Quick take: BBC’s Nik Gowing on new media

The BBC’s Nik Gowing writes an excellent piece in the Guardian on how new media is subverting traditional media’s vice grip on news and information. As Nik notes in Real-time media is changing our world,

Institutional assumptions of commanding the information high ground in a crisis are from a different era. The instant scrutiny created by the new digital media landscape subverts their effectiveness and leaves reputations more vulnerable than ever in a crisis. It usually does so with breathtaking speed.

A good example of this in Sri Lanka was the atrocious use of wikipedia by the Sunday Times recently, and the Editor’s inane responses to my article that flagged it.

Noting that the primary difference between new and traditional media is the ability to add value to news, I note in a recent column that,

A bastion of ageing, and worse, pompous journalists commanding what Nik Gowing calls news regimes from a different era pose a challenge to media freedom equal to the government’s censorship and repression. Conversely, voters unable or unwilling to realise and leverage the potential of mobiles, PCs, the web and Internet to strengthen democracy will get the media and government they deserve.

Poetry, Prose and Satire: Exploring violence, war, religion and peace in Sri Lanka

In light of a Government unable and unwilling to investigate violence against journalists and independent media, satire is one way in which violent events, processes and individuals can be held up for public scrutiny more frequently. In the first submission to the site, Banyan News Reporters publishes a piece on how TV Remote Controllers are a threat to National Security. The submission notes that,

“The television remote controller poses a serious threat to the country’s national security, the government has determined. A new law will soon be introduced to register and regulate this electronic item. The ubiquitous gadget helps unpatriotic persons to change the channel when matters of national importance are being broadcast on state TV channels. This, in turn, deprives the government its rightful opportunity to address and inform all its citizens, security advisors have pointed out.”

Read Remote Controllers a threat to National Security.

Writing in for the first time, Valkyrie in From the ‘sole representative’ to the ‘sole alternative’: Justice for, and within the Tamil Community asks pertinent questions and ends on a thought-provoking note,

“What kind of future do Tamil politico-armed groups have? Since the usefulness of these groups to the government is dependent upon the existence of the LTTE, what would their position be in a world without the LTTE? We can venture to guess that it is unlikely they will be able to eschew government patronage and become legitimate advocates for the rights of the Tamil people and at the same time survive politically within a majoritarian state that is unwilling to acknowledge the concerns and fulfill the legitimate demands of its minorities.”

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NYPD in the spotlight through YouTube

Initiatives like Witness have been doing it for years, but sites like YouTube resulting in a surge of new videos that expose Police excesses, corruption and brutality even in New York. 

A recent article for the NY Times (Officers Become Accidental YouTube Stars) explores the issue further and is in effect an article about citizens empowered through digital media to record what they experience and see. In the US, their right to record is constitutionally protected. But in other regimes, it’s more difficult to act as citizen journalists. Either way, new media and ICTs are bearing witness in ways that would not have been possible a few years ago, or even imagined a few decades before. 

YouTube may be 99.9% drivel, but a single video that exposes human rights abuse or violence and helps bring the perpetrators to justice is reason enough to encourage the use of mobile phones and online video to strengthen democracy and our active participation in governance.

Journalism of the future? Problems and challenges.

Late last year, Ashoka received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to create a program aimed at identifying, supporting, and connecting social entrepreneurs in knowledge and news. The idea was to use Ashoka’s existing global network to find innovators using journalistic strategies to create transformative social change—and to create a sort of incubator whose leading-edge ideas would, in turn, inform the future of the news field.

Keith Hammond, the team leader of  the Ashoka Foundation’s new Social Entrepreneurs in Journalism programme, has an interesting interview (on Conversation Agent) where he speaks on the future of journalism. I completely agree with Keith when he notes that,

The fields of news and knowledge are foundational to vital democratic society. People who enjoy access to free, fair, and high-quality news media per se become more effective citizens: they understand more about how their community works, and they’re more likely to participate in making the decisions that shape their lives.

As an Ashoka Fellow, I feel particularly privileged to be part of a group of thought-leaders shaping the way the news and media agenda grapples with significant social, economic, political and identity based conflict and violence. Yet there’s always more to the solution that adding ICTs to the mix. In Sri Lanka, the fact that there is little or no civic consciousness is the real challenge to new media and citizen journalism. It is a country of voters, and the difference is not just semantic. There is a real dearth of critical thinking, media literacy and a sense of public outrage at the breakdown in governance, human rights and corruption. New media can create that outrage, or hold to scrutiny issues mainstream media cannot or will not. But this requires citizens to write in with their ideas and thoughts – which proves exceedingly difficult in a society that does not work in this manner.

There are other challenges.

  • Donors, most of them, have no clue as to how to best support new media. Many of them don’t understand the term, the concept or the technology. The worst of them end up supporting initiatives that aren’t anchored to ground realities. The best of them are often misguided and believe that the introduction of ICTs can magically and in the short term change socio-political, cultural and other identity based relations scarred by protracted conflict.
  • There are few Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) tools capable of measuring the impact of social / new media. The tools that exist are designed to measure the effective of mainstream media. New media’s impact is harder to capture, esp. when you recognise the range of technologies involved, the difference in the way the media is consumed, produced and disseminated, the difference in the content – the medium as well as the message – and the difference in audience demographics.
  • Acknowledge the fact that initial thought experiments may be in an of themselves failures, but are key in generating debate, discussion and interest in new / social media. Donors tend to write off entire initiatives and projects because they don’t show the results promised or desired in the short term. On the other hand, the disruptive nature of the projects may be more manifest over the medium to long term, which requires long term strategic interventions. As note in “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism “I would be elated to realise political change on account of the content featured on say Groundviews, but I would not be dissapointed if this does not happen any time soon. The content on the site and the larger content on the SL blogosphere, including all of that which I don’t agree with, are deeply valuable in a country precisely for the reason that they offer a greater spectrum of opinion than what I find in traditional media today – which is silent by fear or coercion.”
  • New media producers often disregard the wider cultural, economic and political repercussions of the content they create. The challenge of hyper-local media is that it is both local and it isn’t. A local news story published on the web may pique national interest if the issue is connected to (or seen to be connected to) a larger debate. This is especially the case in violent conflict. This has serious implications for local content producers, both positive and negative, that need to assessed and managed. This includes identity protection.
  • Thought leaders often attract parasites who come in the form of individuals and organisations, both local and international. Managing these parasites, who often have access to power, funding and other vital connections, is very difficult and can lead to more conflict.
  • As I note in Authoritarian regimes and governments vs. bloggersBlogs and blogging, from production to dissemination and influence need to take into account, inter alia, class, caste and (party) political power centres and structures. Importantly, issues like language politics, ethnicity and other identity markers and their interplay with web based media production and generation as well as aspects such as gender (which does not even get a single mention in the EJC article) cannot be ignored when talking about the reach and influence of blogs and blogging as a means of communication.

Please read the conclusion in an earlier post of mine titled “Mass audiences” and citizen journalism where I question some of the assumptions of the impact of new media in violent contexts.

I think the future of journalism is very exciting. I don’t think that the adding of technology, voices and perspectives necessary makes it better by default. As ever, the commitment of a few thought leaders will be needed to inspire, inform and shape the news and information cycles to anchor and frame them to more meaningful issues and processes.

The Ashoka Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will hopefully play a lead role in supporting such individuals and organisations and I look forward to exchanging ideas in this regard with Keith.

Mobile phone based citizen journalism videos on YouTube viewed over 104,000 times

YouTube Video

Inspired by a post on Burning Bridge to do a count of the number of times all the videos on the Vikalpa YouTube channel had been viewed, I was pleased to note that the videos had been collectively viewed over 104,000 times to date. The channel itself has been viewed over 5,000 times. 

Writing in October 2007 I said,

Coupled with VOR Radio, we want to explore ways through which digital media and mobile devices such as the N-series Nokia phones with their built in mobile blogging, multimedia, wireless and video editing features can be used to strengthen the voice of citizens in support of democratic governance, human rights and peace.

We’ve come a long way in the space of a few months. Featuring senior political figures, trade unionists and media rights activists, school and university students, IDPs and refugees, Members of Parliament, award winning human rights defenders and peace activists, rarely heard voices from Jaffna on ground conditions in the embattled region and exclusive footage of significant socio-political events, the channel features nearly 200 short videos in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Currently featured on the channel is a professional English production on the life of Nadarajah Raviraj, a prominent human rights activist and Tamil politician assassinated in Colombo in 2006.

Nearly all videos have been filmed using a Nokia N93i camera phone to raise awareness on the potential of mobiles to strengthen democracy and bear witness to abuses of power, human rights violations and violence. 

We generated interest from / have been featured on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), France24’s Observers initiative, Global Voices Online and Witness, the source of my inspiration for starting this initiative in Sri Lanka (though the videos are shot, edited and produced by a talented and brave colleague).

“Mass audiences” and citizen journalism

“Sri Lankan participatory media projects do not yet have mass audiences.”

Burning Bridges makes this statement in a recent post on participatory media’s impact on abductions in Sri Lanka.

I wonder though, should they?

Does it require a “mass audience” to make an impact? I think the answer to this depends on place, context, issue, content quality and other factors but I think that in some (or many?) cases of user generated content / participatory media / citizen journalism the fact is that it has an impact more than what one would associate with mere audience numbers. In other words, perhaps who is aware of CJ / reads it / bases their decisions on it is oftentimes more important than how many have access to and consume CJ?

As an aside, articles on Groundviews are republished regularly on the Daily Mirror, leading to one aspiration of mine to facilitate the creation of and publish citizen journalism of a standard comparable to and even on occasion exceeding mainstream English print media being fulfilled to a degree two years since I introduced the concept to Sri Lanka. Also noteworthy is the fact that blog posts / blogosphere content are increasingly featured in Sri Lanka traditional / mainstream media, oftentimes without prior permission of the original content producer.

But Groundviews is perhaps the wrong example. Many other blogs I read on Sri Lanka aren’t republished in a newspaper to reach hundreds of thousands, but I would argue that many of them have a loyal readership, that this readership often clicks through to links that the post refers to and that is from a large age and location demographic. As Burning Bridges goes on to note in this regard,

They do, however, have the attention of the policy world, and of elites in and diaspora from Sri Lanka. Increasingly, they have strategies to get their work into mass media outlets, whether as columns in newspapers, or as reports about their work. Cumulatively, they have managed to both raise the profile of the issue of abductions, and to help direct resources and energy into better research and monitoring. It remains a question as to whether they’ve managed to affect the political landscape.

That I manage to regularly frustrate, inter alia, the Government’s Peace Secretariat as evinced by their assertion earlier this year that I “provide solace and relief to terrorists” is a good thing keeping in mind the nature of the Rajapakse regime, which is largely and viciously intolerant of competing narratives on war, peace, human rights and governance in Sri Lanka.

CJ also has a long tail. Articles I’ve published two years ago are still being read and have, over the months, accumulated hundreds of thousands of page-views cumulatively. When speaking about affecting the political landscape, it’s important to think of what that actually means.

For me, affecting the political landscape is not necessarily change in our lifetimes. Sometimes, it may well be. But a violent ethno-political conflict that pre-dated by birth may well continue after my death (given the oftentimes truncated life-spans of those who articulate peace through peaceful means in Sri Lanka) with the point that someone needs to bear witness to the country’s social, political, economic cultural and religious timbre, amongst others. A living history as it were, from a defined perspective, that in relation to others can present richer, more multi-faceted versions of history than that which would otherwise be possible.

This is why I am interested in participatory media. I would be elated to realise political change on account of the content featured on say Groundviews, but I would not be dissapointed if this does not happen any time soon. The content on the site and the larger content on the SL blogosphere, including all of that which I don’t agree with, are deeply valuable in a country precisely for the reason that they offer a greater spectrum of opinion than what I find in traditional media today – which is silent by fear or coercion.

This is a larger debate on course, but I wanted to place the thoughts that occurred to me when reading Burning Bridge’s post:

  • That as we move forward and media evolves / fragments, “mass audiences” may well be impossible
  • The assumption that “mass audiences” influence political thinking to any degree
  • The architectonics of partisan politics in Sri Lanka and how it has, in my mind, never been the case that the “mass audience” has determined our political future but the vision (good or bad) or a few political leaders
  • That political change is measured in a timeline shorter than that which gave rise to violent conflict
  • The lack of recognition of participatory media as witness(es) to events, issues and processes than traditional media cannot or will not cover
  • That the State and the resources is has at its command is and for the foreseeable future will be stronger, more pervasive and dare I say, more convincing than most participatory media to most people who don’t have access to alternatives viewpoints through web media
  • That the larger international human rights groups and NGOs rarely look at participatory media produced in the country and seek to strengthen these voices instead of their own
  • That a “mass audience” without media literacy skills and fed on propaganda can be influenced by alternative media / CJ which they would invariably see as marginal and parochial
  • That there is a desire for all participatory media to peg success with appealing to a “mass audience”, which ignores the many ways in which CJ helps strengthen conflict transformation
  • That many still judge the effectiveness, reach and sustainability of CJ by the same yardsticks used to judge traditional media, without realising that new measures need to be created to more fully capture the dynamism and texture of CJ production, dissemination and consumption

Citizen journalism and blogging in Asia: What role for media development organisations?

A presentation made recently at “Asia Regional Forum for Media Development: Creating a Democratic Media Culture in in Asia” organised by the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD).

If the presentation online on Slideshare is too small, just go ahead and download a PDF of the presentation here. (approx. 10Mb)