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Bloggers and Citizen Journalism at the Al Jazeera Forum

I was originally invited to Doha to participate on the panel that’s going on right now “The New Media: Bloggers and Participatory Journalism”. It’s an impressive set of speakers and I’m somewhat glad to be in the audience for this one, rather than on stage. (No fear – I get to speak tomorrow morning on Media and Power.)

Dan Gillmor leads off with an explanation of the democratization of media. News is now made by anyone who has access to the increasingly powerful and increasingly cheap tools of production. The democratization of the tools used to create and distribute media means that everyone is a publisher. This is having a huge impact on everyone, especially “the former audience”. The “former audience” is, Dan thinks, the most interesting group in the equation. “They know more than we do” – once journalists embrace the fact that their audiences have a great deal of knowledge, we can get to powerful and better journalism.

Bertrand Pecquerie, the director of the World Editor’s Forum (“an exclusive club for senior newsroom editors”), leads off with a warning: “In every session, you need a bad guy and I’ll be it for this one.” What we’re seeing, he believes, is a bubble in citizen’s journalism. It won’t burst today, but will burst in a few years. Many bloggers – especially American bloggers – seem to believe that this means the fall of traditional journalism. Bloggers rely on a form of collective intelligence – they claim to be a self-correcting system without hierarchies. But to fact check in a newsroom, you need colleagues, editors, copy editors… in other words, a hierarchy.

This isn’t Pecquerie’s only beef with bloggers – he also sees them as too vulnerable to manipulation, especially from public relations firms. And he references the Eason Jordan situation a year past, where bloggers amplified Jordan’s assertion that the US military had targetted journalists. Pecquerie is worried that bloggers dealt less with the truth of Jordan’s statement and more with speculation over whether or not he’d said it. Expanding on his comments in response to a question, Pecquerie argues that bloggers may have an important function as critics and media watchdogs, but will not challenge the traditional newsroom on investigative reporting and basic factual reporting.

Oh Yeon Ho, the founder and CEO of Ohmynews, starts by asserting, “Ohmynews is not a bubble”. He gives a quick background on the project – thousands of citizen journalists around the world checked by staff reporters for factual accuracy and distributed around the world online and on paper. He makes it clear that he sees a major difference between bloggers and citizen reporters – bloggers aren’t edited, citizen reporters are. As a result, he believes citizen reporters have much more credibility than bloggers.

Global Voices‘ own Haitham Sabbah is asked about the issue of bloggers and credibility. He argues that bloggers gain credibility from their audiences. Essentially, they’re fact checked by their readers. Over the passage of time, bloggers prove their reliability to their audiences, responding to comments and reacting to criticism. On the issue of credibility and Global Voices, Haitham explains that we’re not expressing our personal opinions, but summarizing what’s out there in the blogospheres. We can be balanced by pointing to the breadth of bloggers that are out there.

Nathan Stoll, the product manager for Google News, is fed a thorny question about Google’s policy in China. Ducking the question, he explains that as a computer scientist, not a journalist, he’s most excited about the ways in which new technology can help bridge between different parts of the world. Machine translation of Arabic to English would go a long way towards improving relationships between different parts of the world. Despite his enthusiasm for technology, he believes that editors will always be neccesary to detect critical pieces of information, like photos of the Asian tsunami aftereffects.

Walid Noueihed of Al Wasat newspapers, acknowledges that there are ways the traditional press is falling behind new, interactive media. Electronic media is faster than paper, and better able to respond to comments. Bloggers and citizen journalists challenge traditional media to do a better job than they traditionally have.

I stepped up during the question period to ask Nathan and the rest of the crew whether we should be more concerned about who filters and presents information to us, helping us figure out what’s most important in a world filled with traditional, and non-traditional reporting. In other words, is it a problem that Google News isn’t transparent in telling us what’s news and what’s not. Nathan points out that Google News isn’t the only source – and often isn’t the primary source – of news. If Google does a good job of selecting news for users, it will succeed – if not, it will fail. Pecquerie felt that “this is the wrong question” – it doesn’t matter what ends up on the front page – what matters is whether it’s reliable. He points to the Iraqi bloggers sponsored by “Spirit of America” as evidence that bloggers can be manipulated and put into place to advocate certain political positions.

Pressed more directly on the issues of censorship in China, Nathan took some care to explain what actions Google actually took with the launch of Google.cn. Google.com has been extensively blocked in China in a way that made the site functionally inaccessible. To users, it appeared that Google was simply presenting a bad product – in truth, the search was being crippled by the Chinese firewall in a way that was completely opaque to users. Finally, Google had to concede that they needed to build a google.cn product which would be filtered, but more accessible. Google.com will remain uncensored, and google.cn will disclose when results are being filtered.

Haitham had a great comment in his closing remarks: “A message to the administation that wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera – your job will be much harder in the future because you might need to bomb thousands and thousands of reporters and bloggers around the world.”

2 thoughts on “Bloggers and Citizen Journalism at the Al Jazeera Forum”

  1. Pingback: ecosphere » Le journalisme citoyen et medias 2.0 en question (suite)

  2. Pingback: Blogging glowing all over Aljazeera forum! | Sabbah Report

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