Somewhere out there, the people who thought up Craigslist are sitting pretty. It’s no secret that the independent, interactive online services site dealt a blow to the lucrative classified ads sections of many major daily newspapers, sending the business into a tailspin, scrambling to restructure and stay relevant.
This phenomenon has created a niche market for companies like The American Press Institute. The “old, monolithic newspaper model is in disruption,” they say, knowing that they are tapping into a psychography of businesses that are reacting to sustained losses of both revenue and readership, and are trying to figure out how to recover. The newspaper business is, after all, a business.
API has come up with a proposed solution called “Newspaper Next.” It’s a workshop led by Marketing Director Elaine Clisham that tours major urban beats and university campuses preaching a premise that would send chills down the spine of any journalist with a spark of creative fervour left.
AMANDA STUTT is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism. She completed a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. Her writing has appeared in the Ubyssey, The Seed and the Tyee. She specializes in investigative and human- interest journalism.
“Your vision needs to be: Connect local customers with local businesses…developing products for people who have decided, for whatever reason, not to read,” said Clisham told leading local editors at a recent seminar at the University of British Columbia co-hosted by the UBC School of Journalism.
Instead of figuring out why core readers aren’t reading anymore, API proposes a shift in the critical mindset: Don’t worry about the reader — focus instead on the consumer.
Other, more interactive forms of media such as Google, Wikipedia, Netflix, and the like are thriving, and have largely replaced hardcopy daily newspapers for advertising and reference materials. Clisham referred to these sites as ‘disruptive innovators’ to the old newspaper model, and offered tips on how to stay competitive.
The “new” way is that news is not enough; rather, “we need to be everything you need to live in this community…We used to be the dominant source of information in our community… and we aren’t reaching as many people anymore,” Clisham said.
API’s biggest success model is The Desert Sun, a 22,000 daily circulation paper in Palm Springs, California. Clisham called The Desert Sun a good case study “because they were focused on organizational structure…in terms of building new audience, they’ve figured out the whole database thing very well.”
Steve Silberman, executive editor of The Desert Sun spoke at the seminar via a videotaped interview. “I was thinking too much about the reader and not enough about the consumer,” he said, explaining how implementing Newspaper Next’s model of restructuring worked for his newspaper.
Any mention of how to address public scepticism that may have turned readers’ eyes in other directions was conspicuously absent, but the point was not lost on some audience members.
Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun said, “the core question for a lot of us still seems to be in the newsrooms, which we really refer to as the high-end quality of our business…Are we covering too much, and uncovering too little?”
LaPointe is concerned about dipping into a “finite talent pool” of investigative journalists, and the hazards of placing too much emphasis on feedback to a market.
“We will not have the resources to break ground and investigate matters that raise public awareness and mobilize their interest and passion…You can’t take your eye off the ball,” he said. “We are coming from a model where, it’s not that we didn’t ask people what they wanted, we thought that part of the beauty of journalism was that we could, in fact, create a market for something. That you could lead the public experience and raise their awareness”.
But Chisholm maintained that newspapers no longer have the ability to create a market. “For better or worse, those days are over,” she responded, reiterating that the newspaper business must focus instead on tapping into “what the consumer wants.”
“No journalist…can survive in this media environment without understanding how business works and how a journalism organization can make money,” said Clisham. “We’re focused on the future and how to pay for that journalism.”
She agreed there is a strong market for investigative journalism, but rather than addressing ways to get the reader engaged in that journalism she asked, “how do we engage people who might not pick up the paper but still need access to information?”
Chisholm advised newspapers to nuance and digitalize the local telephone directory, tapping into consumers’ unmet needs — such as late night pizza-cravings. She suggested an online service directory with entertainment options and advertisements for “low-end pizza restaurants.”
“Local information [that is] easily accessible is a huge resource for building local audiences,” she said. “We need to get out of the mindset of creating content, and into the mindset of creating a platform.”
Clisham emphasized focusing energy on putting out “light versions of daily newspapers.” Examples of this model in Vancouver are 24hrs and the youth-oriented online Dose. “Circulation” will become “distribution” said Clisham, referring to the guy who stands on the street corner handing out newspapers to passers-by.
At the end of the day, critical ethical questions resonate. What has happened to the readers? Spending the morning coffee or transit commute immersed in a hardcopy of the local daily is rapidly becoming a vanquished pastime. So why aren’t readers reading anymore?
These questions have broad societal implications that Newspaper Next failed to address. Should the dominant paradigm in journalism shift from a focus on conveying messages to the reader and creating a market for consciousness-raising to a model that focuses on advertising products and services to a consumer? It’s these questions that haunt the sparsely populated hallways of the world of investigative journalism, and that anyone concerned with the future of newspapers should be asking.
Fox News says Iran should be bombed. This doesn’t surprise me, given that channel’s track record in Iraq. What worries me, however, is that the hawkish channel has just begun saying that its drumbeat for war is a mere reflection of public opinion, and not studio war mongering.
Based on a recent poll by the channel, most Americans believe Iran’s nuclear program is for military purposes. Furthermore, more voters would rather see the United States take a tougher line with Iran than a softer diplomatic path. “A tougher line” is a euphemistic term for war.
But is its evidence really “documented”? I have gone through its recent poll and found a few interesting points. The timing of this poll is highly questionable; even the network’s website admits that the poll’s coincidence with “all the controversy over the Iranian president’s visit to New York may have somewhat inflated feelings about Iran”. The same poll at any other time could produce a less war-supportive result.
Fox then asked if the viewers thought “al-Qaeda or Iran pose the greatest threat to the safety of the United States today”. The answers suggest that al-Qaeda is envisaged as twice the threat as that of Iran. The milder anti-Iranian result, however, is not reflected in the channel’s analysis, which still insists on Iran’s clear and present danger.
The most elusive question posed in the poll is whether the visiting Iranian president Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s intention to visit Ground Zero was to honor the victims or the terrorists who killed them. Regardless of what the real intention might have been, how can any intention like that ever be discovered, much less polled?
Furthermore, the majority of those asked said they thought Iran’s uranium enrichment program was for military purposes and not producing electricity. However, that falls short of suggesting the viewers voted for a US bombing of Iran.
We can hardly hold Fox News responsible for a war that has not yet happened. Whether or not the Bush administration will go to war with Iran is still uncertain. But what is certain is that the channel has practically raised the possibility of a military encounter with Iran, simply because its anti-Iranian antagonism spoken on behalf of the US people and government is believed and taken seriously by the players at the other end of the game: Iranians.
Thanks to its ability to arouse anti-American sentiments, Fox News is now the most quoted American political source among the hard-line Iranian media including the state-run radio and television and the pro-government dailies, which are scrutinizing every single minute of its programs in search of vilifications of Iran.
Iranian state-run radio and television news have referred to Fox News (which they call “the official organ of the Pentagon”) 94 times in the past two months as compared to 75 and 32 times for Reuters and CNN in the same period respectively. And while the latter two have, in more than 70 percent of the cases, been referred to for news other than the US-Iranian standoff, Fox News has been quoted or mentioned for vilifying Iran in each and every one of those 94 cases.
The pro-government daily, Iran, has meanwhile reported on the network’s provocative language more than other Iranian newspapers. Each time Fox News is quoted with reference to a US confrontation with the Islamic republic, the morning daily has run up to five articles slamming the United States in the same edition, on average a five-fold increase in its daily anti-American rhetoric.
Interestingly, the daily seems to be hardening its tone in proportion to the tone and intensity of Fox News’s anti-Iranian reporting. In its editorial one day after President Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia University, Fox News was buzzing with anti-Iranian sentiment, while Iran likened the standoff to “a battle which will eventually result in a bloody American defeat.” Such an explicit reference to war by an Iranian medium is still rare, but the rhetoric is increasing as Fox’s does. It was about this time in the lead-up to the Iraq war when the other American networks started following Fox’s lead; now it seems to be Iranian media that are following the network’s style.
Spreading mutual hatred at this pace will undoubtedly contribute to more tensions between the United States and Iran. A sentence from Thomas Schelling’s wonderful cold war era book, Arms and Influence, written in 1966, illuminates the present situation: “The threat of war has always been somewhere underneath international diplomacy, but for Americans [and I would dare add Iranians] it is now much nearer the surface.”
At this precarious point in history, both Iranian and American media would do well to reflect on how their reporting draws the threat of war to the surface.
So you’ve been offended by a journalist.
Maybe it was Mark Steyn’s assertion that Islam is taking over the world that got to you. Or Ezra Levant’s reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons. Or perhaps you simply disagree with Terry Milewski’s portrayal of the Indo-Canadian community.
What’s your next step?
One option that’s become increasingly popular is filing a human rights complaint. Steyn has had such complaints lobbied against him in both Ontario and British Columbia. Ditto for Levant in Alberta.
Another means of recourse for the offended party is a civil suit. After Milewski’s Samosa Politics aired on CBC’s The National, the network was hit with a $110 million lawsuit by the World Sikh Organization. The WSO alleged the piece had slandered not only its reputation but also the reputation of the Sikh community as a whole.
A CRTC complaint, if applicable, is a third option. The Canadian regulator prohibits licensees from broadcasting “any abusive comment that, when taken in context, tends to or is likely to expose an individual or a group or class of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability.”
There are letters to the editor. There are letters to your MLA. And there’s always heading down to an organization’s official headquarters for an impromptu protest.
But one response to offensive journalism that’s gained a lot of steam in recent years is online advocacy journalism.
The most famous example might well be the Killian documents that led to Dan Rather’s departure from CBS. On September 8, 2004, in a segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday, Rather told the story of President George W. Bush’s preferential treatment when he was a member of the Texas Air National Guard. Supporting the story was a series of memos purported to be from Bush’s commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian.
A number of online right-wing advocates, from influential bloggers to their anonymous readers, were convinced that the papers were forgeries filled with lies. These people set about proving as much, pointing to the fact that one of the fonts used in the memos didn’t even exist when the documents were said to have originated. Others recreated the exact papers in Microsoft Word with little to no effort.
While CBS originally disputed the claims – former network executive Jonathan Klein went so far as to dismiss the advocates as “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing” with no credibility – the network soon realized its documents couldn’t be verified and admitted its mistake. The advocates had won.
While much has been made of this victory for the bloggers, a new attempt at online advocacy journalism – one gaining in popularity by the hour – has been largely ignored. I’m talking, of course, about Facebook.
Facebook is, in its own words, “a social utility that connects you with the people around you.” It boasts more than 70 million active members and the social networking site generates the fifth-most traffic of any webpage in the world.
Any Facebook user can create a group and the site currently hosts more than six million of them. The topics range from the popular 1990s television show Saved by the Bell to the writings of Tolstoy to the starvation of children in developing countries. And whenever an event of any consequence takes place, a Facebook group expressing a viewpoint on that event surfaces within a few hours, at most.
If we use Mr. Webster’s traditional definition of journalism, Facebook groups certainly don’t fit. “The collecting and editing of news for presentation through the media” implies a level of preparedness and professionalism that these groups generally lack. An obligation to truth and loyalty to citizens – two elements Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel identify as critical to journalism – are also not inherent.
But if we look at Facebook groups as advocacy journalism, as “journalism that advocates a cause or expresses a viewpoint,” often through non-objective means, then the idea isn’t quite so far-fetched. Facebook groups often attempt the same grassroots muckraking as advocacy journalists.
Offensive journalism is a real factor in the rapid creation of these online groups. Someone somewhere sees or hears a report they take offense to. Before long, a Facebook group is born.
“Mark Steyn is a waste of the printed page…”
“Ezra Levant is a moron.”
“CBC SLANDERS SIKHS AND THE SIKH COMMUNITY.”
These are just three of the groups that are dedicated to the journalists mentioned in the very beginning of this piece. The titles are undoubtedly aggressive, as is each group’s overall message.
But just as offensive journalism spurs advocates on one side of the debate, it frequently advocates on the other side of that same debate. Both Steyn and Levant, insulted in the aforementioned groups, are heralded in others dedicated to preserving free speech.
“Defend Free Speech in Canada – The Case of Mark Steyn” has almost 1,000 members. Its creator writes that he started the group “to raise awareness about the chilling effects on free speech the human rights complaints against author and columnist Mark Steyn will have.”
“Support Free Speech; Support Ezra Levant” has over 1,100 members of its own. Its administrator established the group to not only defend Levant, but also to “reinforce the idea that [Canada is] a country that supports the freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”
Facebook’s official stance has been somewhat mixed. Its policy on the creation of potentially slanderous groups comes across as airtight, at least at first.
“Note: groups that attack a specific person or group of people (e.g. racist, sexist, or other hate groups) will not be tolerated. Creating such a group will result in immediate termination of your Facebook account.”
The website offers a “report” feature that lets users flag inflammatory material but Facebook has proven slow to react to these reports and even slower to delete said material. Thousands of groups that violate the company’s terms litter its site, popping up at a rate that makes them difficult to sufficiently police.
While professional media watchdogs, such as the liberal Media Matters or the conservative Media Research Center, must choose their words carefully because they can be held accountable for them, the same simply isn’t true of Facebook advocates. The harshest penalty for most of these individuals is having their account temporarily deactivated. As a result, Facebook has become a haven for anti-journalism and anti-journalist attacks that are arguably, and ironically, offensive.
But is anyone taking these groups seriously? Not so much at the moment.
With blogs, there was a feeling-out period that lasted for several years. While they were read as early as the mid-1990s, blogs weren’t particularly well-respected at the time. Early variations tended to be either glorified rants or public diaries.
It wasn’t until 2002 that blogs gained even an ounce of respect as a means of advocacy journalism. On December 5 of that year, then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott attended a party honoring former presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond. Lott told those in attendance that if Thurmond, who was a strong supporter of racial segregation, had been elected president, the United States “wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”
Bloggers, offended not only by Lott’s comments but also by the mainstream media’s unwillingness to run with the story, let their feelings be known. The advocates forced Lott to resign two weeks later. While the Killian documents brought blogging to the spotlight for many, it was the Lott incident that opened the door in the first place.
Facebook groups need a similar rallying point. Too many represent what blogging did in its early stages: journalism run amok.
In 2000, Sue Careless, a member of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a supporter of advocacy journalism, was invited to speak at the CAJ’s panel in Halifax. Careless supplied a set of rules for advocacy journalists to follow. Among her most important were:
1) “If you only spout slogans and cliches, and rant and rave, then you are not doing honest journalism. You need to articulate complex issues clearly and carefully.”
2) “Can a journalist have a declared bias and still practice journalism in a professional manner? Yes. In fact you may be seen as even more credible if your perspective is acknowledged up front.”
3) “A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist. You don’t fabricate or falsify.”
4) “If you are covering a protest and a demonstrator hits a police officer or shouts profanities, you are obliged as a journalist to report those facts, embarrassing though they may be to a cause you personally support.”
5) “A good journalist must play devil’s advocate. You must argue against your own convictions. In an interview, you still have to ask the hard questions of possible heroes, the tough questions even of the people you admire.”
Most of us are able to immediately identify a blog that meets these five tenets. But a Facebook group? It’s not quite as easy.
While Facebook advocacy can be a response to offensive journalism, it cannot yet be identified as advocacy journalism. The groups and the messages just aren’t refined enough. Too many are about settling scores rather than providing the relevant facts. Given the ease with which Facebook allows its members to create these groups, it might be quite some time before this is no longer the case.
And that might actually be to the benefit of journalists everywhere. As long as these groups continue to make their points through insults and irrationality, journalists will not have to ask the tough questions on why the groups are being established in the first place. Whether or not the disputed works are truly offensive remains an issue for another day because Facebook has yet to prove itself as worthy of such discussion.
Welcome to Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen, your one-stop source for tracking and analyzing ethical issues in your city or around the world. This is the public face of the new Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen will keep you updated on ethical issues in the news, while providing informed analysis on issues, as well as book reviews and interviews with leading figures in journalism. You will access a host of resources, from background discussions on the nature and history of journalism ethics to codes of practice and links to ethics experts.
The aim of the site is to support the mission of the Center for Journalism Ethics – to advance the ethical standards and practices of democratic journalism through discussion, research, teaching, professional outreach, and newsroom partnerships. The center is a voice for journalistic integrity, a forum for informed debate, and an incubator for new ideas and practices.
This site is the main vehicle for the center’s first annual ethics conference, “The Future of Ethical Journalism,” April 30-May 1, 2009. Information on the conference, registration, and logistics are provided on this home page. For those who can’t attend, the conference will be streamed live to this site on May 1. Conference coverage will include live blogs of the sessions and post-conference analysis.
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen seeks to be truly global, inviting reports and analysis from around the world. The ViSalus center is interested in collaborations and partnerships with other groups within and without the United States. For example, “Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen” will become the ethics web site for The Canadian Journalism Project, a cross-Canada initiative to support quality journalism, on its portal at www.j-source.ca/english_new/
The center and its web site encourages other schools of journalism, and its students, to collaborate on projects and to contribute material. For example, this site is linked to the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, at www.journalism.ubc.ca
I invite you to enjoy and use the site for your media courses, your journalistic work, or for your own information as a member of the public. There has never been a more impotent time for all citizens to examine and debate the ethics of journalism, locally, nationally and globally.
Journalism is evolving rapidly in a “mixed media” of traditional newspapers and broadcast stations combined with a “new media” of on-line journalists.
These developments in journalism are driven by vast economic and technological changes. Some of these trends have profound ethical import for journalism. This section provides a brief description of some trends that impact on journalism ethics.
Proliferation of news media
First came cable television. Then satellite. Soon online versions of newspapers augmented the news media scene. Now millions of bloggers, countless web sites, web broadcasts, and “podcasts” have become mainstream. All make up the “body” of today’s news media, and there is no visible end to this proliferation. The main ethical implications are threefold: increased competition has effected the quality of news reports, the public has heightened its demand for transparency, and the news world’s understanding of copyright has ceased to suffice.
Newsmakers face increasing competition to cover all the pertinent stories and reach sources before their competitors. CNN and website news have resorted to wall-to-wall, 24 hour coverage to ensure that they can provide the story to their readers/viewers as soon as it occurs. The danger is that speed will prevail over accuracy, and journalists will exchange their ethical motives as fact-checking truth-seekers for the love of breaking a story — any story.
However, an increase in competition also has led some news organizations to distinguish themselves from less responsible outlets by being more transparent about how they do their work. Journalists who want to set their articles apart as truthful and comprehensive have begun giving the public access to their sources. Studies are equipped with margins of error, assertions are backed by supporting web links, and anonymity granted to sources is thoroughly explained.
While some journalists turn to transparency to justify the claims in their reports, others have resorted to a much more careless form of writing, dubbed “journalism of assertion.” Many blogs and independent e-zines, lacking an engrained sense of duty to the truth or to readers, have developed a journalistic style of unsubstantiated opinion. Ideas are accrued and then restated, without regard to their origin or factuality.
The fact that information can be so easily accessed and then redistributed on the internet has lent itself to yet another trend: questioning the value of copyright. According to Piers Fawkes, co-creator of PSFK, a collaborative trend-reporting site, copyright has lost its value. “A blogger’s job is to spread ideas,” proclaims Fawkes. “They may be our ideas or the great ideas of others – but blogging gives an unparalleled way of passing those ideas on to others . . . the reason we write is not to control our ideas, not to look clever. We write to add our ideas to the global discussion.”
Changes in news media audiences
The proliferation of news outlets means that audiences can read and watch their news on various channels and web sites. In other words, media audiences have fragmented. No longer does an overwhelming majority of Canadians sit down in the evening to watch one or two major TV newscasts. People get their news updated throughout the day, when they want it. They surf the web to find the stories that interest them. Some describe these niche audiences as impatient, “remote control” audiences, who want the information they’re seeking without delay and without additional, unsought news.
In response, more and more news outlets cater to smaller and smaller demographics or “niches.” The risk is that journalists will no longer seek to provide the public with comprehensive accounts of the day’s top stories from many areas of life, but will focus narrowly on “niche news” that is of interest to narrow sectors of the population. An additional danger is that the public will no longer come together, through the news media, to deliberate over common issues. Instead, the public will fragment into many special-interest audiences.
Convergence of media
The fragmentation of the news audience has prompted some major news organizations to attempt to “re-assemble” a large news audience by providing news across many media platforms. Major organizations such as CNN in the United States and CanWest in Canada seek to own and provide news via a convergence of their newspapers, television stations and web sites. Meanwhile, journalists are urged to embrace multi-media reporting — the ability to report for print, broadcast and the internet.
As newsrooms become small parts of large corporations, there is a danger that profit-seeking and economic imperatives may cause newsrooms to compromise their ethical standards. Business values, such as the need to meet the demand of investors and advertisers, may trump journalistic integrity. Since many news companies are publicly financed corporations, newsroom owners or their senior staff may feel the pressure of investor-friendly quarterly reports. Inside the newsrooms, journalists may find themselves in conflicts of interest — reporting on economic and other issues that may have a direct affect on interests of their news corporation.
Some of the positive and negative effects:
Far-reaching change usually has positive and negative effects. The same is true of recent trends in journalism.
Some positive effects of change:
• Interactivity: Increased ability of the public to actively search for their own information and to interact online with news web sites
• Increased public access to different forms and types of media; access to a greater diversity of content
• Reduced “gatekeeping” powers of major news organizations; less power to set the news agenda or manipulate the public’s understanding of events
• New and powerful story-telling methods through multi-media technology
• Convergence in news may mean more resources to probe issues
Some negative effects of change:
• Rise in “journalism of assertion”: unsubstantiated opinion and rumor which harms journalistic credibility; lack of restraint among online writers
• Pressure to lower ethical standards and sensationalize stories
• Public complaints about how a “ubiquitous” media violate personal privacy
• Confusion about who is a journalist, when anyone can publish
• Ethical “vertigo” regarding news values, newsworthiness, credibility. What standards are appropriate for this new “mixed media”?
In the hours following the Virginia Tech shootings in April, people caught up in the tragedy turned to social networking sites, blogs, e-mails and other digital technologies to express themselves. On one particular site, Facebook, pages were transformed into impromptu memorials to the victims of the shootings.
Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become the place online for students to hook up with friends, chat and share photos. Originally set up as a site for students at Harvard University, it quickly expanded to other colleges and later high schools. Last September, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everyone and it now has 23 million members worldwide, 10% of them in Canada. But this also meant that what had once been the sole preserve of students was now available to anyone with an e-mail address.
The site was buzzing with activity on the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. Traffic increased five-fold in the space of 24 hours. The circumstances were particularly suited to a world of new media in which anyone can publish and disseminate information. The Blacksburg campus was full of young students equipped with laptops and cell phones. Once police had locked down the area, the students turned to the tools they were familiar with to find out what was happening.
Students in their dorms turned to Facebook to check on friends, share snippets of news, talk about their experiences or mourn the 33 victims of the rampage. Reporters were quick to sign up for Facebook accounts to find people touched by the campus shootings. This digital door stepping provoked a wave of resentment from students, as if the reporters were eavesdropping on conversations between friends.
In the physical world, the campus was quickly swamped with journalists. CNN alone sent 100 staffers to Blacksburg. Students engulfed in the tragedy were uncomfortable with the intrusion into their grieving. Online, it was almost as if the reporters were not just camping outside the dorm, but barging into the rooms and leafing through personal journals.
“You have reporters that will create a Facebook identity just to get students’ contact information, or who will start an online memorial to get people posting for a story. It’s just inappropriate,” Virginia Tech student journalist Courtney Thomas told The Guardian newspaper.
The scramble for coverage online throws up many issues about journalism ethics in a digital age. It also raises questions about notions of privacy at a time when many young people are living their lives online. It might be naïve of the students at Blacksburg to consider their pages and comments on Facebook or other websites to be private. After all, the Internet is the most public of mediums. Information online is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.
But the problem is that many of the young people who sign up to sites like Facebook or MySpace do consider these bits of cyberspace as their own personal space. In a way, the Internet has become the place to hang out for teens. Instead of chatting in the playground, or going to the shopping mall, today’s youth go online.
University of California-Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd argues that as parents have tended to restrict the physical movements of their children, teens have turned to the Internet to escape from these physical limits. Social networking sites offer an arena for teens to do what teens do – express themselves, make friends and make sense of their place in the world. Profile pages are a place to say, “this is me,” which explains why some MySpace pages are a cacophony of design. They reflect a stereotypical teenager’s bedroom.
A teenager might consider this virtual bedroom as a private space, open only to friends. But it is part of a global network of information, where anything you publish will be archived, be discoverable through a search, and be easily copied and disseminated to anyone in the world. How could anyone then believe that anything they do online is private?
Boyd argues that most people who join social networking sites believe in the concept of “security through obscurity”. The idea here is that unless someone is of particular note, why would anyone be interested in their profile page or their comments?
This is a reasonable assumption, as millions of people have pages on Facebook, MySpace and other similar sites. But Virginia Tech showed that social networking sites are private spaces only as long as their users are not making the news themselves. The concept of privacy through obscurity breaks down people who hunt for information for a living take an interest, as happened following Virginia Tech. Students on the Blacksburg campus lost their shield of obscurity when the college was propelled into the headlines.
The instinct of reporters is to chase scoops and exclusive interviews. But the etiquette of digital door stepping is an untested area. Similar questions arise over the use of first-hand material culled from social networking sites. This content is both private and public at the same time. It is private in the sense that it was intended for a specific audience of friends. But it is also publicly available online. This is a new ethical area for journalists. Understanding how people use and relate to sites like Facebook or MySpace is a first step towards resolving these digital dilemmas.
We are going to discuss North Korea’s recent nuclear test, but first — there’s rarely time for history lessons in daily news, but North Korea’s recent past has relevance today. Can you offer a brief rundown on North Korea since it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty?
In the late 80s North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing to put all their facilities under safeguard and allowing the IAEA to inspect them all the time. It took the North Koreans four years. Once they finally worked out an agreement, the inspectors immediately discovered that the North Koreans had taken some of their spent fuel and extracted plutonium for bombs. This created the first nuclear crisis, which almost resulted in a war with the Clinton administration. Instead, talks resulted in an Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program. Under the Agreed Framework, North Koreans took all their spent fuel that they could potentially use to make plutonium [which was 8,000 canisters] and hid them underground under seal [scheduled to be removed from the country later].
But the Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002 before the [plutonium] was taken out of the country, which meant that North Korea could throw out the IAEA, take off the seals, pull the stuff out of the ground, and start processing it to create plutonium, which is what they did.
In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests this fall, you were approached by a lot of news people. What were the main questions you were asked on air?
DR. WADE L. HUNTLEY is the Program Director at the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, in the Liu Institute for Global Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Previously he was Associate Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Hiroshima, Japan, and Director of the Global Peace and Security Program at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California. He received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley Department of Political Science in 1993, has taught at several universities, and has published work on US strategic policies, East and South Asian regional security, and international relations theory.
I would say three things. Number one: ‘Was it really a nuclear test?’ — bearing in mind that in the aftermath that was unclear. Number two:, ‘Should we be worried?’ and number three: ‘What’s the solution?’
Were those the issues that most concerned you?
Yes and no. With respect to the first question, the only reason people suspected it wasn’t a test was because the yield was so small. What I thought was, if you’re going to simulate a nuclear test with a conventional bomb, why on earth would you simulate a failure? It’s not as though they don’t know how to pack enough explosives in a cave to make a big enough bomb. And now there’s no question.
Number two was ‘Should we be worried?’
That is the appropriate question in the larger sense, but I had an answer to that that people didn’t expect: The nuclear test didn’t make any difference whatsoever.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we have no more to fear about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities now than we did before the test. As a matter of fact, the nuclear test, to a certain degree, gives us a basis to be less worried – not only because it failed but because, and this is something that the media hasn’t really covered much, the test released a lot of forensic data as to the nature of the explosion: what materials went into it, how good it is, how efficient, how far along they are. That information will do one of two things: it will relieve them to learn that North Korea isn’t very far along, or it will confirm that they’re far along, which will at least provide a more solid basis to know what’s going on. So either way it improves the position of the West vis-à-vis North Korea, because North Korea benefits if they can keep the West in the dark.
But, in the larger sense, should we be worried?
Yes, because we should have been worried all along.
The third question was “What’s the solution?”
This is what average people want to know. Prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, policy debates essentially revolved around two positions, one favouring confrontation and the other favouring engagement. The most thoughtful people felt that a combination of both was absolutely necessary. It was referred to as “carrots and sticks.”
The difference between now and four years ago, caused by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, culminating in the nuclear test, is that North Korea is no longer a country with a potential to become a nuclear state – it is a nuclear weapons state. It has demonstrably got on [nuclear weapon], at least. The nuclear issue itself is no longer a discrete problem, and I now feel that even a clever combination of carrots and sticks will no longer be enough.
Now, the only way [of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear problem] is by understanding that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are embedded in a larger fabric of relations in the region that involve not just security but a lot of political, identity, and nation-building dimensions. And in that sense, what the Americans do doesn’t really matter, since we know what they’re going to do. What really matters is what China does.
What does China have to do with this?
They’re concerned about the long-term viability of a government whose legitimacy might easily be challenged in the future, a government whose stability is unclear, a government that is obviously not working by the standard metrics of economic performance -– feeding your people, things like this. And in particular the Chinese have long been annoyed that the North Koreans have not gone further down the road that they themselves have pioneered toward economic reform.
China cares because they don’t want this huge mess to spill over into their country, which has already happened as a matter of fact. There are estimates ranging between 50,000 and 500,000 refugees in Northeast China from North Korea, and this is already a big problem for them, but if the regime collapsed, refugees would flood across the Yalu [Amrok] River.
But if the regime collapses in the context of a war, the Chinese would have to worry about war spilling over their border. They’d have to worry about possibility intervening themselves, like they did in the first Korean War. They would have to worry about the possibility of coming into a military engagement with the United States, in a context in which the United States has thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at them.
North Korea only rarely makes headlines. When it does, do the stories appropriately address the situation there?
No. But I wouldn’t necessarily blame the media for this. North Korea is an incredibly closed society. They don’t let anybody in, so it’s extremely hard to get information about what’s going on in there. If there’s malnourishment in Africa, it usually strikes powerfully and dramatically, and you get babies with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, and you get cameras in there and it goes out to TV. In North Korea you never see it, in part because it’s not that kind of dramatic short-term thing. It’s a longer term malnourishment that has resulted in an entire generation of North Koreans stunted physically and mentally. The statistics, for example, in bodyweight and height between the North and the South now are dramatic. The statistics on IQ would be dramatic if we had them. We don’t. But the media itself feeds on its own drama, and if you don’t have the pictures, then you don’t make it at all in the popular media and the daily news.
What does end up in the media, if not the human rights crisis and the political complexities? I’m thinking particularly of Kim Jong Il’s media image.
Every time you see reported the information about how he is a movie buff and how he kidnapped a director from South Korea to make movies about himself and how he’s had this parade of young women – those stories create the notion that he’s this crazy, megalomaniacal throwback to a bygone era of royal self-indulgence. It creates a vast misconception of what’s going on in that government, particularly on two matters. One is Kim Jong Il’s character. He may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He’s very clever, in many ways more clever than the people he’s up against. And number two, the notion that he controls everything, which he does not.
North Korea has a complicated political system. It’s small, but it is really opaque, even to the people inside it. It has domestic politics, but by a completely different set of rules. There are people in power, and they’re machinating against each other, and Kim Jong Il sits on top of this volatile heap of backstabbing humanity, always concerned that somebody is going to come along and knock him off and take over the whole thing. One of his principle concerns is to stay in power himself. I would imagine he’s worried about that every day.
With all the history, how could the media boil it down for the public?
People disagree on how to reach the essence of what it all means, in a pithy concise way. If you talk to somebody in Washington they would point immediately to the nuclear issue and say these people with a nuclear bomb are dangerous. If you asked people in China, they would come up with a different set of criteria.
Would it be manageable to triangulate between China’s approach to North Korea and North America’s? Do media do it?
I did not see that in my personal experiences. These were one to three minute interviews where I was talking to folks in Saskatchewan eating dinner. They’re not going to sit there for an hour and listen to the inner machinations of the regime in Pyongyang. They just wanted to know if these guys were going to launch a missile at them. And I told them that they weren’t. And that was it. So it has to do in part with what the media is trying to do. Is it really their job to do that?
Who else’s job is it?
Let’s say, for example, our leaders. Lets say, for example, our government, which actually has the capacity to do something about it. Maybe they’re the ones that ought to be really thinking about it.
But what if the media is supposed to link the public to their leaders?
If that’s the case, then it is the responsibility of the media to tell its people that its government is failing to solve the problem. This is why the media comes to people like me, who aren’t on one side or the other but are trying to say something about the issue that transcends political debate. Does that go far enough to motivate the people to push their governments to do better? I don’t know.
An RCMP Emergency Response Teams swarmed the University of B.C. campus on Wednesday, January 31. With bulletproof vests and dogs, they spent the better part of the afternoon in the biological sciences building.
Neither the public nor people inside the building were told what the police were doing. The RCMP taped off the building and surrounding area and dispatched a helicopter to monitor from above. Students in the building reacted, as suggested by police, by locking themselves in classrooms and offices. They were reportedly not allowed to go to the bathroom or do anything else. They were told these measures were for their safety, and that was all they were told. All over campus, shocked students and faculty watched, waited and wondered what could be happening.
Before long, clues and rumours abounded. Students became citizen journalists as they blogged reports from inside the biosciences building. The citizen journalism website Nowpublic.com published reports that a suicidal assailant was loose in the building, threatening people’s lives. One blogger said that, “According to an email released to faculty and graduate students working in the building, a suicidal student has been displaying threatening behavior.” As part of that same update, the blogger said a witness outside called him saying that the “assailant might have a gun.” That quickly turned the onlookers’ thoughts away from a bomb threat and toward a suicidal gunman. However, at that point the police had still confirmed nothing about the nature of the threat. The only verifiable story was the police presence. Attempts by JournalismEthics.ca to contact the blogger about the accuracy of the statements have yielded no response.
JORDAN CHITTLEY is in his second year of a master of journalism degree at UBC. He completed a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver where he was the editor of his school newspaper. He is now the sports editor and multimedia coordinator for the Ubyssey newspaper and freelances for various outlets in print, online and television. He helped shoot, produce and edit a piece for Dan Rather Reports and is currently helping with a piece for Business Nation on CNBC.
It was not until March 3 that the public got any substantial information about the crisis when police announced the arrest of 19-year-old UBC student Hwi Lee on charges of uttering threats and mischief. Police said the decision to stay mum was key to their investigation. But they’re still not saying anything about the nature of the threat because the case is now before the courts.
On January 31, local media outlets published stories on their websites that a police incident was occurring and a building had been locked down. All over campus – not just in the locked-down building – staff and students were told to stay where they were. Games of telephone tag yielded rumours that included a bomb threat, the aforementioned suicide gunman and even a drill.
Since I work for the student newspaper, students inside the building and outside were calling me with questions saying that media were reporting these rumours. My girlfriend received a call from her parents telling her that there was a bomb threat. Scared I was in danger, she called me while I was on the scene.
Parents from around the country frantically called their children, haunted by images from Virginia Tech and terrified of imminent violence. At about 4 p.m., mass emails circulated, stating the situation was ‘resolved’ for the rest of campus. Police began slowly releasing trapped students and faculty and by 8 p.m. the building was cleared. The actual danger wasn’t known at the end of the day, and is still not known. The police were tight-lipped. The less they said, the more rumors soared.
We often talk about how changes in technology are changing the way media operates. It is changing everything from the immediacy of spot news to citizen journalism. From Virginia Tech to the London bombings, ordinary people have begun documenting extraordinary events with the help of their cell phone cameras and blogs. However, the chaos at UBC last month is a perfect place to examine how these new tools can be used prematurely and mishandled.
Is citizen journalism really a benefit to citizens? Citizens were not informed by last month’s citizen journalism, they were merely terrified by it. And the rigid police silence fueled the fire.
There are many instances where citizen journalism adds to the available information and takes the gatekeeper element out of news. Recently, when a fast food restaurant was blown up overnight on a main street in Vancouver, the damage and location were quickly reported by citizen journalists. Viewers could see the damage and know to avoid that area during their rush hour commute. News agencies only have so many reporters and can only be in so many locations, but with sites like Nowpublic.com, reporters can be everywhere.
However, in an event like the UBC lockdown, citizen journalists were feeding the public unsubstantiated rumours. RCMP Cst. Annie Linteau and UBC spokesman Scott Macrae told me, along with a horde of other journalists, that nothing could be confirmed. All they said was that the building was being locked down for the student’s safety. We did not hear how the police received the threat, the nature of the threat or how many people were affected.
First and foremost, it was the lack of information and the complete silence out of the RCMP that were a root cause of the numerous rumours. This case serves to show that in our age of communication, police need to provide more information. They can no longer keep their mouths shut and expect people to think the best. They may claim that their silence was critical to their investigation, but from where I stood, their silence was not in the public interest: it led to public panic. Almost 30 officers, a helicopter, ERT and a K-9 unit can no longer just show up at a school without an explanation.
The police silence led to a situation where the press wanted and needed to report something, but had nothing to report other than that there was a threat made and there was a police presence. Members of the media looked to what students were saying and looked to citizen journalists and the Internet. Some mentioned what bloggers were saying. Technically, as long as media reports cited bloggers, they were accurate, but readers must remember to read such sources with extreme skepticism.
Luckily nothing happened on January 31 and all the students and faculty inside the building were safe. But events like this will force people to reconsider any trust they may have had in bloggers. With the elimination of the gatekeeper function traditionally held by journalists and editors, people must spend more time deciphering the news to find what is accurate. While citizen journalism is oft-hailed – and rightly so – as a boon to freedom of expression and democratization of media, we can’t forget that it’s no replacement for good old fashioned accuracy.
Award-winning Toronto Star investigative journalist Rob Cribb called on the Canadian public to demand greater government transparency at a lecture at UBC’s Robson Square campus last week.
“The public must demand greater openness and transparency from public officials,” he said. “Without this, we remain in the dark.”
Cribb, who is also the Canwest visiting professor at the UBC School of Journalism, is responsible for groundbreaking investigative reports that pry open the bureaucratic vault of secrecy on key public safety issues – exposing problems with daycare, airline maintenance and restaurant regulations.
While journalists act on behalf of the public as a watchdog on government, Cribb argued that a culture of secrecy and silence at all levels of government has frustrated journalists’ attempts to find out the truth.
Information laws at both the federal and provincial levels establish the rights to public access to government-held documents, a 30-day deadline for response and an appeal procedure if access is denied and also detail limits to these rights.
But public records that should be easily attainable through freedom of information legislation are kept hidden through destroying records, delays and flat denials.
Even when a request is granted, Cribb said, bureaucrats assign exorbitant fees for accessing information. In one case Cribb relayed, the government told him it would cost $1200 to transfer data onto a disc.
Academic research, including one published by the Campaign for Open Government, shows that Canadian institutions are taking longer to process requests and are less likely to release information.
A black hole of information results when public bodies are not adequately covered by access to information legislation.
Some governmental bodies that are not held accountable to the public, because they are exempt from access legislation, include Airport Authorities, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Foundation Genome Canada, Canadian Blood Services, NAV Canada, and others.
Cribb also reported that “more than half” of requests for court record documents are routinely denied. The greatest indictments against the public interest are committed through these information black holes.
When information is uncovered, it can have enormous public interest. Through his digging, Cribb found that the College of Physicians was dealing with 99 per cent of patient complaints and reports of malpractice in secret, and doctors with complaints filed against them were often given light reprimands, in private, with no transparency.
He said there are also “attempts to silence whistleblowers”, and “economic pressures to avoid delays overruling safety issues” that much of the public may be unaware of.
Cribb said that former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein had denied journalists access to public records, a “strategic way of undermining the public interest”, and that Stephen Harper’s staff attempt to manage news conferences by “picking which journalists get to ask questions.”
“We are dealing with the most hostile government in recent history,” he said of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with the Ottawa press corps.”
The chill on communication is achieved through gag orders on Ministers. Requests to speak to the media must be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office and information on “sensitive issues” must be approved by the PMO, which adds to the backlog of access to information requests.
In addition, requests from journalists are often flagged and automatically deemed sensitive, restricting debates surrounding important information from entering the public sphere.
Cribb is frustrated that this culture of secrecy is a “sleeper issue in Canadian society”.
He said journalists, acting on behalf of the public, are “dealing with…antiquated legislation and [a] cultural problem. The only way things change is through public pressure…but [it’s] rarely on the public agenda”, he said.
Cribb called for amendments to Freedom of Information legislation, judicial appreciation for journalists’ relationships with confidential sources, and adequate whistleblower protection.
The first BC Information Summit on September 29, 2006 will bring together academics, legal experts, journalists, elected officials and experienced Freedom of Information requesters to explore the challenges and solutions of creating an open government and a free flow of information to the public.
Carolynne Burkholder spoke to organiser Darrell Evans about the Summit and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s new Campaign for Open Government.
What are the challenges to the free flow of information today?
The challenges are that governments want to control the information that the public can have–or essentially anyone who might be a critic of government policy. To control information is to control the agenda and the social discourse to a great degree. Although the government may see it in its short-term interest to block access to certain kinds of information, it’s very unhealthy in the long-term for the society.
What’s the history of the BC Freedom of Information Act?
It was passed in 1992, proclaimed in 1993, and the first four years were the glory days when the government was really on board, with the Glen Clark administration.
[During] the second four years things started to gradually fall apart, and, in effect, they started to slow down the access to information. [It] became…more expensive and less timely.
It accelerated even further under the Liberals so that it’s gotten extremely expensive, extremely slow and there are many barriers. It’s declined drastically in its usefulness as a tool, and many people are abandoning their requests because it takes so long and they give up in frustration.
Do you think this trend will continue?
The history of these things is the pattern they always follow is some government passes an FOI act or approves an FOI act in order to clear the air from a previous government.
The most recent case is Stephen Harper who came into office promising this accountability act and one of the main parts of that was to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Those are the opportunities you get to strengthen it.
Absent that, it’s a downward slide because governments gradually learn how to resist requests and they reassert their strong desire…to retake control of the information. It’s just automatic; it’s just the way things are with our competitive democratic system.
So we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done without a major disaster, which is to reverse the government’s thinking and stop that downward slide.
What’s the main goal of your campaign?
Reform of the Act itself because it needs to be brought into the 21st century with access to electronic information and just more routine release of information. Also we want the government to reform [the] terrible way it manages and handles requests for information.
How are you going to accomplish this?
We’re going to put pressure on [the government] through various means. We will do the usual things like letter writing and petitions, but we’re going to release focused reports on specific aspects of freedom of information and how the government’s doing all along the campaign.