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Reporting on reporting the end of the world

December 20, 2011 2 comments

It’s been a big couple of weeks for the apocalypse. In case your “apocalypse reporting” Google Alert has been lagging, I wanted to point to a couple of the highlights.

After I blogged about our Newsfoo session “Reporting the End of the World”, it was picked up by David Carr at the NYTimes: The World is Ending Please Update the Home Page. (Mr. Carr was in attendance at our little session, and a big part of why it was so fun / informative.)

The Media Decoder post set off a flurry of other posts on the Twitters and blogs, but before I could think my fifteen minutes was up, NPR’s On the Media came a’calling: Covering the Apocalypse.

(I’d love to be able to embed the piece right here, but I can’t seem to find the embed code on the page. Suggestions?)

It was a lot of fun to get to chat with Brooke Gladstone and to say the phrase “alien-hugging Democrats versus alien-killing Republicans” on the radio.

Thanks everyone who helped spread the word about this. Have any ideas for what I should do with “Reporting the end of the world” next? Let me know.

(Also, thanks to everyone who pointed out that my blog theme is “soooo 2007″. I know, I know.)

Categories: Journalism Tags: , ,

Reporting the end of the world

December 7, 2011 1 comment

This weekend at Newsfoo, a fun little future-of-news (un)conference put on by O’Reilly Media, I proposed a session. Important sidenote: It’s an “unconference” because anyone can propose a session and structure it however they like. I proposed “Reporting the End of the World.” Quite literally, how we as journalists will do our work in the apocalypse. It is almost 2012, after all, we should be prepared.

What began as a relatively fun conceit quickly turned into a discussion of very practical things, best illustrated by how our corroborating examples began increasingly to be localized apocalypses like 9-11 or Katrina. Particularly with the scenario of global pandemic, we found ourselves unearthing critical weaknesses in our abilities to do our jobs amidst catastrophe.

Choose Your Own Apocalypse
We started by deciding which apocalypses to prepare for, eventually settling on alien invasion and global pandemic. (We decided that The Rapture, an event that wouldn’t change our lives all too much, was too entry-level to discuss.)

Alien invasion: Borrowing from Independence Day, in this scenario Earth is the target of invasion by an aggressive alien species focused on the eradication of the human race. You wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to find spaceships are suspended above our planet’s major cities. They are preparing to attack.

Global Pandemic: The aliens left us miraculously alone, disappeared into the far reaches of space, and everybody won Pulitzers for their coverage of Invasion Watch 2012. But then, you wake up on a Tuesday, make yourself some coffee, open your laptop and check Twitter to see reports of a fast-moving, fatal illness sweeping the planet.

Communications Technologies
The first things the aliens would do, we decided, was shut down the internet and broadcast media. This is, um, a challenge for us. How are you going to post to your Alien Attack Liveblog and Alien Species Topic Page when there is no internet?? Other telecommunications? Thinking about 9-11 in particular, we realized that even if the aliens waited to zap our mobile networks, humans themselves would render them ineffective in a flurry of phone calls to Mother. This led to us recalling a list of the impressive history of human communication technologies: SMS of course (and Twitter’s 40404 short code), CB and ham radio, broadsheet newspapers, carrier pigeon, heck, even just a bullhorn.

Lessons of conflict reporting
All of us have trained for reporting in non-conflict zones. But in an alien invasion, all zones became conflict zones. As David Carr pointed out, “In conflict journalism, it’s the symmetries of war that keep reporters safe.” But there is no symmetry in our war with our would-be destroyers.

Journalists vs. Humans
Midway through this scenario someone asked if we shouldn’t be trying to interview the aliens to hear their perspective. Maybe these galactic destroyers actually have a point – a strong rationale for the elimination of the human race? (Insert much snickering about which celebrity journalists we would volunteer to be the first to sit down across from ZLORG the alien lord.) There’s a meaty question here about our role as journalists. Are we observers of a conflict between two sides? Or are we members of the resistance? (This also prompted snickering over Alien-Hugging Democrats vs. Alien-Killing Republicans.) We also discussed trying to find the alien’s journalists to make common cause- though they were likely to be propagandists. But maybe we could appeal to the alien Leni Riefenstahl?

Public Service Journalism
Both scenarios provide great opportunities to do public service journalism, “news-you-use” like “what looks like an alien’s claw-hand is actually its mouth-tube, be careful not to approach it with your delicious human guts.” A lot of reporting on aliens would be informing the public of the areas of conflict to avoid. A lot of reporting on global pandemic would be widely disseminating information about the disease.

Don’t go outside
In the pandemic scenario, how do you reporting on raging disease if you can’t go outside? We talked about building a self-reporting platform where a network around the globe could send in information about the spread of disease. Google already has a leg up on us with Global Flu Trends.

Emergency Preparedness
In both scenarios we discussed the necessity of strong emergency preparedness, but it was most evident talking about pandemic. As the superflu raged through towns and cities and the global air travel system, you would do best to stay in your home. Do any of us have two weeks worth of food and water (and whiskey) in our homes? Public service providers are well-trained to think about disaster, but journalists, who would also provide a public service in a cataclysm, seem to assume that circumstances will always be optimal.

Should we suspend facts?
But getting hard facts about the disease would be hard. I asked if, in times of crisis, we shouldn’t suspend facts? Offer our audience a spectrum of probably true to probably not true? The room agreed pretty strongly that in these scenarios facts were more important than ever. Kate Crawford talked about her organization’s experience in the recent flooding in Australia and the devastating power of rumor. We all circled back to the role rumors (and the over-reporting of false rumors) played in New Orleans immediately post-Katrina.

All in all, reporting the end of the world turned out to be great fun to imagine. I would advise every journalist out there to put together an emergency pack in your house. And probably learn ham radio.

Thanks especially to the absolutely fantastic and creative group of journalists we had in the room. If you all have any other favorite moments / take-aways, send them along and I’ll add them. Also if anyone has a picture of our whiteboard – let me know!

The Most Dangerous Citizen Journalism

From The Big Picture: "Tension in the Koreas"

Many journalists dream of sneaking in to cover North Korea, but the dangers are extreme. Trust me, I learned all about it when two of my colleagues were captured there last year. So if you can’t report there officially and sneaking in is too dangerous – how do you get unfettered access in the Hermit Kingdom? Citizen journalists?

Rimjin-Gang is trying exactly that approach: teaching North Korean refugees the skills to report on their home country and then sending them back. They return with flash drives full of raw information about daily life in North Korea.

From The Nation:

In an interview with The Nation, Ishimaru explained that the training starts with a discussion of why reporting is important and whether or not such reporting could help bring about change in North Korea. If the recruits are still interested in working with Rimjin-gang after these initial conversations, Ishimaru will then teach them the fundamentals of journalism ethics, interviewing, writing, filming, photography and operation of computer and camera equipment. This process can range from a few months to a few years. Throughout the process, the reporters cannot meet each other for safety reasons. Working in isolation and under pseudonyms for little pay, these reporters are risking their lives because they believe that their work could make a difference for the future of their country. Once they collect enough reporting and photo and video footage, the only way that they can get the files back to Ishimaru is to make the dangerous crossing from North Korea to China with flash drives concealed in their clothing.

When I ran Collective Journalism for Current TV, putting citizen journalists into dangerous situations was strongly discouraged. As an editor, being responsible for the safety of independent contractors with little professional training and reporting from a world away was just too much liability. Liability in the legal sense and also in the ethical sense. Of course nearly everyone we worked with wanted to place themselves in danger. Stomp through the jungles of Uganda looking for the LRA or slip across the Burmese border at Mae Sot. Once during the Isreal-Lebanon war, one of our contributors was nearly struck with a Katyusha rocket. It made for great television, but we never wanted it to happen again.

So how does Rimjin-Gang address the danger?

We are often asked, “Isn’t this dangerous for the reporters?” When thinking about the situation in North Korea today, the only answer we can give is, “Of course. It is extremely dangerous.”….Reporters take these risks because they have a strong will to let the world know the reality in North Korea and inspire a desire to improve the situation there.

I would never want to send a citizen journalist across the Tumen River into North Korea, but I find myself reticent to criticize Rimjin-Gang because I think the story of North Korea is so deeply personal and so deeply important for them and for their contributors. From one of their reporters: “Even if we are eventually caught, I believe that we will not regret what we’ve done. No matter how much I think about it, we are working for justice.”

It almost demands a different classification than citizen journalist. Or impoverishes the use of “citizen” in all other citizen reporting contexts. “Citizen” the way we typically use it implies pedestrian, everyday. The reporters of Rimjin-Gang conduct their work at the highest ideal of citizenship. Working at great risk to better their state, to bring light to the travails of their countrymen.

I wish them the best of luck.

I wrote about Prop L for The Bold Italic

I’ve been working a crazy freelance project for the last couple of weeks which has meant no blogging, no working on Project Lazarette, and just a little sleep here and there. I was able, however, to squeeze in some reporting!

The Bold Italic is an online publication here in San Francisco that focuses on experiential journalism presented amidst beautiful design. I reported a two part story for them about our controversial city ballot initiative Prop L, making it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks between certain hours.

Proposition L: Man is the rhetoric on this one confusing (classic California ballot initiative). The pro side claims “sidewalks are for everyone” and the con side says “sidewalks are for people.” In Part One of my story I hung out on street corners and talked to the folks that do the sitting and lying. And then in Part Two I talked to the merchants who deal with them every day.

The Process: Well, if you can believe it, I took a little notebook and walked down to Haight St and actually talked to people. Things I did not use: my computer, the internet, Gawker, my iPhone, links from SFist. People, for the most part, were ready to talk, though a few folks told me they wanted to keep their opinions to themselves because it was too divisive of an issue. It helped to be so close to my front door because I was able to take breaks to come back and type up notes and draft scenes. But the biggest undertaking was the edit. My original draft was easily 6000 words – and B/I wanted 1500 apiece. I cut all day up to the deadline and still delivered some way-too-long articles.

The Bold Italic: I’m super-impressed with the presentation of the stories (look at that scrolling!) and greatly enjoyed the experience. To go from the messy Word doc I emailed over to them to these two gorgeous pages was an awesome transformation. I have a bias toward any online publication that adds something new to the conversation instead of just re-blogging with clever headlines, and I think The Bold Italic does a great job in doing this. Original content + Readable style + Eye-catching design = Great online content.

Go check the stories out:
Where the Sidewalk Ends (part one)
An Inconvenient Lie (part two)

Citizen Medicine and Citizen Journalism

In my many Google Alerts is one for “citizen journalism.” I get some interesting material from it and most often it’s people picking on the subject in defense of “real journalism” (which I do not have a Google Alert set up for.)

Hence I found myself reading a college op-ed bemoaning the possibility of the University of Colorado, Boulder phasing out their journalism program. There’s more to it, but that’s not what I’m interested in.

I was pulled in via this phrase: “I’ve long subscribed to the belief that citizen journalism is akin to citizen dentistry. With little oversight concerning journalistic ethics and the transmission of concise, accurate reporting, there is little guarantee of the profession and its watchdog role being upheld in the coming decades.”

Of course there’s the expected anti-citizen journalism vitriol in the preceding paragraph (“…when anyone with a case of Diet Coke, mild carpal tunnel, a working knowledge of design programs and a laptop can be considered a “citizen journalist…”), and the dentistry analogy is supposed to drive that home – but it actually set me brainstorming in a different direction.

To borrow and change this metaphor a little – Let’s say journalism is a bit like medicine. You’ve got your general practitioners and your specialists. And citizen journalism is akin to citizen medicine. Which is not a bad thing! You only want a well-trained licensed doctor to perform surgery just in the same way it’s preferable to have august, credentialed and venerated minds at a place like ProPublica conducting your investigative reporting. But trust me, it’s of great valuable to society for everyone to know a little bit about first aid and to have a few folks around who are trained in CPR.

What simplistic arguments against citizen journalism do is conflate CPR with open heart surgery, bandaging a cut with re-attaching a limb.

What does this give us to work with? Perhaps we should extend this analogy to education.

With the same ubiquity as posters in the workplace that teach citizens how to perform first aid, perhaps the media should start to include little tips and tactics of performing one’s part in journalism? Forget branding it citizen journalism, forget starting formal programs that you can join as a “[vowel]Reporter”. Just offer weekend training sessions for the truly interested, online tips for proper cellphone photography, and easy-to-navigate ways to become deputized in a greater effort.

(Thanks to Mr. Jake Begun at The Badger Herald for the kick-start to the brainstorm.)

Hurricane Earl: Funny vs. Scary – A Storify Experiment

Burt Herman of Hacks and Hackers fame has a new toy for us to play with called Storify. It’s a smart and flexible way of collecting sources from around the Internet into a living story. I’ve been meaning to do a practice run with it and have been even more inspired reading Tim Carmody’s experiment on Snarkmarket this morning. So here you go: Hurricane Earl.

BUMMER. I can’t seem to get the embed to work. Thoughts anyone? Javascript on a WordPress platform?

Here’s a link anyhow.

OhMyNews International Felled by Scale

Sad news for citizen journalism: OhMyNews International, the global English-language version of South Korea’s OhMyNews, is shuttering its program, becoming instead a site about citizen journalism.

From the new site:

“The new OMNI is a guide to what citizen journalists, academics, and even professionals are thinking about how everyone will collaborate on the news of the future.”

But it was so successful? Why shut it down? Because of its success:

The paid editors for OmN found it increasingly difficult to verify facts because stories poured in from all over the world. OmN receives as many as 225 articles per day from a pool of 70,000 citizen journalists. “Fact checking is one of our core principles,” according to the OMNI team.

This is, in my experience, a problem you only ever dream of with a citizen journalism effort: too big to maintain. But it’s an important thing to plan for, as the closure of probably the biggest international cit-journ platform in the world emphasizes.

How do you plan around it? I think you either alter your standards for publication (label some stories un-verified) or, even better, you get your contributors to help you out. Start by attracting your best contributors to be volunteer fact-checkers/editors. Then build a vetting system within the community that lessens the amount of employee time spent verifying stories. Imagine a simple comment-like interface that appended various approvals from trusted users to a story – the story wouldn’t get to staff editors without three of them.

OMNI is encouraging its contributors to keep writing – pushing them to write for local efforts or for their own blogs – posts that OMNI will likely aggregate. It may be that on the global scale aggregation is the only scalable method – but I like to think it’s not. (Go Demotix!)

Wait – I don’t want personalized news!

I think we all sort of assume that personalized news is coming whether we want it or not (thanks in no small part to Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson). But during SXSWi I saw someone in my Twitter stream complaining that Twitter’s new local focus for trending topics had eliminated all the SXSWi hashtags. That got me thinking about national conversations. Isn’t part of news to give us a shared experience? What will the national consensus of our history become? Will it be a future composed entirely of Texas Board of Education fights? What in the world will blue state liberal kids talk to their flyover state conservative relatives about?

This has already happened hasn’t it?

Dagnabit.

Working with your audience – Collaborative Journalism

December 23, 2009 2 comments

I was recently invited to give a talk in Istanbul on the topic of working with your audience. I wanted to share a little bit here of what I talked about.

For those of you who don’t me in my professional incarnation, I’m the Online Producer for News at Current.com. I blog regularly on the Current News blog and oversee the mix of content on the News page. I also spend a lot of time thinking about citizen journalism. For two years I ran Current’s citizen journalism program: Collective Journalism, where we combined reports from outside contributors into comprehensive looks at big issues. Personal and local stories stitched together to give you the bigger picture. All right, that’s me. What about Current?

Current has been focused on working with our audience since we started back in August of 2005. The company was founded with the mission to “democratize media”: to offer its audience the chance to get have a voice in the conversation in global media that at the time was just open to a very small number of people.

I joined Current at the end of its first month, the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit. I’m originally from New Orleans, I have family that lives in Louisiana, and so I was put to work real fast. I was a producer and in the few weeks after the storm I produced some of the work that I was most proud of in my career to date.

But none of it compared to this piece: Citizen Rescue.

Citizen Rescue was produced by a young man named Jared Arsement who lived west of New Orleans and outside of the storm’s path. Jared took part in a rescue effort in the flooded city carried out by everyday folks and their flat-bottom boats. As you can see in the piece, he shows us this amazing personal perspective that you just weren’t seeing from the news reporters who had parachuted into New Orleans. He was literally just holding the camera out in front of his face and talking. This piece was a wake-up call for me – the point at which I realized the power of what we had started calling “citizen journalism”. Powerful personal and/or local perspectives from people who had unique access to stories because they were living them.

Things have changed a lot since Aug. 2005: YouTube and Twitter have launched, for example. And the way people think about citizen journalism has changed. Back then people thought (worried) that low-cost citizen journalists would replace professional journalists. That hasn’t happened. What we’re seeing more and more is that professional journalists are looking at citizen journalism as a tool to augment their reporting.

Not to say professional journalists haven’t been losing jobs. Journalism is in crisis – especially newspapers, which are still the primary source of new stories and information in the news cycle. Just this year the Rocky Mountain News shut down and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed its print side, going online-only. The New York Times is in such financial peril that it accepted a massive bailout from a shadowy Mexican billionaire named Carlos Slim.

But despite this dire situation I believe we’re in a moment of opportunity: a chance to rework how we conduct journalism. I personally believe a key to this is working with our audiences. Beyond “citizen journalism” – I’m talking about collaborative journalism.

So what have we done at Current? Well one of the projects I’ve worked on has been Collective Journalism – where we invited our audience to submit elements for collaborative documentaries. Here’s an example focusing on the mortgage crisis:

Foreclosure Sweet Home

Additionally we’ve asked our audience online to suggest the stories they thought were the most interesting and important on Current.com. But not to just talk about Current – who else out there is working with their audience in interesting ways? Here’s some of my favorite examples.

The Huffington Post asked its audience to help out with its reporting during the 2008 election with a program called “Off the Bus”. They were able to build a network of people to report “ground-level” stories from their towns and also from within the campaigns themselves. Right now a similar model is being pursued by the folks over at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism outfit, to track the spending of the stimulus funds.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo broke one of the major scandals of the Bush Administration, the politicized Attorney General firings, by asking his readers to report what they’d seen in the comments on his blog. Simple, surely, but wow it was effective.

UK-based site Demotix invites contributors around the world to submit photojournalism. They’ve been able to attract a wide-range of talent from professional to amateur.

South Korean citizen news site Oh My News has thousands of contributors that write short articles. They’ve actually been around for quite a while, launching in 2000. A similar model is being pursued by French site Le Post, an off-shoot of newspaper Le Monde. Le Post combines professional and amateur articles about each day’s news.

Ushaidi isn’t a news-site but a software platform. Developed during the violence-stricken Kenyan elections, Ushaidi invited people to report incidents of violence in small very easy ways: via an email or text message. The software then mapped that data to a Google Map.

The Guardian in the UK found an even simpler way for its audience to get involved in its reporting. When British MPs were found to be engaged in expense report tomfoolery, the Guardian took every single one of the thousands of expense report pages, scanned them, and put them online. Then they asked their audience to identify which pages needed following up on.

Cable network CNN has been in the game too. As a 24-hour broadcaster, they have two things they need: unique breaking news and commentary on the day’s stories. They’ve been able to use their citizen journalism platform IReport to accomplish both of those.

Some outlets are even asking their audience to get involved through their checkbook. SF-based Spot.us is a platform that “crowdfunds” journalism – inviting people to give small amounts of money to fund reporting on stories they care about.

These are just a few of the innovative examples out there and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. Online social media tools make it easier with each passing day to involve your audience in your reporting process (ask people for story ideas via Twitter!) or for people out there in the world to just report on what’s happening around them (think about the Hudson River plane crash photo: shot with an iPhone and uploaded via Twitpic).

If you have any other examples you think I’ve missed, let me know. Or big ideas to share, those are great too.

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