Journalists, get yourself a geek

“Get a geek, or geekify yourself.” That was the message to journalists from storyful‘s Gavin Sheridan. He was conducting a workshop on crowdsourcing news content at the 2011 FoME symposium. FoME is a German network of institutions and individuals who promote media development cooperation. The subject of the symposium was “Hype or Hope: The impact of digital media on journalism and development”, and I was there to speak about everything from the iconic image of a defeated Gaddafi filmed on a cellphone, to the role that Twitter can play in nation-building.

The Open Society Foundation was there at the Deutsche Welle offices in Bonn, as was Global Voices, FrontlineSMS, Freedom Fone, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, the European Commission, Sourcefabric, the Thai Netizen Network and, of course, Memeburn.

In many ways the overriding message of a conference devoted to the challenges of media development was the need for journalists to access technical know-how. Increasingly, journalism involves accessing data and making sense of it for the public, and having the skills to do that is becoming essential. “Data journalism is hard,” as Carl-Chistian Buhr of the European Commission noted, “and incorrectly paraphrasing press releases is not enough.”

Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe has a very clear idea of the role of information in the media and development: The need to combat poverty. “Campaigning journalists are using data to tell a story about poverty, which makes them data journalists,” she said, reiterating the need for journalists to enlist the help of programmers and engineers to help solve data problems.

Based in Madrid because Spain does not have an access to information law, she campaigns for the release of raw data from the EU and advises journalists how to exercise their right to information. She took the audience through the results of the six question campaign, in which requests for information were sent to 80 governments around the world; South Africa ranked 13th. Her parting call: “We need real data, real-time, and we need journalists to share information once they’ve got it.”

Given South Africa’s experiences with the threat of a Media Appeals Tribunal as well as the Protection of Information Bill, it was interesting to hear about the state of the media in other countries. In Thailand, for example, criticism of the king can put you in jail for up to 15 years, as Thaweeporn Kummetha of the Thai Netizen Network explained. A Facebook group calling itself Social Sanction hunts for online criticism of the royal family and implements campaigns against the individuals they target — not just online intimidation, but offline punishment too. People have lost their jobs or been denied university entrance over status updates that Social Sanction doesn’t like.

In Macedonia, explained journalist Roberto Belicanec, “Journalists don’t trust politicians, politicians don’t trust the media, the audience doesn’t trust anybody” — which sounds oddly familiar. Fadi Salem of the Dubai School of Government showed the stats behind the Arab Spring and noted that the media rely too much on unverified social media sources. Fact-checking suffered amidst the eagerness of the media to present a favoured version of reality.

The question of advertising came up during several talks: Mark Thompson of the Open Society Foundation Media Program noted that state advertising is growing, and being used to apply pressure to the media, while AS Panneerselvan of Panos South Asia raised concerns about the influence exerted by the mobile network operators through their huge advertising budgets. Peru’s Gustavo Goritti proposed an equivalent of the Fair trade concept for advertisers, where they supported media organisations with a proven track record of combating corruption through investigate journalism.

South Africa’s Justin Arenstein who works with Google and the World Bank, argued that there is no real role for reporters anymore; citizen journalists do it better. Journalists now have to become sense-makers — “we’re going to have to take responsibility for audiences making sense of narratives”. Johnny West of is helping journalists to do exactly that with booklets and wikis advising the media in how to report on oil issues. The potential is immense: He’d just returned from Libya where, he told the audience, he was going to use information gleaned through Wikileaks to kickstart investigative journalism there.

During his welcome address, Helmut Osang of the Deutsche Welle Akademie and a founding member of FoME, reminded the audience that people around the world “want their own stories told: Truthful, factual, unbiased and entertaining”. During the two days that followed, it became clear that journalists have to learn to navigate their way around spreadsheets and codes in order to do that. As Ivan Sigal of Global Voices remarked after the first day’s session: “The next language I’m learning is a computer language.”



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