HETRICK: All the news that's fit to tweet, post and petition

March 24, 2012

On the evening of St. Patrick’s Day, my wife and I were at home, watching the NCAA basketball tournament on TV.

At some point, we heard sirens in the distance. But living where we do, near two level-1 trauma centers in the heart of downtown, that’s not unusual.

Within minutes, however, I learned that something unusual had caused the alarm.

For me, merely watching a game, political coverage, an intense drama or reality TV show is no longer enough. Ever the junkie for news, behind-the-scenes details, snarky comments and additional perspective—and increasingly unwilling to wait for an evening newscast or morning paper to get my fix—I often sit with my iPhone close at hand, checking feeds from Twitter and Facebook.

It’s how I learned about the tsunami in Japan. How I learned about the State Fair stage-rigging collapse. How I learned Whitney Houston had died. How I learned which candidate won which election. How I learned the Indiana Senate had watered down the smoking ban. How I learned where Peyton Manning was interviewing. How I learned Secretary of State Charlie White had been convicted. How I learned tornadoes had ravaged southern Indiana.

And that night, it’s how I learned five kids had been shot a few blocks from my home.

Newspapers may be thinner these days. Print and broadcast newsrooms may have suffered myriad layoffs. But we’re getting more information faster and from more sources than ever before.

And increasingly, this instant and omnipresent feed of news, commentary and interconnection is not only informing, but also inciting response and delivering results.

For those of us in need (or want) of getting and checking the accuracy of information, modern media is a godsend.

For folks at fault or trying to hide something, it’s now difficult or impossible to pull off.

Recently, for example, a friend on Facebook was researching the name of a company making a particular product. He posted a message: “Need some crowdsourcing here” and described what he sought. Within minutes, three people sent the answer.

I recently learned via Twitter that one of my favorite authors had published a new book. I downloaded it to my Kindle.

I read fact checks on the accuracy/inaccuracy of various candidates’ claims and counterclaims—often before they stepped away from the podium.

But these past few weeks in particular have highlighted the power of modern media to alter the public agenda and right apparent wrongs.

Late on St. Paddy’s Eve, New York Times columnist Charles Blow sent a Twitter message saying folks could read his next day’s column in advance.

I did.

That’s how I learned about Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot dead in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman.

The outrage was that Martin had merely been buying candy for his little brother, was unarmed and was a legitimate neighborhood guest. He was apparently doing nothing more suspicious than walking home from the store and talking with his girlfriend on his cell phone. That—and he was a black teenage boy.

When Zimmerman called 911 to report this “suspicious” character, the dispatcher told him to wait for patrol officers and not to give chase. Zimmerman gave chase. Then he shot Martin dead. He claimed self-defense and the cops let him off.

But by midweek, the alleged small-town injustice had gone viral, hundreds of thousands of people had signed online petitions calling for an investigation and arrest, and the FBI and the U.S. attorney general had intervened in the case.

These days, small-town injustice is hard to hide.

Meanwhile, halfway ’round the world, there’s the case of Kony 2012. Joseph Kony is head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Ugandan guerrilla group. He’s also the target of and poster child for one of the most sophisticated social media initiatives ever undertaken.

A group called Invisible Children wants Kony arrested in 2012—for turning young boys into a murdering army, for turning young girls into sex slaves, for making kids kill their parents.

Last time I checked, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video had been viewed nearly 90 million times on YouTube.

While there’s controversy aplenty about the founders of Invisible Children, their modern media methodology has spawned headline attention to an issue that likely would have been buried by conventional media. They’ve put a Third World issue on the map. They’re getting attention from public figures and policymakers. And they’re getting action.

To be sure, there’s cause for concern in the demise of traditional journalism. But as a media and policy junkie, it’s refreshing to see news, commentary and the public agenda influenced not just by a few rich-and-powerful media moguls, but also by millions of sources with wide-ranging resources and the means and passion to inform us quickly, challenge our thinking, and drive us to act.•


Hetrick is an Indianapolis-based writer, speaker and public relations consultant. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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