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Ted2008: Debating the Role of the Media

In a first for TED, BBC is hosting The World Debate live from Monterey. This is something not uncommon at other global conferences like the World Economic Forum at Davos. But it’s new here, and the room full of TEDsters are getting used to the idea that the events in the room are live, to 85 million people worldwide, and will be streamed, recorded, and broadcast via audio to the amazing array of places BBC reaches.

The subject of the debate is, “How True is Your Worldview”, a bit of a metaquestion. It’s a bit more specific than that – how much do people trust the media, old or new, and how does the media shape our view of the world. Matt Frei, who is BBC’s lead Washington correspondent.

Frei begins introducing his panel, but has to vamp as his producers tell him there’s a technical issue preventing the feed from going out to London. As he vamps, there’s good natured heckling from the audience near me. “Yes, we’ve got a live feed from London. No sorry, it’s from Scotland (switching accents) and I can’t understand a focking thing.” He goes on, cracking Bush jokes and making fun of the technical problems at a technology conference. Eventually he stands, and the room realizes that it’s Robin Williams, who strides down, takes the stage and delivers a standup routine. Not every joke hits, but goddam, it takes an amazing mix of intellect and self-confidence to work this room with no preparation at all…

Frei tries to retake control, but finds himself completely tongue-tied following Williams. “Robert DeNiro is next,” he offers. When he recovers, he introduces Sergei Brin – the fourth youngest billionaire on the planet; Carl Bernstein – the legendary journalist; Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda – who’s been charged with sedition for his critique of the Ugandan government; Professor Dan Gilbert, a leading happiness scholar; and Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan.

Leading off, Frei asks Sergei Brin how he gets his morning news. He tells us he’s shifted from Google News to Google Reader, giving him a mix of traditional news sources and blogs. “One of the benefits of a newspaper is that you can flip through faster than going from one webpage to another” – Google Reader is getting closer to that experience. He admits to subscribing to the Sunday New York Times.

Andrew Mwenda admits to watching television, listening to radio as he drives. Noor reads newspapers and gets news via her cellphone. Bernstein lists major newspapers as well as the Drudge Report. And Gilbert reads enough online to discover he needs to run and get the New York Times.

Given all these news sources, Frei wonders if the news we’re getting is any better or any worse. Noor refers to American television and argues that the quality of television news has gotten much worse. “The news that so many people in the United States are seeing is very different from news the rest of the world is seeing, ” especially on Iraq, Palestine and other key parts of the world. Gilbert offers some of the benefits of the Internet – it tells you what news was news four minutes ago.

Bernstein points out that there are a huge number of possible sources today, including Comedy Central. Within that diversity, he believes that the New York Times and Washington Post are doing as high quality journalism as has every been done. And the Internet provides both an unprecedented depth of available information, as well as endless misinformation. “When I read the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, I’m reading great daily magazines that have never existed at any other moment in time. And then I go online and read critiques of the stories in these papers and they’re pretty good too.” The challenge is maintaining the high standards of professional journalism in all these different media.

Mwenda points out that mainstream media doesn’t cover Africa, in print, in television or on the web. When it’s covered, “journalist behave like scavengers of disaster”. When coverage of disaster captures the truth, it’s only capturing part of the reality. They’re missing all the stories of ordinary people doing amazing things. “When people like Sergei Brin think about Africa, they think in terms of giving aid, not in terms of opportunity.”

Brin points out that when you look at the entire internet, you generally have thousands of bad sources, but a few sources that might be better than mainstream media sources. He offers Ars Technica as an example of a site that, in its field, is more authoritative than the New York Times. Asked about this question of authority, Queen Noor mentions that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are providing a much more balanced view of news, including American and Arab voices and footage from the ground on local events, as compared to networks like CNN, and gaining incredible popularity as a result. Asked about the possibility of people using the Internet for spreading terror, she admits that we’ve expanded from 6 jihadi websites in 2002 to 6,000 today. On the other hand, people are finding ways to report human rights abuses using mobile phones and blogs.

Bernstein is a huge Google fan, pointing to Google Alerts – he’s got a sister in law who works in Kenya, and he subscribes to a daily alert on Kenya, and agrees with Mwenda that mainstream Africa coverage is week. “We have to find filters.” The job of a professional journalist, as he sees it, is to filter this universe of information, through an advocacy lens or through a lens of journalistic truth. This might be on a website, on paper, or as an NGO. “What I would like to see if for those of us in old media to take these tools and take the best of what we have from the old environment.”

Frei asks Gilbert whether all this information makes us unhappy. Gilbert points out that, in a commercial society, all this media is competing for out attention. “The brain was not evolved to care about trade deficits and global warming… It was evolved to care about social hierarchies, which is why Paris Hilton is important to us…” In trying to win the attention battle, we end up creating what Bernstein calls “idiot culture”.

Mwenda points out that new media technology makes it difficult for governments to undermine democratic expression. “The government prevents you from opening a radio station – you open it online. The government prevents you from printing a paper – you open it online.” He points to ways people in the developing world have used phones to monitor elections – confronted with stories about Kenyans using mobile phones to spread hate, he admits its a double edged sword, but says that the upside is much stronger than the downside. And he takes a swipe at parachute journalism in Africa, arguing that reporters who cover stories like Kenyan violence often lack context to understand the situation. They should hire local reporters instead, he argues.

Bernstein reminds us that there are about a dozen media oligarchies – Time Warner, News Corp – that control what media people in the west see, to a much greater extent than in previous generations. He echoes Mwenda’s point, quoting his sister in law who lives in Kenya, and arguing that oversimplified reporting from Kenya has aggravated tensions there. Queen Noor argues that the Iraq War is a possible result of the abdication of the media to provide context for how the invasion would be perceived on the ground. People in the Arab and Muslim world are profoundly conscious of the Western media and believe they’re being demeaned and misunderstood in that media.

Bernstein seizes on the word “context”, which has been used extensively by Mwenda and by Noor. This is the job of good journalism, he feels, and this can be the danger of internet media. So much online media is fueled by range, fueled by agenda – how do you create space for context in this new space? Mwenda tells a good story about a visitng friend – the friend wanted to take photos of poor neighborhoods. Mwenda took him to some high-end suburbs of Kampala, and to the hills where you can view the skyline. His friend complained – “I want to photograph real people.” This perception that wealthy Africans aren’t real is a prejudice that western media can often convey, whether they’re conscious of this broken context or not.

Brin argues that reading blogs as well as mainstream media can help add context to news from Iraq – he references Salam Pax as helping create context for news from Iraq immediately after the invasion.

Gilbert is worried about people’s capacity to consume bad news. He offers an analogy to people’s eating habits: We know people have an unlimited appetite for fat and sugar. We evolved that way. We don’t want to take away anyone’s right to make high-fat icecream. The government has tried to level the playing field – information labels on food. We need to do as much for our information diet as we do for our physical diet. (This is an excellent idea, and something we’re trying to do at Berkman in the next few months – stay tuned.)

Mwenda points out that “sometimes supply creates its own demand” – when networks show nothing but Britney Spears, people get the message that this is the important story. Frei, noting that every mention bashing Britney gets a cheer from the audience asks, “Short of introducing a law to prevent coverage of Britney Spears, should there be government restrictions on what can be covered?” Mwenda suggests that there’s a balance between pure market journalism and professional ethics and standards. Berstein reminds us that the most thing that journalist do is decide what is news. Noor seizes on this point and mentions that there’s a strong responsibility to do close reporting before conflicts, helping set the stage for intractible conflict.

Asked if there’s any form of internet filtering Brin would accept, he points out that Pakistan managed to shut YouTube off worldwide for a short period and that thousands of states, nations and entities. This landscape is incredibly hard to navigate because so many different entities are adding filters to the internet.

Brin is tossed an excellent question about the power of algorithms in shaping news in the future. He argues that more algorithms means more choice – you can choose the news you want to see and read about. Frei jumps on this and asks the Daily Me question – isn’t something lost when you’re reading only the stories you choose. Bernstein jumps to his defense – you can always go to the New York Times frontpage and see what the Times thinks is important. His fear for the net is speed – politicians are taking advantage of the speed of the news cycle dictated by the Internet. Brin argues that the Internet has actually made it possible to dig more deeply into stories and follow them over a much longer time.

Mwenda helps bring us back to earth – despite the importance of the Internet, mainstream media is what sets the agenda and dictates the way we understand the world. Seeing Forest Whitaker in the audience, he asks the oscar-winning actor, “What was your perception of Uganda before coming to the country.” Whitaker admits he had only an iconic impression of the country – the icon of the dictator Amin. Once he got to Uganda, his image was changed profoundly, not just by talking to people who had very different views of Amin, but by eating the food, seeing the landscape and challenging all his preconceptions. Brin argues that we can now read about Uganda online, on Mwenda’s site and in other places.

Is it realistic to expect computers to build bridges, in a world where fewer than 1 of 5 have access to computers? Brin points out that increasingly rich information is available on mobile phones, even via text messages sent to obtain crop prices. Mwenda points out that news outlets in Africa have taken to marketing their news via mobile phones.

Noor ends with a plug for Pangea Day, an international event that will allow people from all over the world to watch films from around the world on a single day.

5 thoughts on “Ted2008: Debating the Role of the Media”

  1. I find TED fascinating… I was wondering if Ethan Zuckerman was Micheal Zuckerman’s son of WAHS and the Adaptive Ski Program. If so,… Tell your father hello from me.


  2. Pingback: TED 2008: Debating the Role of the Media : The Sudanese Thinker

  3. Hi Ethan

    Very interesting post. I agree with a lot of what Andrew had to say on coverage on Africa. This might be a bit of self congratulations but I do think that initiatives like http://www.kubatana.net can and do make a difference to the accessibility of varied information – not always the doom and gloom and opportunistic “parachute” reporting that was commented on. By aggregating information published by civil society it makes accessing often valuable information much easier. Also our convergence of new media on the Kubatana platform is impressive: web site/electronic advocacy/blogs/sms . . .

    We’d really like to replicate the Kubatana model in other African countries but there seems to be little donor support for this . . . any IDEAS!!

    Warm wishes from Zimbabwe.


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