So, who are citizen reporters? That’s the question I’ve been asking based on the folks I’ve met at the conference thus far and the questions I got from the audience after my talk. The after lunch panel gives an overview, featuring six citizen journalists who work with OhmyNews, representing a wide range of origins and viewpoints.
Leading off is wandering Tennessean, David Michael Weber, who’s spent the past five years in Japan teaching English. His writing is primarily travel writing, providing historical and cultural context to the experiences he has while travelling. This isn’t without controversy – writing about the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday in Japan, Weber found himself in the midst of not one, but two flamewars. On OhmyNews, some readers felt the story was too pro-Japanese, and let him know their concerns. On another site with more Japanese readers, a reader took offence at Weber’s comments that history textbooks have controversial revisions – his debate with Weber largely consisted of yelling, “HAVE YOU READ THE TEXTBOOK?” Weber describes his experience with “crazy nutters” – extremists on the left or the right – as convincing him that citizen’s media can be a tool to mediate away from closed, extremist viewpoints.
Gregory Daigle is another sort of content creator – an industrial designer who worked with Herman Miller before becoming a software designer and CD rom designer. In recent years, he’s been working on projects to let students monitor environmental factors in urban areas and upload that information to central websites. Through the University of Minnesota, he ran a conference called “Wireless Cities”, generating an enormous pile of notes and ideas. Looking for a place to share these ideas, he found OhmyNews and wrote a series called “Why Wireless Cities Matter.” It was well-received, and Gregory has found that OhmyNews is willing to offer useful commentary on his technical writing.
Roberto Spiezio claims he joined OhmyNews to improve his English – clearly it’s worked for him, as he’s confident and well spoken on the stage. He’s inspired by OhmyNews’s “unconventional approach to news” – not a top to bottom approach, but more of a peer to peer approach, of news made by the people, delivered for the people. This, he believes, is critically important in his native Italy, which is “not an ideal environment for press freedom.” Berlusconi, he tells us, has effected freedom of the press, bringing Italy down to 79th place in Freedom House’s press freedom rankings. OhmyNews opens a space where highly individualistic people – like many Italians are! – can contribute to a global press freedom movement.
Fernando Mariano-Aguirre reminds us that a worldwide audience is watching our gathering, wishing us a good afternoon, evening, night and morning. Drawn into OhmyNews by an interview with a Chilean reporter, Fernando found that Todd Thacker and his team were very generous in transforming “my poor english into something understandable”. At the same time, he learned some key lessons about writing for a global audience: omit details that are only interesting for local readers, and talk about things that are implicit to local readers, but not known by global readers. Like Italy, Argentia doesn’t have an unconstrained media environment – the broadcasting laws were written during the last dictatorship, and don’t let cooperative societies own cable stations. “It’s difficult for journalists to swim against the tide.” But citizen journalism lets him break through some of these pre-existing constraints – “In a world where freedom of trade tramples freedom of the press,” OhmyNews has let him express himself as a journalist and as a person. The network is so unique because it breaks traditional North-South media dynamics – there’s an “informational South in Berlusconi’s Italy” for instance. OhmyNews links the south to the south and the south to the east, inverting some of the usual relationships of media flow.
Alexander Krabbe, a medical student and citizen journalist from Germany, reminds us that mass media was misused as a tool for terror and destruction under Hilter. He believes that these techniques are now being used by mass media in democratic societies – “misuse of media is not a faraway phenomenon… one need only switch on the US propoganda channel, Fox News.” He argues that Fox News created a mood in the US to support the Iraq invasion, and asks whether Rupert Murdoch would have been able to make his argument for invading Iraq national policy if he’d only been a citizen reporter, not the owner of a media network. He asks whether the war on terror will be won by soliders, or by involved citizens, perhaps citizen reporters.
Pierre Joo, a Frenchman of Korean descent, tells us he discovered OhmyNews while researching CyWorld – the Korean equivalent of MySpace. The best source of information he was able to find was on OhmyNews, written by a CyWorld addict… who could be a better source than a journalist who was deeply attached to the online world? Pierre wonders why citizen journalism has been so succesful in Korea and less succesful in France. He believes it has to do with the educational system of both countries – while South Korean students learn to take standardized tests, French students are trained to write essays for four hours at a time. The French don’t need entertainment on weekends, he tell us – they get together and argue. The French press – which is suffering financially – has a great deal of diversity. But citizens already have a lot of ways of speaking, so may be less interested in becoming citizen journalists, while Korean people grasp OhmyNews as “a chance to speak in the midst of massively conservative media.” Perhaps participatory media could help slow the decline of French mainstream media.