Chasing the global stories that really matter, around-the-clock

If people in their mid-20s dig deep enough into their memory banks, they might be able to pull out hazy images of a time when mobile phones did not exist. They might also have a faint recollection of a period when TV news did not consist of 24-hour coverage. It is testament to the success of the format pioneered by the Cable News Network (CNN) 30 years ago that broadcasters around the world now rely on a constant news flow. Since its first broadcast on June 1, 1980, CNN has become a household name around the world, including in Greece, where its broadcasts became available in the late 1980s. CNN International is now broadcast to more than 200 countries. Its round-the-clock broadcasts are supported by its news website, which is trying to be at the forefront of harnessing the potential of social media and citizen journalism through concepts such as its iReport facility, to which some 700,000 people have signed up, allowing them to publish photographs and reports about events around the world. Kathimerini English Edition spoke to Roger Clark, CNN’s director of coverage for international news, in Athens yesterday about the Atlanta-based news network, future developments in the media and his job gathering news from more than 70 correspondents and 33 editorial operations. When CNN began round-the-clock news coverage, there was skepticism about whether it would work, but now most outlets have picked up the format. Why has it been so successful? It was an amazing piece of visionary genius by [CNN founder] Ted Turner to put all that faith in something that had not been done anywhere else before. People have just got a huge appetite for information and, as their appetite has grown, the demand to be informed has increased all over the world and that led to the spread of round-the-clock news, not just on television but online. People these days want what they want when they want it and that’s the case in news. If you come home in the evening and you’ve missed the traditional 10 p.m. news, then you’ll go to rolling news or you’ll go online. Is there a sense at all that CNN has created the market for rolling news rather than meeting a demand that already existed? It’s probably the two running in tandem. I don’t think one can ever completely outstrip the other. There’s the demand and there’s the supply, which can sometimes get ahead of the demand but the demand then catches up. Do you feel that social media is having a similar effect in terms of news coverage on the Internet? Is it creating a demand for wall-to-wall coverage? Social media sites have been an incredible revolution over the last couple of years. The phenomenon has certainly changed the way that we do our work. It’s a great opportunity to share information. It’s still shared through traditional media like CNN but digital media like Twitter and Facebook allow information to be shared between people, not going through news organizations. In what ways has CNN tapped into this? As far as the output is concerned, we’re using it a lot and we’re putting the voice of the consumer on the air. So, we are interacting with our audience in a way that we’ve never done before. It’s great to hear what people think. They’re no longer the silent receivers of news, they’re very much players in the process. In terms of news gathering, it’s completely changed the way that we operate. We’re very aggressive in terms of trawling websites, looking for news, looking for comment, looking for analysis, looking for tips. We don’t just put that stuff on the air but Twitter, for example, is a great way of keeping abreast of what’s going on in the world and being tipped off to news quickly. Once we see a tip, we go chasing after it. At the same time, it’s a very good way for us to get in touch with newsmakers, particularly in cases of breaking news. We’re getting in touch with people on the ground, at the scene that we would never have been able to get in touch with before. Not long after the Chile earthquake happened, I looked up and saw on CNN International an interview on Skype with someone in Chile and I thought: «How on earth did we do that so quickly?» One of the women on the international desk spotted something on Twitter, started a dialogue on Twitter, then exchanged e-mails and, before you know it, we had this person on Skype. This was a person who was not an official, just an ordinary person who was at home in his house and could talk about what happened. How amazing is that? We wouldn’t have been able to do that two years ago. It’s a really good way of putting us in touch with people who are making the news and experiencing the news in a way that we couldn’t do before. Social media have helped citizen journalism to flourish. As someone in one of the world’s largest professional news organizations, is this something you treat with a little skepticism or do you embrace it? I absolutely embrace it because it means that there are millions of people out there with the potential to take pictures that appear on CNN. Anybody who carries a phone is carrying a camera that could provide material for CNN. The ability of people to get in touch with us has been enhanced massively. When I started in this business 25 to 30 years ago, you didn’t have much interaction with the public. The public are great newsmakers and they know what’s going on. Our dialogue 25 to 30 years ago was with officials, politicians, police, councilors, press officers, that kind of thing, but now we’re getting the news from real people who are out there feeling what is going on in the community and they’re letting us know about it in a fairly uncensored way. We’ve got 700,000 registered iReporters and millions of people around the world with the ability to take pictures, so as a professional journalist and a news gatherer it means my ability to get great pictures and stories has been enhanced hugely. The pictures and reports that reach you are unfiltered, so they could be laced with bias. How do you treat them once you receive them? With iReport there is very robust vetting of the individuals and the material we receive. We also look at other material we receive very carefully. We have an advantage at CNN, which is that we’ve got so many people in so many parts of the world that can help with that vetting procedure. So, say a picture comes in of something that’s happening, we’ll find someone at CNN who is from that part of the world and get them to look at the picture to authenticate it. Is it the right street furniture? Are the fashions that people are wearing OK? Are the shop signs in the right language? Are the police uniforms the right ones? We also vet the story; we chase it down to make sure it’s actually happening. What we don’t do is just put this stuff on the air because we’ve got a reputation to protect and a brand to protect. Something inherently linked with social media and citizen journalism is new technology, such as the iPhone, the iPad, the Galaxy Tab and so on. How does technology fit in to what you are doing? It’s absolutely changed the way we work. On an iPhone, for instance, you can use the camera, you can get onto a 3G network and from this room here I could put you on the air at CNN. It’s remarkable. When I first started in this business, to get a live broadcast from anywhere that wasn’t a studio was a real challenge. You’d have to get expensive satellite trucks, get them to the location, which could take a while, get them set up. It was quite an operation. Now, we interview people live to air on Skype all the time. We use broadband technology a lot in order to get our correspondents on air from various parts of the world. We don’t have to lug satellite dishes around the world in the way we used to have to do at great expense. Now, we can go live from a location, on broadband, for free. It’s been suggested that the growth of technology also signals the slow death of the newspaper. Do you agree? I think there’s room for all platforms in the marketplace. When I was in radio, everyone was talking about digital TV and telling me to get out of radio because it was about to die. Well, it hasn’t. People said when radio came along that it was the death of newspapers, but it wasn’t. You have to adapt with the times and newspapers are doing that – they have websites, newspaper journalist don’t just go out anymore and write, they can film and edit material for the website. If you stay still and do things exactly the way you have been doing it, then you’re in some trouble. But if you’re prepared to embrace modern technology and modern consumer demands and adjust your business to those demands, then there’s no reason why you should not be successful going forward. CNN and the BBC are probably the only networks that have a truly international appeal and can speak with a truly international voice. What has made CNN respected? We’ve got high standards and editorial integrity. It’s not something that happened overnight; it’s something that has taken a long time to build. I think people trust what we say because we’ve been setting a high standard for a long time. The BBC is the same. We don’t necessarily rush to air with something if we’re not sure because we don’t want to be wrong. Speed is not always the most important factor. Being accurate is really important and we don’t like to get it wrong. People know what CNN stands for and it’s important we protect our brand. We’ve got a very robust standards and practices department and if we have to handle controversial material, we don’t just rush it out. We talk about it and develop a strategy for getting it on the air in a way that people will value and trust. Beyond the issue of reliability, what are some of the other challenges you face in gathering news from so many sources around the world? We obviously have technical challenges reporting from some parts of the world. Getting into some countries can also be difficult. There are safety issues as well, which we take incredibly seriously. In some parts of the world, you are fed a government line and we use very experienced journalists who can see through that and who can go in search of the other side of the story. Because CNN reports from so many countries, is there ever a danger that you cover stories superficially? We try to focus on the stories that really matter, that an inquiring mind would want to know more about. We also try to explain the «why» by putting things into context and we drill deep. We don’t do every news story there is in the world. We do fewer stories and better. We’ve got correspondents who are real experts in their fields. They’ve lived in these countries for many years and really understand the dynamic of the country and the story their covering. Context and analysis is really important. In the Greek case, one of the things we had to do as an international channel and international news-gathering team was to explain the Greek financial situation to the global audience and the American audience. We have to explain to people around the world why what is happening in Greece is important to them. That’s our challenge and I think we’ve done pretty well. Have you found the Greek debt crisis a difficult story to cover? For starters, it’s a crucially important global story. We all understand why it’s important Greece does not fail. We are so interconnected that if one economy fails, it will have a ripple effect. We’re also very lucky that we’ve got some incredibly strong business correspondents like Richard Quest, Charles Hodson and Andrew Stevens. These people understand what’s going on and, crucially, have the ability to translate that into the kind of language that people who don’t have a business background understand. We’ve put a lot of effort into covering the Greek story in recent months because it is so important. Our challenge is to explain why what is happening in Greece matters, so CNN in the US, for instance, has been explaining why something happening halfway around the world is impacting on their pensions and how much money they can spend each week. Earlier this week, Greek Finance Minister Giorgos Papaconstantinou stated for the first time publicly, in an interview with CNN, that the government would be making more spending cuts next year. It was obviously a great scoop for CNN but is there a danger in politicians seeking to do their business via the major international networks rather than directly addressing the people that elected them? I can see why a Greek finance minister would want to go on CNN and say this because his message is not just a message for the Greek people, it’s also a message for the rest of the world, particularly in Europe and America. People in Greece watch CNN, so by talking to CNN he is also talking to the Greek people. But he has to get a message out to the wider world, not just Greece, and what better way to do it than to speak to CNN, which is watched around the world as well as in Greece?

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