Dec 08 2009

Five (Long) Videos about Journalism Transformed

Come, my fellow information geeks, and gather ’round the glow of monitors. The world is changing (it’s the internet) and the way we learn things is changing too. The blogosphere is blooming while journalists are being laid off. Is this good? Is this bad? I’ve spent far too much time trying to understand how everything is shifting.

And now you too can waste your time in learning! Here are five videos about journalism, blogging, tweeting, collecting and sharing information, and how stuff is generally changing. In no particular order:

1. “The Arab World on the Front Edge of Media”, by Moeed Ahmad, head of New Media for Al Jazeera

Moeed Ahmad talk

Figuring out which tweets from the Iranian protests are true. Tracking falling bombs in Gaza using SMS and open-source mapping mash-ups. Releasing war footage under Creative Commons licenses. Moeed has a seriously interesting job, and speaks with great eloquence about how his small new media team fits into a huge global news organization.

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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.

twitter-logo

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 19 2009

The New York Times Doesn’t Understand Twitter and Iran

In the editorial “New Tweets, Old Needs” experienced journalist Roger Cohen says that Twitter isn’t journalism, and that Iran “has gone opaque” without its mainstream media correspondents. He may be right about the recent paucity of good journalism out of Iran, but he misses some really crucial points about how information flows in the absence of a distribution monopoly (like a printing press.) In particular, he seems to assume that only professional journalists can be capable of producing professional journalism.

It is absolutely true that journalism is much more than random tweeting or blogging. I have been particularly inspired by the notion that “journalism is a discipline of verification,” and a tweet or a blog post neither requires nor endures the fact-checking and truthfulness standards that we expect of our more traditional news media. I also agree that search engines are simply not a substitute for being there. Someone must be a witness. Someone has to feed their experience into the maw of the internet at some point.

However, when Cohen says “the mainstream media — expelled, imprisoned, vilified — is missed” he is implicitly arguing that only the mainstream media can produce good journalism.  Traditionally, “journalist” was  a distinct, easily defined class: a journalist was someone who worked for a news organization. There weren’t many such organizations, because a distribution monopoly is an expensive thing. All this has changed with the advent of nearly free and truly democratic information distribution, and we are seeing a rapid erosion of the the distinction between professional and amateur or “citizen” journalists. The result is confusion, uncertainty and fear — especially on the part of those who have staked their careers or their fortunes on the clarity of this distinction.

But I see a big difference between journalists and journalism, and this is where Cohen and I part ways.

In my view the failure of journalism in Iran was not the failure of the mainstream media to hold their ground (or their funding, or their audiences) but rather the failure of the journalism profession to educate the public about what exactly it does, and how to do it. When Cohen asks questions such as

But who is there to investigate these deaths — or allegations of wholesale rape of hundreds of arrested men and women — and so shed light?

my answer is, the Iranians, of course!

Naturally, a young activist-turned-reporter does not have the experience or connections of an old-school foreign correspondent. But such a person is there, and they care enormously. What they lack is guidance. What is and is not journalism, exactly? What are the expected standards and daily, on-the-ground procedures of verification? Where can someone turn to for advice on covering the struggles they are immersed in? And what, actually, differentiates the New York Times from a blogger? We need clear answers, because the newspapers are no longer the only ones declaiming the news.

Perhaps the mainstream media couldn’t be in Iran, but they could have been mentoring and collaborating from afar, and yes, publishing the journalism of non-career journalists. And such a project needs to begin long before times of crisis, in every region, so that those who are there are ready.

If “citizen journalism” has so far been somewhat underwhelming, it is because we have not taught our citizens to be journalists.

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Sep 24 2008

Iranian Bloggers Fail to Live up to Stereotypes

Map of the Iranian Blogosphere

A new study by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society opens with the following narrative:

Iran, a country rich in history, culture, and education, supports a large online community, including perhaps the fourth largest ‘blogosphere’ in the world (or the second, third or seventh). Because the Iranian press is under the control of religious conservatives who sit above elected officials in Iran’s peculiar hybrid political system, and because that conservative control is used to silence dissent, Iranians who think differently go online to express their views. Here, the inherent freedom of the Internet (anonymity, decentralized control, etc.) allows the true minds of Iran’s youth, journalists, and intellectuals to be known publicly. In their blogs and online chats we see their rejection of the regime, its brutal paternalistic control, its enforcement of archaic sexual mores, its corruption and incompetence, and of the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself. The government, worried, has cracked down. Bloggers have been sent to jail, websites are being blocked, and user bandwidth is constricted, but the Internet continues to be one of the best hopes for homegrown democratic change in autocratic Iran. If you read Iranian blogs, it is clear that many Iranians want drastic social and political change.

The authors of the paper then do the homework to ask if this story is true. And it is true– but so is a story about social and religious conservatives using the internet, or a story about the many sites devoted to Persian poetry and literature. Part of the confusion here is that we have, in the West, our own story about what it means to be liberal, freedom-loving, democratic, as contrasted with closed, repressive, backwards. Our ideas about the social and political struggles of Iranians do not map neatly to reality.

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