Apr 23 2010

Don’t throw that out! Editing like it’s paper destroys journalistic value

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The village of Kangzhuang, in Henan Province, China, was built in 2006 next to the Tianrui cement factory (in background, above), to house villagers relocated after the government bought their land. A huge grey cloud of dust hangs permanently over the village. The villagers told me that the factory is shut down for a day or two whenever air quality authorities come to visit, then started up again as soon as they leave.

I visited Kangzhuang on another story. But eating dinner that night, covered in a film of dust, I suggested to a Chinese colleague that this issue of cheated environmental regulations deserved to be investigated further.

“That’s not news,” she said. “That happens all over China, every day.”

And she’s right: it’s not news. All chronic problems fade from attention, and old news won’t interest (most) readers, or sell papers. But we’re leaving the paper era, and this changes things. In the web era, documenting old, marginal, or incomplete stories is much more valuable — and much more affordable — than it used to be.

There has been much discussion of how web writing style must differ from paper writing style, but the difference in medium also changes what stories can and should be covered. Despite its physicality, paper is a deeply transient medium. Yesterday’s newspaper lines birdcages, but yesterday’s web stories will be showing up on Google five years from now. An editor selecting stories needs to be thinking about not only tomorrow’s page views but next year’s as well, and also, crucially, how the story will function in combination with stories from other outlets. There are close ties here to the concept of stock and flow in journalism, and the new-media notions of topic pages and context.

I ran into this paper-web cultural divide discussing a pitch for a story about the number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war. I had done a little bit of new reporting on the topic, but mostly I just wanted to write a thorough summary of the various estimates and a careful, clear analysis of how reliable each might be. An editor friend said that, since the studies I would be referencing were several years old, this wasn’t news and would be hard to sell to the outlet I was proposing; I said that I was planning to write an authoratative article on a topic of great international concern for a general audience, a piece which doesn’t really exist yet. I felt that this would be exactly the sort of public service that journalism is supposed to be, and further, we’d have a good shot at getting in the top five results on Google.

We clearly had somewhat different conceptions of what stories count as publishable journalism, which seemed to be derived from our focus on different media.

Not only is the web a permanent medium, it’s a distributed, accessible-from-anywhere medium (unless your government doesn’t want you to know about certain things, but there are ways around that.) A single report of environmental cheating at a cement factory is not going to change anything for the people who will get sick from cement dust, but hundreds of such reports all over China might. If editors, used to selling papers, think of stories as throwaway consumables rather than careful additions to a permanent store, they miss opportunities for collective action.

But how to fund such long-term, speculative projects? After all, every story costs money to produce. I think part of the answer lies in another medium-driven difference: the web is more amenable to journalism of different levels of quality and completeness. The New York Times aims to be “the paper of record,” which means it hopes always to tell the full story, and to never get a fact wrong. On the web, this is ridiculously inefficient. As a social medium, the web draws power from collaboration and conversation — say, between different papers in different places — and that process is severely hindered if only “finished” work makes it online.

Yes, there will always be a need for the authoritative voice and the carefully edited, sub-edited, copy-edited and fact-checked article. But what about all that other good stuff that journalists produce in the course of their work? What about the juicy trimmings that had to be cut from the main story, the tantalizing leads that the reporter hasn’t had time to follow up, and the small incidents that have meaning only in aggregate? The web demands that we put more online than we would publish on paper, and provides a place for information of all grades. In this new medium, amateur journalists (such as bloggers and thoughtful commenters) are often much more adept at creating value from information by-products than their professional peers. News organizations will have to find forms for publishing unpolished information, such as the beat blog.

The report of environmental malfeasance in Kangzhuang is not yet a story. It hasn’t been checked against other sources, we haven’t heard from the local government ministry about whether they did a proper environmental study prior to putting 2,300 people next to a factory, and anyway the journalists who visited the town (myself among them) are currently busy writing up an entirely different story. But this tidbit deserves to be aired in a public place, so that others can build on it in the future. This is a valuable public service that could be provided for low cost, a service that is possible only on the web. Will an industry trained in the paper era see this possibility?

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Feb 08 2010

In Xinjiang, the Internet is Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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We are witnessing the birth of a new kind of internet censorship in the Xinjiang province of Western China: the kind where a web site must be specifically allowed, instead of specifically disallowed.

China’s largest province was disconnected from the world completely, including a shutdown of phones and SMS, after hundreds of people were killed in separatist protests by the Uyghur minority people in July. Today, the Far West Blog reports that 27 more web sites have been allowed through the previously complete internet block. Wow. A whole 27. That brings the total number of extra-provincial sites accessible to Xinjiang residents to 31, and all of them are inside China.

The Chinese government maintains that the US-based “World Uyghur Congress” instigated the riots from overseas using the internet and SMS. No communications, no riots, the logic goes. And perhaps this is true, if myopic (fascinating debate on this here).

But there is something very wrong about opening up sites one by one like this, despite the fact that state-run Xinhua news agency is playing it up as communications being “restored”. The current Xinjian policy represents a new and extremely troubling flavor of censorship: rather than some sites being blocked, some sites are allowed. This is a white list, as opposed to the usual black list; the default is now “no”. Bearing in mind that personal satellite dishes are illegal in China, this means the government has complete control over the information that people are exposed to. This is just like the pre-internet era in any number of times and places, really, but that doesn’t make it any better.

At least text messaging, including international text messaging, was restored two weeks ago.

According to Far West Blog, here is what you now get from the outside world if you live in Xinjiang:

  • 7 News Sites (including China Daily and CCTV)
  • 4 Travel Sites (including Ctrip and Air China)
  • 3 Business & Finance Sites
  • 3 Telecom Sites (all three major Chinese carriers)
  • 2 Shopping Sites (including Taobao, China’s version of eBay)
  • 2 Computer Service Sites (so you can update your anti-virus)
  • 2 Gaming Sites (more flash games…yippee)
  • 2 Education Sites (study materials for students and help for teachers)
  • 1 Fashion Site

Yes, this also means no IM, no Skype, no email, no nothing outside of the province. “I have had to sit here and endure a frustrating feeling that we are now living in the stone ages,” says Far West Blog writer Josh.

These 31 sites seem ridiculously limited, and these limits (no email!) would severely hamper business in the affluent Eastern provinces. Xinjiang has only 20 million people, so perhaps China can more or less do without it for a while. But what if the national firewall let through only, say, the top 10,000 or 100,000 currently uncensored international sites? How much easier it would be to prevent some pesky overseas message board from cropping up to corrupt Chinese minds! Why, your world-censoring work would practically be done for you, and almost no one would be the wiser.

Let’s hope that this isn’t a precedent.

UPDATE: There are rumours, based on government statements in December, that a national whitelist is planned. Nothing definitive yet.

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Oct 21 2009

Who Wants to Hack Twitter With Me?

I want to modify the open source, multiplatform, iPhone capable Spaz client so that it has a mode to automatically translate all tweets into the user’s chosen language.

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I had intended to do this myself. But I’ve discovered that I’m back in graduate school full time, so I’m looking for a collaborating programmer who wants to do the majority of the coding. If you have some programming skill and you want to get into web apps, drop me a line!

But mostly, you’ll do this because you think that the world needs better multi-lingual communication. In particular, you want people to be able to keep track of news from places with oppressive internet censorship regimes (Iran, China, some Middle East), and you want the people who live there to be able to have public, real-time conversations with the rest of the world.

(Getting an uncensored internet connection in these places, one that can actually reach Twitter, is a different problem. But believe me, that problem has an active community around it.)

Spaz is written in Adobe Air and will need to call the Google Translate APIs.

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Sep 30 2009

Know Your Enemy

In America, the enemy is Terrorism. It used to be the Russians, or more generically Communists. We discussed the history of this concept in class today. And then I asked: In the state-controlled Chinese media, who is the enemy today?

I got three immediate answers:

“The West.”

“Japan.”

“Separatists.” (E.g. Tibetans, Uighurs.)

There was instant consensus on this list, among the PRC students. Good to know.

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Sep 12 2009

Hong Kong is Not Quite China

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The “Pillar of Shame” is faces: faces in agony, anonymous faces, dead faces. It stands in the plaza of the Student Union of the University of Hong Kong as a monument to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in which hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by the Chinese government. It was installed by students on the tenth anniversary of this sorry event, and the police did not stop them.

This would never fly on the mainland. In China, web searches, blog posts, foreign news broadcasts, and even instant messages about the Tiananamen Square massacre are very closely censored. To erect a monument to something that officially did not happen is unthinkable, not to mention severely punishable.

But Hong Kong is different.

The island was a British colony by treaty with the Chinese for 100 years. The 1997 handover to the Chinese government was peaceful, and Hong Kong became the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” This means that it is under different law. In effect, the Hong Kong Basic Law — drafted jointly by the British and Chinese in the late 1980s — is a completely different constitution for the region. Hong Kong and China even require different entry visas and have different immigration procedures. In particular, mainland Chinese residents are not allowed to live here permanently.

And they might want to! Hong Kong residents enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and guarantees against unwarranted search or detention. The chief executive is not democratically elected, but the legislative council is. The internet is not censored and the economy is officially capitalist.

This arrangement provides a strange vantage point for China observers; it’s China, but also not-China. It’s free, and you can do things here you could never get away with on the mainland. For example, Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong has published some wonderful research on the Chinese internet censorship regime.

The Basic Law is guaranteed by the PRC for 50 years, until 2047. What happens then is anyone’s guess.

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May 05 2009

What China is Censoring This Week

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[Update May 6 17:00: added information on the context within China's overall internet censorship.]

The thing about censorship is that, when done well, no one really knows what’s being censored. This is why last week’s leaked documents from Baidu, the largest Chinese-langauge search engine and blogging site, are so titillating. Maybe someone screwed up bad, or maybe someone on the inside had an attack of transparency; whatever the reason, we now have a huge pile of documents detailing Baidu’s censorship policy during the period from November 2008 to March 2009. 

Whee!

The documents, now safely ensconed in a permanent home on Wikileaks, reveal for the first time a detailed inventory of the Chinese government’s priorities for, er, harmonization. There is a blacklist of 798 specific URLs, most of which seem to be recent news articles and discussion forum posts on sites both inside and outside of China. Far more interesting is a long list of sensitive keywords. Included policy documents suggest that the appearance of any of these terms in a blog post triggers a manual review by the staff of Baidu’s censorship team — whose names are listed in another of the leaked documents! While some of these topics have long been outright censored, such as “Tiananmen Square,” others are more general categories to be watched. Taken together, these sensitive terms are a fascinating portrait of China’s institutional paranoia.

Some categories are obvious, such as “Taiwan” and “naked chat”. Other areas are shockingly broad, such as “power” and “tyranny.”  Certain media outlets such as Voice of America are considered unacceptable, and “SMS the answer” is forbidden within the “exam information” section. Also, China does not have any ketamine, AIDS, or ethnic conflict, and frowns upon one night stands. The main document of interest begins,

近期重点监控信息

中办发 国办发 温州 鬼村 段桂清 四川广安 广安事件
中组部前部长直言 动物园 集会 涿州 饲养基地 中石油国家电网倒数 张文中 华闻 王政
假冒 记签 校园改造工程 雍战胜 死刑现场 冯巩 陶虹 高勤荣

And I can’t read that either, so below is an automated translation, via The Dark Visitor who clearly used something more formidable than Google Translate. Still, machine translation really doesn’t work as well as one might like, or perhaps “electric chicken” makes perfect sense in context.

Continue Reading »

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Jan 24 2009

Chinese Dissidents’ Manifesto Celebrated in the West, Ignored in China

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Liu Xiaobo is now imprisoned at an uknown location for his involvement in the Charter ’08 document

On December 10, 2008, a group of 300 Chinese dissidents published an open letter (english translation) to the Chinese government  calling for wide political freedoms and basic human rights in their country. Although this document has become the vegetarian dinner party topic du jour among Western activists, it’s not at all clear whether it will have any impact in China. For one thing, the Chinese government has censored it, removing it from Baidu and Google and even individual blogs. The internet being the internet, people are reading and talking about it anyway, but this only matters if the Chinese populace in general is sympathetic to the notion of government reform and greater personal rights. They may not be.

Continue Reading »

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Dec 12 2008

How the Internet Can Fail

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave this speech in 1961, decrying the state of the medium that many had hoped would bring new light to humanity. What is to say that the Internet will not sink into the same mediocrity?

There are differences, of course. The internet is (currently) very much an active, two-way medium; the internet is (currently) a very democratic place, where anyone can espouse their worldview to the whole world for only the effort of typing. And the internet is (currently) far too large and diverse to be effectively controlled by any particular corporate or goverment interest.

But I have a morbid interest in dystopia; and already I see signs that not everyone realizes what freedoms we could lose. Like bad science fiction, here are a few scenarios where the internet fails to live up to its almost obscene promise, where it becomes just another “vast wasteland.”

Continue Reading »

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Jul 01 2008

Chinese-American Fairness

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There was an ad on the Muni, on the 30 through Chinatown, printed in English and Chinese. It was a public service announcement, warning people to beware of hustlers selling fake visas. Among other things, there was a bullet point that said,

Don’t believe anyone who says ‘we know people at the immigration service and can get your papers done quickly.

I imagine talking to a Chinese immigrant about this. I imagine their confusion. “But,” my friend Ming says, “it is very difficult to get a visa. If they know someone, this solves the problem.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I’d tell him.

Ming blinks his confusion. How can it not work like that? Continue Reading »

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Jun 10 2008

What Does Internet Censorship Look Like?

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it looks like this:

This is the web page that users trying within the United Arab Emirates see when they navigate to flickr.com

I captured this from an internet cafe in Dubai in November, 2007, when I tried to navigate to flickr.com. Click for a larger image; the text reads, in Arabic and English, “We apologize [sic] the site you are attempting to visit has been blocked due to its content being inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates.” I must say it was something of a shock. If you live in what is commonly known as “Western Civilization”, you’ve probably never run into a censored page before. As with all personal experience, if you don’t see it yourself it’s very easy to forget that it exists at all.

But internet censorship does exist. It’s very real. In fact, something like one third of the governments of the world censor their citizens’ internet access. Given that this includes India and (especially) China, it may be that half the people people in the world can’t actually see what Americans, Canadians, Europeans and so on experience as “the internet.” Continue Reading »

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