New ways to make news matter

My following article is published today by the Melbourne Age:

During the bruising Democratic Party tussle with Hillary Clinton in April, a citizen journalist recorded Obama saying that he understood why working-class voters in decrepit industrial towns were “bitter” and clung to “guns or religion”.

Despite being a paid-up Obama supporter, writer Mayhill Fowler worked for the Huffington Post’s Off The Bus program – around 1,800 unpaid researchers, interviewers and reporters follow the intricacies of the campaign and publish it online – and believed it was her duty to reveal the event.

It was a defining media moment, made even more significant because most of the mainstream press explaining Obama’s comments conveniently airbrushed Fowler’s work. A “real” journalist hadn’t recorded the comment and therefore could be ignored.

It was the kind of exclusionary attitude all-too-common in Western media offices. Editors tell themselves that only “professionals” should be allowed to contribute published or broadcast information to the daily news cycle. Thankfully, this broken narrative is disappearing before our eyes. Alternative models are appearing by necessity.

Participatory media could easily be adopted in Australia. What about leading media outlets utilising trusted and vetted citizens in marginal seats and giving them resources to write and investigate issues relevant to their communities? From corrupt councillors to government inaction, politicians will find it hard to ignore questions from voters in their own electorate.

Journalism skills are hardly rocket science and can be acquired with experience and a little training. These so-called amateurs could blog, maintain wikis, write articles and develop contacts that would exceed any professional reporter who simply can’t devote the time to one area.

Networked journalism both engages a wider slice of society and ensures that more segments of the debate, from conservative to the progressive end, won’t feel so unrepresented in the media.

The future of robust journalism is still being written but it certainly won’t emerge from ignoring the wishes of the masses. Off The Bus co-founder Jay Rosen defines citizen journalism thus: “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another.”

The current debate in the West over the dwindling resources of the mainstream media remains mired in tired paradigms. Both print and online can survive, but the relationship between the professionals and their readers has to change. Print circulation is falling across the Western world and is unlikely to shift soon. Journalists have never been so mistrusted. Media owners, with notable exceptions, are not investing in investigative work.

The only answer is to connect interested parties from a diverse cross-selection and allow them access to the tools of the media elite. I agree with American media commentator Jeff Jarvis who tells newspapers: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.” In other words, know your strengths and don’t waste valuable resources sending journalists on stories that can be adequately covered by a few reporters. Readers will always be instinctively drawn to the best coverage (not sloppily re-written wire copy.)

Of course, these discussions are largely irrelevant in the non-Western world, the vast majority of the planet. Newspapers and television stations in authoritarian regimes are usually little more than propaganda-producing outlets (though interestingly in many of these states circulation figures are rising.) The internet is often the only source of alternative and reliable information.

During the research for my new book, I spent time in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China to discuss with writers, dissidents, online gurus, citizens, bloggers and politicians the ways in which the net is challenging repressive regimes and forcing uncomfortable issues into public consciousness.

Torture, multi-party elections, an unfiltered internet, gender relations and female circumcision are just a small taste of what courageous bloggers and activists are discussing online. Even with the censorship of many websites, through the assistance of Western multinationals such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, dissent is growing in many of these nations. But are we listening to their voices?

We are only given a tiny glimpse of these worlds in the West. I remember speaking to many middle-class Chinese twenty-somethings who resented the ways in which Western journalists stereotyped their nationalism as dangerous and foreign. As many angry bloggers told me, is it really any different to Americans celebrating and defending their government in times of crisis?

The Beijing Games proved that an anti-China narrative was alive and well in the foreign pages of our media. If reporters thought of reading Chinese bloggers writing during the event, they would have found a multitude of opinions about human rights, Tibet, the Dalai Lama and Taiwan. I waited optimistically for the publishing of these blogger’s perspectives, but it seemed that only a Western journalist’s filter was allowed to judge proceedings.

The West and the rest may seem eons apart in terms of interests and desires, but everybody craves trustworthy news and views. It’s time to engage communities to find ways in which they can contribute making sense of a rapidly shrinking globe.

Antony Loewenstein is the author of The Blogging Revolution, published by Melbourne University Press.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common