Review & Interview: Distant Witness by Andy Carvin

Apr 5, 2013   //   by admin   //   Blog  //  No Comments

By Cate Kustanczy (Guest contributor/Digital Journalist)

NPR’s Andy Carvin is redefining how news is disseminated, distributed, shared, and consumed. His new book details how social media was used to report events in the Arab World in 2011, and more broadly, how technology is changing news reporting.

Carvin’s Twitter bio reads, “Senior strategist at NPR. Real-time informational DJ and occasional journalist, but not a social media guru.” He uses the platform to share news, views, and converse with his 90,000+ followers.

Lately Carvin’s feed has been peppered with news relating to his new bookDistant Witness: Social Media, The Arab Spring, And A Journalism Revolution (CUNY Journalism Press), which details the 2011 political uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, as well as the harrowing stories -online and in real life -around them. Told in a distinctly 21st century way, the Washington-based strategist weaves own direct experiences with those of many others, offering observations on the challenges of referencing and sourcing in the digital age.

“Am I a journalist or not?” he asks, half-hypothetically, half-serious. “Well, I commit acts of journalism, but I see myself as part of the blogger/maker/citizen-journalist cultures, someone who is creating things online because I think it’s in the public interest to do so, whether I’m employed to do it or not. I’ve been creating online content going back to 1994 and I’ve only been paid to do it in the last five or six years.”

Carvin regularly injects his tweets with tons of personality, something he was asked about during a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) last month:[...]my Twitter acct began as a personal one. My very first tweet was about eating pita and hummus – not exactly breaking news. Over the years, the account began to include more and more news-related tweets – and my followers seemed to like the mix. Also, I think it’s healthy to remind people that I’m not a bot – I’m just another guy on Twitter, hanging out with everyone else, trying to figure out what’s going on in the world.

In-person, Carvin is many things at once: jovial and contemplative, passionate and ponderous, confident and touchingly awkward. These apparent contradictions make him such a popular online figure; with so many responsibilities, his sizeable following, and his appetite for news, Carvin still manages to balance a family life (he’s a husband and father) and a passionate curiosity about people.

Over the course of our almost-two-hour conversation, he doesn’t take his mobile phone out once, reflecting both a respect for traditional conversation and a love of communication in all its guises. His ease with mixing the professional and the personal has fueled his online passion, that gives him such an impressive following, and, conversely, that has opened him up to some harsh criticism.

Last December, media critic Michael Wolff raked Carvin over the coals for the way he reported the Newtown shooting. Wolff characterized the Washington-based Carvin as “ a fevered spreader of misinformation” and scolded him as being “the empathy king.”

Furthermore, Wolff (who recently criticized newly-elected Columbia Journalism School Dean Steve Coll for not using Twitter) sarcastically hinted at an underlying current of smugness in Carvin’s work:It is this self-righteousness, and claim of moral stature, that, more than the technology, may give him his leeway and license – and voice. By virtue of his immersion in social media, he identifies with suffering more than people who see the world through traditional media. Through social media, he shares the pain.

Carvin made a thorough, detailed response, addressing Wolff’s piece paragraph by paragraph, but isn’t quite sure the critic -and those who share his views -fully appreciate the role of social media in 21st century reporting.

“It’s why you can’t argue with him on it,” he says, referring to Wolff. “When people do critiques like that, if I feel the need to respond, I do, but then I’m done with the conversation because I know I’ll never be able to change their minds. There’s no point.”

Raised in Florida and exposed to technology at an early age, Carvin first used the internet to have conversations. “The first time I went online was in 1984 when I was twelve years old,” he recalls. “There were all these NASA geeks who set up these systems. A friend of mine… his dad had a small computer company and he’d let us borrow his equipment. It was great. The first thing I thought (the internet) would be useful for was talking to people, because that’s all I used it for!”

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1994 with a Master’s degree in Telecom Science, Carvin was a recipient of the Annenberg/Washington Post-Graduate Fellowship, and worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; he went on to the Benton Foundation and later, the Digital Divide Network, before joining NPR in 2006.

It’s this sense of community that fuels much of the subtext inDistant Witness; the author was quick to point out in a recent interview that he doesn’t think the political upheavals were solely owing to the use of social media:What bothers me are sweeping generalizations that the Arab revolutions were social media revolutions. Yes, social media like Twitter and Facebook played a role — and what role they played always seems to be a matter of debate. But I don’t know many people who were involved in these revolutions who would describe them as such … real human beings had to march in the streets, protest against their governments and, in some cases, die for their cause. I don’t think their family members would consider their sacrifices part of social media revolutions.

It’s this human side that his followers appreciate, a side that mixes equally, again, in Distant Witness. The book has garnered no “lukewarm reactions. You either love it or hate it.”

A big part of the criticism as he sees it, stems from an out-moded mindset in journalism -what it is, how it should be done, and how it should be consumed. “People see the way journalism was produced in black and white: you do it this way but not that way. And people assume that since I’m doing it the one way, I must disapprove of the other. If that were true I wouldn’t work at NPR.”

What’s notable about Carvin’s feed is how, despite his huge following, he still manages to chat with followers while sharing pieces of information and news. That’s because “Twitter’s natural state of being is conversational. I don’t see [it] as a publishing tool – it’s a conversational tool. If all you do is publish-publish-publish, and you don’t LISTEN… the best thing you can do on Twitter is listen; that goes for all social media.”

The reporting of the Newtown shooting was difficult not only because of the high emotions, but because there was, as he puts it, so much “bad information flying around” last December 14th. The contradictions in reports made for a confusing, if not deeply unsettling, experience.

“Breaking news is messy,” Carvin explains. “So if I’m going to be trying to give a breaking news story, I want people to experience the messiness [...] like when CBS claimed one thing, CNN another. I tweet them one after the other so people can experience the contradiction.”

Broadcasting has a history of reporting things that aren’t confirmed, he notes. “You have reporters and anchors saying, “We have reports this is happening but we have not confirmed it…” So if we can do that on-air, why can’t we do that on other platforms, especially when those platforms offer instant feedback?”

The misinformation that spread during the Newtown shooting symbolizes the way the news industry has changed, he says. “Forty years ago -or more recently than that -rumors would be passed around by people talking on the phone or meeting in-person,” he explains. “Now rumors have platforms of people with hundreds of thousands of followers. The rumors become more prevalent than the facts. If our job isn’t to investigate and debunk rumors, what are we doing in this business?”

Traditional forms of journalism -print, TV, radio -don’t have what Carvin terms “a monopoly on debunking anymore. They don’t have a monopoly on controlling flow of information either. We need to navigate these waters of new dynamics, one we’re not used to, that make us very uncomfortable. If we’re going to do the public-interest aspects of our jobs, then it means publicly discussing things we’re skeptical about.”

Carvin expresses that skepticism, along with generous dollops of hope, throughout Distant Witness. Nowhere are those twin qualities better expressed than in the chapter, “Outing A Gay Girl in Damascus”, which highlights the search for the mysterious Syrian-American blogger Amina Abdallah Arraf in 2011.

“Ultimately I think the reason that story became a story was the initial reporting failures by several news organizations that did interviews with her, at least one of which implied the interview happened in person,” Carvin says. “The media was fooled… obviously rumors get spread by everyone, but there are times social media can correct mistakes by mainstream media.”

It’s with a similar sense of curiosity and drama that Carvin presents the story of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was injured in a 2011 attack on his residence. A photo of the injured leader circulated on the internet shortly thereafter; Carvin wasn’t so sure about its authenticity.“

As soon as I saw it, it felt wrong on so many levels,” he recalls. “I was pretty sure it was fake but the fact I was seeing it on regional websites meant that in a matter of time it might be used in news sources elsewhere.” Carvin posted the photo for his Twitter followers to analyze.

“They attacked it like piranhas,” he recalls, smiling. “I loved how it wasn’t just a matter of, “Oh look at the crop marks and problems with the shadows!” They found at least twenty different things wrong with it, including things I wouldn’t have found. There was a trauma nurse talking about it, noting the oxygen clipped to his nose was clearly not going into his nose; others spotted a second ear.”

His job, as he sees it, is to expose how the journo-sausage is made. “I am basically a transparent newsroom… perhaps the most important role I’m playing is expanding media literacy.”

Perhaps, I suggest, you’re doing shredding, but in reverse. “That’s a good way of describing it!” He thinks for a moment. “I hadn’t thought of that analogy, but yes, the job of a journalist is to be a reverse shredder. When people see what I’m doing on Twitter, that is the output of my process… they’re not going to see everything else going on. I’ve heard critics saying , ‘Well why doesn’t he just pick up a phone?’ Why are they assuming I don’t do that too? Skype is always open!

For somebody who doesn’t consider my work journalism, I don’t care. I’m not going to lose sleep over it because what I feel like I’m doing is, I am using certain platforms to tell stories, weave facts together as best I can and debunk rumors In the process and capture emotions of what people are experiencing. If people want to label that something else, let them argue over it.”

This article originally appeared in Digital Journal [Link]

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