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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Web of citizen journalism

Web of citizen journalism

The Asian Age India | Samar Fatany

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: Emerging technology is creating interactive channels for mass communication that is redefining media.

It is creating a new breed of citizen journalists who can get news to the world without using the well-worn pathways of traditional print and broadcast outlets. It presents great opportunities for common people to report events independent of large media organisations, as well as to voice their views in a new global marketplace of ideas.

These were some of the topics discussed recently during a session on citizen journalism at the Arab and World Media Conference in Dubai recently. At this session, a panel of four media specialists explored the opportunities that new technologies offer. They also debated the various risks that citizen journalism poses to traditional media companies.

Although many of the discussions had a global focus, they also had special relevance for the Middle East, where representative governments and more transparent economic and business environments are creating an increasing demand for information.

Panellists included Alarabiya.net editor Ammar Bakkar, Eric Case of Google, Pete Clifton from BBC News Interactive, and software creator and analyst John Clippinger. Their audience also included several internationally known media personalities who weighed in during a spirited question-and-answer period.

Bakkar, who also teaches mass communication at the American University in Sharjah, said that more involvement between everyday people and mainstream media is a matter of continuing importance despite recent technological advances. He noted that many people across the Middle East either lack computer literacy or access to the equipment required for web-based interaction, putting a greater burden on traditional media to become more inclusive of constituent viewpoints. He also spoke about the value of online interaction, which provides people an opportunity to voice their opinions and express their concerns over current issues and world events. The influence of new media technologies such as weblogs (blogs) and online services allow both professional and citizen journalists to help shape breaking news and influence public opinion.

Case, who has managed the blog-service provider Blogger for Google since 2003, said the weblogs have created an alternative source for news and a new forum for political opinions. Many young Americans have become sceptical of official reports and the existing channels for reporting, prompting them to instead turn to blogs.

He noted that the US invasion of Iraq helped advance the alternative channel, with American soldiers and Iraqi citizens using blogs to report from inside Iraq, writing diaries and describing the reality on the ground while global mainstream media became dominated by propaganda and censorship.

Case said a blog on the Internet gives one the opportunity to voice his or her opinion on the web. It's a place to share things that you find interesting — whether it's a political commentary, a personal diary, or links to websites you want to remember.

Citizen journalism has reached new levels. The BBC's Clifton said the July 7 London bombing coverage depended on the reports from people on the scene who provided the network with high-quality photos and videos, as well as e-mailed news material. Clifton said the event signalled the start of a new relationship between the British network and the public. Today, the BBC continues to encourage people to interact by sending their e-mails and comments, which are aired during programming. Clifton said these new technologies are playing an important role in shaping the news coverage of mainstream media. The new technology is also bringing new challenges to the tenets of traditional news gathering organisations. Clippinger stressed the need to come up with proper procedures that can create a healthy online community and citizen media. He said legislation imposed on these new media technologies is not the best solution to create an effective media that serves the citizenry. He said the way forward is to encourage norms of social exchange that will ensure the effectiveness of the technology and the success of the media's contribution to the public interests. Ultimately, he said, we have to come up with social protocols that could facilitate the emergence of trusted networks of social, cultural and economic exchanges. His analysis gave the audience a new perspective regarding the trend and revealed how policymakers and strategists view the future of media technologies.

There is no clear consensus among the experts. After the panellists' presentations, Danny Schechter, editor of Mediachannel.org, accused them of arrogance for discounting the ability of people to become a force that can create a better media — a media that is neither controlled nor biased. Schechter, who is working on two new books, The Death of Media and When News Lies, sees no need to control or to channel these opinions or to keep the media accessible only to professionals. Ordinary people can act as reporters and can be opinion leaders too, he said.

Among the audience members was a Saudi mass communications student who shared his opinion about Saudi bloggers and online forums. He described the situation as confusing and asked about the social impact of the trend on the Saudi citizen.

Bakkar responded, saying the ethics of the profession should not be compromised. He shared his experiences with bab.com, one of the earliest Arab news portals, and Alarabiya.net. All precautions need to be taken to ensure accuracy and avoid falsehoods, he said, which could subject the organisation to lawsuits as well as threaten its credibility.

BBC World anchor Nik Gowing said that while he agrees with the power of citizen journalism, he does not believe it can be taken seriously. He said to indulge in the practice would be chaotic.

Others do not consider it to be an indulgence. Indeed, in the Middle East, where traditional news channels are often tightly controlled and heavily censored, the new trend of interactivity with news consumers and the use of weblogs as information channels may force the established organisations to become more competitive and to aggressively seek the truth.

When mainstream media fails in its responsibility to serve as a voice of the people, people now have alternatives. They may take over the online space and find other, more effective channels to voice their views. This means if traditional journalism is to survive, news gathering organisations will have to get it right. This was the theme of the Arab Thought Foundation conference held in Dubai on December 5, titled, "Arab and World Media: Getting It Right."

Samar Fatany is a Saudi radio journalist

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