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May 03 2012

16:40

On World Press Freedom Day, the spread of mobile and publishing technology shifts the playing field

It’s World Press Freedom Day, when we set aside time to think about journalists around the world who struggle under repressive conditions to report and tell the truth.

With 44 journalists killed so far this year, 2012 is on track to be the deadliest year for journalists since the International Press Institute began tracking such deaths in 1997. (The exact toll depends on how you count. Reporters Without Borders, for example,puts the count at 22. It only includes deaths that are “clearly established” to have been caused because of someone’s activities as a journalist.) Both counts increased by one overnight with the murder of Somali radio reporter Farhan James Abdulle. He’s the fifth journalist to be killed in Somalia this year, which Reporters Without Borders ranks 164th in the world in press freedom.

But while we honor those working journalists who continue to battle their governments, it’s also worth noting how technology is shifting the playing field of press freedom. The boundaries of the press are expanding — and yet working to guarantee press freedom requires the notoriously slippery undertaking of defining what it is that makes someone a journalist. NPR’s Andy Carvin, who famously tweeted (and retweeted) the Arab Spring, is a professional journalist. But what about all of the citizens on the ground — some professional journalists, many not — who helped populate his Twitter feed with information about what was going on?

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has given these kinds of questions a lot of thought over the years. In 2005, he founded Global Voices, a network of hundreds of bloggers around the world who work to redress “inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media.”

“It’s really hard to organize a campaign for every blogger who gets in trouble with the law,” Zuckerman told me this week. “In part because often you don’t get arrested for blogging, you get arrested for something else.”

Working on a global scale, and without the formal backing of a news institution, it can become very difficult to determine whether such an arrest was motivated by the person’s journalistic behavior or by some other alleged activity.

Increasingly, there are groups willing to fight for the person being silenced — regardless of whether she’s a professional journalist, and regardless of whether she’s communicating “on paper, by broadcasting, or writing in bytes,” Zuckerman said.

As the power to publish spreads, World Press Freedom Day becomes about more than just “the press” as we’ve traditionally defined it. Zuckerman suggests it’s time to update the way we characterize what we’re trying to protect. Okay, so his alternative might need a bit of marketing polish, but he’s thinking something like “World Digital Public Sphere Freedom Day” or “World Network Public Sphere Freedom Day.”

“This notion of ‘the press’ holds onto this notion that there’s this specialized professional class to inform us about things,” Zuckerman said. “That institution is expanding to the point where the press is really the network public sphere or the digital public sphere. It’s incredibly important that we talk about the ability of journalists to do their jobs safely and without government harassment…But when we think about whether a country has a free press, under my definition, it’s what are the constraints on journalists? What are the constraints on nonofficial journalists [like] bloggers and activists? What are the constraints on the tools people use to discuss the issues of the day?”

Issues of Internet freedom are often framed around information consumption — whether someone in a country can get access to a given website, say. But it’s also about freedom to publish, a capacity that technology continues to spread. “There’s an enormous amount of common ground between the Internet freedom folks and the press freedom folks — and in many cases we’re looking at the same people,” Zuckerman said.

And then there’s mobile. As phones get smarter, the line between Internet users and mobile users blurs. According to the International Telecommunications Union, there were 2 billion people using the Internet at the start of last year. At the same time, there were 5.3 billion mobile phone subscriptions.

“It is absolutely unbelievable how rural a village you can be in, and the only things for sale will be yams, ground nuts, and phone cards,” Zuckerman said. “This is bringing in hundreds of millions of people who were not online previously. It’s a really crazy change, and what I think all of us are sort of predicting is, in the next five years, the distinction between those numbers — are you online or are you on the phone? — it’s just going to disappear. It’s going to be an irrelevant number.”

What’s good from a connectivity standpoint is not always good from a digital freedom standpoint, and this discrepancy goes to how the very structure of the Internet differs from how mobile networks are built.

“The Internet has this incredibly radically decentralized architecture where there are points of potential control, but there are a lot more of them, and it’s often possible to evade that control,” Zuckerman said. “On the mobile phone network, that’s a very different story. They tended to be built with the ability to wiretap and eavesdrop.”

When two Western journalists were killed with rockets in Syria earlier this year, The Telegraph reported that the Syrian military had tracked them down using their cell phone signals. In countries with weak legal systems and strong governments, mobile networks very quickly become a tool for government intelligence, so being an independent reporter “becomes a very difficult thing to do,” Zuckerman said.

It’s part of why groups like Mobile Active set out to educate people about the inherent security risks that mobile networks entail. Its Safer Mobile initiative includes guides and training on text-messaging risks, apps to block wiretappers, secure chat mechanisms, information on satellite phones, tips on how to safely file stories from the field, and more. The bottom line: True anonymity on a mobile network is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

“The approach that people are taking right now is just trying to get people to understand these networks much more thoroughly: ‘Here are ways you might be safe or might be unsafe,’” Zuckerman said. “The problem is, we often end up saying, ‘You shouldn’t use that.’ But that’s crazy thing to say because for most people, that’s their main information device.”

Photo by Superstrikertwo used under a Creative Commons license.

July 01 2011

16:00

The revolution will be translated: Global Voices’ citizen-powered site experiments with English-second

When Ethan Zuckerman and Rebecca MacKinnon created Global Voices in 2004, English was the language of the blogosphere.

“A lot of the people who were using weblogs were writing in English even if it wasn’t their first language,” Zuckerman said. “You would see top Arabic bloggers writing first and foremost in English because they wanted that global audience.”

So Global Voices — a news site about places where English isn’t spoken — was built on English. The idea is that it’s an efficient “bridge language,” reaching a larger potential audience: More translators can do English to Swahili than, say, Tagalog to Swahili.

The site was opened up to translators in 2007 under Project Lingua — a movement that sprang up from the community — but GV still required that all original content be composed in English.

The problem with that workflow? Most of GV’s bloggers don’t speak English as a first language. “People started saying, ‘Look, I work for GV Français, and I write much better in French than I do in English. Why should I have to write in English first and then in French?’” Zuckerman said.

So Global Voices is experimenting with a decentralized, English-second workflow for the first time in its history. Paula Góes, the site’s multilingual editor, is leading the transition.

“The Internet has made the world much, much smaller, but language is still probably the only barrier that really makes it difficult for people to understand each other,” said Góes.

Góes is helping Global Voices build a (virtual) multilingual newsroom, with bloggers and editors assigned to regions and languages. If breaking news happens in South America, a blogger on the ground can choose to write in Spanish first. “It’s obviously much easier for them to write in their own language,” Góes said. “It takes less time for them, too. We’re able to get their stories out there quicker.” The goal is stories that are richer, more nuanced, more genuine. And it opens Global Voices to much wider pool of would-be volunteers.

Paula Góes, Global Voices Multilingual Editor

It all sounds kind of obvious, Zuckerman said — why not let people write in their first language? — but the translations pose a lot of challenges for the organization.

“At the end of the day, everything that ends up on Global Voices in any language is the responsibility of our managing editor, Solana Larsen. And Solana speaks five languages, but she doesn’t speak 30,” Zuckerman told me. “The question became, if we start writing in Chinese first, which Solana does not speak, how can she be responsible for what comes out?”

There was a lot of resistance to decentralization, at least at first. While GV is seen as a pillar of open, citizen-powered media, Zuckerman noted, it’s hardly lawless. “We always have to remind people that we have boatloads of editors. We are a heavily, heavily edited platform,” he said.

“We don’t want to do this in a way that people say, ‘Oh yeah, that Spanish Global Voices, that’s much further to the left than GV is’…. That would be a sign that we’re doing it wrong.” Under the new model, each language site is trusted to enforce its own editorial standards.

So far, the experiment has paid off richly. For example: “Our francophone and Africa coverage had been pretty poor. It was not our strongest section,” Zuckerman said. “It’s gotten better by leaps and bounds since we’ve done this. The francophone West Africans who are part of our community are just much more comfortable writing in French. They write more and they write better.”

To continue the improvement, Góes’ job is to find efficiencies in translation, study metrics, help define best practices, figure out what works. The ultimate goal is to reach more readers in more countries — and English still plays an essential role. All stories are translated to English first, as a rule, but that can take half an hour, a day, two days. “It depends on the urgency or the resources we have,” Góes said.

One helpful thing: Translators for individual language sites can volunteer to take on a story. “We don’t really tell people to translate anything,” Góes said. “It’s completely up to the community. We trust that they will know what posts will be more interesting to their own readers or more important to show in their countries.”

Translators are every bit as much journalists as the writers, because good translation requires an appreciation for context. How do you translate an article about female genital mutilation into Malagasy, for example, when the concept is foreign to an audience in Madagascar? And then there are links, which point to resources outside of the site’s control — resources that will most likely be in a language that’s different than the one spoken by a story’s intended audience. Translators at Global Voices follow each link to try to find relevant alternatives. Google Translate can’t do all that. (Nor does it cover all the languages GV does.)

“If you really want to understand a culture, have a deep understanding about culture, and you don’t speak the language, you cannot really rely on Google Translate,” Góes said. “How would you be able to understand the situation in Syria through Google Translate? I would’t trust Google to let me know about the world.”

Global Voices is like the Red Cross in that the leadership team is paid, but most of the staff volunteers. That means the quality of a language site depends on the time, talent, and interest of unpaid people. (Góes reminded me that her staff is always looking for volunteers. She recently put up an FAQ page for would-be translators.)

I had to ask, what does motivate people to do all this work for free?

“Two things,” Góes said. “One is learning, because when you translate about any other country in the world, you learn so much about it. You have to do research. It’s really, really exciting. I think it’s quite easy to get hooked to.

The other thing? “People think it’s important to bring perspectives into their languages, present them to their friends who can’t speak English in a way that’s not biased.”

Photo of Paula Góes by David Sasaki used under a Creative Commons license

May 19 2011

16:21

MIT Sessions Address Prison Blogging, Networked Revolt in Arab World

MIT's Center for Future Civic Media redoubled its public events efforts this past year, thanks to a push by its fellow Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman brings a unique perspective -- a civic one -- to media developments so often dominated by politics and business-model debates.

This approach couldn't be more evident than in the case of two recent Civic Media Sessions, videos of which you'll see below. Our sessions, spread throughout the semester, are conversations around civic media topics we're just now defining, including the coalescing of the field itself around information needs, geographic communities, and replicable, sustainable technical innovation.

"Design for Vulnerable Populations" was a session we held last month, and it addressed the fact that designers of new media -- web-based or otherwise -- seem to have in mind an idealized user, someone who's hungry for news, is digitally connected, and feels one technical solution shy of changing the world.

Sadly, that idealized user hardly exists outside of the New York Times' "Weekender" ad. In fact, civic media innovations, to be truly civic, have to work for the marginalized, poor, the ill -- even for the imprisoned. So "Design for Vulnerable Populations" was moderated by our center's own Charlie DeTar, creator of the prison blogging platform Between the Bars, and featured speakers critiquing how we bring environmental justice, health and sustainability into the design of cutting-edge media tools.

Design for Vulnerable Populations
MIT Tech TV

And then earlier this month, Zuckerman moderated "Civic Disobedience," with Clay Shirky, Zeynep Tufekci and Sami ben Gharbia. Zuckerman addressed a key set of questions: What accounts for the rise of networked revolt in the Arab world and elsewhere, and how is it succeeding in some places while failing in others?

Civic Disobedience
MIT Tech TV

We're awfully proud of the intelligence brought to bear on these often-overlooked but critical issues. So as this spring semester wraps up, be sure to sign up for our center's updates to hear what we're planning for the fall.

December 17 2010

16:00

DDoS attacks on the U.S. media, Twitter history searching, and a big blog deal: More predictions for 2011

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Below are predictions from Michael Schudson, Alexis Madrigal, Markos Moulitsas, Joy Mayer, Nicco Mele, Nikki Usher, Steve Buttry, Paddy Hirsch, John Davidow, Ethan Zuckerman, Richard Lee Colvin, and Kevin Kelly.

We also want to hear your predictions: Today’s the last day we’ll be accepting entries in our Lab reader poll, where you tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results in a couple days.

Michael Schudson, historian and sociologist, Columbia Journalism School

Prognosticating about the news media in these times is a risky business, but I’ll try one nonetheless: In 2011, none of the 250 largest U.S. cities will stop publishing (on paper) its last remaining daily newspaper. Cities with more than one daily newspaper may be reduced to one survivor.

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic and co-founder, Longshot Magazine

One of the truly important big city papers will go digital-only.

Kevin Kelly, author and founder, Wired Magazine

Twitter will go down for 36 hours. The ensuing media attention will prompt a 10 percent increase in signups in the months following.

I’ll offer a slightly technical prediction. Denial of service attacks — DDoS — have already become a serious concern for independent media sites in countries like Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And DDoS has been a massive problem for WikiLeaks. I expect to see at least one major U.S. media site affected by DDoS and taken offline for a day or more in 2011. I also expect we’ll see one or more publications move from their own infrastructure to host with someone like Amazon, despite the concerns that the company hosting content might prevent its distribution.

I predict that next year’s most exciting media experiments will involve collaboration between journalists and audiences. The divide will grow between journalists who do and do not fundamentally understand and respect the value of conversation and contribution with users.

I also predict that we will we see the death of at least one traditional newspaper in a town with a vibrant community news startup.

WhiteHouse.gov will get more unique daily visitors than WashingtonPost.com by the end of 2011. WhiteHouse.gov is already competitive with MSNBC.com — and the WhiteHouse.gov operation continues to become more sophisticated and wide-reaching, covering the White House on a daily basis with photos, videos, podcasts, and blog posts.

Mobile devices — especially in the form of tablets like the iPad and Blackberry’s forthcoming Playbook — will become the dominant news delivery device in 2011.

Sarah Palin will run for president in the Republican Party’s presidential primary communicating with the public exclusively through Twitter, Facebook, email, personal appearances, and Fox News. She will eschew all other major media and be a viable candidate for president of the United States.

Social news will continue to become more and more important — and traditional news organizations will turn to trying to understand how news spreads socially.

More downsizing in the news biz, with potentially another major metropolitan newspaper or two to close or to severely reduce print publication.

CNN will solidify its campaign for the “middle,” MSNBC the left, and Fox the right, with all three becoming more blatant about their intended audience.

Steve Buttry, director of community engagement, TBD

Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.

A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.

We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.

At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

My prediction for 2011 is a raft of data analysis and visualisation tools, as various parties try to solve the problems raised by large datasets from governments. In the longer term, I think real-time information, contextual information, and intelligent devices will play an increasingly important role.

I said that things would get ugly in 2010 and have been sadly proved right. I think they’ll get even uglier in 2011 as the reaction against the shift in power grows and the fallout from WikiLeaks continues. Expect a lot of rushed-through legislation against the invisible threats of the web, which has implications for journalists and publishers.

Paddy Hirsch, senior editor, public radio’s Marketplace

I think WikiLeaks will be stamped out by one or more governments, and we’ll see a slew of copycats pop up in its place, hosted by outraged freedom-of-speechers, on secure servers, in out of the way places. Think The Pirate Bay but with government material instead of movies.

John Davidow, executive editor, WBUR Boston

Our revenue models continue to weaken. Radio and television face extreme technological changes. IP radio is coming to our morning commute, threatening commercial and public radio alike. Television programming will continue to atomize and migrate seamlessly from screen to screen in our daily lives. Newspapers large and small face continued pressure on their bottoms lines. Despite all the major disruptions ahead, I believe the spirit of innovation and collaboration in our industry is up to the challenges ahead.

Heading into 2011, examples of innovation and new strategies are everywhere. On the public media front, NPR, CPB, and the Knight Foundation head into 2011 with Project Argo getting up to speed. This deep vertical strategy that will hit its stride in the coming year has the potential to add more depth and user engagement while at the same time helping local station bottom lines.

Major newspapers are taking dramatic steps to find sustainability models from their online products. In the coming year The New York Times will test the metered waters and The Boston Globe will be splitting its juggernaut website Boston.com into two sites, one free and one behind a paywall. Maybe a year from now we’ll have a better sense of what direction the newspaper industry should be going. I’m also encouraged by the emergence of increased local coverage and not just by Patch, but on citizen media sites like Placeblogger.com. Initiatives like these mean more jobs and more opportunity for our younger journalists. And it is those young journalists just starting out who, not just next year but in the years ahead, will provide the ideas and energy that will regenerate and redefine our industry.

Markos Moulitsas, founder and publisher, Daily Kos

One of the newsweeklies will fold operations, or at least become web-only. Same thing will happen to at least one top-20 circulation metropolitan newspaper. At least one independent blog network will be acquired in a nine-digit deal.

The sports leagues will work to bring more games onto their cable networks, like the NFL Network’s Thursday night games.

Consumer dissatisfaction with the media will continue to rise. In politics, conservatives will be even more convinced the media is out to get them, and will retreat deeper into their Fox News/Rush Limbaugh media cocoon. Progressives will realize that the media is basing their political stories on RNC press releases — just watch them treat every Sarah Palin tweet as “news,” while pretending the GOP actually cares about the deficit during the battle to raise the debt ceiling, despite their desperate fight for budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy this lame-duck session.

More and more news content will be gathered and distributed through collaborations between for-profits and nonprofit print, online, and broadcast news outlets. This will be especially true for coverage of specialized areas such as education, science, medicine, the environment, and health.

July 26 2010

16:24

The Need for Cultural Translation with Community Media

The TED talk of Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of the international blogging site Global Voices, provides amazing insight into the challenges of telling international stories online. It's told in the great TED way of painting lots of pictures and using a ton of anecdotes.

Zuckerman said it's a big myth that the web is bringing us closer to other cultures or countries -- when we're on the web, we're basically in our own small islands of our social networks. Most of us who are building businesses/non-profits around non-traditional media content know this, but he has some great PowerPoint slides that add a lot of meat to the arguments. Give it a look:

Cultural DJs

In addition to providing some very telling facts -- did you know that "Madagascar" the movie is a bigger brand than Madagascar the country? -- he talks about translation. And not just the challenges of literal translation from one language to another, which is something Video Volunteers faces in our work all the time, especially now when we have community video correspondents working in nearly every state of India, a country with dozens of official languages. He talks about "cultural translation." He makes the point that we need more "DJs ... skilled human curators" who can speak the language of the West and of other cultures at the same time.

The incredible editors at Global Voices fit that bill, and so does the blog Afrigadget. Video Volunteers attempt to do this, too, in the articles that accompany the online videos made by our community correspondents in our new IndiaUnheard community news network.

This is really interesting to me because at Video Volunteers we talk a lot about the need for "unmediated" voices -- essentially, voices that are not culturally translated. This is one of the differences between community video, which to us means equipping traditionally "unheard" communities to tell their stories in their own words, and documentary film, where a professional uses his or her artistry and insight to translate community voices for outside audiences.

At VV, we believe, in fact, that so much is lost in translation that you want to keep "cultural translation" to a minimum. And so, with our newly launched IndiaUnheard community news network, we want to bring voices out voices in their raw form. As my partner Stalin K. often says, "if I say the words 'Masai warrior' you get an immediate visual in your head. You don't, in a similar fashion, hear their voices in your head."

We know from TV what the Masai look like. But we don't know what they sound like, because in traditional National Geographic-type media, we just see the Masai with a narration; their whole culture, never mind their language, is translated for an international audience.

There are real limits to the possibilities for translation. As I heard Zuckerman himself say at a Civic Media conference, it's hard enough to find cultural translators for English to other cultures. But what about all the learning that could happen between the readers of, say, Kurdish media in New York City and Haitian media in New York City? How is that translation going to happen? I don't know that we could ever have enough translators to solve that problem.

Two Videos to Watch

So how do we get people to watch -- rather, to want to watch -- videos like these two posted below, made by our IndiaUnheard correspondents? If the world had an ideal system for enabling the poor to represent themselves in the media, which I would say is something like one community journalist per village (or even per 20 villages), how would we interest people outside those villages to watch this content? Here are two recent videos to check out and see what you think:

Children Carry Trash, Not Books shows how children of poor families do not benefit from the current schemes on compulsory free education. The video is produced by Pratibha Rolta, a community correspondent from the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, who works as an activist on women's issues.

The second video, titled Children Denied Education, captures the plight of child labourers in Haryana's brick kilns who are deprived of several rights, including education. The correspondent here, Satyawan, was a Sarpanch (village head) for five long years before joining IndiaUnheard, and has in-depth knowledge of corruption within the local administration.

Besides our own website and within the communities where the producers work (where most of our work is shown) there are some forums for videos like this. I showed these two videos two weeks ago as a panelist at the IFP/UN-sponsored ENVISION 2010: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries, an event organized by the IFP, UN Communications Department, and New York Times. This was a one day conference on education and documentary films and, happily, there was space for user-created content.

A few years ago there probably wouldn't have been. I was on a panel about the impact of user-generated media, along with with Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough, John Kennedy of World Without Borders and Ryan Schlieff of Witness -- all good friends in the field of media and human rights. People in the world of documentary film, or in the UN sector with its huge budgets for traditional communications, were getting a taste of what's possible when you turn the camera over to communities. This is progress towards the acceptance of these voices.

More Global Than Ever

With our work, I take a long term perspective. (Wanting every village in the world to have someone skilled and motivated to represent his neighbors' concerns in the media kind of requires that!) I think that media preferences are not fixed in stone. What Americans liked on TV and in the movies in the fifties is different from what we liked in the seventies and today. Who knows where people's tastes will be twenty years from now?

I'm an optimist. I think we will only get more global and more curious, and more open to raw, unfiltered reality. I believe there are even studies that show that kids today who've grown up with mashups and social networks are much more open to gritty media that their parents wouldn't look at.

In the meantime, we keep telling our correspondents to tell their stories in their own words, with their own style, their own analysis -- no matter how challenging it may be for outsiders to understand without translation.

May 28 2010

14:00

Hal Roberts and Ethan Zuckerman: Media Cloud and quantitative tools and approaches to analyzing news

Every week, our friends at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society invite academics and other thinkers to discuss their work over lunch. Thankfully for us, they record the sessions. Throughout this week, we’ve been passing along some of the talks that are most relevant to the future of news.

Today’s video: Hal Roberts and Ethan Zuckerman. They lay out Berkman’s Media Cloud platform — and discuss how it can be used by researchers to analyze patterns of influence in the news media. We first wrote about Media Cloud last March and summed it up thusly:

Media Cloud is a massive data set of news — compiled from newspapers, other established news organizations, and blogs — and a set of tools for analyzing those data. Some of the kinds of questions Media Cloud could eventually help answer:

— How do specific stories evolve over time? What path do they take when they travel among blogs, newspapers, cable TV, or other sources?
— What specific story topics won’t you hear about in [News Source X], at least compared to its competitors?
— When [News Source Y] writes about Sarah Palin [or Pakistan, or school vouchers], what’s the context of their discussion? What are the words and phrases they surround that topic with?

January 15 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Who’s responsible for local news, and Google plays hardball with China

[Our friend Mark Coddington has spent the past several months writing weekly summaries of what's happened in the the changing world of journalism — both the important stories and the debates that came up around them online. I've liked them so much that I've asked him to join us here at the Lab. So every Friday morning — especially if you've been too busy to stay glued to Twitter and your RSS reader — come here to recap the week and see what you've missed. —Josh]

Who reports local news?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study Monday that aimed to find out “who really reports the news that most people get about their communities?” In studying the Baltimore news media ecosystem for a week, the study found that traditional media — especially newspapers — did most of the original reporting while new media sources functioned largely as a quick way to disseminate news from other places.

The study got pretty predictable reactions: Major mainstream sources (New York Times, AP, L.A. Times) repeated that finding in perfunctory write-ups. (Poynter did a bit more with it, though.) It inspired at least one “see how important newspapers are?” column. And several new media thinkers pooh-poohed it, led by CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis, who said it “sets up a strawman and then lights the match.” Steve Buttry (who notes he’s a newspaper/TV exec himself) offered the sharpest critique of the study, concluding that it’s too narrow, focuses on stories that are in the mainstream media’s wheelhouse, and has some damning statistics for traditional-media reporting, too. Former journalist John Zhu gave an impassioned rebuttal to Jarvis and Buttry that’s well worth a read, too.

(A couple of interesting tangential angles if you want to dig deeper: New York Times media critic David Carr explains why blogs aren’t geared toward original reporting, and new media giant Gawker offers a quick can’t-we-all-just-get-along post saying web journalism needs more reporting and newspapers need to get up to speed.)

My take: I’m with CUNY’s C.W. Anderson and USC’s David WestphalOf course traditional media organizations report most of our news; this finding is neither a threat to new-media folks nor ammunition for those in old media. (I share Zhu’s frustration here — let’s quit turning every new piece of information into a political/rhetorical weapon and start working together to fix our system of news.) Clay Shirky said it well last March: The new news systems won’t come into place until after the old ones break, not before. Why would we expect any different now? Let’s accept this study as rudimentary affirmation of what already makes sense and keep plugging away to make things better.

Google talks tough with China: Citing attacks from hackers and limits on free speech, Google made big news this week by announcing it won’t censor its Chinese results anymore and is considering pulling out of the country altogether. The New York Times has a lucid explanation of the situation, and this 2005 Wall Street Journal article is good background on Google/China relations. Looking for something more in-depth? Search engine maven Danny Sullivan is your guy.

The Internet practically blew up with commentary on this move, so suffice it to say I’m only scratching the surface here. (GigaOm has a nice starter for opinions outside of the usual tech-blog suspects.) Many Google- and China-watchers praised the move as bold step forward for freedom, like Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”; China/IT expert Rebecca MacKinnon (twice); New York Times human rights watchdog Nicholas Kristof; and tech guru Robert Scoble, to name a few.

TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy was more cynical, saying this was a business move for Google. (Sullivan and Scoble rebut the point in the links above.) Global blogging advocate Ethan Zuckerman laid out four possible explanations for the decision. The Wall Street Journal and Wired had some more details about Google’s internal arguments over this move, including their concerns about repercussions on the China employees. The China-watching blog Imagethief looked at the stakes for Google, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who got back from China not too long ago, has a quick take on the stakes from a foreign-relations standpoint.

Jarvis also took the opportunity to revisit a fascinating point from his book: Google has become an “interest-state,” an organization that collaborates and derives power outside of the traditional national borders. Google’s actions this week certainly seemed very nation-like, and the point is worth pondering.

Fox News ethics: Fox News was the subject of a couple of big stories this week: The biggest came Monday, when the network announced that it had signed Sarah Palin to a multiyear deal as a contributor. Most of the online commentary has focused on what this move means from Palin’s perspective (if that’s what you’re looking for, the BBC has a good roundup), but I haven’t found much of substance looking at this from the Fox/news media angle. I’m guessing this is for two reasons: Nobody in the world of media-thinkers is surprised that Fox has become a home for another out-of-office Republican, and none of them are taking Fox very seriously from an ethical standpoint in the first place.

Salon founder and blogging expert Scott Rosenberg found this out the frustrating way when he got an apathetic response to his question of how Fox will cover any stories that involve her. As I responded to Rosenberg on Twitter, I think the lack of interest in his question are a fascinating indication of media watchers’ cynicism about Fox’s ethics. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that Fox News would be a shill for Palin regardless of whether she was an employee, simply by virtue of her conservatism. Regardless of whether you think that attitude is justified (I do), it’s sad that that’s the situation we’re in.

Fox News was also involved in a strange chain of events this week that started when The New York Times published a front-page profile of its chief, Roger Ailes. It included some stinging criticism from Rupert Murdoch’s son-in-law, British PR bigwig Matthew Freud. That led to speculation by The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff that Ailes’ days were numbered at Fox, with Wolff actually asserting that Ailes had already been fired. Then the L.A. Times reported that Ailes was still around and had News Corp.’s full support. Um, OK.

Facebook says privacy’s passé: In a short interview last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave a sort-of explanation for Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes last month, one that ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick recognized as a dramatic break from the privacy defenses Zuckerberg’s given in the past. Essentially, Kirkpatrick infers, Zuckerberg is saying he considers us to now be living in an age where privacy just doesn’t matter as much to people.

Kirkpatrick and The Huffington Post’s Craig Kanalley give two spirited rebuttals, and over at the social media hub Mashable, Vadim Lavrusik says journalists should be worried about Facebook’s changes, too. Meanwhile, Advertising Age media critic Simon Dumenco argues that we’re not getting enough out of all the information we’re feeding Facebook and Twitter.

Reading roundup: These last few items aren’t attached to any big media-related conversations from this week, but they’re all worth a close read. First, in the Online Journalism Review, Robert Niles made the bold argument that there is no revenue model for journalism. Steve Buttry filed a point-by-point rebuttal, and the two traded counterpoints in the comments of each other’s posts. It’s a good debate to dive into.

Second, Alan Mutter, an expert on the business side of the news industry, has a sharp two-part post crunching the numbers to find out how long publishers can afford to keep their print products going. He considers a few scenarios and concludes that “some publishers may not be able to sustain print products for as long as demand holds out.”

And finally, Internet freedom writer and activist Cory Doctorow explains the principle “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll,” and how it needs to drive our new-media experimentation. It’s a smart, optimistic yet grounded look at the future of innovation, and I like its implications for the future of journalism.

Photo of Sarah Palin by The NewsHour used under a Creative Commons license.

December 07 2009

16:08

Saving us from noise that kills: NGOs as news coordinators in a networked public sphere

[Journalists concerned about the future of the news business tend to worry about important issues receiving a decreasing amount of coverage. But what if the problem is less the amount of coverage but the assembling, filtering, and sorting of that coverage? Is there a role for a new class of news coordinators? Our friend Lokman Tsui of the University of Pennsylvania looks at the role nongovernmental organizations are playing in directing people's attention — the scarcest good in the new media economy. This is the fourth part of our series on NGOs and the news. —Josh]

The question of how news is produced is in essence a question that asks how we come to know the world. It is a crucial question to ask if we want to understand how and why people, events, countries, and whole continents are in the focus or left out of the news.1

News organizations have traditionally been the primary producer and distributor of news. However, as traditional news organizations lose the resources or the capacity to do this, particularly for international news, we start to see that NGOs are asked, or act deliberately, to take on even more responsibility in ensuring that the public does not tune out the rest of the world. Apart from the question of resources, Manuel Castells2 argues that in a globalized environment, NGOs are becoming indispensable in filling the gaps that appear when problems are increasingly transnational in nature and grow beyond the sovereign realm of nation-states.

It is important to understand how this process unfolds: It is not an exaggeration to say that the attention that NGOs can bring to a crisis situation can be a matter of life and death, as attention of the world is often strongly correlated with humanitarian aid and assistance.3 While it may not always be their primary mission, for many NGOs, allocating resources for strategic communication and becoming more integrated with the news landscape has therefore become an indispensable part of their work.4 Their role is to make sure that those without voice do not go silent, because as Medecins Sans Frontieres has said: “We are not sure that words can always save lives, but we know that silence can certainly kill.”

For those concerned about how the world comes to know itself, the Internet offers a manifold of opportunities for NGOs that have yet to be explored and understood.

How do NGOs use the Internet to change the way we learn about the world?

Of course, the Internet does not unequivocally affect all NGOs in the same way. Some NGOs are much better equipped to deal with technological change than others. New technologies can have disruptive effects to organizations. Christensen5 has helped us understand why powerful organizations oftentimes fail to adapt to new technologies such as the Internet. He calls these disruptive innovations, because they do not only allow organizations to make their existing processes more efficient, but they also force organizations to drastically rethink their underlying processes. Price et al.6 have referred to this distinction as one between adaptation and transformation.

Technologies are disruptive in the sense that they ask organizations not just to adapt to the new technology, but force them to transform, or face eventual irrelevance or even extinction. For NGOs, just as for mainstream news organizations, the Internet is a disruptive technology that provides both new opportunities and challenges.

In an earlier essay in this series, Fenton suggests that it is the size of the NGO, and accordingly, the amount of resources available, that is a key factor in determining whether an NGO is able to take advantage of the Internet or not. She argues that in our haste to understand the impact of the Internet on NGOs, we too often focus on the large and well-known NGOs, and fail to understand that smaller, resource-poor NGOs are often unable to seize on the opportunities afforded by new technologies. Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation offers a counter argument: that in fact, large organizations fail to take advantage of new innovations precisely because of size and institutional legacies.

Leveraging the Internet: Legacy NGOs vs. networked NGOs

What determines how an NGO can take advantage of the potential that the Internet offers in a transformative way? Whether NGOs are able to seize on the opportunities that the Internet affords is not so much a matter of size or scale. Rather, it is the ability to leverage the network that shapes to what extent the NGO can capitalize on new technologies.

Understanding the Internet as a disruptive innovation allows us to make a distinction between NGOs that adapt to the Internet, which I refer to as legacy NGOs, and NGOs that are transformative, which I refer to as networked NGOs. Legacy NGOs have optimized their work processes to a technological environment from a previous era, and are now facing institutional legacies as they try to reform and take advantage of the Internet. NGOs that have formed in the wake of the Internet are better positioned to take advantage of the transformative capabilities of new technologies and optimize their processes for a networked public sphere. Yet, the networked NGOs often do not get the attention they deserve. We tend to focus on how legacy NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, make the jump to the digital world. Yet these legacy NGOs do not represent all NGOs. Otherwise we risk turning a blind eye and fail to understand the rise of a range of networked NGOs.

Perhaps at this point a disclaimer is justified. The distinction between legacy and networked NGOs is not a hard and fast rule. Legacy NGOs certainly have the potential to, and do, utilize new technologies to their advantage. They might even form initiatives entirely built around new technologies, such as Witness has done with The Hub. The point is also not that networked NGOs are “better” than the legacy NGOs or that they will replace them. But certainly when we consider how NGOs are becoming more integrated in a transforming news production process, we cannot be content with just paying attention to the prototypical, well-known and more established NGOs. We need to understand how the networked NGOs work alongside legacy NGOs and mainstream media, and together form a networked public sphere.

From silence to noise: the emergence of a networked public sphere

Legacy NGOs are built around practices of content creation that are embedded in an institutional culture and framework that is optimized to deal with a scarcity of voices in the traditional broadcast landscape. They ensure nobody goes silent and that people have a voice on their platform. Over time, they have established an elaborate infrastructure that allows for the verification and legitimatization of the reports they produce, including a well-trained and knowledgeable staff of experts who do their own investigative reporting.

The operative model that is based on silence — a scarcity of voices in the traditional news system — is now under challenge with the arrival of the Internet. “Everybody is a journalist” might be a hyperbole, but it is clear that a lot more people now have a voice, if we consider that even Buddhist monks in Burma, one of the least connected countries in the world, have been able to bring matters to international attention by capturing pictures of protests using camera phones. While the increasing accessibility of technology increases the opportunity for those previously without a voice to speak, NGOs still have an important role to play.

Today, however, the importance of NGOs is no longer exclusively located in speaking for others — in making sure they don’t go silent. Instead, we have gone from a situation where silence can kill to one where noise can kill. It is easier for people to speak, but that does not mean that they are actually being listened to. To the contrary, with information, voices, and testimonies becoming ever more abundant, the most powerful story is in danger of getting lost in information noise. Therefore, the role of NGOs is increasingly to prevent voices from being drowned out, and to bring back signal into the noise.

I draw on three case studies — The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices — to help understand the emerging networked public sphere, and the implications of this for how we learn about the world.

The Hub is an initiative of the human rights organization Witness. Founded by Peter Gabriel in the wake of the Rodney King incident, Witness strongly believes that participatory video can make a difference in bringing attention to issues of human rights. The Hub, launched in 2008, can perhaps be best described as a YouTube for human rights. What sets The Hub apart from YouTube are two services that are particularly relevant in the human rights context: Witness pays special attention to the safety and security of its users and provides a proper context for videos, a crucial element that ensures we are able to make sense of the brutalities on which it often reports.

Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimonial,” was started by Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh in response to the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008 (for Ushahidi’s coverage of this, see here. The project allows people to submit reports through mobile phone, email, or the web. These reports are then aggregated and curated using Google Maps. In short, it is a crowdsourcing tool that makes it easy for people to share what they are witnessing. Individually, they might not be able to make sense of what is going on, but collectively, they are able to give insight into a crisis situation that significantly extends beyond what the mainstream media or individual citizen media reports are able to cover. As Meier states, “nobody knows about every human rights violation taking place, but everyone may know of some incidents.”

The third case study, Global Voices, was founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman in 2004 as a direct response to the decline of foreign news, and in recognition of the untapped potential of blogs to help us understand the world. Theoretically, there is more information than ever before, from all over the world. However, this does not mean that all of this information is immediately accessible: language barriers and lack of context often mean that potential audiences either can’t access, or don’t understand, what is being said. The sheer amount of information available presents another challenge. This is where Global Voices comes in. Global Voices translates and contextualizes the important or interesting conversations for other parts of the world to read.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to?

The functions of these, and other, networked NGOs are best understood as news coordination rather than news gathering. Coordination is the process of establishing order and organization in the information chaos in a concerted way. Coordination is not a new function — legacy NGOs and news organizations have fulfilled this function in the past and continue to do so — but new technologies allow the networked NGOs to give a different twist to it, one whose implications have to be understood in the context of a larger and networked public sphere.

If everyone can speak, how do we know whom to listen to? Indeed, Global Voices asks us, even challenges us: “The world is talking. Are you listening?” NGOs have always played a crucial role in making sure people had a voice, speaking on behalf of them. But they now increasingly have to make sure people are being heard. They are a crucial intervention in solving the problems that come to exist in situations of information overload and fragmentation of voices — that is, they bring signal back into the noise through news coordination.

The Hub — the name says as much — aims to become the central place for human rights multimedia content. Ushahidi fulfills the function of a hub in its own way by inviting users to share testimonials — testimonials that otherwise would be fragmented, but are now presented in a single, central, and orderly location. And Global Voices aggregates a range of perspectives from different bloggers around the world, offering us perspectives we otherwise would not get in one central place.

Networked NGOs whose production models are based on user participation might help us better understand the dynamics of how distant events are brought to our attention. They provide an alternative perspective, one that recognizes the possibility and the need for other cultures to bring matters to our attention in their own voice, rather than the ones we decide they should have.

In order to effectively coordinate, one must become a central player in the network. What The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices realize is that in a networked public sphere, one becomes a central player by allowing their content to be shared by being open, collaborative, and networked. Global Voices encourages citizen media and news organizations to make use of their content — through legal means (putting a Creative Commons license on their content) and technological means (providing RSS feeds that can easily be incorporated into other websites). More conventional news organizations such as The New York Times, Reuters, and Yahoo! News have adopted, included, and linked to Global Voices content on their news sites. Ushahidi and The Hub employ a similar strategy, making their content easily and widely available through legal and technological means. Redfield (2006) argues that advocacy has evolved from the individual to the collective level, as practiced by most NGOs. What I suggest here is that this too is evolving — from collective advocacy to a form of networked advocacy. The resulting media ecology consists of legacy and networked NGOs, citizen media, and news organizations working together.

Can we trust what we hear?

“How can we trust this?” is perhaps the most often asked question in the case of NGOs. This is understandable, since NGOs are organizations with their own agenda, operating increasingly in an environment where information is not vetted in the traditional way. Redfield7 has referred to this mix of expertise and advocacy, of finding facts in the name of values, as “motivated truth.” The issue of trust becomes even more worrisome in the case of citizen journalism and the Internet. Consider the potential of the unedited rawness of amateur photography that can instill an even greater sense of authenticity with the viewer, as noted by Susan Sontag.8 One can imagine that the personal nature of blogs and social media might also instill a similar sense of authenticity. By making available content that is potentially biased without being clearly marked as such, yet is viewed as more authentic, NGOs take on a significant responsibility. Indeed, when Witness initially asked for feedback about the idea of starting a website where any user could anonymously upload their human rights videos, many commented on the dangers and potential abuse of such an open system, the impossibility of screening every single video, the legal implications of it all. In short, many likened the plan to “jumping off the cliff.”9

A different perspective on the question of bias is provided by Hannah Arendt10, who once said that story telling reveals meaning without making the error of defining it. Her lesson suggests that perspective and meaning are perhaps more useful metaphors when considering the value of the work done by The Hub, Ushahidi, Global Voices, and other networked NGOs — that to view their work solely through the lens of accuracy is in many ways to miss the manifold new and different opportunities they offer. Herbert Gans would perhaps consider their work valuable comparable to what he has referred to as “multiperspectival” journalism.11

This is not to dismiss the importance of accurate factual information. Coordination only has value when there actually is something to coordinate. That is, the value of networked NGOs can best be understood as additional layers on top of the fundamental layer of news creation. This is not unlike the idea set forth by Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen12, who argue that news wires can be understood as being in the business of wholesale news, and national newspapers in retail news, because they customize the news they get from the wires for local audiences.

Networked NGOs do occasionally find themselves in the business of news creation — Ushahidi, for example, in covering the post-election violence in Kenya, was able to cast a wider net, receiving reports from areas that were covered neither by citizen journalism blogs or mainstream media. Ushahidi was not only getting information quicker than any other media outlet, it was also doing so in areas where news organizations were simply not present. But arguably news creation is not where the primary value of networked NGOs resides. Networked NGOs are but part of a larger ecology and still need the help of other organizations, particularly the legacy NGOs and mainstream media. Indeed, Zuckerman, in an essay that will appear later in this series, warns us against the dangers of relying on foreign news from a barren news ecology that only consists of the motivated truth of particular NGOs.

Thoughts for discussion

We are going from a situation where silence kills to one where increasingly also noise kills. The NGO landscape is adapting and transforming: the job of NGOs is no longer just to speak for others, but increasingly also to make them heard. In the face of new technologies, a range of networked NGOs have appeared, including The Hub, Ushahidi, and Global Voices, whose function occasionally is news gathering, but whose value is best understood as news coordination.

Yet, more than ever, we depend on a multi-varied ecology consisting of mainstream news organizations, citizen media, legacy and networked NGOs, to keep us abreast of what is happening elsewhere in the world. In a networked public sphere, no one organization is necessarily “better” at performing the function of educating and informing; rather, they must all work together in order to bring back signal into the noise.

A better and stronger signal can only be generated through coordination if the operative models are based on openness and collaboration. A better and stronger signal also only makes sense on a collective and networked level. Moeller13 has coined the idea of compassion fatigue that is the result of the increased competition for attention. If we accept her premise, then the public only has a limited capacity to listen. Instead of every NGO each vying, even screaming, for attention from audiences, we should give consideration to the possibility of a networked public sphere where content is coordinated and contextualized, where amplification happens on the network level.

Lokman Tsui is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard in 2008-09. His dissertation tries to answer the question of how the world comes to know itself by examining the impact of citizen journalism on global news production. He is coeditor of The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age (2008).

References

Arendt, H. Men in Dark Times. Harvest Books, 1970.

Boyd-Barrett, O., & Rantanen, T. The Globalization of News. London: Sage Publications, 1998.

Castells, M. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks, and Global Governance.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 78-93.

Christensen, C. The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Belle, D. “Media agenda-setting and donor aid.” In P. Norris, ed., The Roles of the News Media: Watch-dogs, Agenda-Setters and Gate-Keepers. Washington: The World Bank, 2009.

Fishman, M. Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980.

Gans, H. Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1979.

Hall, S. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. London: Macmillan, 1978.

Meier, P. HURIDOCS09: From Wikipedia to Ushahidi, 2009.

Meier, P., & Brodock, K. Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi, 2008.

Moeller, S. Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fenton, N. “NGOs, New Media and the Mainstream News: News from Everywhere.” In N. Fenton, ed., New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in the Digital Age. London: Sage, 2009.

Price, M., E., Haas, S., & Margolin, D. “New Technologies and International Broadcasting: Reflections on Adaptations and Transformations.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616, No. 1 (2008), pp. 150-172.

Redfield, P. “A Less Modest Witness.” American Ethnologist 33, No. 1 (2006), p. 3.

Sontag, S. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003.

Tuchman, G. Making News. New York: Free Press, 1978.

Wu, H. “A Brave New World for International News? Exploring the Determinants of the Coverage of Foreign News on US Websites.” International Communication Gazette 69, No. 6 (2007), pp. 539-551.

Notes
  1. Hall 1978, Tuchman 1978, Gans 1979, Fishman 1980, Wu 2007
  2. Castells 2008
  3. Belle 2009
  4. Redfield 2006, Fenton 2009
  5. Christensen 2003
  6. Price et al. 2008
  7. Redfield 2006
  8. Sontag 2003
  9. Interview with The Hub.
  10. Arendt 1970
  11. Gans 1979
  12. Boyd-Barrett and Rantanen 1998
  13. Moeller 1998
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