Google, China and the Demands of Real-Time News

The reason time exists, Albert Einstein once said, is to prevent everything from happening all at once. In an age of Twitter and blogs and instant publishing of all kinds, it often feels like everything is happening all at once — events occur and are described and interpreted and then the information is distributed to the far corners of the globe instantaneously. In some cases those descriptions and interpretations are very true, but in some cases they are just plain wrong. Take what happened last Thursday night, for example, when reports emerged from Google that its services in China were being blocked. Almost instantly, blogs and other news outlets started writing and publishing the story. The only problem was that it turned out not to be true. Was this a failure of real-time journalism? No.

Less than 30 minutes after the first report, news started filtering out through Twitter that seemed to show Chinese citizens and observers in that country were accessing Google services without any difficulty. Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online, a fellow at Princeton University and a former CNN reporter in China, started re-posting messages from contacts there who said they were having no trouble at all with Google’s website. Meanwhile, more and more news services and blogs were reporting that Google was blocked in China — including blogs like VentureBeat as well as news outlets such as the Reuters wire service and Bloomberg, and publications such as the New York Times.

One of the first outlets to question the reports was The Next Web, thanks in large part to sources on Twitter (including Rebecca MacKinnon) who said that there was no blockage. TechCrunch also had skeptical take, thanks to its use of Webpulse to check and see whether was blocked or not. Finally, after several hours, Google confirmed that the reports of its website being blocked were likely an over-reaction to a “small block” somewhere in China that had since been rectified. Posts at various blogs were updated, Reuters issued an updated story, and the news gradually faded from view.

So was this a failure of real-time journalism, or an example of it in action? You can find opinions on both sides of that question. Some commenters on Twitter and various blogs and news sites questioned why anyone would report that Google was blocked without checking with people actually in China to confirm it. Others said — at least initially — that it was enough to take Google’s word on the subject, since it is a credible source, and that being blocked in China was a big enough news story (given the recent back-and-forth between the company and the Chinese authorities) that it justified being published right away and then updated.

From my standpoint, this story unfolded in a completely natural way — if by natural you mean in tune with the way the web and social media function. It may not have been pretty, or nicely packaged, or even coherent at times, but it made perfect sense in era of real-time reporting and what Craig Silverman (in a great post about WikiLeaks at the Columbia Journalism Review) calls “distributed verification.” News breaks, it gets reported, others update that information either in comments on news stories or on Twitter or on their own blogs, that gets distributed, more corrections appear and additional information is added, then posts and news stories are updated, and so on. At any moment, there may be errors, but they are corrected (hopefully) just as quickly as they appear.

This is journalism as a process rather than a packaged product. It may not be pretty, but it is functional — and it arguably does readers more of a service than the assembly-line production system of mainstream media, which often ignores updates and corrections if they are inconveniently timed. Yes, it is often messy and confusing, and that is what journalism in this new era consists of: making sense of that process and bringing meaning to it, both during and after the fact. In a stirring post at Politics Daily, Walter Shapiro argues for a “slow news” movement instead of the rush to publish, but he might as well be arguing for a return to the days of horse-and-buggy transportation. The reality is that we need both speed and thoughtfulness in equal measure.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Robbert van der Steeg