Two conferences and a paper

covering an event with a video camera

File photo, courtesy European Broadcasting Union, alliance of alliance of public service media 

Two conferences this past weekend reminded me of a media conference in Warsaw, Poland, that I attended earlier this year. The Nieman 80th Reunion at Harvard featured intense and thought-provoking discussions on journalism, democracy, human rights, and peace — topics that the Asma Jahangir Conference in Lahore took forward as well while honouring the work and legacy of a great human rights defender. More on both later. Below, the paper I presented at the Warsaw conference. My take on the topic they gave me, Digital and traditional media – conflict or complementarity?, ties in with the conferences this weekend.  I’m also sharing my report about the Poland conference, Journalists at Media Conference vow to uphold journalistic values, ethics, which references the Conference declaration about journalistic ethics and values and challenges arising from violence, threats, commercial pressures and false information. 

Digital and traditional media – conflict or complementarity? 

Paper presented by Beena Sarwar at the Media as a Public Service conference organised by ICF (International Communications Forum) and the Polish Journalists Association (SDP)
Warsaw, June 11-12, 2018

At the outset I would like to say that the title of this conference, ‘Media as Public Service’ speaks to a belief many of us share, that the news media are not and should not be businesses like any other but must be seen and treated as a public service.

I have been asked to speak on the issue of “conflict” or “complementarity” between digital and traditional media.

Let me start with the basic point that information is power. Secondly, freedom of information and freedom of expression are essential to the news media which are a key component of democracy.

What do we mean when we talk about the media? The media can be taken to include advertising, music, books, magazines, newspapers, film, radio, and television. For the purpose of this discussion, we will focus on the news media, which become digital media when they are put on the internet or in digital forms like tablets.

Two further points here. First, the rise of the digital media and social media, and growth in citizen journalists over the past decade have changed how information is delivered.

Secondly, by ‘democracy’ I mean not merely a political system of adult enfranchisement — the inadequacy of this by itself is obvious in my country, Pakistan, and indeed many other countries — but to a just social order. That is, a ‘meaningful democracy’ in which the citizens are alert, well-informed participants in decision-making, rather than passive consumers or spectators, that much of the media is increasingly reducing them to.

In the digital age, the combination of computers, software, and networks has enabled unprecedented interactivity – instant feedback, very different from the previous one-way broadcast messaging.

Engaging with digital media networks enables participants to organise into groups like in Facebook, where users can create groups around any topic. The real value of digital media then, lies in its interactivity and group forming potential (Center for Digital Media, Canada).

Digital media have also enabled the rise in citizen journalism. Those engaged in disaster or conflict situations can now bear witness to their own situations. Audio, video and social media feeds often inform the traditional media – newspapers and TV channels.

We saw an early example of this in May 2011 when US Navy SEALs took out Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan when Sohaib Athar, an IT consultant who runs a coffee shop in Abbottabad inadvertently live-tweeted the raid.

Tweeting as @reallyvirtual, with about 750 followers, he typically used Twitter to chat with people about his family, technology, politics and coffee. That night, he tweeted what he observed as he heard a helicopter overhead.

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Soon he was being hounded by journalists. Within 24 hours, he had over 86,000 followers (the number has since dropped to just over 50,000).

Writing for the website of the journalism training institute Poynter, Steve Myers analysed how Athar became so influential so quickly, positing that “it takes the right piece of information at the right time, passed across small overlapping social circles, starting with just a few hundred people” (How 4 people & their social network turned an unwitting witness to bin Laden’s death into a citizen journalist, Poynter, 3 May 2011)

In this case, four persons – one of them being me, I later learnt — “contributed to a chain of information that turned one man’s offhand comments about a helicopter in the middle of the night into an internationally known work of citizen journalism”.

Myers questions whether, without this factor, would the world “have learned — so quickly — that someone had live-tweeted the raid that killed bin Laden?”

Unlike other breaking news events, information about Athar’s role came when individuals of whom only one was a journalist, tweeted about it, rather than through news organizations.

“Whether we’re talking about Twitter followers or newscast audience, the most recognizable form of influence is the one-to-many relationship – the person with the ear of many people” notes Myers.

With Twitter, a different kind of influence is visible, “in which the number of followers doesn’t matter as much as who those followers are”. This was a key finding of The New York Times’ research into how news spreads through social networks, reported by Nieman Journalism Lab (The New York Times’ R&D Lab has built a tool that explores the life stories take in the social space, April 22, 2011).

There has since been increasing intersectionality between traditional and digital media. Twitter particularly has become an indispensable tool for journalists to reach sources, share stories and mine information.

As revenues for traditional media drop, newspapers, magazines and TV and radio channels are increasingly focusing on the digital side with web editions, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Many have suspended print publications and moved solely to the web.

Additionally, new publications are being launched that are available only the internet. A positive development here is that reader support is helping out these independent journalistic ventures, some of them modelled after the British newspaper the Guardian.
guardian-appeal.pngGuardian model

The Guardian model is premised on asking readers to contribute to fund its journalism. “If everyone who reads our reporting, who likes it, helps fund it, our future would be much more secure”.

A Guardian report of December 2017 provides examples of startups around the world based on this model, from Venezuela and Hong Kong, to Hungary and the USA.The appeal, posted at the end of reach article online, quotes a reader from Sweden: “I appreciate there not being a paywall: it is more democratic for the media to be available for all and not a commodity to be purchased by a few. I’m happy to make a contribution so others with less means still have access to information”.

In India, The Wire.in is making strides. An example in Poland is OKO.press, a crowdfunded fact-checking and investigative website launched by former Gazeta Wyborcza foreign editor Adam Leszczyński (How reader funding is helping save independent media across the world, The Guardian, 17 Dec 2017)

Guaridan-Wire-reader fundingOne of the downsides of interactive digital media is ‘click-baiting’ and its cousin, fake news. Sensationalising a story is not a new strategy for media trying to gain extra viewers or readers.

The digital version of yellow journalism is online material designed to lure readers into clicking on a hyperlink. Such links lead to stories marked by lack of research, that contain little or no legitimate news.

These clickbait stories are usually formulaic, leave out journalistic basics like who, what, where, why, and how, and don’t provide context. These fundamentals are critical for the credibility of journalists working in any kind of media.

Typical clickbait headlines or openings include phrases like:

  • You’ll never believe what happened when…
  • This is the cutest thing ever…
  • This the biggest mistake you can make…

Even well-regarded upholders of old-school journalism like The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Associated Press are increasingly relying on this trend to drive more traffic to their websites. (Saving Us From Ourselves: The Anti-Clickbait Movement, Emily Shire, The Daily Beast, July 14, 2014)

More damaging than titillating clickbaits leading to gossip and health related ‘news’ are links that lead to false information – now called ‘fake news’ – with security implications.

Remember the post-9/11 reports in the NYT claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? The newspaper subsequently apologised, acknowledging that reporters relied on a source driven by political motivations of “regime change” in Iraq while editors who should have challenged reporters on their information were “perhaps too intent on rushing scoops into the paper”. It also admitted that the paper buried reports by other journalists that appeared to contradict claims of a WMD programme in Iraq. (FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq – The New York Times, 26 May 2004).

We are still suffering from the ramifications of this fabrication.

The Guardian, commenting on this apology, notes that research then had showed that more than half of all national news journalists and 46 percent of local news reporters in the US “believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction”. (New York Times: we were wrong on Iraq, Claire Cozens, The Guardian, 26 May 2004).

Awareness of going in the wrong direction is the first step towards correcting that error. There are many, ongoing efforts along this line, including this conference.

Another feature of the digital world is its potential for social entrepreneurship. Some examples bringing together social entrepreneurship and journalistic basics are Twitter accounts aimed at countering clickbait culture (@SavedYouAClick, @HuffPoSpoilers, @UpworthySpoiler) and web portals dedicated to exposing fake news (e.g. smhoaxslayer.com, altnews.in, Check4spam.com). (‘Social entrepreneurs’ launch websites to bust fake news, Kundan Jha, Sunday Guardian, India, May 18, 2018).

Fake news notwithstanding, the digital media have enabled greater awareness about real issues. This has led to people rising up in ways that were not possible before. Digital media have also made censorship more difficult.

Two recent examples that spring to mind are when high school students in the USA organised protest marches around the country against gun violence, and the youth-led movement in Pakistan against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that target the ethnic community linked to the Taliban.

Both cases illustrate the current trend of youth-led, social-media powered movements being witnessed around the world. But voices for positive change are up against the juggernaut of the forces for status quo. In America, legislation that would change how firearms are made available to the public remains elusive. In Pakistan, unprecedented censorship of television channels and print media are preventing the people from access to full information. This is even more damaging given the upcoming elections.

I will end with these thoughts and look forward to more in the discussion later:

  • Whatever the news media, whether traditional or digital, there is a dire need to uphold journalistic basics like providing full and complete information and context and multiple sources of verification.
  • It is essential to provide training to new journalists including citizen journalists, and refresher courses to practicing journalists to avoid falling into the traps of click baiting and scoops that contain unverified news.
  • It is important to train not just journalists but also readers so they can recognise the difference between journalism and sensationalism, whether it is live tweets from a citizen journalist or a piece of analysis by a known commentator.

Postscript: The meeting that led to this belated blog post…

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