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Whose truth?

AYM logo

WHERE lies the future of traditional media outlets in the face of blogs and other new media sources? This is not a new discussion, but my thoughts on the subject became more solidified over the past week. At the Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) 2009 summit in Mexico City which I attended last week, I heard how some 40 organisations use internet social networking tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to mobilise support for their causes and effect social change.   

These groups mainly comprised non-profit organisations and individual activists. Many are nascent movements, some just under a year old. But regardless of how established they were, they were considered agents of change. Their causes ranged from freeing Burma of military rule to fighting crime and kidnapping in Mexico; from protesting unjust detentions in Saudi Arabia to working with juvenile detainees in Jamaica.

What have these cause-driven groups got to do with journalism and the traditional media? The answer is in internet technology which has changed and will continue to change the way news is produced and consumed.

Birthing revolutions online

Against a backdrop of declining media businesses and emerging online media outlets, the internet has altered the balance of power as to who exactly controls the news. Increasingly, it’s starting to look like citizens do. It’s not just blogs that are providing alternative sources of news, but anyone with a mobile phone and a social media network account.

A recent example in Malaysia was when the 30 Sept 2009 earthquake in Padang, Sumatra, caused tremors and buildings to sway in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. Instant updates were immediately posted on Twitter and Facebook from people who felt the tremors and had to evacuate their buildings.

The AYM summit showed that these social networking tools have also been used in other parts of the world to mobilise millions to demonstrate and overthrow governments. For example, the Facebook group “One Million voices against the FARC” succeeded in just one month to rally over 12 million people on the streets on 4 Feb 2008 against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The coordinated mass protest took place in 200 cities across 40 countries, making it the largest protest ever against a terrorist organisation. Group founder Oscar Morales told The Nut Graph, “The result today is that FARC has released some kidnapped hostages and members are leaving the group when they realise that they have no more public support.”

In Moldova in April 2009, a young reporter named Natalia Morar organised her friends on Twitter to protest against election results which returned the communist government to power. Twitter’s reach resulted in thousands more protestors than expected turning up on the streets. The protests forced fresh elections in which the opposition formed the new government.

bersih rally crowds against the police
Bersih rally, 2007 (© Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams / Wiki Commons)

There were dozens of other inspiring stories from AYM, examples which show that people can define what is news for themselves, even becoming the news in the process. Perhaps the closest Malaysian example is the Bersih rally for electoral reform in November 2007 which was also organised through text messaging and blogs.

Citizen journalists

The violent aftermath of Iran’s elections in June 2009 and the monks’ protest in Burma in 2007 are but some of the more popular examples of citizen journalists posting video reports on YouTube. When governments crack down on traditional media, or even shut down the internet, what’s evident from the Iran and Burma cases is that such efforts are futile.

Iran — protestor holding up pictures of very injured protestors
Protester holds up a photo of a bloodied
protester in Tehran, June 2009 
(© Milad Avazbeigi / Flickr)

In a similar vein that illustrates the emergence of competing news sources, newsmakers themselves can break their own versions of an event, and real-time at that. This is what happened during the 7 May 2009 Perak assembly sitting. Assemblypersons inside the chaotic House tweeted their take on the political fracas which culminated in the physical removal of Speaker V Sivakumar, of Pakatan Rakyat, from his chair.

In other instances, Members of Parliament do occasionally tweet on the goings-on inside the Dewan Rakyat. Politicians on the stump in many of the recent nine by-elections also kept followers updated about their movements and opinions as they went about the campaign trail.

Transparency replacing objectivity

What then, is the role of the conventional news media? Or even of smaller outfits like The Nut Graph whose structure and operations are based on the news gathering and editing processes practised by traditional media?

What does it mean that news is increasingly becoming bottom-up instead of top-down, that people are able to generate their own stories and create their own dissemination networks, that people no longer need editors to decide what’s news?

Probably no one has the answer yet. But among the debates that this has generated is the question of what happens to objectivity, at one time the journalistic profession’s prized hallmark. During a conversation at the AYM conference about media credibility and impartiality in the context of emerging cause-driven journalism, a co-participant remarked: “There’s less premium on objectivity now as long as what you report is true.”

Do consumers prefer traditional journalism?

The question of objectivity in the context of journalism versus blogging is an ongoing debate, and so far the most satisfactory conclusion I’ve found from online research is that transparency ought to replace objectivity as a goal. Ultimately, transparency in news gathering and reporting — explaining and linking to sources, checking facts in a press release instead of automatically re-writing it as a story — these are the practices that could distinguish the news media from blogs. Then again, even responsible bloggers could adopt the same standards.

But in reality, how many news outfits — whether traditional or new — will practice such standards in the rush to meet deadlines and beat the competitor? This raises an old question — what sort of media do consumers want?

Who’s truth?

Malaysia’s government is certainly not denying the popularity and relevance of blogs, although the establishment’s current thinking is more of fear and loathing about “subversive” elements, especially those online that it cannot control.

Information, Communications and Culture
Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim

Still, when the Information, Communications and Culture Minister says he wants broadband connectivity to reach 50% next year in 2010 from 27% this year, what he’s really asking for is the democratisation of news and information.

This government schizophrenia about the internet can be explained. Media innovation is about expanding the space for more voices, while politics is about replacing one group of voices with another, reasons technology journalist Mitch Ratcliffe.

The authorities here should realise that there’s more to increasing broadband rollout than just connectivity, improving business or being on par with developed countries. Along with all that comes an expanding space for new media and by extension, for citizens’ views.

The powers-that-be may be “annoyed” by what they will hear or see, such as the cow head protest video, but the internet’s force, once unleashed, is difficult to stop. For example, does the government not realise that even if Malaysiakini removed the cow head protest video, it still remains on YouTube?

The blessing of the internet and social media may be freedom from monopolies on the truth, but in the cacophony of voices, the challenge will be ascertaining the transparency and therefore validity, of each truth. favicon

There are times when Deborah Loh would rather read trashy Hollywood gossip magazines for news.

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One Response to “Whose truth?”

  1. Sonia says:

    Thanks for another great article. One of the points missing though is the question of resources in this evaluation of ‘traditional’ and ‘citizen’ journalism.

    Traditional media have one major advantage over both citizen- and community-based media (of which I am an advocate) and that is resources. These are vital in, for example, investigative journalism, in ongoing analysis and in ensuring ongoing training and investment in journalism.

    I realise these are often stretched (TNG being a case in point!), and I think this is one of the reasons why we, as readers, should be willing to pay for quality news and comment, such as we get here .

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