Michael Jackson's death makes journalists of all of us

The Iranian protests and the death of Michael Jackson signal a shift in the flow of news and the role of the audience. In both cases, much of news and information trickled online in fragments, via Twitter, blogs, Flickr and YouTube.

In the past, only the journalist would have access to these fragments. Their role would be to contact sources, assess and verify the information, and put together a definite account of what happened to be delivered as a package to the audience, in print or in a broadcast. This process would take place over the course of a day.

In the age of the internet, the public is increasingly being asked to take on this role, and often at a much faster pace.

Take the death of Michael Jackson. There was an explosion of activity on Twitter, much of it commenting on the validity of reports from TMZ and the Los Angeles Times that the superstar had died.

People turned to mainstream media, both on TV and online, to try to verify what they were hearing.  In a sense, the public were acting like journalists, following up news tips and cross-checking sources in an attempt to verify the information they were getting.

The same process took place during the Iranian protests.  With increasing restrictions on journalists, information about rallies, arrests and deaths were coming out via social media, leaving both journalists and the public to sort through the often conflicting accounts.

As the New York Times noted, “essentially, the news tips that reporters have always relied upon are now being aired in public”.

This does not mean there is no longer a role for the professional journalist. If anything, the need for a professional who can authenticate and contextualise the news is greater than ever before.

But there is also a need for a media-literate public, who has the ability to decipher the wealth of information coming to them. When big news breaks, we are all taking on the mantle of the journalist.

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