What we studied

What we studied

By Trevor Bach

photo(4)A new kind of global journalism is here. It may reach us in 140-character tweets, instead of the traditional 2,000-word Sunday takeout on the Foreign News page. Or it may be in the form of raw, unsteady war zone videos on YouTube, rather than the polished Nightly News video package. Regardless of platform or packaging, the proliferation of reporting by freelancers, citizens, activists and bloggers is transforming what we know about the world and how we know it.To gain some understanding of these changes, 16 students in Columbia Journalism School’s International Newsroom course analyzed new journalism trends in four countries – China, Syria, Mexico and Ethiopia—where ordinary citizens and digital journalists are dodging censors, reaching new audiences, and breaking or amplifying otherwise underreported stories.

In doing so, they are challenging traditional media’s role as the primary source of news. But our analysis shows that the role citizens and new media play—and how much impact they have on traditional journalism and its audience – varies quite dramatically.

Of the four countries we surveyed, China was the one where citizens have had the most profound journalistic impact. Using Weibo— the country’s preeminent social media platform—Chinese citizens and journalists have frequently broken important stories, like the Bo Xilai corruption scandal, that might otherwise go uncovered in a state-run media system beholden to censorship. Though Weibo is also tightly monitored, its 564 million users have learned how to push some of the boundaries of Chinese censorship. They have also pushed traditional media to a newfound accountability, forcing them at times to cover inconvenient stories thrust into the public domain by Weibo users.

Citizens in Syria, too, have succeeded in providing important content, from a story where traditional foreign correspondents have been denied access. By filming and disseminating videos of Syria’s two-year-old civil war, activists have offered a raw, unfiltered look at the front lines and the civilian toll. But instead of being directed at a domestic audience, the videos coming out of Syria are intended for outside eyes, with the expressly political goal of inspiring international intervention. While the activists have not achieved that goal, they have gotten the attention of traditional media, which use their videos to illustrate a story they can’t reach directly. In that sense, the activists have augmented the world’s understanding of the conflict – though their work often raises questions of journalistic veracity and objectivity.

In Mexico, the journalistic role played by new media seems significantly less impressive than is sometimes claimed. The country’s narco blogs, for example, while often celebrated by the international media as valiant fill-ins for traditional media outlets silenced by intimidation, are in reality not much more than aggregators. They mostly re-post skeleton-thin stories already printed in the mainstream media, and they give a public platform to grisly videos shot by the drug cartels. Neither the videos nor the aggregating appears to add much actual understanding of the drug war,

In Ethiopia—where government crackdowns on journalists have been particularly ruthless—the country’s news landscape also remains largely unaffected by new media. Expatriate bloggers have emerged as prominent dissident voices in the Ethiopian diaspora, sharply criticizing anti-democratic government policies. But the extent of the government’s censorship and Ethiopia’s extremely low internet penetration means that the blogs have had little actual impact inside the country. Expatriates may be well informed, but ordinary Ethiopians aren’t, by new media or old.

The experiences in these four countries illuminate some of the important questions about the broader value of citizen, blogger and activist journalism. In Syria, for example, the conflict videos, though viscerally moving, are often presented without any additional explanation of their circumstances. How does a viewer make sense of what he’s seeing, or develop a broader perspective on the war? And how can western television networks and other traditional outlets determine whether the videos they air are trustworthy?

New media also present verification issues for readers and viewers. When no sources are named in a Mexican Facebook post, for example, how can a reader trust that it’s accurate? How much does it matter if authors of all the drug cartel postings on Mexican social media are anonymous? Should these journalistic standards – verification and public identification – still hold in conflict situations covered by citizens?

A new kind of global journalism may be here, but how effective it can actually be—and the role it will ultimately play—remains very much unknown.