Media

Winners and Losers in Our New Media Moment

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Sometimes what matters most takes up every inch of space in the room and somehow we still don’t see it. That’s how I feel about our present media moment.

Let me put it this way: I’m a creature of habit, and one of those habits has long been watching NBC Nightly News, previously with anchor Brian Williams and now with Lester Holt. It’s my way of getting some sense of what an aging cohort of American news viewers (like me) learns daily about the world — what stories are considered important and not, and in what order, and how presented.

Here’s one thing it’s hard not to notice: the line-up of stories that we used to call the “news” seems increasingly like a thing of the past. Remarkably often these days, the “news” is a single hyped-up story — most recently, the San Bernardino shootings — reported frenetically and yet formulaically, often in near-apocalyptic fashion. Clearly, such an approach is meant to glue eyeballs in a situation in which viewers are eternally restless and there are so many other screens available. This single story approach is both relentless and remarkably repetitious because a lot of the time next to nothing new is known about the supposedly unfolding event (which is nonetheless presented as if our lives depended upon it). To fall back on the anchor of Avon, it often enough seems like a tale told by a collective idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Newsroom

The 24/7 news cycle often focuses on one story to the exclusion of events elsewhere in the world.

What this form of news certainly does is suck all the air out of the newsroom. On some days, when one of these 24/7 events is running wild, you could be excused, at the end of half an hour of “national news,” for thinking that nothing other than the event at screen center had happened anywhere on Earth. And I mean nothing. Not even the weather, generally such a favored subject of the nightly news because it offers disaster in its most picturesquely chaotic and yet expectable form.

Above all, the 24/7, all-hands-on-deck news story obliterates context, or rather becomes the only context of the moment. To offer the most obvious recent example: in the days in which the San Bernardino shootings ate the screen, most Americans would not have noticed that the fate of the planet was being seriously discussed and negotiated in Paris by representatives of just about every country. There was next to nothing but those shootings available — the exploration of the backgrounds of the two killers, their marriage, their arsenal of weaponry, a pledge of allegiance by the wife to ISIS, the contents of their house, what relatives and friends in Pakistan had to say, their bank account, heart-rending tales of those killed, testimony from survivors, and on and on. Even more than a week after the event, it was still the lead story on NBC Nightly News evening after evening. ("San Bernardino Shooters Discussed Jihad in 2013 Before Engagement," "FBI Divers Search Lake Near San Bernardino Massacre for Clues.") Viewers might be pardoned for thinking that Islamic terrorism was indeed an apocalyptic threat for most Americans rather than the distinctly minor one it is.

Sucking the Air Out of the Newsroom

Mass shootings, a particularly American phenomenon, seem like the perfect story for our news moment. They are guaranteed to eat any screen and recur so regularly, with uniquely gruesome twists, that covering them has become formulaic. They are the equivalent of no-brainers: disturbed (or disturbing) shooters, horrified victims, blood and guts, grim hospital scenes, the testimony of victims, the rites around the dead, and in the case of San Bernardino the added attraction (or repulsion) of Islamic terrorism.

Put another way, what passes for the news is often enough closer to a horror movie in which, just around the next corner, another nightmare is readying itself to leap out and scare you to death. Maybe it’s not what you really want to see, but once it starts, you can’t take your eyes off it. And that’s the point.

Unfortunately, none of this is actually a horror movie. When these all-too-real events loom so much larger than life and without context, they seem to trigger panic, fear, even hysteria, and a profound sense of endangerment in many Americans; they create, that is, a vision of how the world works and of its dangers that bears little relationship to the place we actually live.

Someday someone will surely figure out how to create a panic, fear, and hysteria, or PFH, index (in a world where nothing should be without its acronym) to measure the effects of this phenomenon. One way to gauge it in the meantime is via opinion polls. In the week after the San Bernardino coverage, for instance, the number of Americans who expressed satisfaction with the way things are going in this country took a “rare” seven percentage point nosedive, according to a Gallup poll. Similarly, a New York Times/CBS News poll found that, in the wake of those shootings, 19% of Americans now believed that “the threat of terrorism [is] the top issue facing the country.” Only 4% had a month earlier.

Another obvious measure, at least when it comes to mass shootings, is gun sales. After San Bernardino and the usual apocalyptic coverage, Americans once again flocked to gun stores to arm themselves. Sales of firearms soared (as did the stock prices of gun makers).

Consider the irony of this. Despite the millions of Americans now “carrying” and the many millions more with guns in their homes, I doubt that an armed citizen has made any difference in any major mass shooting incident. Instead, what all those weapons stored in homes ensure is further death and tragedy-to-come, as any grasp of the true dangers of American life would suggest: new suicides, new wife and girlfriend killings, new toddler shootings, and of course more weaponry potentially available for new mass shootings.

For all of this, the media now bears a certain unacknowledged responsibility. Above all, single-event news throws our American world — and particularly its dangers — out of whack, while playing into irrational fears and prejudices. It helps create news of its own in an increasingly unbalanced country. What it doesn’t offer is perspective.

Reporters

With news agencies increasingly short-handed, a narrow focus is efficient usage of reporters' time and can draw viewers' attention.

Now, it’s true that such 24/7 screen experiences are hardly a new phenomenon. I remember well, for instance, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. I was a college student, sitting in a hole-in-the-wall burger joint when someone stuck his head in the door and said, “The president’s been shot.” And I can remember us all later gathered in disbelief around a television set in the basement of our dorm — there were so many fewer screens then — to watch that 24/7 version of the news. But the occasions on which such things happened were so rare as to be unforgettable.

Though different people might date the onset of our present in-your-face era of news differently, it first made it onto my radar screen with the bizarre spectacle of the 1994 O.J. Simpson “low-speed” car chase. It proved that, with the right elements — in this case, a black former Hall of Fame football star and movie actor accused of killing his white wife — you could glue eyes to any kind of onscreen inanity, including cars creeping along a highway for an hour. You could even draw viewers to “the news” from major televised sports events. It would prove a potentially winning formula for the onrushing world of cable news.

In purely practical terms, it’s easy enough to see why the O.J. paradigm has become such a winner and why just about every few weeks now we seem to experience the equivalent of a Kennedy-assassination-style news experience. After all, it’s no secret that staffs in the news world, whether for television or newspapers, have been shrinking . Watch NBC Nightly News and sooner or later you’ll be struck by the way, night after night, the remarkably able Richard Engel, the show’s “chief foreign correspondent,” feels like almost the only foreign correspondent in town, whatever town happens to be in the news anywhere on Earth.

Obviously, if you can focus most of your resources 24/7 on a single story, especially one like a mass shooting where the formula for reporting it is already well tested, it’s going to be far cheaper and more efficient to cover, and when it comes to garnering eyeballs, it’s proven to “work.” It produces ratings. And in that (dare I say it) context, the difficulty of keeping an audience in a world of endless screens, sensations, and sensationalism is clearly a major factor in turning the news into a machine for cranking out instant horror movies.

It’s so understandable, even sensible, after a fashion. That it also helps create a world of imbalance and delusion, and that those delusions help disorder our world in new ways, seems beside the point. There’s no need for the media to take responsibility for any of this. It’s not part of the job or a subject that’s considered in much need of discussion by ... well, the media.

Media Trumpery

And let’s not forget another crucial element of this in-your-face media environment: America’s evolving 1% elections and the news landscape that now dominates them. Once upon a time, presidential elections started with the first primaries in the early spring of an election year, revved up with summer party conventions, and went into high gear in the fall, ending on November 4th, Election Day.

Now, media speculation about possible candidates for the next presidential election starts just before that November 4th; that is, four years early. The first “primaries,” actually tryouts before clustered groups of billionaires, take place early in the year before the election. The first “debates” are launched as that summer ends and the first primaries take place just after the actual election year begins. In the intense two-year-plus, money-raising, money-squandering 2016 race to the White House (and other federal offices) as much as $5 billion in ads (up from $3.8 billion in 2012) are expected to flicker across TV screens, as incredible sums pour into TV stations and networks.

Election 2016 is already an eye-popping spectacle. No wonder, then, that television news, profiting so from the expanding election season, would anoint it as a new kind of 24/7 entertainment event. In recent years, this decision has led to a profusion of long-before-the-first-primary “debates,” increasingly organized by TV news departments as political food fights. Similarly, coverage of candidates touring the country has increased as they are goaded to offer ever more incendiary “positions” for the news cycle. In fact, the most recent debates, particularly the Republican ones, have garnered record audiences, larger than any recent World Series game or National Basketball League final. Think of it as the O.J. phenomenon triumphant. And at least one network nabob, Les Moonves of CBS News, is openly cheering it all on. “The more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” he said in a call to investors.

Turn on MSNBC or Fox News or CNN these days and, even when nothing much is happening, you can sometimes watch election “coverage” hour after mind-bending hour. This is, of course, the perfect atmosphere for an entertaining demagogue with endless surprises up his sleeve. Not surprisingly, the focus these days has ceaselessly been on Donald Trump — what he says and who denounces him and which experts debunk his latest claim and what part of the Republican demographic remains supportive of him when it comes to deporting Mexicans or creating a registry for American Muslims, or shutting down mosques, or simply banning non-citizen Muslims from the U.S.

Watching TV

The current media moment rewards bombast over substance, limiting viewers' access to other information.

Each Trump provocation, the reactions to it (which only stoke it further), and the discovery that he’s either lost no ground or gained some among potential Republican primary voters represent another tiny news cycle in our brave new media world and is analyzed as such. There can be no denying that the Donald has a remarkably canny sense of how to up the ante and glue cameras to himself, but far more of the focus of this moment should be on the media, rather than him alone. He is, in a sense, the creature of the new 24/7 media environment, the permanent campaign trail, and the reinvention of the news cycle as a fear machine. He is the spawn of what could be termed our new "spectaculection." He couldn’t exist without it.

He is the natural-born product of a media landscape in which a single gruesome act of Islamic State-inspired terrorism and workplace rage can become the wallpaper for our American world. It’s an environment in which the threat, including Trump himself, is king, in which prosperity and ratings (for the TV news) mean fear for Americans. In its own way, the mainstream media, like the police and the populace, are arming themselves to the teeth. Donald Trump only makes sense in such a context. His is the extremism of our new media world, which represents the true trumpery of our moment.

The winners of the latest version of the news and election cycle won’t be the American people or the electoral system or a deeper knowledge of how our world works. Those winners will, however, include Washington’s national security state, which has bet its future on American fear, and the Islamic State, for which this media environment is the royal road to a completely irrational, even cockamamie “clash of civilizations.”

In other words, the news is the news, and it couldn’t be worse.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt

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Middle photo by Fotolia/wellphoto

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Forsaken Handwritten Letters

For the typical American household, nearly two months pass before a personalized letter sits in the mailbox among the usual catalogs and bills.

When considering the environmental drawback and informational delay linked to snail mail, sentimentality has taken a backseat to practicality. Passing doodled notes in class is riskier than a sneaky text message. Mailing love letters is far slower than a Skype or email to appease distanced relationships. And casual how’s-it-going-letters have been replaced by phone calls and pretty much everything online.

Still, there’s something irreplaceable about the pleasantly surprising handwritten letter. But from 2007 to 2013 alone, there’s been a 21 percent decrease in letter volume.

Imagine Virginia Woolf’s horror today, when in the 1940s she already mourned the decline of letter-writing in her essay, The Humane Art: “News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private.” Nothing seems quite as rousingly secretive as a personalized note sealed in an envelope, federal law even protecting its content from unwarranted eyes. “The letter writer… speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private,” she wrote—a concept that resonates in the era of mega-phonic tweets and too-revealing status updates.

Statistics, however, show this old-school deed is quickly going out of practice. One in five children in the UK has never received a handwritten letter, and one in ten has never written a letter themselves. And in the US, 150 billion letters are mailed annually, which may seem impressive until it’s compared to the 250 billion emails and 4 billion social-media messages sent daily.

The keyboard is quickly retiring the pen—a trend only solidified when considering the slow extinction of cursive. But when typed on a screen, our words seem slightly stripped of character, whether displayed in a quirky font or Times New Roman. Personalized penmanship, on the other hand, allows more individuality and ownership to seep through the message. A recent study showed there are also psychological benefits to taking a few minutes a week to write mere “thank you” notes. Two groups, each consisting of roughly 110 undergraduate students, filled out questionnaires concerning their well-being and general happiness. When one group was asked to write three letters of gratitude within a few weeks, they later reported significant improvement in overall satisfaction and happiness, whereas the other group—those who weren’t asked to write letters—returned feeling the same.

Psychological studies and statistics aside: Knowing that time and effort has been put forth in a handwritten letter makes it a memorable keepsake, something we’re more willing to hold on to.

Twenty-five years ago, The Utne Reader made a similar case. “Letters are acts of faith, because in a letter I disclose myself; I open my heart, trusting that the other will read and respond likewise with an open heart,” Robert Epstein wrote in a piece excerpted from East West. “Letters are seeds planted in an open heart that may one day grow into tall trees. And like trees, a sturdy letter can last a lifetime.”

Somehow a tucked-away box filled with letters still seems sturdier and simpler than a hard drive or the web—certainly more intimate.

Click to hear an NPR interview with avid letter-writers.

Image by dawgbyte77, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism

investigative journalism

From Asia to Africa to Latin America, muckrakers have corrupt officials and corporate cronies on the run 

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking,folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffsare down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol—she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

Woodward and Bernstein may be a fading memory in this country, but journalists with names largely unknown in the U.S. like Khadija Ismayilova, Rafael Marques, and Gianina Segnina are breaking one blockbuster story after another, exposing corrupt government officials and their crony corporate pals in Azerbaijan, Angola, and Costa Rica. As I travel the world, I’m energized by the journalists I meet who are taking great risks to shine much needed light on shadowy wrongdoing.

And I’m not the only one to notice. “We are in a golden age of investigative journalism,” says Sheila Coronel. And she should know. Now the academic dean at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Coronel was the director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, whose coverage of the real estate holdings of former President Joseph Estrada—including identical houses built for his mistresses—contributed to his removal from office in 2001.

These are, to take another example, the halcyon days for watchdog journalism in Brazil.  Last October, I went to a conference of investigative journalists there organized by the Global Journalism Investigative Network. There were 1,350 attendees. In July, I was back for another conference, this time organized by the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists and attended by close to 450 reporters. Thanks in part to Brazil’s Freedom of Information Act and the “open budget” movement that seeks to shed light on the government’s finances (and let people have a say in how their tax dollars are spent), journalists there have been busy exposing widespread corruption in local government as well as a cash-for-votes scheme that resulted in the arrest of nine senior politicians.

Cross-border news networks funded by foundations and philanthropists are carrying out similar investigations all over the world. Based in New York and edited by a Nigerian, Omoyele Sowore, Sahara Reporters uses leaked stories and documents to expose corruption in Africa’s richest country. Its funders include the Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, and its stated goal is nothing less than “seeking the truth and publishing it without fear or favor.”

A group of students and I studied Sahara Reporters earlier this year. In our report, we described one typical story that outlet broke which detailed how then-Minister of Aviation Stella Oduah purchased two bulletproof BMWs—at nearly double the normal price—with funds from the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA). Sahara Reporters posted receipts of the purchases and documents linking Oduah to the scheme. It also located sources who testified that the whereabouts of the cars were unknown and that they were suspected of being employed for Oduah's private use. Meanwhile, Sahara Reporters exposed the budgetary constraints the NCAA was operating under and linked these to several air mishaps, including two crashes resulting in the deaths of 140 people. 

Oduah, who was already under fire for the NCAA’s poor performance, initially denied the accusations. Within days, however, numerous news outlets had picked up the story and run with it. The reports triggered a series of reactions from the government, opposing political parties, civil society organizations, and the Nigerian public. Earlier this year, Oduah was fired.

Honorable Mentions

In recent years, I’ve been a judge for the human rights reporting awards given out by the Overseas Press Club in New York. You should see the staggering pile of entries. It takes days to read through them all. Our major “problem”: an overabundance of top-notch reporting we’re unable to acknowledge with prizes. (Happily, some of them received prizes anyway, just not from us).

Among the remarkable pieces we read but didn’t give the human rights prize to was an Associated Press series on the effects of narco-violence on ordinary people in Honduras. It laid out the way they have been forced to flee their villages or vacate neighborhoods block by block as drug dealers moved in and took over their homes. The series described how some homeowners stopped painting their houses or mowing their lawns lest they appeal to drug lords who might seize them. People were even being shaken down by gangs that left notes demanding payments if they wanted to be allowed to stay in their houses.

At the same time, the government was sowing misery of its own. As part of the series, Alberto Arce wrote about a 15-year-old boy—the son of a college professor—who went out one night to meet a girl he had friended on Facebook only to be killed at a government roadblock by trigger-happy soldiers.

This year, when the press started to cover the flood of children from Central America crossing the U.S. border, I thought back to that series and how well it explained the kinds of desperate conditions that can lead to mass migration.

Similarly unforgettable was the reporting of Cam Simpson at Bloomberg Businessweek about the workers behind Apple’s iPhone 5. Migrants from Nepal, they fell into debt paying middlemen for jobs assembling that smartphone in factories in Malaysia. After Apple started rejecting the phones, production was cut back and some 1,300 workers were left to fend for themselves for months without food or pay. Since their passports had been taken from them, they were unable to leave the country and essentially confined to a hostel, trying to scrape together a bit of rice each day. Finally, in despair, they began rioting and the Malaysian police were called in. Their response will seem odd indeed to anyone reading recent reports from Ferguson, Missouri. Instead of arresting the workers, the police had food delivered and went to work to get the Nepalese sent home. (Still broke, many of them are likely to go further into debt to again pay brokers to secure overseas jobs that may land them in similarly dire straits.)

A third striking piece of global reportage was E. Benjamin Skinner’s “The Fishing Industry’s Cruelest Catch.” It focused on the conditions Indonesian migrant workers encounter fishing in the waters off New Zealand, for New Zealand companies, aboard Korean boats. A report by academic researchers Christina Stringer and Glenn Simmons, in collaboration with deep sea fishing skipper Daren Coulston, prompted Skinner, a journalist specializing in slavery, to spend six months in several different countries checking out their allegations.

The result was a gripping story of modern day slavery. Indigent Indonesian villagers were, he reported, misled into accepting contracts on vessels that ply the Southern Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea searching for fish to be sold to giant American chains like Safeway, Walmart, and Whole Foods. Many of the Indonesians thought they were signing on to first world labor conditions on modern New Zealand-owned vessels. Once aboard, however, they found themselves virtual prisoners, forced to work long hours for substandard food and beaten or sometimes sexually assaulted when they tried to resist.

After various deductions were taken from their paychecks, the workers, promised $12 an hour, ended up getting only about a dollar an hour. Not only was Skinner’s story well-written and well-reported, but within months of its appearance, New Zealand had moved to change its laws and Safeway, Whole Foods, and Walmart began investigating their supply chains.

The Future of Global Muckraking

When I began researching my new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, I assumed that the good old days of investigative reporting were in the past. It was a surprise to learn just how much high quality work is still being done around the planet. The amount of data now available online, the ability of journalists to use the Internet to connect to one another and share information—a major aid in cross-border reporting—and a wave of new philanthropy have all helped fuel the current boom.  In addition, fresh news operations of every sort seem to be popping up, eager to promote investigative reporting.  

I thought I was well versed in innovative 21st century methods of news funding when I headed into this project, but I continue to stumble upon exciting experiments. For example, Morry Schwarz, a book publisher and property developer from Melbourne, Australia, funds weekly, monthly, and quarterly publications devoted to long-form writing on serious issues of the day, while also running the publishing house Black Inc.  Australian philanthropist Graeme Wood, with money he made from an online business, founded the Global Mail, a nonprofit website that was similarly aimed at promoting long-form journalism.  He also underwrites cross-border investigations via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In Brazil, João Moreira Salles, scion of a prominent family enmeshed in the banking sector, has used his money to found a monthly magazine, Piauí, whose recent issue included an investigative piece about indigenous opposition to Belo Monte, a hydroelectric plant under construction in Altamira in the Amazon region.

Moves toward democracy in many countries, along with the Arab Spring (however short-circuited it was) have also unshackled the global press in a variety of ways. Compared to five, 10, or 20 years ago, Myanmar, Ghana, and Tunisia, to take just three examples from many, have far freer—sometimes remarkably freewheeling—media atmospheres. And what’s happening in countries like those has had a knock-on effect on nearby states.

Of course, there are also democratically elected governments in countries like Turkey, Ecuador, and Hungary that have been clamping down on free speech. And from Syria to Ferguson, Missouri, many locales remain dangerous for journalists. On balance, however, the press is ever less under the thumb of government, a situation that only encourages investigative reporting. To take two examples where the press has become at least marginally harder to control thanks to social media, the Internet, and some brave (or nervy) independent-minded journalists, consider China and Vietnam, where once utterly closed media scenes are slowly being pried open.

The mass layoffs of older journalists around the world has had one benefit: there are plenty of experienced hands ready to train the next generation and provide institutional memory at innovative ventures. Some of these oldtimers, who aren’t busy teaching (or taking public relations jobs—but that’s a story for another time), are busy founding and running nonprofits dedicated to doing hard-driving, investigative reporting. These include: 100 ReportersGlobal Journalism Investigative NetworkForum for African Investigative ReportersInvestigative Reporters and EditorsInvestigative News NetworkSCOOP, and theInternational  Consortium of Investigative Journalists. All of these organizations are benefitting from experienced editors and reporters downsized from traditional media outlets and committed to helping the next generation—and learning from them, too.

No one can say how this wave of new reporting will continue to be funded in the future, nor can I promise to be as cheery a decade from now as I am today about investigative journalism’s prospects. Already some donors are putting in place stipulations that might constrain future reporting—like requiring publications to meet benchmarks offering proof of a story’s impact. Still, if the history of investigative reporting in the United States has taught us anything, it’s that outlets come and go, but the legacy of great investigative reporting, the tradition that inspires future generations of crusading journalists, endures.

It can take years for investigative journalism to make a difference and, in the past, many of the most important outlets didn't make money and disappeared. They were sometimes run by passionate crusaders who seized the moment, wrote the stories, and then moved on. Everybody’s Magazine folded long ago, but Upton Sinclair’s takedown of the scandalous Beef Trust, specifically Armour and Co., in 1908 opened American eyes to the way meat was produced in this country. Who remembers In Fact? But George Seldes's prescient 1941 exposé of the dangers of cigarettes in the pages of that now-defunct publication has stood the test of time. And while McClure’sI.F. Stone’s Weekly, and Ramparts may be increasingly distant memories, the effects of their investigative work ripple all the way to the present. 

And this isn’t peculiar to the United States.

Young journalists on their way up are being trained in a craft that, history tells us, will outlast the death of any particular publication. Ory Okolloh of the Omidyar Network regularly makes this point. She notes that after the pioneering Nigerian newspaper Next234 went out of business, its reporters and editors simply moved on to other media outlets in Africa, where they are breaking important stories and training the next generation of reporters. 

For investigative reporting, injustice is the gift that just keeps giving. While so much of the business side of journalism remains in flux, fine reporters with an investigative urge are finding ways to shine much needed light into the parts of our global lives that the powerful would rather keep in the shadows. These may be tough times, lean times, difficult times, but don’t be fooled: they’re also boom times. There can be no question that, if you’re a reader with access to the Internet, you’re living in a new golden age of investigative journalism.

Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs.  She teaches courses on media innovation and writes on journalism and development as well as the media in Africa. Schiffrin spent 10 years working overseas as a journalist in Europe and Asia and is on the advisory boards of the Open Society Foundation’s Program on Independent Journalism and of the Revenue Watch Institute.  Her most recent book is Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Reporting from Around the World (New Press 2014). Thanks to Hawley Johnson, Jillian Hausman, and Angela Pimenta for their research for this piece.  

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Copyright 2014 Anya Schiffrin

Ferguson Spurs Hashtag Activism

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Social media reacts to the killing of Michael Brown.

The ubiquity of social media and in particular, Twitter, has spawned hashtag activism which possesses both strong drawbacks and merits. On the one hand, online outrage is easy and the impact is iffy (often referred to as ‘slacktivism’). Take the #BringBackOurGirls campaign which focused on the abduction of over 250 girls in Nigeria and gathered over a million tweets, but failed in sustaining interest and ultimately helping any of the girls actually be found.

On the other hand, social media sites provide a space for voices to be heard and are increasingly a source for real-time news and information. The recent killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, illustrates the ways social media can be harnessed to bring awareness and counter mainstream media's stories. In addition to basic hashtags like #Ferguson which spread across the world, three hashtag campaigns have brought increased attention to the situation. The first that emerged was #HandsUpDontShoot which gained a following particularly on college campuses after a Howard University student photographed a large group of students with their hands up and tweeted it out. The hashtag became a protest chant and a number of photos from Ferguson emerged showing protesters with their hands up, often in the face of a highly militarized police force or in the midst of tear gas.

The second in the trend, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, takes aim at how Brown has been portrayed in the media, in particular critiquing the images of Brown that outlets have chosen to show. It also points out that a single image, used to epitomize someone’s life probably doesn’t tell the whole story of their identity and lifestyle, accomplishments, and failures. Twitter users have responded by posting contrasting photos of themselves. For instance, one tweet shows a girl flipping off the camera right beside a photo of her at graduation followed by the question: Which picture of me would be on the news?

The most recent campaign also calls out the media. #NoAngel was started in response to a New York Times article that profiled Brown, saying that he had used drugs and alcohol, talked back, and that the suburb where he lived had some rough areas. The author remarks that Brown “was no angel.” The Twitter backlash quickly ensued with users tweeting out admissions of what made them #NoAngel, stories like sneaking out at night as a teenager or listening to offensive music. The Times’ public editor has since written a piece saying, “That choice of words was a regrettable mistake.”

The reason this sort of hashtag activism is important is because it represents the creation of an online collective identity and creates awareness and solidarity. It also has the potential to start meaningful conversations, with angles that the media often misses or ignores. Of course to be most effective, the ideas and actions spurred by social media also have to be acted on away from the computer (or phone) screen— and for longer than the hashtag trends on Twitter.

Photo by Light Brigading, licensed under Creative Commons.

Photography’s Ethical Qualms

pic

There's a fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie wrote, “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.” What is done—or not done—with the photograph after that moment, is also a moral decision. One image that immediately comes to mind when thinking about this quote is the naked girl, running down the middle of a street after a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. The photo, taken by Nick Ut, was published only after Ut’s editors made an exception to the frontal nudity policy that was in place.

As the U.S. engages in airstrikes in Iraq yet again, it’s somewhat astonishing that there aren’t iconic images from the previous forays in the country. One reason is that the media’s focus has been trained on U.S. troops —whether it’s embedding with them during missions or telling their stories once they’ve returned. Another reason is that photos which may be sensitive security-wise have to be screened by military information bureaus before getting the go-ahead to be released.

While in Iraq in 1991 photographer Kenneth Jarecke took a wrenching photo of a burned-out convoy in which there were incinerated corpses, one of which looked like he had been trying to escape from the truck as it burned. In taking the photo, Jarecke remarked, “But if I don’t take pictures like these, people like my mom will think war is what they see in movies. It’s what I came here to do. It’s what I have to do.” While it was approved to be distributed by the military information bureau, no U.S. magazines or newspapers ran it. The decision surprised the photographer who said, “When you have an image that disproves that myth, then you think it’s going to be widely published.” That myth, that the war was made up of “surgical strikes,” making it sound neat and clean, was of course not the whole story. Debate went on at many major publishing outlets like the Associated Press and LIFE, but as the managing editor of TIME told the photo director, “TIME is a family magazine.”

Other powerful images have made it into newspapers and magazines although in different forms. In a 2012 image from Afghanistan, a 12-year old girl, wearing bright green, stands screaming amid bodies following a suicide bombing in Kabul. The photograph was published on the front pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, however each ran different versions with some cropping out the foreground where there was a dead baby.

This past May, discussion arose after photos circulated showing two teenage girls who were gang raped and then hung in India. Some websites chose to blur out the faces of the girls who were cousins. On The New York Times’ mobile app, they showed the photo from the shoulders down. The father and uncle of the girls said he, “didn’t have any problems in people taking the photographs; the problem is the thing that happened with our children.”

As war and atrocities continue to unfold, so does the fine line between what is gratuitous and what is reality. It’s the media’s job to discern where that line holds and to use photos that aren’t violent for the sake of being violent, but to choose the ones that have a story to tell. After all, without Nick Ut’s image, we wouldn’t come to know the rest of the story of the so-called “Napalm Girl”—her name is Kim Phuc and she now lives in Canada with her husband and two children. She has kept in touch with Ut, who drove her to the hospital after taking the photograph and also won a Pulitzer Prize for it. Phuc says, “I can accept the picture as a powerful gift.”

Photo by Emilio Labrador, licensed under Creative Commons.

A New Section at the Bookstore

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‘Cli-fi’ is an emerging genre that merges literature's latitude with today's climate change problems.

Most of us don't like hearing the words 'climate change' and 'fiction' in the same sentence, but the genre of climate fiction or ‘cli-fi’ is one case where it's okay. As a literary subject, dystopian climate change tales are gaining the attention of publishers and readers alike. Fictional characters serve as commentary on the environmental problems we are facing in reality, as climate change alters our communities and outlook on the future.

The genre distinguishes itself from traditional science fiction in two major ways. First, most sci-fi adventures take place in the far future whereas cli-fi is a reflection of present day and near future situations. Secondly, it acknowledges that disaster scenarios are man-made, a result of human decisions (or indecision).  

Authors who have published works that fall into this category include recognizable names such as Michael Crichton, Ian McEwan, and Barbara Kingsolver. Nathaniel Rich penned Odds Against Tomorrow which happened to have been edited during Hurricane Sandy. He says, “I had the very strange experience of editing the final proof of my novel one night, going to sleep, and waking up and essentially seeing it adapted on cable television the next morning."


Utne Reader Bookshelf


Literature’s latitude has allowed the subject to be tackled from a variety of angles. Rich’s novel doesn’t even mention the term ‘climate change.’ Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech commented, “Scientists and other people are trying to get their message across about various aspects of the climate change issue. And it seems like fiction is an untapped way of doing this - a way of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness.”

The genre seems to be gaining traction. Other authors such as Staci Lloyd and Joshua David Bellin have written books in the cli-fi genre with the young adult market in mind. And there’s even a course at the University of Oregon that focuses on the genre’s emerging impact on popular culture and awareness of climate change.  

Photo courtesy of the author.

A Ratings Scale for Documentaries

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The Participant Index wants to discover which films inspire people to action.

Have you ever watched a documentary that’s moved you to tears? Or perhaps moved you enough to get involved with a particular issue? Or even change your entire lifestyle?  The unique role of documentaries is to inform, entertain and in many cases, urge people to take action.

But what exactly prompts people to do something? Participant Media wants to find out which is why they are developing the Participant Index. Using information gathered from viewership numbers, social media, and online surveys, the company has formulated a ratings system with a scale from one to 100. So far they’ve found that films revolving around the food system and animal rights had the most impact on individual actions while economic inequality was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Additionally viewers were most interested in issues of education, health care, human rights, and crime, but not so into female empowerment or digital intellectual property rights.

In terms of the ratings numbers generated so far, the online series Farmed and Dangerous ranks a 97. The film The Square about the Arab Spring in Egypt comes in at 92. These figures are averages which take into account emotional involvement and action taken, information gathered from the online survey. However one potential challenge will be figuring in how much action can actually be taken. Someone can adjust their eating and consumer habits immediately while helping bring freedom in Egypt is much trickier.

The index will also be applied to some feature films that have a message behind them such as Promised Land which takes on the fracking industry. Chief executive of Participant Media, James G. Berk says, “If this existed, we would not be doing it. We desperately need more and more information, to figure out if what we were doing is actually working.”

It will be interesting to see how the Index is utilized and if it will change what we end up seeing on screen. Hopefully it can assist filmmakers in finding ways to make movies on typically underreported issues more appealing while also inspiring viewers to connect on screen experiences into their own lives.

Photo by Tulane Publications, licensed under Creative Commons.