Category Archives: Industry Issues

The UN, Journalism and YOU

UNDP LogoIn 2000, the United Nations established the Millenium Development Goals to address some of the most pressing challenges the world was facing at the beginning of the 21st century. The eight ambitious goals the UN proclaimed included eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, universal primary education, reducing child mortality and combat preventable diseases like HIV/AIDS and Malaria.

According to the 2013 Millenium Development Goals Report, poverty rates have been halfed. Yet, one in six – about 1.2 billion people – still live in extreme poverty. We still have a long way to go to reach all the goals set more than a decade ago.

Yesterday,  almost 200 civil society groups from six continents urged the UN to include government accountability and independent media in their plans. In the statement, the organizations argue that access to information and independent media is essential to development. The United Nations is currently devising a new global post-2015 development agenda that is to replace the Millenium Goals.

Specifically, the coalition recommended the United Nations to

  • “establish a specific goal to “ensure good governance and effective institutions” and
  • “include as components of this goal a clause to “ensure people enjoy freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information” and to “guarantee the public’s right to information and access to government data”.”

This appeal accomodates the importance of a free press for a free society. In the statement, the group says that “systems that allow people to hold governments accountable are fundamental to achieving economic growth, social equality, and environmental sustainability.”

In this day and age, we possess all the tools and technology to eradicate poverty and achieve the seemingly lofty goals the UN devised 13 years ago. However, if the new UN goals are to be (even) more successful than the Millenium goals, then journalism needs to be part of the equation.

All people, everywhere, deserve and need a free press. Without it, free and open debate and discourse, the foundation of a democracy, is impossible. Frequently, journalists are muzzled because they uncover corruption and inconvenient truths. In my home country Germany, prosecuting reporters and forcing the press into line prevented millions of people from learning and potentially opposing an unparalleled atrocity. Dealing with fascist Germany and the Holocaust taught me that a democracy is not history in its final state but merely a temporarily secured form of existence. Journalism must be practiced without restrictions, for when a country’s journalists are silenced, its people are silenced.

Journalism is surpressed in many countries around the world. In Turkey, the parliament is about to vote on a law that would “allow the government to block individual URLs without prior judicial review”, according to an article pubslished by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The “radical censorship measure” would also force internet data retention of up to two years and consolidate Interned Service Providers (ISPs) into a single association. Turkey holds the sad record for most journalists in jail of any country in the world.

A free press is the bedrock of a democracy and the prerequisite of many other civil liberties. Journalism plays a vital role in the balance of power between a government and its people. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are helping countries and journalists report without reprisal so that they can help establish stable, sustainable societies. Only if journalists can inform people accurately and freely are citizens able to make their voices heard, participate in the political process and instigate change.

So what does this have to do with you?

Well, all too often, the news media’s lopsided reporting neglects topics that seemingly have nothing to do with us. There are many incidents and topics auch as press freedom violations or Freedom of Information issues that ought to be brought to people’s attention but don’t get airtime because they allgedly are not newsworthy. So why not use your passion for media to contribute to making this world safer, more equitable and more sustainable? Are you passionate about media and international human rights? Do you want to further the common good? Then I have good news for you: there are plenty of organizations out there that allow you to pursue a career in journalism AND do something that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Here are a few groups, on top of the organizations who signed the statement that allow you to do work that truly matters:

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A New Kind of Visual News

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YouTube is currently trying to add a new dimension to its already impressive portfolio as the world’s biggest video-sharing website. The company, which was purchased by Google in late 2006, is rapidly becoming a major platform for viewing news. According to an analysis by the PewResearch Journalism Project, the most searched term of the month on the website was a news related event five out of 15 months in 2011 and 2012.

Google was founded in 2005 by three former PayPal employees in February 2005. In 2011, it celebrated its one trillionth video upload and today YouTube is the third-most visited website after Google and Facebook with more than four billion views per day. The Pew analysis says that YouTube has created “a new kind of television news” that embraces an interplay of professional – and citizen – produces content. These are some of the key findings of the study:

  • The most popular news videos tended to depict natural disasters or political upheaval – usually featuring intense visuals.
  • News events are inherently more ephemeral than other kinds of information, but at any given moment news can outpace even the biggest entertainment videos.
  • Citizens play a substantial role in supplying and producing footage.
  • Citizens are also responsible for posting a good deal of the videos originally produced by news outlets.
  • The most popular news videos are a mix of edited and raw footage.
  • Personalities are not a main driver of the top news videos.
  • Unlike in traditional TV news, the lengths of the most popular news videos on YouTube vary greatly.

The video sharing website has taken comprehensive measures to extend its relevance in the news world beyond huge global news stories and large-scale catastrophes.

YouTube has already become a vital source for newsrooms across the country. The benefits are obvious: Just about everyone these days has a camera on had at all times. According to this article on Newslab, most stations credit video to YouTube. It’s important to point out that case law in this area is still evolving, and it has been argued that the lack of attribution is a problem. “Almost every instance where we use it is a fair use instance where we are commenting on the video,” says news director Stacey Woelfel of KOMU in Columbia, Missouri. Many newsrooms are contacting the person who uploaded the video in an attempt to have more transparency and the correct attribution. Although contacting the poster is a key step in verifying the truthfulness of the content, it doesn’t guarantee it.

Tom Sly,  YouTube’s head of news and education, says that YouTube is a very powerful platform, because it combines eye-witness reporting, broadcast television, the produced pieces by ordinary people, and the video on-demand component. While the possibilities are abundant, it doesn’t mean that news organizations have figured out what works best. As a matter of fact, they are still trying to figure out what consumers want.

Television journalist and talk show host Ed Gordon recently called YouTube ‘the Future of Broadcasting”. He recommends aspiring broadcasters to get on YouTube, because “in today’s world… it’s about producing and owning your content.”

One example of what YouTube offers is Vice. Founded in 1994 in Canada, the company later changed its name to VICE MEDIA, with divisions including the magazine, a website, a film production company, a record label, and a publishing imprint. Vice promotes the “Immersionist” school of journalism, in which journalists immerse themselves in a situation and with the people involved. Moreover, the final project tends to focus on the experience, not the writer himself. In August 2013, the Vice YouTube channel had three million subscribers.

Another Pew analysis examined how the 2008 presidential candidates used the web and social media. For Barack Obama in particular, YouTube became a venue that allowed the campaigners to post longer video than conventional political advertising. During last year’s campaign, on the other hand, YouTube was the platform with the fewest posts from the candidates of any of those studied. No video became extremely popular or went viral. As a matter of fact, the most popular video across all platforms during the time period studies was that of Michelle Obama, Malia and Sasha wishing the President a Happy Father’s Day.

This NewsLab article calls YouTube the “top dog” when it comes to online video. it describes the tech giant’s local news feature, which launched in 2009. When users sign on, according to the article, “the site automatically pulls together the most recent news-related videos posted within 100 miles of their log-in location and displays them under the heading News Near You.” This feature, however, doesn’t seem to be available in December 2013 any more. YouTube offers a variety of channels, including a News – Worldwide channel.

Let’s go back to the Pew Research Analysis from the beginning. The center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism examined 15 months with of the most popular videos on the site (from January 2011 to March 2012).

According to the study, the data reveal that “a complex, symbiotic relationship has developed between citizens and new organizations on YouTube, a relationship that comes close to the continuous journalistic “dialogue” many observers predicted would become the new journalism online.” The features of this new kind of journalism are:

  • Citizens are creating their own videos about news and posting them.
  • They are also actively sharing news videos produced by journalism professionals.
  • News organizations are also actively sharing news videos produced by journalism professionals.
  • News organizations are taking advantage of citizen content and incorporating it into their journalism.
  • Consumers are embracing the interplay in what they watch and share, creating a new kind of television.

In the article, it is pointed out that clear ethical standards have not yet developed “on how to attribute the video content moving thought the synergistic sharing loop.”

A Chilling Effect on Newsgathering

As more and more details about the mass surveillance activities surface, various news organizations and journalists express concern about the effect ubiquitous eavesdropping has on journalism. Although research and articles are shedding some light on the effect spying has on our society and journalism, the disclosures seem to be far from being over and far more research needs to be done. One thing can be said already though: The little we know is reason for concern.

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In an earlier blog entry from September 6th, I discussed the importance of news media in a democratic society and gave some examples of how institutions agencies have attempted to intimidate journalists. My article from September  29th shows why mass surveillance concerns us all. In this article, I will specifically enlarge upon the consequences of mass surveillance on journalism.

Needless to say, hampering a democracy’s press is hampering  democracy itself. In a public comment to the Review Group on Intelligence and Communication Technologies convened to President Obama, a group of scholars, journalists and researchers from Columbia Journalism School and the MIT Center for Civic Media say that mass surveillance “presents a grave threat to the effectiveness of an independent press.” The 15-page letter argues that there is a “discrepancy” between the NSA’s eavesdropping activities and the existing law and policy designed to protect the confidentiality of journalist-source communications. What’s more, a “climate of secrecy” established by mass surveillance methods is itself “harmful” to journalism, as sources aren’t able to find out when they might be spied on, or how “intercepted information might be used against them.” As the letter shows, the NSA does not have to adhere to the policy of the Department of Justice. The double standard is not only “intolerable”, but endangers the communications between journalists and their source. The review group calls for “one set of rules.”

Furthermore, the authors reject the logic of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which asserts that collecting information on everyone is no different than doing the same on specific individuals. “The surveillance of essentially everyone has effects far beyond the surveillance of journalists alone. […] For a free press to function we must also protect the means of communicating with a journalist.” The comment also says that sources have become nervous about talking to reporters, as reported by journalists from various news organizations including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Summing their appeal up, the groups states that “mass surveillance is a serious threat to the constitutionally protected function of a free press, and therefore to democracy itself, because it impinges on the ability and confidence of every possible source who might talk to a journalist.” The possibility for journalists’ communication to be monitored everywhere and anytime poses new challenges for our profession.

At an online news association conference in late October in Atlanta, media professionals were told that they needed to learn about secure and safe communication, meaning they have to use encryption and good security practices. Jonathan Stray from Columbia University reminded participants that while encryption is vital, it doesn’t protect the metadata, i.e. sender, recipient, time, and more. Stray called journalists “targets” who are working in a “high-risk” profession, while media lawyer Nabiha Syed said the bigger problem is that we are missing “clear and transparent procedures that protect right.”

Glenn Greenwald & partner Miranda

Glenn Greenwald & partner Miranda

On August 18, David Miranda, partner of Guardian interviewer of whistleblower Edward Snowden Glenn Greenwald, was detained for nine hours and questioned at Heathrow airport. A controversial British law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals. Miranda was released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

In the middle of October, a British Parliamentary committee announced it would investigate The Guardian’s reporting on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks as part of a broader counterterrorism inquiry, while a poll found that more British citizens oppose the whistleblower’s leaks than favor them. At the same time, however, a Pew  Research poll shows that the public values the watchdog role of the of the press more today than before the Snowden leaks. In an August survey, seven in 10 agreed that news organizations “keep leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done”, up from a low of 55 percent a decade ago.

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Former Independent editor Chris Blackhurst criticized The Guardian’s publication of the leaks, arguing that they’re not much of a story and that if government authorities contend that they’re not in the public interest, “who am I…to disbelieve them?” Glenn Greenwald responded in an article on his own, attempting to refute Blackhurst’s arguments. Greenwald said Blackhurst’s opinion is a “predominant mindset among many in the media class.” Moreover, he said that that  when journalists do talk this way, “they do us a service, as it lays so vividly bare just how wide the gap is between the claimed function of establishment journalists and the actual role they fulfill.”

Blackhurst's article in The Independent

Blackhurst’s article in The Independent

On October 25th, the N.S.A.’s director, General Keith Alexander, accused journalists of “selling” his agency’s documents and called for an end to the steady stream of public disclosures of secrets. In a roughly 30-minute interview with the Defense Department’s “Armed With Science” blog, Alexander says “it’s wrong that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000 – whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these – you know it just doesn’t make sense.” He added: “We ought to come up with a way of stopping it.” It doesn’t get much more obvious that this does not comply with the First Amendment.

The Snowden revelations have sent a chill through those reporters covering national security issues. If the NSA can easily gather details about who a reporter phoned or emailed, that sends a signal to whistleblowers that their anonymity can no longer be protected. David Sirota, columnist, journalist and author, shows in his article Obama’s war on journalism how the U.S. President prevented a Yemeni journalist from being pardoned by calling Yemen’s leader. After Abdulelah Haider Shaye exposed his government’s coverup of a US missile strike that reportedly killed “dozens”, he was sentenced to five year in prison. In Sirota’s article, New York Times media correspondent David Carr says that “suggesting that there is a war on the press is less a hyperbole than simple math.”

The CEO of the Associated Press Gary Pruitt recently said that there has been a “chilling effect on newsgathering“.

On the plus side, the disclosure seem to have animated a plethora of media outlets to do in-depth reports and dedicate many of their staff and resources to the effort to inform the public. To which extent they feel genuinely  convinced that this topic deserves all the attention or if they merely jumped on the bandwagon is, I believe, secondary, because all the reports enable readers and viewers to really educate themselves about the surveillance activities. Another positive development, which is in keeping with the extensive coverage, is the international debate Snowden’s leaks have sparked.

However, there seem to be grave detrimental effects on journalism as governments and agencies around the world fear that their inner-most secrets may be revealed. I believe we are at crossroads, both as a society and journalism. Will the vast majority of journalists, sources, and potential whistleblowers be too afraid to speak up? Or will courageous, idealistic men and women not allow governments and institutions to intimidate them and emulate people like Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald? It’s up to every single one of us.

This Week in Twerking

When Miley Cyrus feeble attempt at twerking went viral after the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards in late August, the news media was all over it and contributed massively to it spreading so quickly. Cyrus’ presumably planned provocation permeated the airwaves to an extent that is shocking, because even qualitative, mainstream media picked up on this piece of entertainment like it was news. At the same time, other news that certainly had a larger impact on people’s everyday lives didn’t get the attention it deserved. With the news market rapidly changing, it seems that news media nowadays jump on the bandwagon much quicker in order not to lose viewers and, in turn, money.

Miley Cirus at the

Miley Cirus at the 2013 MTV Music Awards

Two recent articles illustrate how this problem leads to news assume the shape of entertainment more and more. Picking up directly on the show business sector, the first article, found on poynter.org, illustrates how first something “crazy” happens such Miley’s performance at the Video Music Awards. Next, the Internet, or more accurately, people on the Internet react and propels the event into everybody conscience through Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. The third (and worrisome) step is when the media, or better journalists who work for the media, believe this is newsworthy and tell us what people on the Internet are doing. The more newsrooms report on the story, the more people react to it, which leads to even more television stations including it in their newscasts.

When an Indian-American woman won the Miss America pageant, for example, BuzzFeed posted a list of a couple dozen tweets under the headline that “A Lot Of People Are Very Upset That An Indian-American Woman Won The Miss America Pageant.” People started re-tweeting it, services such as Upworthy sent out Buzzfeed’s article in an e-mail, and very soon the media picked up on it. The first part is not the bad one. While the majority of the comments were definitely racist and reprehensible, everybody should be media literate enough to know that there are always people who think this way and, more importantly, that they tend to be in the minority and that of course there are also people out there who posted positive things. It becomes bad when media decided that this is news, when in reality it is entertainment. They are doing their audience a disservice.

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Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014

This sheds light on another issue of the media: Why didn’t Buzzfeed write about all the positive reactions about the outcome of the pageant? Although the answer is most definitely more complex, bad news and sensationalism seem to attract more viewers. 

Both examples exemplify how media corporations are trying to combine traditional news with delivery to new media and are attempting to increase revenue in the age of media convergence.

The second article, found on medialit.org, provides good background information on the transformation of how news are conveyed on television from the 1960s till today, and shows how the barrier between news and entertainment has gradually eroded. It cautions against sensational tabloid programs, which can intensify the economic pressure on news producers when mainstream newscasts are compelled to compete with them.

Broadcasters have learned that by heightening the drama of real life events, news stories such as the twerking incident, which were previously looked over, can become multimedia spectacles. The media coverage wasn’t quite the same when Britney Spears had a similar performance at the MVAs in 2000. Unfortunately, the enormous pressure to excite the audience due to limited budgets and highly competitive markets seem to leave newsrooms with little choice.

What’s more, since people – especially members of generation Y – are increasingly looking for information online, television companies are desperately trying to pursue young people, which typically leads to less informative and more entertaining newscasts because traditional news organizations are placing their messages on many different media channels.

Another trend that’s reason for concern is that in spite of a dramatic increase in available political information through cable television and the Internet, political knowledge and turnout have not changed noticeably. It has been argued that this seeming paradox is brought about because greater media choice makes it easier for people to find their preferred content. As a result, viewers who are interested in news take advantage of the plethora of information that’s available, while the part of the audience that prefers entertainment is likely to consume less news, thus increasing the discrepancy in knowledge between those who prefer news and those who prefer entertainment.

News as entertainment is definitely a troubling trend. Reporters need to remember that there is a distinction between television and journalism. Amid economic hardship and a greater dependency on advertisers, however, maintaining a perspective on the importance of real news and information and  presenting it in a way that appeals to viewers becomes a challenge at best and flat-out impossible at the worst. Nevertheless, journalists must use resources wisely so that they can inform the public to the best of their ability; It is their duty to give citizens the information they need.

A Real Test For Our Profession

After a summer whose number one topic in the news was how the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies were eavesdropping its own people and its allies, I am surprised that I have heard very few people talk about it and read fairly little about it in the news now that I am back in the States.

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NSA headquarters in Ford Meade, Md.

After the initial outrage seems to have died down a bit, I thought it was about time to see what people think about the topic and what the media in the US have to say about it. After all, I believe it is an all-important matter, for it concerns our personal freedom.

Two recent articles not only show how the disclosures are far from being over, but they also enlarge upon the media and its specific role in it. The first article, found on niemanlab.org, is a reminder how pervasive and alarming the matter still is; the second article, found on the guardian.com/uk, explicitly shows what can happen to investigative journalists. Since every journalist should have a keen interest in this matter, I highly recommend both pieces.

The crucial role news media play in a democratic society has seldom been more evident than it was this summer. Without newspapers, online news websites, television newscasts, and other media outlets, the world would have never learned about the previously unthinkable extent to which various intelligence agencies around the globe have access to metadata, thanks to the surveillance program PRISM, and even the content of phone calls and e-mails through XKeyscore. Therefore, they can potentially know everything about us. Although Edward Snowden was instrumental in making the news public, he could have never done it with the same effect, credibility, and scope without the help of the media.

Personally, I thought that British daily newspaper The Guardian and the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel which collaborated in publishing Snowden’s disclosures,  struck the balance of informing the public while omitting information that could have endangered people associated with the program. Although they could not prevent the clandestine information from spreading, they are now trying to do what is in their power to avert future leaks. It is disturbing how the U.S. and U.K. governments respond to journalists reporting on the leaks. The surveillance state is obviously scared that journalists unveil secrets and facts about their eavesdropping activities, which I am sure means only one thing: That intelligence agencies like the NSA or the British GCHQ have got a lot more skeletons in their closet. Their legitimacy, even their right of existence, so to speak, is at stake.

How else do you explain David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow Airport on August 18th? Several journalists and UN representatives have subsequently warned the British government, saying that “the protection of national security secrets must never be used as an excuse to intimidate the press into silence and backing off from its crucial work in the clarification of human rights violation.”

These violations of the press prove once more that there is a need for a debate on how much privacy we are willing to give up as a society to ensure that threats like terrorism can be effectively countered. In other words: How much privacy and individual freedom do we have to sacrifice in order to ensure that terror acts can be prevented?

At the same time, however, it is also encouraging to see how journalists are not only standing up for their craft and their peers but for those who they serve by informing them, namely the public. However, while the majority of journalists seem to support their peers, some are being publicly criticized by fellow journalists. Mr. Greenwald, who was the liaison for whistleblower Edward Snowden for The Guardian, has come under intense criticism, just like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has been inside the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012.

The news media must not let the government, let alone some of their own intimidate them. The current events shed light on an important dynamic that is vital to the functioning of our so-called democratic society. We need the news media to ask the tough questions and to investigate where it hurts, because this is the only way we as a society can exert pressure and influence on the government. How are we, as a public, supposed to make our voices heard if we don’t find out what is going wrong?

I firmly believe it is the duty of our profession to collaborate with whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden and give them a platform to release their revelations. This is not to say that everything that whistleblower want to make public is ethically or morally defensible. There is certainly a fine line between disclosing something that the public has a right to know about and an information that is not essential and/or could put someone’s life in danger.

Yet, in the midst of shrinking budgets and concerns about quality, investigative journalism, the press needs to stand together and show authorities and governments that acts of intimidation will not prevent it from unveiling what every authority fears: the truth.

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