation. (“We all agree with the meticulous planning, training and support they had; No doubt they started off from Karachi!”) Well this was part of my studied opinion! If Ms Garber had made the effort to look carefully at the time stamp of said tweet, She would have noted that this was posted about 12 hours AFTER the operation was completed; Importantly, this tweet came about 24 hours AFTER Indian security forces had clearly identified and reported in the main stream media that the boats terrorists had arrived in, did originate in Karachi.

Further, the said tweet came three tweets after I clearly identified a subheading of “Ruminations: At the Taj; 3 terrorists hold off nearly 200 hostages and an Indian Army for 60 hours? Really” (8:04 am Nov 29 2008, US EST). link

This was followed by a variety of issues such as funding and motivation of terrorists and types of victims targeted. Given the twitter medium, this is the only way to convey a longer discussion. As Ms Garber re-reviews my tweet update, may I note they are in reverse chronological order, and even though I was/am visiting Mumbai, my tweets are still identified as originating from US East Coast time zone).

Unfortunately, Ms Garber could not be bothered into checking time stamps and collating with real time events, before she went off on her tirade and accusations of “rumor mongering.” Ms Garber’s observation “ — can easily get out of hand, edging more into rumor-mongering than newsgathering,” probably best describe here own un-studied comment.

In her haste to diss Citizen Journalists, I think Ms Garber; a staff writer for your elite Journalism Review provides clear justification for the necessity of Citizen Journalists. Thank you, Ms Megan Garber.

Posted by Arun Shanbhag on Sat 6 Dec 2008 at 03:09 AM

16 thoughts on “Comment: Justifying Citizen Journalists

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  1. Hi Arun,

    Thanks for taking time time to write in. Here’s the response I posted on



    Thanks for taking the time to write — and for extending the conversation to your readers.

    To be clear, in the comment you refer to, I was not talking about (or, indeed, criticizing) citizen journalism overall; to me, citizen journalism’s value, as a means of both increasing and democratizing information, is a point so obvious that it can be taken for granted. Perhaps I should have clarified my general affinity for citizen journalism in this case, though, particularly since, yes, I voiced doubts about Twitter in my post.

    But: doubts about Twitter, the particular platform. Not doubts about citizen journalism as a general practice. I deeply respect the work that you and your citizen-journalist colleagues did in gathering information about the Mumbai attacks — often, I know, at great risk to yourselves — and wrote nothing to indicate otherwise in my comment. So, regarding your own comment — “In her haste to diss Citizen Journalists, I think Ms Garber; a staff writer for your elite Journalism Review provides clear justification for the necessity of Citizen Journalists” — that’s a snappy way to conclude an argument, I grant you, but I’m afraid it’s not an accurate one.

    Also, timestamps. You’re right that I referenced a sampling of your tweets in my post without noting their timing or, indeed, their larger context. I was, I regret to say, taking the “comments” platform of the News Meeting feature too literally — treating it as a vehicle for thinking-out-loud rather than for more rigorous analysis — and was therefore being too cavalier about what I wrote. I didn’t mean to imply, in my comment, that you were personally responsible for rumor-mongering; in referencing your tweets, I simply meant to point out how those little nuggets of information and speculation, taken out of context, can easily foster rumors. But I realize, re-reading the comment I posted, that it came across as blaming you, in particular — which is especially regrettable given that your Twitter coverage of the attacks was, overall, praiseworthy. So I apologize for that.

    But I stand by the point that Twitter, in general — as a platform that, by nature, trades on immediacy and brevity — can easily give way to a kind of digital game of Telephone. As someone who’s watched rumors spread like wildfire through the media — and particularly through online media platforms — I wonder whether the speed-uber-alles ethos Twitter in many ways promulgates compromises the obvious value of democratized reporting. That’s not to ignore the fact that mainstream reports don’t engage in erroneous information-spreading, as well — see Jack Shafer’s excellent analysis of the bad intelligence that found its way into early reports about Mumbai — but it is to say that Twitter, as great as it can be as a platform for disseminating information, is also particularly apt to be (mis)used. What I left unsaid in my comment above, but what I’ll say now, is that I’d love to find a way to mitigate that potential misuse to ensure that the information journalists gather from Twitter contains as much wheat, and as little chaff, as possible.

    So, then, back to the original question: Twitter, the platform, and how journalists can and should use it. And, I have to say, even after reading all the comments above — most of which seem to have come from Twitter aficionados — I still have some questions about its overall utility as a resource for breaking news. Twitter’s great, sure, at documenting the comings and goings — physically, mentally, both at once — of a single person, be that person a friend or a celebrity or something in between. And that’s by design. Twitter was initially intended as basically a personal platform for communication, Facebook “updates” made more mobile. But it’s recently exploded beyond its initial use to become a mechanism for information dissemination on a broader scale, moving past the realm of social utility and toward that of journalistic utility. I think that’s largely to the good…but I also wonder whether what makes Twitter an asset when it comes to autobiographical narrative can become a liability when it comes to journalism. The depth and breadth of information Twitter provides about a person whose doings you’re interested in can be great — I’d happily read every last update on Nick Kristof’s new Twitter feed, for example — but for a journalist who’s trying to piece together a suprapersonal narrative about particular events, it can be exceedingly difficult to find the salient pieces of information amid all the tweeted noise.

    And that difficulty was in some ways illustrated — and in some ways exacerbated — in a situation like the Mumbai attacks, in which information and immediacy were both at a premium. Exacerbated because, while Twitter affords its users the ability to post discrete pieces of information as soon as they’re known, in whatever form they’re known, “mainstream” journalists (or whatever your preferred term for that particular breed may be) have no such luxury. And given the sheer volume of information Twitter hosts — as the Times article noted, at the height of the chaos in Mumbai, tweets tagged “mumbai” were being posted to Twitter at the rate of one per second — sifting through all the stream-of-consciousness, “OMG what just happened” tweets to find the real information (nevermind the obvious next step: verifying that information) takes time — the resource most obviously limited in deadline reporting.

    In other words: my questions about Twitter aren’t philosophical in nature; they’re logistical. (And they’re questions, more than outright criticisms; if someone can show me how my doubts are completely off-base and how Twitter truly is The Future of Journalism, I’ll happily drink the Kool-Aid.) The search and aggregation features on Twitter, as they’re programmed now, are simply not well suited to the kind of quick sorting and sense-making journalists are required to do in a breaking-news situation. Commenters above have pointed out the wider value of Twitter to journalists — building networks, finding and keeping up with sources, etc. — and I think those are completely valid (provided, of course, that any information exchanged on Twitter is verified elsewhere). But when I wrote the comment that you responded to, Arun, I also had in mind — and was, myself, tangentially responding to — the many, many, many, many, many, many articles published immediately after the Mumbai attacks that extolled the glories of Twitter as The Next New Thing for journalism, many of them under the seeming assumption that new equals better.

    I don’t think such glowing assessments are wrong, per se, so much as they’re premature. Twitter is basically in its beta form right now, its gawky, adolescent stage. But, though I think the platform has some developing still to do, I’m fairly confident it will grow into its body — that its features will expand to make it more viable and useful as a resource for journalism. That Twitter, in other words, won’t just expand, but that it will evolve.

    Anyhow. By way of putting out of its misery what has to be one of the longest comments in the history of comments sections (sorry! Proust had his madeleines; I, apparently, have my microblogging platforms)…just one more thought. While I’ve been fascinated by the comments posted above (including, Arun, your reaction to my own comment), I also think that many of them illustrate a fundamental problem in our discourse: the assumption that citizen journalism and the so-called “professional” or “legacy” media are separate entities — and therefore, given today’s hypercompetitive media environment, that they’re at odds with each other. But that old adage about assumptions makes sense here. Because, when it comes to journalism, it’s not citizen versus mainstream; it’s citizen and mainstream. The real question isn’t whether the forms of media will interact, but how they’ll do so — and how all of us who care about the quality of our journalism will foster the relationship.

    From Arun:
    Hi Megan: Sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. You are very gracious and I thank you for the broad overview of the issues around citizen journalism. I agree completely with what you have laid out here. Well said. See, as a bystander shooting pics and posting them, I could never have considered the issues as you have so well done. And proves what you have concluded with: it’s not citizen versus mainstream; it’s citizen and mainstream.

    We are all enriched by this exchange! Thank you!

  2. oh, and you may correct grammar and spelling in my comment above – just in case people mistake what’s intended as conversation for an attempt at creating new literature!!!

  3. ‘lacking depth’ indeed. I will not name the channel or the expert journalist with years of experience, but the statement that was made by this person, with apparent superior analysis was something like:

    “..and they went into CST station and shot Muslims, possibly some Hindus…”

    the complete lack of perspective that most media houses demonstrate – not just in coverage of terrorism – but in any kind of coverage is appalling. In many cases, I have found that the common person on the street, perhaps not as well informed, is at least not as rabid.

    From Arun:

    Hi Lakshmi – thank you for sharing that. When I was watching the news, the levels of urgency created by the tone and demeanor of the anchors and reporters were surprising. This was certainly a tragic affair, but the Indian media was dealing with this more as a three-day non-stop thriller.

    Anyway, i hope we don’t get a sequel to this episode! Life is too short and beautiful to not enjoy fully!

    hope you are doing well.

  4. It was an honest reply that you have given. I really hope that Ms.Garber responds to this. According to me, It was a commendable job that you did. It was not like the masala news that the traditional media presented. I happened to view one of the channels that had action movie songs at the background while the news was displayed!
    Honestly, Citizen journalists do make a difference!

  5. Dear Arun,
    You have done a courageous job.
    You have conveyed us the pain, anger and helplessness felt by the people there in Mumbain in those critical and terrifying moments.
    I am very happy about you because you are not trying to sell the povery, misery and suffering of India. Of course, it is a part of us.
    You are giving an optimistic and pleasant outlook about India.
    Carry on the wonderful job you are doing!

  6. I have to agree wholeheartedly with Karen & Mary. I followed the #mumbai twitter stream anxiously all during the crisis and I was especially grateful for your blog which I discovered through your “tweets”. It was through your photos that I learned that my old friend was right when he insisted that I *must* have eaten at the Leopold cafe years ago when I was in Mumbai {then Bombay}.

    Over those terrible days and nights I switched frantically between the Indian online news media and twitter. On that last day when fire broke out again in the Taj someone tweeted : “OMG!!! Save the Taj!” That was exactly what I had just finished shouting at my computer screen. The feeling I experienced at that moment was indescribable. It was like being in a room of people all passionately involved and interested in the same thing and all talking at once.

    I don’t think we can know enough yet about just how “citizen journalism” will affect our global society. You must have noticed by now that even CNN has “iReports” and I can tell you that my local news station actively solicits photos and stories from viewers. Do I hear a bit of job insecurity fears from Ms. Garber? If she consistently submits such sub-par reporting she *should* be worried!

    Your sensitive photos and comments were greatly appreciated. I just hope you didn’t put yourself in harm’s way to get those great pics. By the way, I got to see the brave commandos rappelling down to save Nariman House on your blog way before the Indian media had posted anything. Good job! Thank you.

    From Arun:
    Thank you Jane for your thoughtful and considerate comment. When I had signed up for twitter, about two weeks before my trip to india, I was not convinced it was a serious medium – but it does have its strengths, particularly in democratizing information gathering and dissemination. Average viewers are empowered.

    I just happened to be at the right place at the ‘wrong’ time, and I had to use the resources available to me to share my story. There will be others in other instances doing the exact same thing!

  7. I followed your accounts from day one and found they gave me a more compelling story of what was happening than the official news coverage, particularly that first day. Any statement taken out of context can be twisted into an entirely different shape. “Official” journalist do this all the time as do politicians who use sound bites of their opponents.
    I am glad there is the NY Times article about your efforts to balance Ms. Garber’s critique.
    Well done, Arun.

  8. Hi Arun,

    Apparently (unless she clarified this later in her article) Ms. Garber failed to note the obvious: tweets do commonly lead and link to urls and blogs with more narrative as yours did. Blogs do of course allow for more depth etc. if a reader is inclined to follow the links.

    Reading your tweet coverage as a stranger in New Jersey, I soon followed the path to your blog.

    I cannot begin got tell you how very much I have learned from your postings from Mumbai. I found your posts and perspective during the siege to be extraordinary. I did not get such a sense of immediacy and perspective from the traditional media in Mumbai, although of course I also followed them closely.

    I think that you did an outstanding job, and I can’t tell you how very much I appreciate your contribution to my understanding of the Mumbai situation.

  9. Just wanted to say, I followed the attacks through your Twitter posts (plus CNN, the BBC, and the Times of India website), and the idea of on-the-spot reportage as “lacking in depth” strikes me as absurd. Especially when you were talking about the impact on the neighborhood, and the local people who were killed. Also, the tweets gave me more of a sense of what was actually going on, right now, than the traditional media did (and in the 24-hour news era, I was suprised how much their coverage felt like the “daily paper” model: in the morning, they’d tell us what happened yesterday, and that wouln’t get updated for a long time).

    We all know there’s a lot on the net that’s irresponsible, but it’s good to be reminded that it depends on how the technology is used. Here was a case where responsible citizen journalists utilized the possibilities for what I think were really valuable ends. I think you and you fellow tweeters should be commended.

    (Who ever thought I’d use the word “tweeters” in a serious sentence?)

    1. Hi Karen: You justify it better that even I could have said it.
      I had only been introduced to twitter about four weeks ago and initially I did not think much about it. Even as this crisis broke, Tweeting and blogging about it was my way of taking my mind of the immediacy of the crisis soooo close to our home, and somehow share this with my friends. Little did I realize this was a unique perspective.

      I think in the future, newer tools like tweeter in conjunction with blogs truly democratize information gathering and distribution; and we as consumers will no longer be beholden to narrow points of view; and benefit.

      Thank you for your kind words of support.

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