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The extensive coverage of the JFK assassination anniversary this week has me thinking as much about the evolution of media as it does about the death of the president.
As might be true for many Americans who were alive on Nov. 22, 1963, three aspects of the day stand out for me:
1. Where I was when I heard the news
2. Walter Cronkite’s emotional but careful report that the president had died
3. The Zapruder film documenting the shooting
The particulars of how I heard — from a high school classmate while changing classes — contrast sharply with the beep from my phone that delivers so much news today.
Back then, I got home from school in time to watch Cronkite, wincing back tears, announce that the president’s death had been confirmed.
Cronkite's reporting leading up to the announcement reflected the attention he paid to what was confirmed and what was not.
The early coverage included no mention of what hobbyist Abraham Zapruder had captured with his new Bell & Howell video camera, of course. The way those 26 seconds of film eventually made their way public suggests both the legacy and the promise of the verification and amplification of news.
As much as LIFE magazine scored a coup as the only media organization with rights to the Zapruder film, the prize these days should be reserved for journalists valuing collaborative verification ahead of competitive exclusivity.
Leading the way in this regard is a British blogger named Eliot Higgins who is known online as “Brown Moses.” That blog has revolutionized the art of verification from afar with assessments of gruesome battlefield videos and photos posted to YouTube from Syria.
The conflict there is both the world’s most lethal (more than 100 journalists have died among more than 60,000 people killed in the fighting) and the least accessible (the Assad regime has banned all foreign correspondents). Leave it to a non-journalist — Higgins as Brown Moses — to find ways of reporting the story anyway.
In the process, as the New Yorker points out in this excellent profile by Patrick Radden Keefe, Higgins is teaching the journalism world as much about the power of collaboration as he is about the intricacies of obscure means of killing people.
Any journalist with an ounce of humility realizes that, as media thinker Dan Gillmor has pointed out, there’s almost always an audience member who knows more about the subject matter of a story than its author.
Any journalist with an ounce of humility realizes that ... there’s almost always an audience member who knows more about the subject matter of a story than its author.
One journalist who got that was Raul Ramirez, who addressed the idea in remarks prepared before his death from cancer last Friday. As the role of the journalist has grown less distinct in the digital world of everyone-as-publisher, he said he found increasing clarity about his own role in the world of news.
Ramirez, who served as executive director of news and public affairs for KQED Public Radio in San Francisco, said he “began to see how journalists could frame the story, to give it context and depth, but that we could not own the story.”
He added: “I came to see that I did not give voice to others, but that my role was to amplify authoritative voices that lacked only access to the means to spread their messages.”
It’s highly unlikely that the renown in journalism history enjoyed by Walter Cronkite will ever be matched by Eliot Higgins or Raul Ramirez. What matters is the ways they advanced what Cronkite and others began 50 years ago in the verification and amplification of news.
This program aired on November 22, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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