I just had the pleasure of participating in a fascinating panel discussion on the decline of the foreign correspondent and the rise of citizen journalist. The event was hosted by the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University (GWU) and supported by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).
Jeffrey Hirschberg from BBG gave the opening remarks and GWU Professor Steve Roberts moderated the panel, which included Loren Jenkins, Senior Foreign Editor at NPR, Professor Sherry Ricchiardi, Senior Writer at the American Journalism Review (AJR) and Professor at Indian University’s School of Journalism, Bob Dietz with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and myself.
Where to begin? I was definitely the only one on the panel without a formal background in journalism, possibly the only blogger, probably the only one with a YouTube account and most likely the only panelist on Twitter. Inevitably, then, I brought a slightly different perspective, but more importantly, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from my fellow panelists and to understand their perspective on the decline of foreign reporting. It was a truly rich conversation.
Professional journalists engaged in international news are increasingly concerned about the possibility of misinformation and manipulation that may originate from citizen journalists, e.g., through blogs, Twitter, etc. In my opinion, one of the defining roles of the mainstream media is to distinguish between fact and fiction, which means that they play an even more important role in the digital age. The question of journalist standards was also raised, or the lack thereof. within citizen journalism In my opinion, as international news reporting declines and citizen journalists continue to fill the void, the public will expect and come to demand that the latter meet some of the same standards practiced by mainstream media.
Having had the opportunity to interact with numerous bloggers with Global Voices and beyond, I emphasized the fact that reputation for many bloggers is everything. Her or his readership is a function of the person’s reputation and hence credibility and accountability. Over time, as Lauren mentioned, we come to “get to know” and trust a blogger even if we never meet in person. Journalists investigate stories by interviewing sources, there is no reason to discount citizen journalists as valuable sources.
The challenge of validating sources and information is not a new one. There is a trade off between volume of information and the ability to verify that information. This trade off, or continuum, becomes even more acute in rapidly changing situations like the recent carnage in Mumbai.
What we need to keep in mind, however, is that we each have different demands or needs for validity. If you found yourself in downtown Mumbai during the terrorist attacks, you would rather know about rumors spread via Twitter than not. Why? Because at least you’d be able to take precautionary measures should the rumor prove to be true.
Watching the unfolding tragedy from thousands of miles away in the comfort of our own homes, we have less need for expediency, we just want to know what really happened, the facts. However, our demand for facts and rigorous validation should not overshadow the fact that rumors and unverified reports from unknown sources can save lives.
Steve asked Bob whether his work on the protection of journalists should be expanded to citizen journalists. In his response, Bob preempted an important point I had planned to make; namely that the line between citizen journalism and digital activism is becoming increasingly blurred. In the past, documenting human rights abuses and broadcasting this documentation was rarely done by one individual. Today, thanks to YouTube, documenting events is the same as broadcasting events, which is alot about what advocacy is.
This is why it is increasingly important for citizen journalists in repressive environments to interact with digital activists and individuals engaged in strategic nonviolence. As a a fellow blogger of mine recently remarked about her experience covering the post-election violence in Kenya, there is a distinction between being able to speak out and being heard. In most contexts, the former is far easier than the latter. However, if you start being heard, and a government or regime starts to pay attention to what you are blogging, you become a target. It’s a catch 22. Bloggers need to learn from digital activists and strategic nonviolence movements about how to stay safe and how to make maximum use technology to get their message out.
I drew on several examples to highlight the important contribution that citizen journalists are making around the world, from Global Voices to Witness.org. I also highlighted HHI‘s recent work on crisis mapping Kenya to compare mainstream media reports with citizen journalism reports and crowdsourcing reports (via Ushahidi). In the context of Mumbai, I pointed to the incredible speed with which a Wikipedia page was created and maintained fully up to date, with some 900 edits taking place within the first 21 hours of the event. No mainstream media outfit could possibly mimic this crowdsourcing approach without reaching out to citizen journalists.
On Global Voices, I highlighted the important role they are playing in translating (and analyzing) a lot of local news (and other blogs) into English. With the decline in foreign reporting, mainstream media’s role in translating news will also decline. The amount of volume produced by Global Voices during the Mumbai attacks was trully stunning.
I brought up Witness.org because much of the conversation between panelists focused on print media, and how easy it was to mislead readers. Doctoring pictures, let alone footage, is not as easy. The case of Reuters and the doctored photograph of Israeli rockets firing on Lebanon is an exception and far from the rule. It is a very isolated incident when one considers the massive number of pictures printed every day in the mainstream press. Furthermore, I argued thanks to built-in cameras in mobile phones, dozens of different individuals can each take pictures of an event, which serves as a verification mechanism. We don’t need fewer citizen witnesses armed with cameras, we need more.
Two final points, or rather open ended questions for further discussion. First, if we are moving towards a more hyper-local approach to media reports, and if this happens across the globe, then why the concern? Isn’t someone’s local media another’s foreign media? Second, having counted Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media as one of my all time favorite books, how is the media changing now that the political economy is completely changing?