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July 28 2011

13:43

Visualizing 10 Years of Violence Against Journalists in Afghanistan

Internews and Nai, an Afghan media advocacy organization, have collected hundreds of reports of threats, intimidation, and violence faced by journalists in Afghanistan. We recently announced a new site, which features 10 years of these reports. While Nai's data previously resided in spreadsheets, the new site allows the public to access hundreds of reports through visualizations and to download it directly. With this site we're raising the profile of media freedom in a country often characterized as among the most dangerous in the world for journalists.

Violence Against Journalists - data.nai.org.af

A screenshot of data.nai.org.af.

The site is packed with functionality that allows visitors to interact with the dataset in a variety of ways. Visitors can quickly scan the map to get a national overview of the data. They can drill down on individual provinces and individual years, seeing charts that depict violence over time when they mouse over the dots. If a visitor clicks on a year, they can even browse the data itself in a table just below the map.

We've also allowed visitors to turn on layers that can increase contextual understanding, such as the number of active journalists in each province, the number of media organizations in each province, and so on. Finally, users can download the full dataset and easily generate the code necessary to embed the map on other websites, in electronic press releases, and so on.

We included all this functionality without compromising one of the most important and desirable features of the site: speed. The maps are composited ahead of time, significantly reducing the loading time in Afghanistan and other bandwidth-constrained environments. We've also included a bit of code that dynamically evaluates each visitor's connection and serves map tiles that reflect that visitor's constraints. At the end of the day the maps are fast in spite of poor connections and remain fully interactive.

Violence Against Journalists map featuring ten years of incidents (see the website for more data and details):

July 26 2011

05:55

News of the World: final hours - Paul McNamara, former defense editor

New York Times :: News of the World hacked the phones of a murdered teenager, the victims of the 7/7 London bombings and possibly soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was on a 410-foot-long British Navy warship that was firing missiles into Libya, covering the war for News of the World. I called my boss. “It couldn’t be much worse, son,” he said. “Get home." - I went back.

[Paul McNamara:] News of the World has become an international punch line — but I grew up with it ...

Paul McNamara was formerly the defense editor of News of the World.

Continue to read Paul McNamara, www.nytimes.com

February 10 2011

19:42

Basetrack in Limbo as Embeds Removed Due to Map Concerns

Over the weekend we learned that someone, somewhere, decided that Basetrack's journalists would have to go. So after we posted up the letter, we scratched our heads and wondered why. Actually, we're still wondering, especially since we received this note from the Marine Corps public affairs office in Afghanistan:

Teru,

Good chatting with you.  As discussed, we very much appreciate the Knight Foundation's efforts in highlighting the important work of our Marines and Sailors of First Battalion, Eighth Marines over the past six months in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.  Your team has not been disembedded; media ground rules were not violated.  Instead, the unit made the decision to not entertain the next team of Basetrack.org members, since many of the Marines and Sailors were beginning turnover preparation for redeployment.  There had been concerns by a number of individuals on the use of online maps to portray service members' positions.  I understand that you deliberately off-set actual locations in order to safeguard force protection.  Additionally, First Battalion, Eight Marines' Executive Officer (Maj Ansel) verified each post to basetrack.org. 

This close partnership between the command's leadership and Knight Foundation members is important to note.  While most media embeds last only two weeks, this unit committed to assisting with this project in order to better connect the public to what their service members are doing each day in Afghanistan. 

I think the project was incredibly worthwhile and the relationships you forged with our Marines and Sailors impressive; I heard nothing but positive things from the unit. 

Please know that the unit is hoping you will attend their homecoming.  Also, we welcome you back to Regional Command Southwest and Helmand Province in the future. 
 
Regards,
Gabrielle M. Chapin
Major, U.S. Marine Corps
Director, Regional Command Southwest Public Affairs
First Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD)
Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan

Not Sure of Next Steps

The public head-scratching continued on our Facebook page and through interviews with PRI's The World and elsewhere.

Some of the comments were touching:

To be honest not sure what y'all do..but I do know that my brother is in the Marines and we haven't seen him in a very long time...and I see my mother posting on here and even called me when you did a wonderful piece on him...since you make my mother smile and bring those happy tears to her eyes I thank you...We love you Nenish..come home safe to us and my prayers go out to the basetrack family and all those involved...

Some were heated, particularly when discussing Operational Security and legitimate safety concerns.

Some were just confused. The most interesting thing about the project is watching the audience -- a very small, but committed and diverse group of people -- grapple with the complexities and nuances of a very difficult subject, war, that is also incredibly personal. If you had told me a year ago that I would be discussing the The Hidden War: a Russian journalist's account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan with a group of civilians, who asked probing, complex questions about the policy in Afghanistan that puts most of the public debate I've seen on television or read in a newspaper or heard on the radio to shame, I wouldn't have believed you.

Yet now, here we are, planning the next stage. I wonder where it will go.

February 07 2011

22:42

Marines ask Basetrack to leave amid security concerns

A curious development over at Basetrack this afternoon. (You may remember Basetrack as Teru Kuwayama’s Knight News Challenge-winning project to use social media to tell stories about an American military unit in Afghanistan.) Word from Kuwayama is that they’re being asked to leave the Marine regiment they’ve been working with.

Posting on Basetrack’s blog, Kuwayama wrote: “It was hard to get clarification on why, how or who issued the order…but we’ll keep you posted.”

While praising Basetrack for the work they’ve done to highlight the lives of Marines serving overseas, a memo from the unit’s public affairs officer says they’re asking Basetrack to leave because of “perceived operational security violations.” From the memo:

These concerns are legitimate. Specifically the websites tie in to google maps to display friendly force locations. At this time there has been no official OpSec determination yet and therefore they are being asked to leave and NOT disembedded (disembedding is a formal process that occurs after OpSec determinations have been finalized). RCT 8 Public Affairs concerns lie in the fact that anytime too much information is aggregated in one place in a fashion tying unit disposition and manpower together we have facilitated the enemy.

The news is a surprise to say the least: Kuwayama has spent extensive time embedded with Marines. The about face by the military is more surprising, as Kuwayama told The New York Times last year that the Marines were the ones who asked him to come along to chronicle the lives of soldiers. One of the more remarkable aspects of Basetrack is the collaboration between soldiers and the project’s photographers, a melding that allowed Marines to connect with family and friends back here in the states. (A quick look at responses on Basetrack’s Facebook page shows a mix of confusion, sadness and pragmatism as troops safety is their top priority.) And the integration with mapping tools is one of the most impressive elements of Basetrack’s site.

Kuwayama was a speaker at December’s #niemanleaks conference, where he told the audience about the lengths Basetrack goes to to make sure they don’t release sensitive information. Kuwayama called it a “denial of information” system, that allowed for the military to quickly and easily redact information as needed. We’re reaching out to him to see if we can get more clarity on what exactly this means for Basetrack.

January 12 2011

16:04

The War After the War Plays Out for Veterans in Psych Ward

Basetrack is following the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 1-8, for their tour in Musa Qala, Helmand, one of Afghanistan's most dangerous and strategically important locations. The goal is to tell a small fragment of their story in real time, as it unfolds. We aim to create a connection between the Marine strapping on his helmet and heading out on patrol and the public who have little or no personal stake in the war. For the Marines and their families, there is a perception that no one cares, that no one even remembers there is a war going on.

(For more on this project, read this previous blog post.)

War stories are frustrating -- especially the true ones. They've been told a million different ways since Homer. Each one is unique, each one the same. Cruelness and beauty, savagery and charity, shame and pride, cowardice and valor, idiocy and genius are in full bloom in war. War is full of life's extremities compressed in tiny explosive packets, full of experiences that defy expression. Firefights and bombings and their aftermath -- a tongue can't contort those sights to language, a brain can't take full measure of them even long after the fact. 

Explaining it to an audience half a world away, desensitized and bored after 10 years of war is even more difficult.

Attracted to Risk-Taking

The Marines are halfway through their tour now. For many, this isn't their first and for many, it won't be their last. It has been a difficult tour. We communicate directly with people interested in the project and the Marines' families through our Facebook page, and the ebb and flow of emotion and strain of this deployment on the families is digitally palpable. 

(Note that out of respect for very real concerns about operational security and safety for all involved, there is a delay between the time a photograph or an audio interview or a story is composed and when it is posted on our site, which allows for redactions.)

I can't say for sure, because I haven't spent any time with the Marines yet, but if my past combat experience is any indication, many will come home with war still in them. They will have stories they are unable to tell -- stories that reside in limbic systems that were remapped for combat and now strain to adjust to life back in the States.

A footnote in the Army's report [PDF file] about the ever-increasing suicide rate within its ranks said, "The all-volunteer Army attracts and recruits individuals who enlist knowing they will be sent into harm's way. A segment of this population is not only aware of the risk but may be attracted to risk-taking."

Shared Commitment

I fought in Afghanistan and I miss it. I miss the risk, the bonding and the sense of purpose, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to Basetrack after I got out of the Army. I served 16 months in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division.  

In Sebastian Junger's book about an infantry company's experience in the Korengal Valley, he wrote about the thing infantrymen miss most when they come home: The sense that someone has your back.

"The Army might screw you and the girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another's lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time," Junger wrote.

This bond cuts both ways, however -- especially after a tough deployment when the absolute single-mindedness of combat action is replaced with the mind-numbing and often frustrating kaleidoscope of experience in the real world. The strain of combat presented itself in different ways when members of my battalion came home. Some of the more extreme examples: 

  • Drunk out of his mind, one soldier walked up to a police station with a pellet gun, threatening the cops. The officers said that he was trying to commit suicide-by-cop -- to let someone else have the responsibility of pulling the trigger for once. 
  • A friend's wife stole $4,000 from him and spent it all on heroin, the irony not lost on anyone. He divorced her, but not his emotions, and put himself into an early grave. 
  • The MPs went to a house on post to investigate a 911 hang-up call. By the time they came to the door, the Staff Sergeant was a bottle of vodka deep. He told them there was nothing wrong. They wanted to investigate more. He invited them in, produced a concealed pistol, forced them on their knees and took their weapons away. When their backup arrived and tried to talk the Staff Sergeant down, he fired two shots at them.  They shot him in the neck and the face and killed him dead in the house where he lived with his wife and three children. 

Of course, there were also divorces, fights, drinking, drug use, arrests, and other expressions of frustration with life after war.

These stories aren't unique; they're representative of the things that happen after war, when the bill for the psychic debt incurred after months of sustained tension comes due. It happens after every war.

Ward 1A

inuse.jpg

My story isn't unique. I spent my last two years in the Army back in the U.S., in a good job, with a wonderful girlfriend and the promise of better days ahead. Still, something was wrong. I couldn't sleep. I was depressed. Morose. Bitter. Angry. Drinking.

I took anti-depressants. I saw counselors. I spent 12 days in an in-patient psychiatric ward at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, after I took matters into my own hands. I was not a happy patient. Here's a note from my art therapist:  

"Patient did attend and participate in art therapy group. He was agitated and attempted throughout the session to instigate and provoke arguments with other group members. This patient eventually calmed down...the graphic conversation and commented that 'I can draw bullshit all day!' He was loud and confrontational. He was not able to receive feedback and was not able to provide meaningful feedback to others. He was resistant to even hearing about others' assessments of their own work. During this session, the patient's mood was agitated and was congruent with his affect. The patient was challenging and distracting to others."

Getting out of the Army last summer didn't change much except my health care.

Less than a month ago, on the day after Christmas, I checked into Ward 1A of the Veteran's Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas -- the psych ward. The staff called it the "VA Spa," a place where a bunch of seriously messed up vets check in to chill out. Another patient, a Navy guy, called it the "flight deck" because it's where vets crashed and then had short take-offs, often to return or transition to another form of treatment.

"1A ain't spittin' out winners," he said.

On the ward, in plastic chairs molded around heavy weights to prevent throwing, sat combat vets from Korea and Vietnam, along with other veterans who had no combat experience, just serious mental conditions. All were clad in sterile hospital scrubs color-coded by size.

Blogging From Hell

I was the only one from Iraq or Afghanistan, but it was a slow time, the doctors assured me. Plus, most of the Vietnam vets hadn't started to show up at the VA until five or ten years after their combat tours. All of us were on potent cocktails of medications. Pretty much everyone in there had some sort of dual psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD. Drug addiction. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Homicidal thoughts. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Delusional. Actively psychotic. Alcoholism. Pretty much anything in the DSM-IV

You could put all those conditions up on a bulletin board, throw a couple of darts and come up with someone's condition. Darts, of course, weren't allowed in Ward 1A.

For many on the ward, the war never ended. Many, like me, had been there before. I talked to Teru Kuwayama, who leads Basetrack, and we decided there was value in covering the way the war continues in individuals, long after deployment ends. 

So here I am, blogging from a VA psych ward now that I've transitioned to an intensive outpatient program. Kuwayama and I couldn't have written a script like this, but here it is, and it's important. If people can ignore a public war in it's 10th year, they will certainly ignore the private war that continues long after.

At the end of my first day in 1A, a nurse introduced another veteran in-patient, prompting him with standard questions -- name, hometown, current place of residence, that sort of thing. The man, a Vietnam Special Forces combat veteran whose father was one of the first 100 Americans killed in Vietnam, answered. 

"Where do I come from? I come from my mother. Where do I live? I live in hell."

January 11 2011

16:23

Radio Azadi in Afghanistan Delivers News to Mobile Phones

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is three months into an interactive SMS service with its Radio Azadi service in Afghanistan that allows listeners to access content and participate in the program via mobile phone.RFERLRadio.jpg

Through the interactive SMS service, Radio Azadi is now able to send and receive SMS messages from subscribers. As a news organization, the main goal of RFE/RL is reaching an audience, according to Julian Knapp, RFE/RL's deputy communications director.

"We want to make sure our content is available on whatever platform Afghans want to consume it on," Knapp said. The service allows listeners to become texters, and people around the country have sent in messages to the radio station. Roughly 200 messages are now flowing in per day.

RFE/RL is a private, non-profit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress. RFE/RL currently reaches 21 countries, and Radio Azadi, the Afghan station, has been broadcasting for 10 years and is the most popular media outlet in the country. It has a weekly audience of 7.9 million and a market share of about 50 percent.

How it works

Outgoing messages -- those sent by Radio Azadi -- include breaking news headlines and emergency alerts. The headlines are sent about twice daily and there are currently 50,000 subscribers since the launch in late October.

RFE/RL partnered with mobile provider Etisalat for the interactive SMS service; it's free for users. Knapp said it was important to go with a major regional player with a large subscriber base. However, only Etisalat customers can join the service for now. To sign up to the bilingual SMS headline service (there is one code for Dari and one for Pashto), people send an SMS message to a shortcode.

Another facet of the service supports citizen journalism in Afghanistan by allowing subscribers to text in reports and opinions. Radio Azadi receives 150 to 200 messages a day from Afghans with messages ranging from music requests, comments on programming, and information about local stories and issues. Subscribers can also send in MMS and photos. Knapp said the majority of incoming texts are substantial news messages and a selection of these messages are read over the air. In some cases, RFE/RL reporters follow up to verify details, or are tipped off about a story which they then investigate themselves.

Radio Azadi provides the headline text to Etisalat via a web interface, and the provider, in turn, sends the SMS message to subscribers via a bulk distribution. For incoming messages, Etisalat helps advertise the short code via bulk ads to the base, and messages and pictures sent in are then forwarded to the radio station.

Using New Tech to Reach New Audiences

Though the service is in the early days, Knapp said it has proved important for rural areas of Afghanistan. The majority of incoming SMS messages come from small villages or rural areas where people don't have as much access to officials or media.

"People's habits are developing as we speak," Knapp said. "Which seems to suggest that people there feel more disconnected and like the idea of having a new outlet for their concerns and observations."

As elsewhere, mobile penetration is on the rise in Afghanistan, where up to 60 percent of Afghans have access to a mobile phone, Knapp said. In addition, the mobile environment is modern.

"Infrastructure was so destroyed," Knapp said, "that Afghanistan started pretty much from scratch. Development skipped the infrastructure-heavy broadband and telephone lines and went straight to mobile."

Which is why mobile infrastructure -- where it's available -- is modern and advanced.

Radio in Afghanistan is still the main means to reach a wide audience especially outside of urban centers. "SMS is a complement for us because we are aware of how crucial radio is," Knapp said.

This month, Radio Azadi moves into mobile audio with the launch of an IVR (interactive voice response) component. People will be able to call a number and choose a language and category (sports, entertainment, news, and so on). The audio recordings will be updated several times a day.

The above image shows free solar-powered radios being distributed by RFE/RL in Afghanistan, to promote access to information where people lack access to electricity. Mobile phones can be charged via the radios. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL.

December 07 2010

08:47

One ambassador’s embarrassment is a tragedy, 15,000 civilian deaths is a statistic

Few things illustrate the challenges facing journalism in the age of ‘Big Data’ better than Cable Gate – and specifically, how you engage people with stories that involve large sets of data.

The Cable Gate leaks have been of a different order to the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. Not in number (there were 90,000 documents in the Afghanistan war logs and over 390,000 in the Iraq logs; the Cable Gate documents number around 250,000) – but in subject matter.

Why is it that the 15,000 extra civilian deaths estimated to have been revealed by the Iraq war logs did not move the US authorities to shut down Wikileaks’ hosting and PayPal accounts? Why did it not dominate the news agenda in quite the same way?

Tragedy or statistic?

Generally misattributed to Stalin, the quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” illustrates the problem particularly well: when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering.

Research suggests this is a problem that not only affects journalism, but justice as well. In October Ben Goldacre wrote about a study that suggested “People who harm larger numbers of people get significantly lower punitive damages than people who harm a smaller number. Courts punish people less harshly when they harm more people.”

“Out of a maximum sentence of 10 years, people who read the three-victim story recommended an average prison term one year longer than the 30-victim readers. Another study, in which a food processing company knowingly poisoned customers to avoid bankruptcy, gave similar results.”

Salience

This is where journalists play a particularly important role. Kevin Marsh, writing about Wikileaks on Sunday, argues that

“Whistleblowing that lacks salience does nothing to serve the pubic interest – if we mean capturing the public’s attention to nurture its discourse in a way that has the potential to change something material. “

He is right. But Charlie Beckett, in the comments to that post, points out that Wikileaks is not operating in isolation:

“Wikileaks is now part of a networked journalism where they are in effect, a kind of news-wire for traditional newsrooms like the New York Times, Guardian and El Pais. I think that delivers a high degree of what you call salience.”

This is because last year Wikileaks realised that they would have much more impact working in partnership with news organisations than releasing leaked documents to the world en masse. It was a massive move for Wikileaks, because it meant re-assessing a core principle of openness to all, and taking on a more editorial role. But it was an intelligent move – and undoubtedly effective. The Guardian, Der Spiegel, New York Times and now El Pais and Le Monde have all added salience to the leaks. But could they have done more?

Visualisation through personalisation and humanisation

In my series of posts on data journalism I identified visualisation as one of four interrelated stages in its production. I think that this concept needs to be broadened to include visualisation through case studies: or humanisation, to put it more succinctly.

There are dangers here, of course. Firstly, that humanising a story makes it appear to be an exception (one person’s tragedy) rather than the rule (thousands suffering) – or simply emotive rather than also informative; and secondly, that your selection of case studies does not reflect the more complex reality.

Ben Goldacre – again – explores this issue particularly well:

“Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months, which is about 6 weeks. Some people might benefit more, some less. For some, Avastin might even shorten their life, and they would have been better off without it (and without its additional side effects, on top of their other chemotherapy). But overall, on average, when added to all the other treatments, Avastin extends survival from 19.9 months to 21.3 months.

“The Daily Mail, the ExpressSky News, the Press Association and the Guardian all described these figures, and then illustrated their stories about Avastin with an anecdote: the case of Barbara Moss. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2006, had all the normal treatment, but also paid out of her own pocket to have Avastin on top of that. She is alive today, four years later.

“Barbara Moss is very lucky indeed, but her anecdote is in no sense whatsoever representative of what happens when you take Avastin, nor is it informative. She is useful journalistically, in the sense that people help to tell stories, but her anecdotal experience is actively misleading, because it doesn’t tell the story of what happens to people on Avastin: instead, it tells a completely different story, and arguably a more memorable one – now embedded in the minds of millions of people – that Roche’s £21,000 product Avastin makes you survive for half a decade.”

Broadcast journalism – with its regulatory requirement for impartiality, often interpreted in practical terms as ‘balance’ – is particularly vulnerable to this. Here’s one example of how the homeopathy debate is given over to one person’s experience for the sake of balance:

Journalism on an industrial scale

The Wikileaks stories are journalism on an industrial scale. The closest equivalent I can think of was the MPs’ expenses story which dominated the news agenda for 6 weeks. Cable Gate is already on Day 9 and the wealth of stories has even justified a live blog.

With this scale comes a further problem: cynicism and passivity; Cable Gate fatigue. In this context online journalism has a unique role to play which was barely possible previously: empowerment.

3 years ago I wrote about 5 Ws and a H that should come after every news story. The ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of that are possibilities that many news organisations have still barely explored. ‘Why should I care?’ is about a further dimension of visualisation: personalisation – relating information directly to me. The Guardian moves closer to this with its searchable database, but I wonder at what point processing power, tools, and user data will allow us to do this sort of thing more effectively.

‘How can I make a difference?’ is about pointing users to tools – or creating them ourselves – where they can move the story on by communicating with others, campaigning, voting, and so on. This is a role many journalists may be uncomfortable with because it raises advocacy issues, but then choosing to report on these stories, and how to report them, raises the same issues; linking to a range of online tools need not be any different. These are issues we should be exploring, ethically.

All the above in one sentence

Somehow I’ve ended up writing over a thousand words on this issue, so it’s worth summing it all up in a sentence.

Industrial scale journalism using ‘big data’ in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.

November 30 2010

14:30

From Fighting in Afghanistan to Blogging for Basetrack

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee] -noun

1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck: the serendipity of getting the first job she applied for.

2007

I'm sweating despite the snow on the ground. I'm at the wheel of my humvee, silently begging the platoon leader on my right to stop the banter that gets us through most long missions. The missions are routine now, a year into a 16-month deployment to Afghanistan, but I still hate this drive. 

A photographer from a national magazine rides with my infantry platoon up into the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, in the Omna district. At some point during the trip -- as we inch up the vertigo-inducing, narrow switchbacks, hugging a road that ascends three thousand meters from the valley -- the photographer snaps a photo. I don't talk to him at all during the trip.

Going to Omna always made me nervous. Going up was fine, I guess. Coming down involved wearing night vision goggles to navigate a muddy and slick road when there was always something. I wasn't sure if I'd really checked the brake fluid, or changed the batteries in my goggles. A mistake meant my squad would descend the few thousand meters to the valley very fast, for the last time. Oh, yeah, we could also get shot at. I am a bad driver.  

Months later, the photo I never gave a second thought to is published. It shows an Afghan man on a motorbike looking down through the magnificent, scary panorama at the humvees snaking their way up towards Omna from the wide valley of Paktika province. My folks buy a few copies of the magazine for my scrapbook and we all go on with our lives.

2009

I'm behind a desk at Fort Monroe, Virginia, counting the days until I get out of the Army and wondering what I'm going to do after I take off my uniform. I'll go back to college, I guess, but I need something else, some plan, right? I'm well-educated, well-read, and in-shape -- but utterly devoid of any useful skills or qualifications suitable to long-term employment.

I can walk all night through mountains wearing 80 pounds of gear. I can shoot a grenade into a window at 300 meters. I can set up a radio that broadcasts encrypted messages off a satellite. I can speak, read and write some Pashto, an interesting and nuanced language (though my vocabulary contains little poetry and much violence).

"When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career," Philip Caputo wrote in his Vietnam memoir, "A Rumor of War." "I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe. But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing. I knew how to face death and how to cause it, with everything on the evolutionary scale of weapons from the knife to the 3.5 inch rocket launcher."

I don't even have a degree. I do have a set of wings showing that I graduated from Airborne School.

I wonder if I could get my old job at Lowe's back, selling toilets.  

My web browser wanders and I end up on Gizmodo, with an article called "Ask a Pro: How to Shoot (and not get shot) in a War Zone." Some photographer is answering questions. I'm skeptical but I read on.

The guy sounds legitimate, and I see that reflected in his packing list, which features things like zip ties, zip lock bags, tape, and batteries. It doesn't include crazy gizmos or expensive, trademarked, patent-pending outdoor gear worn mostly on New England liberal arts campuses. He has a website, www.lightstalkers.org that serves as a community for other people who travel and work in places that don't have a ministry of tourism. Or tourism. His name is Teru Kuwayama, and yeah, I realize we've seen each other before on the road up to Omna. My platoon leader was from Flushing, Queens and that's one neighborhood over from Teru's. Small world. 

February 2010

After four combat deployments, my brother is killed in a helicopter crash in Germany. I post a note on Lightstalkers mentioning this. I am overwhelmed by the empathy and compassion in the notes I get back. Teru writes:

We didn't know it then, but I was embedded with Matt's platoon in Afghanistan. Only years later, during a random stateside conversation, did we realize that we'd been a humvee apart in a small convoy that snaked it's way through the mountains along the Pakistani border.

In the small world that is LS, I don't doubt that some of us have crossed paths with his brother, or strapped into his blackhawk at some point during the course of those four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

all my respect to the Farwell family - and thanks for getting us home to ours.

T   

Teru is now my friend. I go on Facebook and make it official. 

September 2010

I'm in Arkansas, back in college.

Teru is about to go to Afghanistan for some crazy-long project he got a grant for. This project, Basetrack. There are some visa problems. I know some people, and I know the military bureaucracy and the lingo. I volunteer to help. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, over Facebook chat, Teru asks me what my schedule is like in January. Would I like an all-expenses-paid trip to Musa Qala, Afghanistan? He offers me all the MRE's I can eat and says I can borrow some of his body armor. It's a weird conversation. I'm sold. 

Now I'm writing for www.basetrack.org. Monica, our lead writer, and I exchange phone calls and emails daily. She corrects my grammar. I burp and offer to send her cold weather gear and tourniquets. We help each other out. 

Balazs and Tivadar, two photographers from Hungary, travel to Afghanistan with Teru. They suit up and head out with the Marines, carrying iPhones and cameras rather than rifles. At night they come back and curse the satellite phone and its 1995-era uploading speeds. I curse David Hasselhoff being voted off "Dancing with the Stars."

Basetrack continues to grow and evolve. We all learn. Patient phone calls and emails from David Gurman and the rest of the web team help me empathize with what a senior citizen taking a library's "Introduction to Computers" class feels like. They're based in California and Utah. Sadika coaches us on Central Asian geopolitics. She's in D.C. We have a funky little crew. 

We're getting to know some of the Marine's family members via our Facebook page. I do pushups and now add one more for Chesty Puller. This whole thing is new to everyone. It's exciting and I'm glad to be a part of it.

A few years ago on those switchbacks up to Omna, though, I couldn't see all that. I just saw the twists in the road. 

Serendipity.

October 26 2010

16:33

Innovative SMS-Driven News Project Takes Root in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, a documentary media company and an independent news agency have teamed up to integrate mobile phones and SMS into news reports. From election-day text messages to stories of homemade airplanes, they're demonstrating how a willingness to adapt mobile platforms to the landscape can contribute to a successful intersection of technology and media.

Small World News is a documentary and new media company that provides tools to journalists and citizens around the world to tell stories about their lives. Pajhwok Afghan News is an independent news agency headquartered in Kabul with eight regional bureaus and a nationwide network of reporters delivering stories in Dari, Pashto, and English. Together, the two launched Alive in Afghanistan, a website originally meant to showcase reports from the 2009 election in Afghanistan.

aliveinafghan grab.jpg

Alive in Afghanistan

Danish Karokhel, director of Pajhwok Afghan News, said social and multimedia platforms are new for many in Afghanistan. So he hired Small World News to help train Pajhwok staff on how to use these tools and equipment in the context of the 2009 elections. 



Unlike other initiatives that bridge mobile technology and journalism, the project did not promote or encourage citizen journalism per se, said Brian Conley, founder of Small World News. Instead, it grew from a rudimentary, informal election observation tool to a broader platform for media dialogue and journalism support for trained reporters.

Alive in Afghanistan launched in 2009 when Small News Network set up an SMS reporting system for Pajhwok reporters during the Afghan presidential election that year.

At launch, Alive in Afghanistan received attention for how it posted citizen reports from "ordinary Afghanis" alongside verified reports from Pajhwok reporters. More than 100 reports came in on election day from Twitter, SMS, and directly from Pajhwok reporters. These were mapped using Ushahidi, a platform for map- and time-based visualizations of text reports.



Conley said the site turned out to be one of the only sources of real-time news on election day. But though individuals could submit messages via mobile phone, many could not access the website because reliable Internet access is not widespread in Afghanistan.

"Although, as the founders of the site readily admit, only a minority of Afghanis know how to use the site and have access to it, it's still a great resource for real-time election news from Afghanistan," reported a 2009 story in the Los Angeles Times.



Alive in Afghanistan was intended to be used to report on a looming presidential run-off election. When the run-off was called off in November, the site and functionality could easily have been abandoned by either Small World News or Pajhwok.



Instead, it was retooled and it "turned into more of a journalism-strengthening project for supporting a free and fair media in Afghanistan," Conley said. 



Karokhel, who is also a 2008 recipient of an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Pajhwok received user feedback following the launch that suggested news about daily life and daily activities would be an interesting addition.



So they did just that. SMS reports on the site are now sorted into multiple categories, including security, election, governance, construction, sport, health, and innovation. The reports also appear on special "SMS Updates" section on the Pajhwok website. 



On October 19, for example, 15 SMS reports were posted on the Pajhwok site. They ranged from commentary about last month's parliamentary election to sexual performance drugs to a teenager who constructed the country's first homemade plane.

pajhwok grab.jpg

SMS Reports Alert Both Readers and the Media

While many mobile-based journalism projects capitalize on geo-coding technology and hyper-local conversations, Karokhel sees larger, international potential for this initiative. Pajhwok posts SMS reports on stories that are interesting to international readers. This comes, in part, from understanding that the audience of the site goes far beyond Afghanis, many of whom don't have Internet access.

Another important function of the adapted platform is that the SMS reports foster a dialogue for other media outlets and help Pajhwok set the agenda and alert other journalists of breaking news from provinces across the country.



Pajhwok SMS reports are read by 93 radio stations, 25 TV news channels, and 14 daily newspapers. Reports are often picked up by many media outlets, Karokhel said.



In the near future, Karokhel plans to rev up the citizen journalism component of the project to provide SMS reports, in multiple languages, to mobile phones.



Overall, the project is a step forward for both Pajhwok and the media landscape. By taking advantage of training and equipment from Small World News -- and running with it -- "they will be very cutting edge for a news agency anywhere, and not just in Afghanistan."  Conley said.

October 19 2010

14:14

Basetrack Pushes Off to Follow Marines in Afghanistan

Safi Airways flight 4Q-52. Sept 28, 2010 at 20:00 GMT-Zulu -- I'm airborne and en route to link up with First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment (a.k.a. "one-eight," the subject of our Knight News Challenge grant), in southern Afghanistan.

We're at cruising altitude, somewhere between Hungary and Turkey, on a civilian flight into Kabul. The first leg of our trip, on Singapore Air between New York and Frankfurt, was fully packed. Frankfurt to Kabul is almost empty. Go figure. Apparently Afghanistan has yet to re-establish itself as a vacation destination for European tourists.

Battling Red Tape

Plan A was to travel from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to Afghanistan with one of the first waves of Marines from one-eight -- but the battalion lost its first skirmish to red tape. Adjutant Lt. Hull, over at battalion HQ, waged a months-long campaign to clear me for travel on the chartered jets that the Marines use to reach Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. I traveled to Camp Lejeune repeatedly as identification cards and travel orders were being processed.

Ultimately, I don't fit into any of the Pentagon-approved categories for non-military passengers -- I'm not a contractor or a detainee -- and so I find myself standing by and watching as the first group of Marines push off from Camp Lejeune at 5 a.m. on one of the last days of August.

I drag my kit back to the civilian airport at Jacksonville, N.C. the next morning and head back home. I'm actually more than slightly relieved to have the departure postponed -- I need every second I can get to scramble this operation up to half-baked status. We're still a long way from cruising altitude.

Preparations

Over the next month, my place in New York takes on the appearance of a propeller-head survivalist compound. Piles of Kevlar flak jackets and bullet-proof ceramic rifle plates accumulate in the corners of my living room, with satellite phones, GPS navigators, and head mounted fiber-optic cameras spilling out across the floors. Stacks of portable hard drives are wedge between waterproof expedition packs, shockproof hard cases and Camo Bivy sacks.

Dubious looking men with shaved heads and laptops occupy all available couches, and a pervasive smell of spray paint and WD-40 fills the air, as gear gets modified, tricked out, and dialed down. Conversation is limited to Skype conference calls between cities across the planet as blueprints are drawn out for everything from website architecture and digital data management to water purifiers and solar power generators. Airline weight allowances and national regulations pertaining to body armor become subjects of almost obsessive concern. AmEx calls me several times a week to inquire about the "unusual activity" on my credit cards.

Occasionally my 3-year-old daughter wanders into the living room, puts on a ballistic helmet, and turns on the CD system, thus injecting Shakira and mil-spec interpretive dance into the mix.

Exactly one month after the original deploy date, the first two-man crew heads out for Afghanistan. We barely make our flight, dragging more than our combined body weight in baggage with us.

But the project is finally wheels up and mobile -- and it now has a name and a website: Basetrack. (Here's a recent blog post about my flight to Dubai.)

Everything else is TBD, but ready or not, here we come.

More soon from the other side.

September 16 2010

18:12

Open Data + Custom Maps = Better Afghan Election Monitoring

If your organization is working on an open data release and your goal is to maximize the reach and impact of your data, sometimes just releasing the data and tools isn’t enough to accomplish your goal. Derivative products — like custom maps that visualize key data — extend the reach of data even further and help reach people who will never use complex tools or know how to meaningfully manipulate raw data.

That’s why this week when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched an open data site for election monitors in Afghanistan, they also released 14 sets of custom map tiles created using our TileMill project to make the data more useful to end users.

afghanistanelectiondata.org/open

The rest of the site is designed to help users combine different datasets from the past three national elections in Afghanistan into helpful visualizations that give greater insight into the election processes. For instance, the site lets users see fraud incidence overlaid on a map of security issues from the 2009 presidential election, which can help them better understand correlations between violence and fraud. Many of the datasets don’t provide obvious insights on their own, but correlations become more apparent when the datasets are combined. These visualizations are one of NDI’s key value additions to the election process that are made possible by the site.

More Than Just Data

Our team worked with NDI to create the new open data section (following the Obama Administration’s Open Government Initiative namespace protocol), which makes much of the source data visualized elsewhere on the site available for download. Like other open data releases, the major goal of this section is to empower interested organizations and individuals to run their own analysis of the data and use it in their own applications. Making the data available to others extends its reach and impact, improving transparency and creating greater efficiency among the wide group of election monitoring organizations. This is the theory with most open data projects, but in this case NDI decided to release more than just data — they also released maps and documentation to go with the data.

Why not just release raw data and let others figure out how to use it? Most of the election data on the site has a geographic component, and some of the data includes geo-specific KML files that are designed to be viewed overlaid on a map. The intent of the open data site is to make source data available for others to visualize on their own maps, but there was a major problem with this in practice.

As we worked with the Afghanistan team at NDI to plan for this project and talked with many of the organizations most likely to use the data — both on the ground in Kabul and back in Washington, D.C. — we realized that many of them didn’t have GIS capacity (either time or skills) to create complex maps online. Releasing the raw data without the maps would have made the data impractical for many of the target audience to leverage in their work. Because NDI also wanted to make the data useful for the average interested user, it became clear that we should use the open site to share some of the same custom maps we had created for NDI’s use.

Publishing custom maps with the most up to date province and district boundary lines puts end users of the data in a position to quickly build their own visualizations and applications using the core datasets that were released. To make map distribution as easy as possible, we agreed to host the maps on MapBox.com and provide them free to use with our standard SLA. To further maximize the use of the maps, we also made the tiles available for download in our new “.mbtiles” format, which combines the tiles into a single SQLite database so they can be used offline or in other applications, including offline with our Maps on a Stick tool that is being used by NGOs in the field. The work to create this new file format and make tiles practical to download and use in other applications is something we’ve been able to do along with our work on the upcoming TileMill 2.0 release.

Focus on End Users

“Open data” has become a buzzword on the web — particularly in government and humanitarian tech circles — and with that status comes some issues. There’s a perception sometimes that an open data release means just checking the right boxes (XML, RDF, “apps” contest, etc.) to be successful. Many open data initiatives don’t get to the point of explicitly thinking about how to help end users. At the end of the day, the intent of most open data projects is to improve efficiency and the use of the data, which also means supporting users with tools and other resources.

We’re really excited about how the ability to create and distribute custom maps stands to help improve the success of open geo-data projects like NDI’s, and we’ll be working more on these tools in the coming months so that it’s even easier to share custom maps and free open source mapping tools in the future.

16:58

Afghanistan and journalism: who’s winning the media war?

Earlier this month, Journalism.co.uk ran a series of exclusive extracts from the book ‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’. Last night contributors to the book came together to debate the media’s role in the Afghanistan conflict, its portrayal of the war and what should happen now. Co-editor John Mair rounds up last night’s debate at the Frontline Club:

Now for the ultimate journalistic challenge: how do you report a meeting that is not supposed to have happened?

Facts first: the book ‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’ edited by Richard Keeble and myself was launched at the Frontline Club in London last night. A debate was held there too about who was winning the media war in Afghanistan, but under the Chatham House Rule, which rather stymies reporting.

Participating were senior editors and correspondents from the BBC and Sky News and a senior military public relations official in front of a paying audience of 120. I can tell you no more about who took part. That’s the rule.

But some interesting themes emerged that I can talk about:

  • the media war was firmly being lost by the West and won by the Taliban;
  • the US authorities are better at managing the media than the British, who seem addicted to embedding;
  • embedding is nothing new but the British military have got better at straight news management (e.g.minimising the filming of casualties on the grounds that soldiers had rights to privacy and refusal);
  • the British army has made coverage of the war cheap and within the reach of regional papers and television to suit their own agenda;
  • embedding with the Taliban has been almost impossible and the era of the unilateral journalist firmly finished in this theatre of war.

One of the most interesting things to emerge was a perceived multiplication of casualties through military procedures and the 24-hour news cycle. Soldiers “die” five times: when the incident happens, when their name is announced by the MoD, when the body comes home and through Wooton Bassett, at their funeral and at the inquest into their death. So the 330 plus British casualties to date in Afghanistan can seem like many more thanks to this rule, hence the lingering but dwindling public support for the War.

It was a fascinating discussion and let me leave you with some quotes. Under the Chatham House rule, it is up to you to decide who said what:

  • “Afghanistan has seen the Hollywoodisation of war”;
  • “There are more embeds in Afghanistan than any other conflict”;
  • “Embedded is just posh silly name for what journos always done”;
  • “Sports journos know more about sport than war journos know about war”;
  • “We have an absolute duty to tell the truth”.

Did I break the Rule? You decide…Similar Posts:



September 03 2010

10:02

MediaLens’ response to Alex Thomson on Afghanistan

A response from the website MediaLens to Alex Thomson’s piece on the Afghanistan war and the practicalities of embed journalism:

In his September 1 piece, ‘Afghanistan: the rough guide to roughness’, Alex Thomson writes:

“Chief among the carpers about embedding, of course, the indefatigable editors at MediaLens who get extremely hoity-toity at the entire concept of embedding.

“However, ask them how they would cover Helmand if they were off to the main bazaar, Lashkar Gah, at noon next Tuesday and guess what? Total silence from the normally electronically incontinent MediaLens email service. Which rather clinches the argument, simple though it is.”

This is false. In April, Alison Banville, an activist and freelance journalist, asked us to respond to Thomson’s question. We did so and she forwarded the following comments to Thomson on 3 April:

“From the Davids [David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of MediaLens]:

“He’s never asked us ‘how will you cover Helmand assuming you are going there next week?’ The answer is that he should report it as he would any illegal invasion of a sovereign state. He should report it as he would have reported the 1979-89 Soviet invasion and occupation. In other words, present the opinion of the invading forces, of the people under occupation, including the resistance, and of experts in international law who declare the whole operation illegal.

“Obviously, alongside the warmongers, leading anti-war commentators should be regularly quoted and featured: Chomsky, Herman, Pilger, Goodman, Curtis, Ellsberg, et al. I’m not suggesting he could achieve all of that himself in the field, but his reports should be part of a news service that does. There’s no question of intellectual cowardice [on our part, as claimed by Thomson] – the answer couldn’t be more obvious. Happy for you to quote us on this.”

Thomson responded to Banville’s email on the same day, expressing agreement with our comments while claiming that Channel 4 had already done as we had suggested.

Thomson now claims that by “total silence” he meant we had totally evaded his question – hard to reconcile with the meaning of “total silence” and with his positive response on April 3 when he made no mention of evasion.

The truth is that we never avoid difficult questions from mainstream journalists. On the contrary, we are forever seeking to engage them in written debate and are consistently ignored or fobbed off. Readers can find 3,000 pages of examples here: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/archive.php

Similar Posts:



August 31 2010

15:18

Deadlines and frontlines: extracts from new book on journalism and the Afghanistan war

This week, Journalism.co.uk is publishing extracts from a new book about the media coverage of the Afghanistan war.

‘Afghanistan, War and the Media: Deadlines and Frontlines’ brings together the testimonies of frontline correspondents and detailed academic analysis, with a particular focus on the pros and cons of so-called ‘embedded’ journalism.

Earlier today, we published an introduction to the book by journalism lecturer and co-editor John Mair, followed by a look at the dangers of ‘news management’ by Frontline Club founder and war correspondent Vaughan Smith.

Smith’s essay will be followed in the next three days by contributions from Channel 4 News presenter and war correspondent Alex Thomson, Sky News’ Asia correspondent Alex Crawford, and others.

All extracts published so far can be viewed at this link.Similar Posts:



August 23 2010

16:21

One-Eight, Afghanistan: Social Media + U.S. Marine Corps

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

In my case, I won a Knight News Challenge grant to launch an online, social media reporting network that follows a battalion of U.S. Marines throughout their deployment to southern Afghanistan. (Congratulations! You've won a year in Helmand Province, roadside bomb capital of the world...)

Although recently upgraded from "forgotten war" to "central front," the Afghanistan conflict exists on the periphery of the American consciousness. We're nearly a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, but most Americans still have a pretty fuzzy idea of what we're actually doing over there. "Counterinsurgency" is the new buzzword, but if we held a national pop quiz to actually define the term, I don't expect we'd get good grades.

Beyond social media, this project is really about the simple, literal question: "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"

A Year to Rediscover America

While the public is clearly disconnected, I somehow don't accept the notion that they aren't interested -- personal experience over the past year tells me the opposite. I spent that year at Stanford on a Knight journalism fellowship -- mostly impersonating a college student, but occasionally impersonating an "Afghanistan expert" on the lecture circuit. (Prior to the fellowship, I hadn't read a lot of books on the subject, but I'd spent years wandering the far reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir as a photographer, sometimes embedded with military forces. My photos have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic.).

For the first time I could remember, I spent a solid year in my own country. I saw a lot more of America than I ever had before, I don't think we've got a public that doesn't care -- I think we've got a profession that doesn't know how to communicate.

Flash forward to now, I'm at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- a week from departure, without so much as a domain name registered. I'm dusting off body armor, scrambling to locate satellite transmitters and solar panels, wondering what I was thinking, and what exactly an "online social media reporting network" looks like, and how I'm actually going to materialize all this vaporware.

As far as I know, the project is a bit of an anomaly in the technology-heavy spectrum of News Challenge winners. It promises no coding, no new widgets or algorithms, and not much that could really pass for a business model.

Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that we could do a lot more with the resources that we already have. Among other things, those resources include communication tools of incredible, and untested reach. (Consider the notion that 50 percent of the activity on the Internet occurs on a single website, Facebook).

To be honest, this thing wasn't actually my idea, and I had one foot out the door on the Afghanistan business, when I got the call.

The Idea

The idea came from a Marine I'd met in Afghanistan in 2004. Back then he was a captain, leading a hundred Marines through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, just a few miles off the Pakistani border. I'd just come out of Iraq, and he was on his way over, and I remember sitting on a hillside, in total darkness one night, telling him what he was in for. I told him Iraq was a lot worse than he'd heard, and it was just starting to slide off the edge. Afghanistan, by comparison, felt like it was on the right track.

I was half right, at least.

He's a major now, with a mind-bending six tours under his belt. He's second-in-command of a battalion and about to return to Afghanistan with almost a thousand Marines. And he asked me: Did I want to come along? Would I ride out the entire tour with them?

One of these days, I have to learn how to say no.

Typically, embedded journalists spend a week or two with a military unit, reporting for a news agency or a magazine or a newspaper. The embed slot is like a revolving door, with one media outlet rotating out, as another one rotates in. Correspondents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan work on directives from editors in places like London and New York -- and if you're a photographer like me, you might find yourself in some remote desert or mountain range, hunting for scenes conjured in the imagination of a correspondent in Kabul or Baghdad.

What if we tried a different approach, something both more autonomous, and more collaborative?

Execution and distribution might come down to the question: What's the social graph of a thousand Marines? I have no idea, but when I run a Facebook app to analyze my own social network, my MacBook spins, chokes, and crashes as it attempts to crunch the data, and plot the connections around a single person. That might just be buggy code over at Facebook, but I'd still guess the numbers surrounding a battalion-strength network of 19 year-olds are some degree of real big.

It may be that the Marine Corps had the same question, because earlier this year, it lifted a long-standing ban on social media for deployed troops. Translation: Marines can tweet and Facebook from Afghanistan.

It's anyone's guess what that means practically, especially in a place that doesn't have a lot of Internet cafes. But it's worth watching how the military makes use of the social web. So far, on an institutional level, they seem to have made much more effective use of it than the professional media.

More soon from the other side...

16:21

One-Eight, Afghanistan: Social Media + U.S. Marine Corps

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for."

In my case, I won a Knight News Challenge grant to launch an online, social media reporting network that follows a battalion of U.S. Marines throughout their deployment to southern Afghanistan. (Congratulations! You've won a year in Helmand Province, roadside bomb capital of the world...)

Although recently upgraded from "forgotten war" to "central front," the Afghanistan conflict exists on the periphery of the American consciousness. We're nearly a decade into the longest war in U.S. history, but most Americans still have a pretty fuzzy idea of what we're actually doing over there. "Counterinsurgency" is the new buzzword, but if we held a national pop quiz to actually define the term, I don't expect we'd get good grades.

Beyond social media, this project is really about the simple, literal question: "What are we doing in Afghanistan?"

A Year to Rediscover America

While the public is clearly disconnected, I somehow don't accept the notion that they aren't interested -- personal experience over the past year tells me the opposite. I spent that year at Stanford on a Knight journalism fellowship -- mostly impersonating a college student, but occasionally impersonating an "Afghanistan expert" on the lecture circuit. (Prior to the fellowship, I hadn't read a lot of books on the subject, but I'd spent years wandering the far reaches of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kashmir as a photographer, sometimes embedded with military forces. My photos have appeared in publications including Time, Newsweek, Outside and National Geographic.).

For the first time I could remember, I spent a solid year in my own country. I saw a lot more of America than I ever had before, I don't think we've got a public that doesn't care -- I think we've got a profession that doesn't know how to communicate.

Flash forward to now, I'm at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina -- a week from departure, without so much as a domain name registered. I'm dusting off body armor, scrambling to locate satellite transmitters and solar panels, wondering what I was thinking, and what exactly an "online social media reporting network" looks like, and how I'm actually going to materialize all this vaporware.

As far as I know, the project is a bit of an anomaly in the technology-heavy spectrum of News Challenge winners. It promises no coding, no new widgets or algorithms, and not much that could really pass for a business model.

Ultimately, it comes down to the idea that we could do a lot more with the resources that we already have. Among other things, those resources include communication tools of incredible, and untested reach. (Consider the notion that 50 percent of the activity on the Internet occurs on a single website, Facebook).

To be honest, this thing wasn't actually my idea, and I had one foot out the door on the Afghanistan business, when I got the call.

The Idea

The idea came from a Marine I'd met in Afghanistan in 2004. Back then he was a captain, leading a hundred Marines through the mountains in eastern Afghanistan, just a few miles off the Pakistani border. I'd just come out of Iraq, and he was on his way over, and I remember sitting on a hillside, in total darkness one night, telling him what he was in for. I told him Iraq was a lot worse than he'd heard, and it was just starting to slide off the edge. Afghanistan, by comparison, felt like it was on the right track.

I was half right, at least.

He's a major now, with a mind-bending six tours under his belt. He's second-in-command of a battalion and about to return to Afghanistan with almost a thousand Marines. And he asked me: Did I want to come along? Would I ride out the entire tour with them?

One of these days, I have to learn how to say no.

Typically, embedded journalists spend a week or two with a military unit, reporting for a news agency or a magazine or a newspaper. The embed slot is like a revolving door, with one media outlet rotating out, as another one rotates in. Correspondents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan work on directives from editors in places like London and New York -- and if you're a photographer like me, you might find yourself in some remote desert or mountain range, hunting for scenes conjured in the imagination of a correspondent in Kabul or Baghdad.

What if we tried a different approach, something both more autonomous, and more collaborative?

Execution and distribution might come down to the question: What's the social graph of a thousand Marines? I have no idea, but when I run a Facebook app to analyze my own social network, my MacBook spins, chokes, and crashes as it attempts to crunch the data, and plot the connections around a single person. That might just be buggy code over at Facebook, but I'd still guess the numbers surrounding a battalion-strength network of 19 year-olds are some degree of real big.

It may be that the Marine Corps had the same question, because earlier this year, it lifted a long-standing ban on social media for deployed troops. Translation: Marines can tweet and Facebook from Afghanistan.

It's anyone's guess what that means practically, especially in a place that doesn't have a lot of Internet cafes. But it's worth watching how the military makes use of the social web. So far, on an institutional level, they seem to have made much more effective use of it than the professional media.

More soon from the other side...

August 20 2010

15:11

Rarefied truth at rarefied atmospheres: the in-flight magazine that tells all

Safi Airlines’ in-flight magazine tells it like it is. Not for Kabul’s start-up airline is the rose-tinted journalism of the traditional in-flight magazine: Safi’s reading material typically includes the likes of “an article on Kabul heroin addicts, photos of bullet-pocked tourist sites and ads for mine-resistant sport-utility vehicles”.

Says Christian Marks, the magazine’s cheerfully blunt German editor: “I would like it to be a magazine where you can read interesting things, not just get brainwashed by some marketing agency that says you can’t show problems.”

And Marks’ is a truly warts’n'all approach, as the magazine’s hotel guide shows:

The rooms are individually air-conditioned, accessorised with amenities you will find in 4-star hotels abroad, sheets are clean, view from the room is nice, and – after the suicide bombing that took place – security measures have been implemented.

Full story on the Wall Street Journal at this link…Similar Posts:



August 02 2010

15:53

Afghanistan government criticised for closing down TV station

Press freedom groups have condemned a decision by the Afghan government to close down privately-owned TV station Emroz.

According to a BBC report, the government closed down the station which is owned by MP Najibulla Kabuli for allegedly fueling religious tensions.

The Committee to Protect Journalists urged the government to put the station back on air while Reporters Without Borders added that the move breaks media law.

The government must not under any circumstances violate the media law, which gives the media commission sole decision-making authority when a media commits an offence. We call on the government to rescind these decisions and never interfere in the content of Afghan TV stations again.

See the RWB full post here…Similar Posts:



July 30 2010

18:00

WikiLeaks and continuity: What if we had a news outlet exclusively focused on follow-up journalism?

In his assessment of the journalistic implications of the WikiLeaked Afghanistan War Logs earlier this week, Jay Rosen made a provocative prediction:

Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect — not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget…. The mental model on which most investigative journalism is based states that explosive revelations lead to public outcry; elites get the message and reform the system. But what if elites believe that reform is impossible because the problems are too big, the sacrifices too great, the public too distractible? What if cognitive dissonance has been insufficiently accounted for in our theories of how great journalism works…and often fails to work?

It’s early still, of course, but it’s all too likely that Rosen’s forecast — the leaked documents, having exploded, dissolving into a system ill-equipped to deal with them — will prove accurate. I hope we’ll be wrong. In the meantime, though, it’s worth adding another layer to Rosen’s analysis: the role of journalists themselves in the leaked documents’ framing and filtering. If, indeed, the massive tree that is WikiLeaks has fallen in an empty forest, that will be so not only because of the dynamic between public opinion and political elites who often evade it; it will also be because of the dynamic between public opinion and those who shape it. It will be because of assumptions (sometimes outdated assumptions) journalists make about their stories’ movement through, and life within, the world. The real challenge we face isn’t an empty forest; it’s a forest so full — so blooming with growth, so booming with noise — that we forget what a toppling tree sounds like in the first place.

Publication, publicity

It used to be that print and broadcast culture, in general, offered journalists a contained — which is to say, automatic — audience for their work. When you have subscribers and regular viewers, their loyalty insured by the narrowness of the media marketplace, you have the luxury of ignoring, essentially, the distribution side of journalism. The corollary being that you also have the luxury of assuming that your journalism, once published, will effect change in the world. Automatically.

And investigative journalism, in particular, whether conducted by Bly or Bernstein or Bogdanich, generally operated under the sunshine-as-Lysol theory of distribution: outrageous discoveries lead to outraged publics lead to chastened power brokers lead to social change. (For more on that, give a listen to the most recent Rebooting the News podcast.) Journalism was a lever of democracy; publication was publicity, and thus, as well, the end of an outlet’s commitment to its coverage. The matter of distribution, of a big story’s movement through the culture, wasn’t generally for journalists to address.

Which was a matter of practicality, sure — as a group, reporters are necessarily obsessed with newness, and have always been stalked by The Next Story — but also one of design. There’s a fine line, the thinking went, between amplification of a story and advocacy of it; the don’t-shoot-the-messenger rhetoric of institutional newsgathering holds up only so long as the messengers in question maintain the appropriate distance from the news they’re delivering. And one way to maintain that distance was a structured separation from stories via a framework of narrative containment. Produce, publish, move on.

The web, though, to repeat its ur-observation, is changing all that. Digital platforms — blogs, most explicitly, but also digital journalism vehicles as a collective — have introduced a more iterative form of storytelling that subtly challenges print and broadcast assumptions of conceptual confinement. For journalists like Josh Marshall and Glenn Greenwald and other modern-day muckrakers, to be a journalist is also, implicitly, to be an advocate. And, so, focusing on the follow-up aspect of journalism — not just starting fires, but keeping them alive — has been foundational to their work. Increasingly, in the digital media economy, good journalists find stories. The better ones keep them going. The best keep them burning.

And yet, to return to the WikiLeaks question, that ethos of continuity hasn’t generally caught on in the culture more broadly — among journalists or their audiences. And one reason for that is the matter of momentum, the editorial challenge of maintaining reader interest in a given subject over a long period of time. Political issues caught in congressional inertias, military campaigns that stretch from months to years, social issues that hide in plain sight — their temporality itself becomes a problem to be solved. There’s a reason why, to take the most infamous example, political campaigns are so often indistinguishable from an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras“: campaigns being year-long affairs (longer now, actually: Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee are probably digging into Maid-Rite loose-meats as I type), journalists often focus on their trivialities/conflicts/etc. not necessarily because they think that focus leads to good journalism, but because they think, probably correctly, that it sustains their audiences’ attention as election season slogs on.

Which is all to say — and not to put too expansive a point on it, but — time itself poses a challenge to the traditional notion of “the story.” Continuity and containment aren’t logical companions; stories end, but the world they cover goes on. The platform is ill-suited to the project.

Followupstories.org?

While addressing that problem head-on is no easy task — it’s both systemic and cultural, and thus extra-difficult to solve — I’d like to end with a thought experiment (albeit a small, tentative, just-thinking-out-loud one). What if we had an outlet dedicated to continuity journalism — a news organization whose sole purpose was to follow up on stories whose sheer magnitude precludes them from ongoing treatment by our existing media outlets? What if we took the PolitiFact model — a niche outfit dedicated not to a particular topic or region, but to a particular practice — and applied it to following up on facts, rather than checking them? What if we had an outlet dedicated to reporting, aggregating, and analyzing stories that deserve our sustained attention — a team of reporters and researchers and analysts and engagement experts whose entire professional existence is focused on keeping those deserving stories alive in the world?

Sure, you could say, bloggers both professional and amateur already do that kind of follow-up work; legacy news outlets themselves do, too. But: they don’t do it often enough, or systematically enough. (That’s a big reason why it’s so easy to forget that war still rages in Iraq, that 12.6 percent of Americans live below the poverty line, etc.) They often lack incentive to, say, localize a story like the War Logs for their readers. Or to contextualize it. Or to, in general, continue its existence. An independent outlet — and, hey, this being a thought experiment, “independent outlet” could also include a dedicated blog on a legacy outlet’s website — wouldn’t prevent other news shops from doing follow-up work on their own stories or anyone else’s, just as PolitiFact’s presence doesn’t preclude other outlets from engaging in fact-checking. A standalone shop would, however, serve as a kind of social safety net — an insurance policy against apathy.

As Lab contributor C.W. Anderson remarked on Monday: “I wonder what it would take for a story like the ‘War Logs’ bombshell to stick around in the public mind long enough for it to mean something.”

I do, too. I’d love to find out.

Photo of U.S. soldiers in Pana, Afghanistan, by the U.S. Army. Photo of Jay Rosen by Joi Ito. Both used under a Creative Commons license.

10:28

Controversy over Time Magazine cover showing mutilated Afghan woman

The Atlantic Wire site has published a series of different points of view about this week’s Time Magazine cover, which shows a harrowing image of an 18-year-old Afghan woman who has had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban.

Under the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan”, the magazine’s picture caption reports that the woman was attacked for having tried to flee from “abusive in-laws”.

The Wire asks if the Time is right to publish the cover, with answers first quoted from managing editor Richard Stengel discussing the reasons for their decision.

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of Time (…) But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

The article then moves to comments from a range of other publications, some who say the cover is “good journalism” while others feel is “oversimplifies war”.

See the full post here…Similar Posts:



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