Portrait of a journalist as a digital tourist

In the past month a handful of mainstream journalists have sojourned in the foreign territory that is Twitter. They were doing early reconnaissance for their reading publics in an attempt to make sense of a communications medium that is growing at a rate traditional media can only imagine in fevered and nostalgic wet dreams.

Ian Brown, a writer I greatly admire, got it into his head that people Twitter because they fear death. His column on the subject is behind a pay-firewall, the irony of which should not be ignored.

Margaret Wente, another large-brained columnist, followed a few high profile (and late-to-the-game) Twitterers and divined that nothing that passes for substance exists in their brief missives.

But, Brown, Wente and other journalists who pop in on Twitter to see how the locals are doing, are just playing at digital tourism.

Digital tourism by journalists is nothing new. Its practitioners view Twitter, or Facebook, or Second Life or role-playing games or whatever odd digital preoccupation has strummed the outer ganglia of the mass media nervous system in the same way Victorian tourists viewed the most remote of England's far-flung colonies.

Certainly the natives are colourful, speak an amusing pidgin English and have quaint customs and beliefs, but, really, not our sort, dear.

And like Englishmen out in the noonday tropic sun, the digital tourist reporters mail back postcards and steamer trunks full of the oddities and curios seen and sampled; but not understood or truly explored. And so their travelogues contain more fancy and falsehood than genuine discovery and learning.

It has always been this way. Journalists come to believe they have the agile brains that allow them to quickly become experts on Afghan rape laws one day, tasers the next and serial shootings the day after.

It's like the scene in the first Matrix movie when Trinity jumps into a helicopter and Neo asks her, "Do you know how to fly a helicopter?"

"Not yet," she responds and waits a moment while that expertise is downloaded to her brain and muscle memory.

General assignment reporters in newsrooms make their living by becoming instant and momentary experts ready to record the first draft of history while steeped in the transient mastery that passes for rich understanding.

Sometimes, often, that works just fine -- or at least well enough that no one except the person or group covered notices. But equally as often, when it really matters, daily journalists get stories terribly wrong and are, despite the rhetoric of correction, apt to repeat errors in the echo chamber of the wire service story and the archive.

Anyone who has tracked stories involving incidence rates for, say, chatroom pedophiles, knows that wildly incorrect data repeats like an onion sandwich once it hits print and the Web.

To make matters worse, many print journalists view the Web view as the place where morals, conscience, grammar and etiquette go to die. Exhibit One: Christie Blatchford's recent spittle-soaked column which refers to the "grunting pig English of the Web."

So, when journalists play not just expert, but digital tourist, their lack of real knowledge can be compounded by a preconception that the Web is a dark, threatening place -- sort of like the Congo to our Victorian wanderers.

The result is that neither Wente nor Brown returned from their brief Twitter sojourns with much of value. Neither spent the time to go native, or even live with them before they wrote their pieces. Now here I must give Brown his due, he has stuck with Twitter after his column appeared, and good on him. I hope Brown follows up once he’s lived in country a while.

This is a time of fiscal restraint, certainly for newspapers. It's time, I think, for editors to cancel all travel that involves digital tourism. And perhaps time to buck the trend, and spend the money on bureaus.

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