On the Media

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ON THE MEDIA: VR Becoming an Actual Reality for Documentarians

By: CASEY FREEMAN HOWE      APRIL 18, 2016      IDA

From Condition One’s 'In the Presence of Animals' (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Photo: Casey Brown. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

From Condition One’s ‘In the Presence of Animals’ (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Photo: Casey Brown. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Following a brief test run in the 1990s, virtual reality has rapidly taken hold over the past few years as a potent tool for exploring the possibilities of storytelling—first among the gaming community, then among such early adaptors as Nonny de la Pena, who started in journalism. The Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and SXSW have all incorporated VR programming into their respective new media mixes, and the medium hit the mainstream in Fall 2015 when The New York Times distributed Google Cardboard viewers to 1.5 million subscribers to experience what The Old Gray Lady has to offer through the double lens.

But what goes into producing and editing these VR projects? How far removed is the process from the skill set required for making “flatties”? Documentary tracked down some of leading purveyors of this new form to share their experiences and the specific challenges of working in this immersive medium.

Danfung Dennis, founder and CEO of Condition One.

Danfung Dennis, founder and CEO of Condition One.

For Danfung Dennis, former war photographer and an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker for his documentary Hell and Back Again, virtual reality is a natural transition. “I’m following in the tradition of bearing witness to suffering,” says Dennis. “It’s been a continuation from photojournalism to documentary film and now into virtual reality.”

His VR production company, Condition One, is currently circulating a number of pieces. For each of these, the goal is to create “presence”—the feeling of being at the scene. But how to achieve and describe that presence? That’s something documentary filmmakers working in VR are still experimenting with.

“We’re no longer trying to work within a frame,” says Dennis. “So the techniques and the storytelling, the cinematography, the editing—all of that’s for a flat frame. That frame is now gone. So, while I still think the sense of ethics and the [documentary] methods are still valid, the actual techniques of storytelling are very different. We’re now thinking a lot more about space and proximity to the viewer.”

From Condition One’s 'In the Presence of Animals' (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Condition One’s ‘In the Presence of Animals’ (Dirs.: Danfung Dennis, Casey Brown, Phil McNally). Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Dennis conceptualizes that space in concentric rings of near field, medium field and far field. “Far field is important to establish the sense of place,” he explains. “Medium field adds depth and cues that this is a real environment. But the near-field presence, which is the hardest to capture, is what evokes this powerful sense at a deep level of your brain that this is real.”

He explains that though the near-field environment has the most payoff in terms of presence, it is also the most difficult to execute technically, mostly due to seams and shadows. But like any documentary medium, Dennis believes that viewers are willing to forgive some imperfect shots if the content is powerful.

For example, In the Presence of Animals, one of Condition One’s experimental short pieces, contains a key moment where a bison walks directly up to the camera and the viewer can see its eye and experience the immensity of the animal. “It’s one of the most broken shots we’ve ever put out,” Dennis admits. “The exposure changes, the seam changes, it disappears for a second. But in the end it didn’t really matter because people, when they came out, just said, ‘I was next to this massive bison.’ They weren’t saying, ‘Oh, I saw the seams, or I saw this, or I saw a tripod.’ There’s no way to remove a shadow from a moving animal. And so you see the tripod shadow fall on the animal. These are all things that would be nice if we could completely remove them, but if the presence is there, you can get away with a lot of those errors. But that said, we were really aiming for the highest-quality stitching and seamless images without any of those small image-quality errors.”

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s 'Waves of Grace', commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s ‘Waves of Grace’, commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

 

Gabo Arora, senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, and, through Vrse.works, director and producer, with Chris Milk, of the UN-commissioned 'Clouds Over Syria' and 'Waves of Grace'.

Gabo Arora, senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, and, through Vrse.works, director and producer, with Chris Milk, of the UN-commissioned ‘Clouds Over Syria’ and ‘Waves of Grace’.

Gabo Arora, a senior advisor and filmmaker at the United Nations, is also one of the “creators” withVrse.works, a virtual reality studio. He directed, with Vrse.works creative director Chris Milk, the UN-commissioned Clouds Over Sidra and Waves of Grace, two powerful pieces that take on the refugee and Ebola crisis, respectively. Arora has spent over 15 years doing humanitarian work in disaster and conflict zones and thinks VR is an ideal medium for social impact work because it “levels the distance between the subject and viewer, giving a more equal exchange. With less distance is more understanding and more engagement.

“VR is also less dominated by information sharing,” he continues. “It is more about making you feel. The concern is not as much about, ‘Did you understand?’ but [more about], ‘Do you feel present?’ A storyteller in VR has to communicate much more subtly, which allows for more reflection, more poetry, as there is more experimentation.”

Both of Arora’s acclaimed virtual reality pieces take on issues that received extensive mainstream media coverage, but he believes VR can take viewers beyond the “one-dimensional and often sensational” approach of traditional media. “Reality is often much more nuanced and complex, and often times ordinary,” he says. “I really felt VR could capture what was missing. Somehow if you could really be there and share in the experience with the people, at their level, I thought it would be compelling and new.”

The newness and compelling nature of VR, however, may be a double-edged sword. “I do worry that filmmakers—and journalists in particular—may make the mistake of believing that VR is enough, that somehow the technology will amplify their cause because the technology is so compelling,” Arora explains. “That just won’t last, but [it] is an easy trap to fall into. You have to see it as something that is harder, not easier, than traditional ways of doing things.”

“Story is [still] king,” Arora maintains. “But how you tell it has to be completely different because you cannot rely on the same tropes as before. You can’t rely on jump cuts and close-ups; you really need to let things breathe a bit more. The pacing is also very hard, and what you think would work, when you put on a headset, doesn’t always work. It either feels too rushed or slow. The rhythm of it is still something that is hard to figure out.”

Filmmaker Lucy Walker, who made 'A History of Cuban Dance' through Vrse.works.

Filmmaker Lucy Walker, who made ‘A History of Cuban Dance’ through Vrse.works.

“One of the most exciting aspects of VR is that the visual vocabulary hasn’t been settled upon—it’s still being invented,” notes Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Lucy Walker, another creator in the Vrse.works collective. She is particularly interested in camera placement, choreography and how height and distance from the subject affects the experience, and says that she loves placing the camera so that “there are multiple points of interest within the 360-degree field of view.”

For her piece A History of Cuban Dance—a story she chose because Cuba is a place that people are eager to visit and “VR is the closest thing we have to a teleportation machine”—Walker and her team “experimented with the degree to which we inserted ourselves into the midst of the action. In some shots the camera is a bit removed and takes in the dancers from roughly the position that a dance audience would conventionally observe the performance. In others, we play with the idea of entering the space of the dance.”

Part of the appeal of the medium for Walker is that “it’s possible to shoot in a very low-key way that is perfect for documentary filmmakers. One of the wonders of VR is that, as cutting-edge as it is, we’re able to shoot with a small crew. The crew size varied from just myself alone, for one shot only, to myself and a DP, for much of it, to occasionally having a sound recordist and more help as well.”

From Lucy Walker’s 'A History of Cuban Dance'. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From Lucy Walker’s ‘A History of Cuban Dance’. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Though Walker has recently started using cable cams, advanced rigging and even “primitive” monitoring, she says A History of Cuban Dance was made using a grip kit that consisted of little more than “a c-stand and some gaffer tape.”

That is changing quickly, however. “None of the shoots I’ve done resemble one another,” Walker notes. “A month doesn’t go by without new iterations of the camera gear or stitching software. I’ve filmed with a different rig every month since September when I filmed A History of Cuban Dance.”

So what does the rapidly evolving production process for live action virtual reality look like? At the most basic level, pairs of stereoscopic cameras capture footage in 360 degrees. There are commercial options for rigs beginning to emerge, and Condition One and Vrse.works both work with bespoke rigs that have been in development for years.

Part of the pre-production process is figuring out where the crew is going to hide, or alternatively, how the crew is going to be a part of the shot. Though filmmakers can shoot with plates and capture 180 degrees at a time (especially since each shot will be worked on in post-production anyway), most seem to think that shooting 360 degrees is preferable for the fast-paced, dynamic work that occurs during documentary production. It is also perhaps the more ethical choice.

The footage from all of the cameras is then imported into editing software and stitched together, beginning with a rough stitch. Once the final sequence is chosen, the fine stitching is a lengthy, tedious process.

“The seams are one of the first technical challenges,” Dennis explains. “These seams will break that sense of presence, and eliminating them can be a very time-consuming process in post-production. An artist goes in and rotoscopes, compositing and trying to match every pixel with the next frame. And with 16 cameras, that can take weeks, if not months, for a single shot. So developing the software to do that became the next critical component of the pipeline to assemble these videos together in a seamless, stereoscopic 360-degree video.

From Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s 'Waves of Grace', commissioned for Vrse.works by the United Nations.

From Lucy Walker’s ‘A History of Cuban Dance’. Photo: Lucy Walker, Juan Carlos Zaldivar. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

“Then playing the stereoscopic videos back is very demanding,” Dennis continues. “Computationally demanding. These are 4K videos. Once they’ve been stitched, they’re at 48 frames per second. And that we know is the bare minimum for VR. Traditional film is shot at 24 for that kind of filmic look. We’ve kind of gotten used to that. But in VR, if you shoot at 24 frames per second, it looks stuttery. It looks like you’re looking at video. So we then think, 60 frames, 90 frames, and eventually 120 and up will be required to really get the smooth, natural feeling of movement in VR.”

Sound is another critical component, Dennis points out. “We’re designing the capture and the post-production workflow to achieve realistic spatial audio. We use four microphones, mini- shotguns, offset by 90-degrees. And then we run them through software that mimics that human ear and the shape of the head to create these binaural audio tracks. And then we use a custom audio player to fix those four different audio tracks in space.”

Dennis says that using this audio production process makes it “so as you look around, the audio stays where it should be. It’s very subtle but extremely powerful in convincing the mind that this is a real experience.” Eventually, he thinks, the camera system and software technology will evolve far enough that one person could be shooting virtual reality in the field.

Animation is another production option for documentary filmmakers looking to explore the medium. All of VR pioneer Nonny de la Pena’s “immersive journalism” pieces use 3D animation, constructed using journalistic standards. For example, her piece Use of Force(about a border police brutality case) uses primary sources such as audio recordings from actual 911 calls and floor plans of the house where the incident took place to reconstruct the event as accurately as possible.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness', for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness’, for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Arnaud Colinart, a producer at AGAT Films/ExNihilo and one of the creative directors of the virtual reality component of the project Notes on Blindness, thinks that “animation and CGI gives the best performance in VR for now.” Notes on Blindness is based on the audio recordings of British professor of philosophy and theology John Hull, who documented his experience of going blind. The story was first conceived as a short film for New York Times Op-Docs in 2014, and directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton premiered a feature-length version of the film in this year’s New Frontiers competition at Sundance. With Amaury La Burthe from the French start-up Audiogaming, Colinart led the effort to create the accompanying virtual reality experience, called Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness.

“I think right now, virtual reality is at the same point as the birth of cinema, with the Lumière brothers and Train Pulling into Station,” Colinart asserts. “But just after that, you had Georges Méliès, who created A Trip to the Moon, which is sometimes considered the first narrative film because he used visual effects to create story. Now we see the birth of VR storytelling as more than just gadget or gimmick.”

The VR experience relies on Hull’s original audio recordings to guide the experience. Each chapter uses abstract 3D animation to explore the experience of going blind through a different memory. Making a virtual reality experience about blindness is perhaps a counterintuitive choice, but the emotional resonance of the experience suggests that virtual reality shows great potential for multisensory immersion.

From 'Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness' (Dirs.: Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe), the VR component of James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness.' (C) Ex Nihilo, Archer's Mark, ARTE France - 2016. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From ‘Notes on Blindness—Into Darkness’ (Dirs.: Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe), the VR component of James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness.’ (C) Ex Nihilo, Archer’s Mark, ARTE France – 2016. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

The filmmakers developed the experience using Unity, a multi-platform gaming development tool, and utilized the Agile method—an iterative, prototype-driven design process popular in software development. Colinart thinks there is a lot to borrow from software and video game-development, and that creating VR experiences in this manner will help accelerate the learning process for VR storytelling and its mise en scènevocabulary. “I think all stories can be told in VR, but we need to find the good way to do it,” Colinart maintains. “It’s like, you read books, and you say, ‘How can I adapt this in a movie?’ I think all books can be adapted, but you have to find the right way to adapt it to another way of telling the story; and I think it’s the same for VR. This is the start of this art of writing, as we discover little by little what VR can bring to storytelling.”

The Notes on Blindness experience uses chapters, a format in which Colinart sees great potential for VR because it mitigates some of the headset discomfort issues that may limit longer-form pieces. “Maybe we will have long-form stories, but they’ll be broken up into chapters and consumed that way,” he suggests.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s 'Notes on Blindness', for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

From James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s ‘Notes on Blindness’, for which Arnaud Colinart produced the VR component. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

Beyond the headset ergonomics, creating experiences that don’t induce motion sickness is another component of production that is new for most documentary filmmakers. While some VR reviewers have bemoaned the stationary camera in many pieces, Dennis argues that “the fastest way to make someone motion sick is to move the camera in an unstabilized way.” He thinks this will change as the medium advances and viewers develop “VR legs,” but for now he suggests that filmmakers start with a locked tripod.

Another issue Dennis sees is the presentation of virtual reality experiences. In film, he says, there is a strong viewing tradition. “Lights down. Someone introduces the director, they say few words, and they say, ‘Quiet, cell phones off,’ and then you watch the work.” In virtual reality, he says, “It’s put on this headset, and you jump in, then you jump out.”

The viewing presentation, Dennis notes, is particularly important for experiences like Condition One’s Factory Farm, which takes viewers into a factory farm and active slaughterhouse facility in Mexico. In it, viewers are guided by José Valle, the director of investigations at the advocacy organization Animal Equality. “Every time you move into a new environment, you ask, ‘Why am I here?'” Dennis says. “And with José, he’s doing his normal work. He is documenting abuse for his investigations. And so you get to be with him while he’s working, while he’s filming, gaining evidence. It is really helpful to have a guide, especially in this type of situation, which is so graphic and gut-wrenching. He gives you the courage to stay and watch it.”

Within the experience, Valle also gives warnings about the material ahead, telling viewers that they’re going to see very graphic footage, and warning them, “This is your last chance to leave.” It builds a level of trust in the guide, as the viewer has ample opportunity to remove the headset before entering the slaughterhouse.

Trust, Dennis says, is essential to this type of work. “He’s there with you. And he’s experiencing it. So in a way, you feel like you’ve got someone with you, and you’re not alone. You don’t want to run away.”

At Condition One’s Sundance exhibition, Valle was actually there to greet viewers in person as they came out of the VR experience. Dennis recounts how one viewer got through the entire experience and how she held it together until she saw him in person. “Then it just struck home: ‘That was real! He’s right here!'” The viewer burst into tears and shook Valle’s hand. “People were having really tremendously emotional responses and having a moral inquiry into their own actions, which I think is the power of VR.”

Casey Freeman Howe is a graduate fellow at the Center for Media and Social Impact in Washington, DC.

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ON THE MEDIA: What If African Media Reported US Elections Like Western Media Report on Africa?

By: Ndesanjo Macha            21 April 2016         GlobalVoices

 

A screenshot of footage, uploaded to YouTube by Storyful, of a protester who was assaulted by a Donald Trump supporter being restrained by police at a rally in North Carolina.

A screenshot of footage, uploaded to YouTube by Storyful, of a protester who was assaulted by a Donald Trump supporter being restrained by police at a rally in North Carolina.

Coverage of Africa by Western media often portray the continent in a negative light or in a simplistic manner, placing emphasis on conflict, corruption and tribal divisions. But Western media don’t adopt that same tone when they report on their own countries.

Following in the footsteps of Joshua Keating’s “If it happened there” series on US news magazine Slate, Tumblr user Ragamberi asked himself, “How would it sound, if African media reported US elections in the same tone as Western media report on polls in Africa and elsewhere?”

His answer became a post titled, “If It had Happened Over Here”. Here are a few excerpts of how he imagined African coverage of the contentious presidential race in the US might read.

Tribal violence

Pressure is mounting on the Obama regime to allow international observers and peacekeepers after tribal violence marred election campaigns in the troubled north American nation.

In Addis Ababa, an emergency meeting was called by African leaders to demand a return to rule of law in America, after pro-regime militants attacked a rally addressed by popular opposition leader Donald Trump in Chicago.

“Unless America allows independent international groups to monitor the poll and for peacekeepers to move in and restore order, the poll is a sham and cannot be declared free and fair,” the African Union said.

[…]

Explaining the weekend’s clashes, America experts – based at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, Southern Africa – say Illinois has longstanding, deep-seated ethnic and sectarian tensions that are sure to boil over if the Obama regime does not allow UN peacekeepers before the hotly contested polls in November.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has seen violence break out several times at his rallies. Trump in turn has used violent rhetoric in speeches and on social media:

Bernie Sanders is lying when he says his disruptors aren’t told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!

Voter fraud

The election has also been marred by reports of widespread voter fraud. Sanders has complained of voter fraud after a controversial narrow loss in the Iowa region to party rival Hillary Clinton, wife of former regime leader Bill.

Trump himself has claimed voter fraud in the region of Florida, raising serious concern in the international community about the credibility of the forthcoming poll.

Throughout the primaries race, which determines the candidate who will represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the presidential elections, accusations of fraud have been tossed around on both sides of the aisle, and voters have complained the system is unfair.

Attacks on media freedom

There are also concerns over blatant attacks on media freedom. The International Committee for the Protection of Journalists condemned attacks on journalists during the campaign.

A journalist for CBS News was arrested while reporting on clashes at a rally for Donald Trump in Chicago in March. A charge of resisting arrest was eventually dropped.

Read the full post here.

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ON THE MEDIA: 2016 World Press Freedom Index: a “deep and disturbing” decline in media freedom

April 13, 2016      RSF

The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will publish on 20 April, shows that there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels.

The 2016 edition of the World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders (RSF) will publish on 20 April, shows that there has been a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels. Ever since the 2013 index, Reporters Without Borders has been calculating indicators of the overall level of media freedom violations in each of the world’s regions and worldwide. The higher the figure, the worse the situation. The global indicator has gone from 3719 points last year to 3857 points this year, a 3.71% deterioration. The decline since 2013 is 13.6%.

The many reasons for this decline in freedom of information include the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of governments in countries such as Turkey and Egypt, tighter government control of state-owned media, even in some European countries such as Poland, and security situations that have become more and more fraught, in Libya and Burundi, for example, or that are completely disastrous, as in Yemen.

The survival of independent news coverage is becoming increasingly precarious in both the state and privately-owned media because of the threat from ideologies, especially religious ideologies, that are hostile to media freedom, and from large-scale propaganda machines. Throughout the world, “oligarchs” are buying up media outlets and are exercising pressure that compounds the pressure already coming from governments.

All of the Index’s indicators show a decline from 2013 to 2016. This is especially the case for infrastructure. Some governments do not hesitate to suspend access to the Internet or even to destroy the premises, broadcast equipment or printing presses of media outlets they dislike. The infrastructure indicator fell 16% from 2013 to 2016.

The legislative framework has registered an equally marked decline. Many laws have been adopted penalizing journalists on such spurious charges as “insulting the president,” “blasphemy” or “supporting terrorism.” Growing self-censorship is the knock-on effect of this alarming situation. The “media environment and self-censorship” indicator has fallen by more than 10% from 2013 to 2016.

Every continent has seen its score decline. The Americas have plunged 20.5%, above all as a result of the impact of physical attacks and murders targeting journalists in Mexico and Central America. Europe and the Balkans declined 6.5%, above all because of the growing influence of extremist movements and ultraconservative governments.

The Central Asia/Eastern Europe region’s already bad score deteriorated by 5% as a result of the increasingly glacial environment for media freedom and free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes.

Published by Reporters Without Borders annually since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries using the following criteria – pluralism, media independence, media environment and self-censorship, legislative environment, transparency, infrastructure, and abuses.

See the 2016 World Press Freedom Index on the RSF.org website from 20 April onwards.

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ON THE MEDIA: A new understanding: What makes people trust and rely on news

This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

trust-header

The meaning of trust in news

In order to refine the industry’s understanding of trust and develop actionable characteristics of a source, this study explores trust through its link to source reliance. Prior research shows that the way people define trustworthy news generally yields vague definitions that cannot be put into practice. However, people can readily identify the specific factors that lead them to rely or not rely on a particular news source. Some of these factors relate to trust (e.g. getting the facts right) and others likely do not (e.g. its content is entertaining).

In this study, we measure the reasons people rely on sources in order to provide insights into the importance they place on specific factors that might be related to trust. We then link these specific factors to more general principles of trust such as accuracy or completeness.

The chart below shows the traditional principles of trust on the left and their corresponding actionable factors on the right.

General Principle of Trust Specific and Actionable Factors Related to Trust
Completeness The reporting is in‑depth
It always has the latest news and information
It covers all the day’s events
Accuracy It presents expert sources and data
It gets the facts right
Balance It provides diverse points of view
It shares my point of view
I see my community and people like me in the reporting
Transparency I know and trust its journalists
It explains the way it gathers and reports news and information
Presentation and Design It’s concise and gets to the point
It is easy to find news and information I’m looking for
It uses visuals such as photos, videos, lists, or charts*
It allows people to comment on news and information*
The news and information include hyperlinks to get more information*
The site or app loads fast*
It works well on my mobile phone*
The ads do not interfere with getting news and information*
Convenience and Entertainment I can multitask or use it when I’m doing something else like household chores
It presents news and information in a way I can talk about it
It makes it entertaining
It’s a source I’ve always used

* The component applies only to digital sources

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

The research then dug deeper on these specific factors related to trust. To do so, we asked people what topics they follow most closely in the news. We then asked them to think about the sources they rely on for following those topics and then to name their favorite one. Finally, we asked them how important different qualities are when relying on that source for that topic.

This source‑specific approach allows us to get beyond general ideas, such as accuracy, and to isolate what a concept like accuracy means for people.

Inside the broader concept of completeness, for instance, we are able to test how important it is for people that the reporting is in‑depth, that it contains all the day’s news, or that it is always up to date with the latest results.

Inside the general and sometimes elusive principle of balance we are able to test how important it is for people to see differing points of view, views they agree with, or to see their community reflected in the coverage.

This approach also allows us to test the importance of certain modern presentation factors, such as navigability and use of visuals.

Overall, accuracy and completeness are the most-cited categories of trust

Past research had found that four or five main principles made up credibility or trust in the news: accuracy, balance, and fairness central among them. Some scholars broke fairness into additional parts, such as completeness and transparency. Others suggested concepts related to clarity or presentation.

In part so this new research can be compared to that older work, we test whether people recognize these traditional concepts today. At the most general level, we find Americans do still value these traditional and general concepts of news trustworthiness.

Americans rate accuracy as the most important general principle related to trust. Eighty‑five percent describe getting the facts right as an extremely or very important factor of a trustworthy source.

That is followed by completeness (providing all the important news and information), which 77 percent describe as very important.

A sizable majority (68 percent) also say transparency (the idea that news organizations explain the way they gather and report the news) is very important.

And 66 percent rate balance (reporting that provides different views) as a key factor of trustworthy sources.

Fewer Americans, but still nearly half, cite presentation (having a high quality and professional appearance) as a very important factor for trustworthiness.

But as we will see in a moment, those numbers change when people are asked to drill down into specific factors related to trust and other factors that lead them to rely on certain sources for different news topics.

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Accuracy and completeness are the most important principles of trust in a news source

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allAccuracyCompletenessTransparencyBalancePresentation0102030405060708090100

Data Source: Question: Thinking about the sources you consider trustworthy, how important is each of the following factors?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

Getting inside the broad categories of trust

The next step involves drilling deeper into the reasons why people rely on specific news sources.

We broke the five general trust principles — accuracy, balance, completeness, transparency, and presentation — into 12 actionable and specific factors related to trust. In doing so, we found that many of these 12 are important for why people rely on certain sources of news. Some are significantly more important than others.

We also look at four additional factors that relate to entertainment and convenience, which may be more important in an age of greater consumer choice.

The idea that a news organization should get the facts right is cited more than any other specific factor as vital. Fully 80 percent rate it extremely or very important.

Being up to date with the latest news and information — something related to completeness — emerges as the second biggest reason people rely on a specific source, at 76 percent.

Despite presentation falling lower on the list of more general principles people think make a news source trustworthy, a specific factor related to presentation — that a news account be concise and get to the point — ranks third overall (with 72 percent of respondents citing it as very important) when we asked people why they rely on a particular news source.

 

“As soon as I start getting outdated news (even if by a few hours) or find out they aren’t giving me the whole story, that’s when I start to go somewhere else for news,” said Zach, a younger, hard news consumer.

Another element of accuracy — that a news account cites expert sources and data — ties for fourth among the 12 specific factors related to trust we explore. Fully 70 percent describe this as very important. Seventy percent also cite navigability — that is, easy to find the news and information you are looking for — as critical.

In other words, having something be navigable, clear, and easy to use is a key part of whether people rely on and value it.

Nearly as important to people as clarity and navigability is depth. Fully 67 percent cite that the reporting is in‑depth as extremely or very important. On its face, people wanting news to be in‑depth might reflect a contradictory preference to their desire for news that is concise. It may also reflect, however, a desire for news that is in‑depth, but no longer than absolutely necessary.

The three specific factors Americans are least likely to report as being very important are that a source makes the news entertaining (38 percent), that they see their community or people like them in the reporting (36 percent), and that it shares their point of view (32 percent).

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Accuracy

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt gets the facts rightIt presents expert sources and data020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Completeness

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt always has the latest news andinformationThe reporting is in-depthIt covers all the day’s events020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Presentation

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt’s concise and gets to the pointIt is easy to find news andinformation you’re looking for020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Transparency

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allYou know and trust its journalistsIt explains the way it gathers andreports news and information020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Balance

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt provides diverse points of viewYou see your community and peoplelike you in the reportingIt shares your point of view020406080100

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

  1. DATA
  2. CHART

Convenience or entertainment

Which factors matter?

Extremely/very importantSomewhat importantNot very/not important at allIt presents news and information in away you can talk about itIt’s a source you’ve always usedYou can multitask or use it whenyou’re doing something elseIt makes it entertaining020406080100It makes it entertainingSomewhat important: 36%

Data Source: Question: Think about why you rely on [NAMED SOURCE] for the coverage of [NEWS TOPIC FOLLOWED]. How important is each of the following for you?

MEDIA INSIGHT PROJECT

Breaking news is different — transparency becomes more important

The qualitative research conducted as part of the study (a combination of ethnography and focus groups) also indicated something else: The importance of certain components of trust may vary depending on whether a story is breaking news or is coverage of an ongoing trend or issue.

In focus groups, people said they understand that not all the facts may be known during a breaking news event such as a natural disaster, mass shooting, or terrorist act. When there are conflicting accounts about what is happening, people even said they understand if some of the information presented may not be true.

In those instances, some people raised the idea that transparency from a source about what is “factual and verified” versus what is the reporter’s theory or speculation is more important than immediate accuracy.

People also said that during breaking news they are more likely to look at multiple sources to try to find the latest information.

“When a story breaks, I’m flipping back and forth between channels because I need to know if anything developed that I didn’t hear about,” said David, a younger, hard news consumer. “And I’m on my phone, I’m on social at the same time.”

People’s news behavior and expectations change as news stories progress and become less ambiguous. Getting the facts right returns as the most important component in their determinations of trust. “After the fact, I have higher standards because people have time to do due diligence,” said Drew, a younger, hard news consumer.

In other words, among the issues that determine what makes a news account trustworthy is timing — or where an unfolding story stands and how much time there has been for reporting.

Read more on the original site.

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ON THE MEDIA: INTERVIEW: Citizen journalists in Syria ‘risking their lives’ for news

13 Apr 2016   By: Tristan Martin  Reuters

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim poses for a portrait at the office of Index on Censorship, an NGO that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, in London, Britain April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

Syrian journalist Zaina Erhaim poses for a portrait at the office of Index on Censorship, an NGO that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, in London, Britain April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Thomson Reuters Foundation/Tristan Martin

LONDON, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A series of short films, “Syria’s Rebellious Women,” by Zaina Erhaim tells the stories of women who stepped into positions of leadership and responsibility usually reserved for men.

If such remarkable women went undocumented, the Syrian filmmaker says, “the male winners will be writing the history, and the heroines will be forgotten.”

Erhaim, being honored with a 2016 Freedom of Expression award from Index on Censorship, has trained more than 100 citizen journalists in Syria and helped establish a number of independent newspapers and magazines.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she discussed their challenges and how Syrians carry on despite the war and chaos around them.

THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION: At the beginning of the Syrian conflict, there were many foreign journalists reporting from the country. As they began to leave, what kind of space did this open up for Syrian journalists?

ERHAIM: It created the need for Syrians to do the journalism work themselves and to be citizen journalists. But sadly, this didn’t make the citizen journalists credible enough for the international media to take them seriously and deal with them as actual journalists.

It’s very sad to see that an agency is dealing with the same citizen journalist for four years, taking all their credible news from him, but when it comes to payment or to health insurance, or to considering him as a correspondent, they don’t.

TRF: What were your aims with the training courses you ran in Syria?

ERHAIM: When the revolution started, many of my friends who had no experience in journalism at all, they started looking for a journalist that they can trust. I decided that I’m going to do my best to give them those skills that I gained so they could be taken seriously.

They’re risking their lives so that this news can go out.

So what I have been trying to do, mainly, is just to help them be more professional and be taken seriously.

TRF: What challenges do female citizen journalists in particular face in Syria?

ERHAIM: I think movement is a big thing. You always need a male guardian to be able to move. At checkpoints you’re going to be asked, ‘Where is your guardian?’ If you’re seen alone on the street, they would look like, ‘Why is she moving on her own?’

For me as a trainer, I had to do lots of efforts to be taken seriously by the male trainees, like ‘How could a woman know better than a man?’

And everything that the woman is doing is much more in the spotlight, compared to the man. The smallest mistake she makes would have a huge impact, while a man could kill someone on the street by mistake and no one would question him.

TRF: What do you think will happen to the status of women when the war is over?

ERHAIM: I believe when a woman goes to the street and starts working, and being financially independent, it’s impossible to get her back to be a housewife waiting for her husband to give her cash. Many of them have become opinion leaders.

But I think for regular women, especially in the last two years where the society has become very militarised, they had this kind of ‘We need to stay at home, we’re too afraid, our children are not secure.’ So it became more and more closed.

Those few activists who are still active, they are trying to break these barriers, they are trying to get these women out and to tell them that like us, you are also capable of doing things.

TRF: One of the striking things about your series of short documentary films is the humour. How do Syrians carry on under such difficult conditions?

ERHAIM: Humour is a huge part in our daily lives. We even make jokes of death, of anything you wouldn’t imagine, like torture. We mock ourselves, we mock our fears. I think this is one of our ways of resisting and going on. Otherwise, we would really become much more insane than we are already.

We live, we go for trips, we go for picnics, although on the last picnic I went to, we had three snipers who were on the Aleppo castle. We were exposed to a machine gun – an M16 – but we just had a picnic. We hid among the grass. We had lots of food and drinks, and we enjoyed the picnic.

TRF: There is a whole generation in Syria now that has never known peace. What future do you see for these children?

ERHAIM: The most frightening scene for me is when you see how comfortable they are dealing with death, with graves. Like a kid was playing on his father’s grave in one of the parks in Aleppo city, and then he found some grasses on it, and he cut some of them and said, “Mama, could we put that on the salad?”

The whole idea that you are so at ease with your father’s tomb, and you could just eat something that’s been planted on it. I really fear what these kids are going to be doing in the future.

(Reporting by Tristan Martin, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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AFGHANISTAN/ON THE MEDIA: A FLICKERING TRUTH

Dir: Pietra Brettkelly
New Zealand / Afghanistan / 2015 / 91mins

We’re delighted to announce a Q&A with director Pietra Brettkelly, via skype, on Saturday 30 April following the screening at 18:30. Click here to book.

As Afghanistan teeters on the edge of an unpredictable future, A Flickering Truth unwraps the world of three dreamers, the dust of 100 years of war and the restoration of 8000 hours of film archive.

Afghanistan’s rich film history might well have been lost forever, if not for the brave custodians revealed in this doc, who risked their lives to conceal films from the Taliban regime. The journey through thousands of hours of dusty film reels yields new surprises every day. Watching rediscovered material sparks youthful recollections among the archive staff – of the films they saw or made, and of the society they have lost. As the caretakers thread old projectors with film from unmarked reels, the country’s history comes alive with images of former leaders, beloved actresses, and landmarks that have since been destroyed.

A Flickering Truth is a testament to the urgency and necessity of film preservation.

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ON THE MEDIA: A serious problem the news industry does not talk about

Ask anyone working in a newsroom what they think of their audience, and you’ll hear a variety of answers. Over the past couple of years, Andrew Haeg and I have been asking that very question of hundreds of reporters, editors and producers in newsrooms around the world. I’m not one to manufacture an emergency, but the answers we’re hearing are pretty troubling. What they’re saying points to a very serious problem:

The culture of journalism breeds disdain for the people we’re meant to be serving, i.e., the audience.

Before we dive into specifics, first a little context about us and why we find this so troubling. Andrew Haeg is a former journalist who runs a company called GroundSource, and I’m a former journalist who runs a company calledHearken. We both left great jobs in great newsrooms to pioneer new forms and tools for audience engagement. Why? Because of what we think about audiences: they’re amazing, they’re underappreciated, and they can be of incredible benefit to newsrooms if they’re given the right conditions to shine. We’ve witnessed audience members go beyond the decency of polite and productive comments to send helpful news tips, share personal stories that humanize difficult subjects, contribute original story ideas that go on to win awards, to name a few. (See the bottom of this post for plenty more examples.)

We recognize that the world is no longer top-down. We want to help newsrooms recognize that, too. We’re focused on evolving new models and tools for newsrooms to partner with the incredible people in their communities, rather than toss content down at them from the mountaintop, hoping they’ll like it, share it, come back for more and maybe one day pay for it if we need them to (by asking nicely or threatening to shut it off). Thing is, there is no mountaintop anymore. Newsrooms no longer have a lock on the information people need and want to live their lives.

We believe the survival and relevance of the news industry depends on newsrooms’ ability to build meaningful relationships with the people they serve. That’s why it’s so troubling to hear reporters, editors, and managers alike have such disdain for their audiences. In conversations with newsrooms, we’ve witnessed this disdain range from subtle annoyance to straight-up hatred. The following is adapted from a recent conversation between Andrew and I exploring this culture of disdain, how it got to be this way, and what can be done to shift it.

How we’ve witnessed it

Brandel: In about two-thirds of the meetings I’ve had with newsrooms, someone in the room, often a manager, editor or some other higher-up says something along the lines of, “If we gave the audience what they wanted, they’d ask for crap!” Or “Our audience isn’t very smart, they probably wouldn’t have any good ideas.” Or, the big doozy, and the inspiration for this post, said by a manager during a meeting at a highly respected, hugely award-winning news outlet: “Our audience is a bunch of idiots and assholes. Why exactly would we want to hear more from them than we already do?”

Haeg: I had a colleague who referred to the audience as the “great, unwashed masses.” It was always said for laughs, and it was funny in a hard-bitten, grizzled news veteran kind of way. But that always stuck in my craw, and I realized that he was actually expressing what many, maybe most journalists felt. Spend any time in a newsroom, and listen to the tone with which people refer to the public — whether they’re commenters, or tweeters, or callers to talk shows. It’s as if we’re the sentries at the gate, keeping the zombies from overtaking the little civilization we’ve built (clearly I’ve been watching too much of The Walking Dead).

And the more I thought about this attitude journalists hold, the more I was like: Well of course they feel that way! Journalists mainly hear from “the public” when they’ve gotten something wrong, or when someone with time on their hands and an axe to grind finds the reporter’s phone or email. And when reporters go out “into the field” (which in and of itself evokes a kind of anthropological distance), they often encounter humanity at its worst. Now do that day in, day out, return to the office, commiserate with colleagues, develop some inside jokes, and voila! You have a culture. Now when the freshies come through the door on their first day at work, they absorb almost instantly the internal values of the place.

Brandel: Exactly. When the bulk of feedback journalists get is from people complaining or telling them that they suck, how can it not take a toll? What worries me is what happens over time. It can lead journalists to believe those vocal few with hot words are the audience. Not a small handful, but representative of everyone.

Ways of dismantling disdain for audience

Brandel: A helpful view I keep returning to is from this epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who works to prevent gun violence through treating it like a disease. He says when people feel anger, it’s actually a secondary form of sadness. The primary emotion is sadness, but it presents as anger. I can’t help but think that if you unpack the anger news folks can have toward their audience, you’d uncover sadness. It’s sadness that the public doesn’t understand or respect how much work and consideration goes into good reporting, sadness that they can’t always do their best work with ferocious daily demands, sadness that someone who they’re ultimately trying to help and serve thinks they are terrible at their jobs, or a terrible person. Regardless if you’re a journalist in the state of sadness or anger, changing the relationship with a person or a group you see as adversarial takes a great deal of perspective.

Haeg: Changing from within is really, really hard. It takes strong leaders, it takes people willing to try new ways of working, it takes the space and the resources to reframe and rethink the work we do. There’s actually a formula for change that speaks to what’s needed. I won’t go too much into it, except to say that you need a shared sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, a vision for the future and concrete next steps for what you’ll do starting now. If you lack any one of those, resistance will always be stronger than the forces for change. ALWAYS. As one of my professors during my Knight fellowship at Stanford told me, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

But I do think the current state of relations between newsrooms and communities can’t persist, and to a large extent, economic and technological forces are making sure of that. In some ways, I see a parallel to the calls for police reform: moving from a culture of cops as warriors to cops as members of the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve.

One model has you out dressed for battle, treating the community as a threat; the other sees the public as just like us. Which is the more effective approach in the long run?

Now of course, we can’t have journalists on every corner. But technology does allow us to extend our reach. And that’s why I’m building GroundSource — to enable community-minded news organizations to engage in a way that’s positive; manageable and efficient; shapes good, grounded journalism; and builds relationships of trust and loyalty with the community.

But for GroundSource or Hearken to be of any use, we first have to ask ourselves this question: To what extent do we as journalists and news organizations feel a responsibility to our community? It seems we’ve gotten out of the business of taking pride in our communities and instead have doubled-down on clicks and shares as measures of our efficacy. Of course we need to pay the bills, but our long-term viability is tied more to the quality of the community we can build around us, not whether we can trick someone who clicked on a story about crime to read one about Britney Spears’ fabulous new abs. I exaggerate. Or DO I?

If our goal becomes building relationships and communities, then we’ll forego the digital sleight of hand and instead provide experiences that make people want to come back, and participate, and do it again because it felt good and it meant something. Because it helped — even if in a tiny way — make the place we live in better.

Brandel: Could not agree more. But how to help nudge newsrooms toward this vision? In the short term, I’ve been pondering ways to help dismantle that notion that “audiences are a bunch of idiots and assholes.” So here’s a handy flowchart that journalists can flash whenever colleagues start to be haters:

Brandel: I mean, we know rationally that treating any group as monolithic is at the very least, inaccurate, and at the very worst, dangerous. (“Fill in the blank are terrorists!” “Fill in the blank are evil!” “Fill in the blank are stupid!”) Journalists of course hate being painted with any broad brush like this, too, and we hear it all the time. “The media is … lazy, biased, corrupt, etc.”

A great quote that sums this up was brought to my attention by Adrienne Debigare, who commented on another post with this line from Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

So how does the news industry begin to treat audiences as individuals instead of a mass? Will it be by using more tools and scraping data that shows what’s trending, what everyone is talking about, viral reach scores, etc? Nope. If anything, that puts us at an even further distance from the very human task of getting to understand people. I love this line from Jeff Jarvis in his book Geeks Bearing Gifts: “Knowing people as individuals and community — no longer as a mass — will allow us to build better services and new forms of news.”

I think dismantling the disdain for audience will require hard work of news outlets actually getting to know their communities as made up of real, individual, wonderful and wonderfully complex people. Newsrooms need to assume that their audience is capable of more, and then create the conditions for that assumption to be proven right. There’s this great old video of author Viktor Frankl talking about how as human beings, we only become our best when we set our expectations high. It reminds me that whatever we think news audiences are capable of, we’re right. So why not set our expectations higher, start devising ways audiences can be helpful, smart and kind, and calibrate opportunities for engagement to prove it?

Haeg: I have a quote that I come back to from time to time when I lose faith in the democratic aims of journalism, when I feel beset by the negativity in the news and start to listen to the cynic on my shoulder. It’s from Studs Terkel. “There’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence,” he writes, “providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.” What I like about it is that it’s a realistic and measured, but it’s also wildly hopeful.

Shining examples of audience greatness

In case it’s still unbelievable to think of audience members are truly helpful, productive and game-changing to a newsroom, we pulled together some examples from our own experiences and partners that convince us.

Hearken partners

When a Mom’s education question is about more than just her kids

We partner with the education news site Chalkbeat New York. The team at Chalkbeat starts every Hearken-powered investigation with a full profile of the person who asked the question. For example, Mishi Faruqee is a parent who asked which (if any) NYC schools reflect the city’s diversity. Reporter Stephanie Snyder wrote a great profile about Mishi’s interest in the question as a parent with school-aged kids. And then Mishi followed up with apowerful letter to the editor explaining why her question is about more than her own children’s education. Mishi’s story is great proof that communities don’t just engage with the newsrooms out of personal interest.

A troll-free story about guns in Chicago

Recently, our Community Manager Ellen Mayer reported a story for WBEZ’s Curious City (Hearken’s flagship series) answering the question: “What happened to all the rifle ranges in Chicago.” This story deals with Big Scary Conversations around gun control, gun culture, and the NRA, topics that usually seem to invite intense vitriol from all sides of the gun debate. But this story was anchored by the perspective and nostalgia of the man who asked the question, Bob Collar. He’s a proud lifetime member of the NRA, but he’s not interested in the politics; he just really likes the rifle sport and misses the old rifle ranges he went to as a kid. Bob put a human face on a contentious issue, and the story didn’t get a single negative response. He even jumped into the comments section to facilitate conversation. How’s that for audience participation! (WBEZ’s new site redesign has removed comments (?), but trust us, it was great!)

Curious citizen turned energy activist

Way back in 2013, Janice Thompson asked WBEZ’s Curious City about Chicago’s new energy supplier. Janice wanted to know how much of the city’s energy would now come from natural gas, via fracking. Before that point, Janice had never felt like she could understand or have any effect on energy policy. But once Curious City investigated her question, Janice was galvanized to pursue the issue further. She did some of her own investigating which ultimately became a part of Curious City’s story. And she became a community educator around energy issues in Chicago. In 2014 she wrote an incredible blog post crediting Curious City with her transformation: “Many times I’ve asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? Isn’t electricity a tedious subject best left to experts?’ Knowing that the staff at WBEZ’s Curious City cared what I did, that they valued citizen input as much as that of experts, kept me going.”

Audience participation upping quality of life for reporters

One lighter story that our partners out of St. Louis Public Radio assigned for their series, Curious Louis, answered what is the best doughnut in St. Louis?Reporter Willis Ryder Arnold said this was the most fun he’s had as a reporter, and got the opportunity to be far more creative than usual with this assignment. Plus, he got to hang out with an incredibly excitable fan of his outlet (the question asker Andwele Jolly) and eat a ton of doughnuts.

Dollar bills and hot sauce

Partners at WFDD reported on a much-loved hot sauce that went missing from local stores. It was brought to their attention by a Curious Carolina listener, Wendell Burton, who asked about it. Burton not only turned into a lovable, relatable protagonist for the story, but after the story aired he increased his membership donation amount to WFDD and sent the newsroom a collection of his own homemade hot sauces.

GroundSource partners

Using GroundSource, Listening Post Macon reached out to area residents to gather perspectives on gun control. We heard back from dozens of people who shared their experiences with guns, and how those experiences informed their opinions of gun control. We didn’t hear back the typical circle-the-wagons bloviating you get in comments. Instead we heard stories of people who grew up in hunting families but supported stricter background checks, and from one mother whose son was killed walking to the gas station — and was teaching her kids to use guns to protect themselves. GPB reporter Grant Blankenship picked up the thread and produced this story for statewide radio.

Listening Post New Orleans is a community-driven news service built using GroundSource, and for the past two years, week in week out, they’ve managed to draw out an astounding diversity of voices speaking to their specific reality living life in a community with great charm and great challenges.

The Alabama Media Group has used GroundSource to gather community input on stories ranging from guns to health care to overcrowded prisons — and mother’s day. They asked Alabamans what their favorite “mom-isms” were and heard from more than 100 people by text and voicemails, which they used to create a 3-plus-minute audio piece which is worth a listen. Not hard-hitting journalism, but I can think of few other projects I’ve worked on that so effectively revealed the voice of the community.

I worked on this project while at APM with the Public Insight Network. We reached out to Lutherans to talk about their experience as the ELCA decided to allow gay clergy to serve as pastors. More than 2,500 people responding, providing us with a deep and nuanced view of a community facing a schism. It showed me what was possible when you open up to hearing voices who don’t feel like they have any other place to express themselves.

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ON THE MEDIA: How Crowdfunding Is Empowering Communities to Tell Own Their Stories

By: Angilee Shah   April 11, 2016   MediaShift 

A collage of images from stories report by Global Nation at PRI. Their new campaign is working to bring new voices into public media.

A collage of images from stories report by Global Nation at PRI. Their new campaign is working to bring new voices into public media.

The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

I’ve been running a crowdfunding campaign with my colleagues here at Public Radio International for one month. What I’ve learned: It’s about so much more than money.

We crafted the Global Nation Reporting Fund as a challenge to ourselves: Could we get one new contributor onto PRI.org — and thus give them a step into public media — every week for a year? Could we get more people who are immersed in the communities and topics we want to cover to become the authors of the stories we tell? And could we do it in a way where this community, largely immigrants and children of immigrants themselves, are the funders as well?

From the beginning, this was a project led by a group of people who are interested in conversations about immigration that connect different ethnic groups and people with varied experiences. The rewards for our Kickstarter campaign come largely from members of the Global Nation Exchange, our discussion group on Facebook. The message comes from them, too.
They are backing the campaign and using their networks to grow the fund. But they are also becoming more engaged as they realize they have power in how the national news media covers them. Since we began our Kickstarter campaign last month, the discussion group has grown from just under 1,000 members to over 1,300. We are getting more story tips and pitches than ever. The conversations in the group, this empowered community, have always been rich. Now, they are illuminating.

Diverse Media Makes For Better Journalism

Global Nation began in the fall of 2012 as PRI’s The World’s commitment to immigration coverage, led by editor Monica Campbell. I was then the social editor and am now the digital editor. And I am proud of our track record: My colleague, Lisa Gardner-Springer at PRI, conducted an audit of our work. Of a random sample of 23 stories, she discovered: Of 54 sources in Global Nation stories, 81.5 percent were people of color and/or Hispanic. Among the 26 authors, half were people of color and/or Hispanic.

It’s a big contrast to the broader American media landscape. Nationally, less than 10 percent of the radio news workforce is non-white, according to the latest data from the Radio Television Digital News Association. The American Society of News Editors reports that less than 13 percent of daily-newspaper newsrooms are minorities.

For our journalism, that means we ask different questions than most of our national media. We want to know about disparities at the Oscars, but from the perspective of one of the child actors who was at the receiving end of Chris Rock’s joke about Asians. We want to explore conflict and tension, but give it the context of histories that are often left out. And we want to understand people on all sides of the immigration debate.

The upshot of all this — of empowering people at all levels of our process, from funding to reporting to discussion — is representation. One of the first members of our discussion group, Sheena Koshy, was gracious enough to tell me about her experience with Global Nation. She immigrated from Dubai one week before 9/11 and has thought deeply about what it means to be part of America. Fifteen years and many visa types later, she’s now in the queue for an interview for her US citizenship. Seeing these stories and discussions between immigrants has been transformative, she said.

Koshy told us why she backed the Global Nation Reporting Fund. (Image by Angilee Shah)

“It has made me question what makes an American,” Sheena told me. “I bring a lot of my Indian culture and the culture I grew up with in the Middle East into becoming an American. And this little community that you’ve created has really made me feel ok about doing that. I don’t think I quite understood that is was ok to have all these different sides to your personality — and that still makes you an American.”

As is so often true, though, it’s better if you just hear Sheena herself.

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ON THE MEDIA: Syrian independent media offers bold challenge to extremism

By:    April 8, 2016  Waging Nonviolence

A protest in Kafranbel on the 5-year anniversary of the uprising against Assad. (Twitter/Raed al-Fares)

A protest in Kafranbel on the 5-year anniversary of the uprising against Assad. (Twitter/Raed al-Fares)

On January 10, the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Syria, stormed the headquarters of Radio Fresh in Kafranbel and arrested its director Raed al-Fares and journalist Hadi Abdullah. The flag of the Syrian revolution was thrown on the floor and al-Nusra members stepped on it and forced the station’s members to do the same. They destroyed and confiscated equipment and books, burned the flag and — according to Ghalia al-Rahal, director of Mazaia, a women’s center in Kafranbel — shouted, “We do not want any media in Kafranbel.” They closed the station and placed a sign at the main door saying, “Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach.”

This raid came in response to a post on al-Fares’ Facebook page, in which he said, “If our main concern is what’s between a man’s lips [cigarettes] and women’s legs, and as long as we are herding people to prayers and flooding our schools with Sharia books, we will have a thousand years of death to come in Syria.” Al-Nusra also claimed that songs broadcasted on the station were against the Islamic ruling of Sharia.

Members of the radio station were held inside the office for almost two hours while al-Fares was taken by al-Nusra. After hours of negotiations with al-Nusra’s leaders and Sharia judges, Abdullah provided guarantees that al-Fares would not post messages critical of Sharia on Facebook again, and he was released. Al-Nusra had to also admit that raiding the station was a mistake and promised to return all their equipment.

“As we were waiting for the negotiation, we were organizing for a massive protest that was planned to take off the next morning,” al-Rahal said. “Al-Nusra knew that we would have not kept silent.”

"Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach," was spray-painted on the walls of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel in January 2016. (Twitter/@RamiSafadi93)

“Confiscated by Jabhat al-Nusra, do not approach,” was spray-painted on the walls of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus in Kafranbel in January 2016. (Twitter/@RamiSafadi93)

Al-Nusra’s attack on the station generated a strong reaction on social media where al-Fares’ story was closely followed and solidarity posts were proliferating on activists’ pages. Kafranbel’s Facebook page, which tracks local demonstrations and news, posted pictures of men and women holding signs that repeated two phrases: “Freedom for Radio Fresh,” and “No Media Oppression.”

Radio Fresh is one of the many activities of the Union of Revolutionary Bureaus, or URB, a grassroots organization that tries to empower community members to uphold their rights and freedom in Idlib province. Established in Kafranbel in 2012 by al-Fares and a young activist named Khaled al-Issa, the URB currently has 475 employees with various offices that focus on enhancing education and empowering women and children. They provide training in sewing, hairdressing, nursing, and other skills that enable women to work. Similarly, URB established centers for children where they are encouraged to express themselves through painting and art. “The bureau activities came as a natural result of the needs on the ground,” said al-Rahal, whose center is part of the URB.

This was not the first time al-Nusra has attacked the station. On January 17, 2015, al-Nusra raided a number of URB’s offices, including the headquarters of Radio Fresh and Mazaia. In response to this incident and continuous harassment and interference in civilian affairs, people took to the streets calling for freedom. They forced al-Nusra to keep the station and the women’s center running.

Al-Nusra is emerging as a powerful force to rival the Islamic State in Syria and has seized several strategic towns in Idlib and Hama provinces. Al-Nusra’s goals are to overthrow the current Syrian government and create an Islamic Emirate under Sharia law. Al-Nusra uses Islam and Quranic texts to oppress people and impose strict social values, including limiting women’s movement and dress code.

Hadi Abdullah (left) and Raed al-Fares (right). (Facebook/Kafranbel Syrian Revolution)

Hadi Abdullah (left) and Raed al-Fares (right). (Facebook/Kafranbel Syrian Revolution)

Activists, who are also Muslims, have been using Islamic values to push back. The radio station dedicates the first two hours of the day to broadcast Quranic texts, transmits prayers five times a day, and airs four religious programs a day. “While religious extremists call for death and blood, we call for mercy, respect and forgiveness — all core values in Islam,” al-Fares said. “We need to use the same tool and that which is understood by the general public.”

According to al-Fares, the true reason for his latest arrest was a campaign that he launched on the radio to raise awareness of basic human rights and against religious extremists’ practices. Using female voices, nine messages were repeated between programs and songs that challenged not only extremists, but the whole culture. These messages defend women’s basic rights and ask men to take some responsibility and support them in obtaining these rights. They are also a direct response to armed and extremist factions’ strict rules on women’s dress code and education. 

In some places, al-Nusra has been busy fighting and has not had the time to interfere in civilians’ affairs. However, this may change once the fighting halts. “It is important that people increase their civil activities now as this would make it harder for al-Nusra to take control in the future,” al-Rahal said. “Al-Nusra’s members respond to people because they know that without people, nothing has value — not arms, Emirs or rulers.”

People who took to the streets in early 2011 against Assad’s oppressive regime have recently been demonstrating against all oppression. “We protest against the regime, extremists, the Russians, NATO and starvation in besieged Madaya,” al-Rahal said. Madaya is one of 19 Syrian towns under siege, where cases of death due to starvation have been reported. While Madaya is besieged by pro-Syrian government forces, other places like Foua and Kefraya are besieged by armed opposition groups. According to U.N. estimates about 500,000 people are currently living under siege.

There have been protests against al-Nusra’s aggression and strict rules all across Idlib. On January 15, people in Maraat al-Numan in Idlib demonstrated against al-Nusra and called for its departure. “Maraat is free free, al-Nursa is out out,” they chanted. A newwave of protests has coincided with the ceasefire, which went into effect on Feb. 27. On March 14, hundreds took to the streets against al-Nusra’s aggression against civilians and moderate factions. In places like Khan Shaykhoun and Salqueen, people have protested against al-Nusra’s attempt to impose Sharia clothes, or niqab, on women. In other parts of Syria, like Raqqa, where the Islamic State is in full control and brutal against civil organizations, residents are resisting by not swearing allegiance to the group. Those who do not swear allegiance have to pay for social services, which IS provides for free, and additional taxes.

Five years into the revolution, people have deeper knowledge of themselves and the concepts of citizenship, the state and human dignity, al-Fares explained. Now they are demonstrating against any regressive thoughts or oppression. “Al-Nusra and the Islamic State have arrested me and tried to kill me many times,” al-Fares said, “but this is irrelevant because what I have established in the community and with URB’s activities will always live. People believe in our values and cause, and that is why we live.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Media In The Cross hairs: Militants Continue To Target Journalists In Pakistan

By: Raza Rumi      

Despite the commitments of the Pakistan government to protect journalists, media freedoms remain endangered in the country. Pakistani journalists continue to struggle with the threats posed by violent extremists who consider media to be a legitimate target. In fact, extremists often target the media because it ensures that they will get publicity in the form of coverage. Thus, journalists remain quite vulnerable as the government has yet to find workable mechanisms to ensure their safety in the country.

On March 27, a faction of the Pakistani Taliban carried out a deadly attack on a busy park in Lahore that killed more than 72 and injured 300. In a message claiming responsibility on Twitter, the spokesman for the group was quick to warn, “Everyone will get their turn in this war, especially the slave Pakistani media.” He also ominously added that the group was “waiting for the appropriate time,” presumably referring to an attack. The threat is not new. In 2014 the Pakistani Taliban issued a detailed fatwathat justified attacking the media and killing journalists.

The Ongoing Threat and the Emergence of an ISIS-branch in Pakistan

This new threat comes in the wake of earlier incidents that have made media workers anxious. On January 14, ISIS claimed that it launched an attack on a Pakistan TV station. Two assailants riding a motorbike threw an explosive device and fired gunshots at the ARY television network offices in Islamabad. The shooters ran away when the guards fired at them. In December 2015, another television channel, Din News, was also attacked in Lahore injuring a staffer and two police constables. A militant group claiming itself to be an affiliate of ISIS, the Khorasan Group (Daulat-i-Islamia Khorasan), claimed responsibility for the attack. The Khorasan Group had also carried out an attack a month earlier. In November 2015 a hand grenade was thrown at the bureau office of Dunya News television in Faisalabad, the third largest Pakistani city. Two employees of the channel were injured.

The extent of ISIS presence in Pakistan is unclear, and its appeal is not widespread. Yet, reports have suggested that the group is attempting to make inroads in Pakistan. Its presence in Afghanistan has already been confirmed as splintering groups of the Taliban have been professing allegiance to the ISIS leadership. ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on a Pakistani consulate in eastern Afghanistan on January 13 that killed seven members of the Afghan security forces.

Footprints of ISIS were also noticed in May 2015 attack on a bus that targeted members of Ismaili community in Karachi killing 43 and injuring 13. A prime suspect of this terror attack told an official joint investigation team that militants affiliated with the Islamic State were involved in the carnage. Reports have also indicated that the ideological network has made some headway in middle class. The Foreign Secretary of Pakistan admitted last year that ISIS was a serious threat for the country. The country’s military has been targeting the Pakistani Taliban and the aggrieved sections are finding a new ally in the form of the Islamic State.

In the continued conflict the media comes under direct attack by the militant groups. Accused of both not giving adequate coverage to terrorists and then providing negative, non-flattering coverage when they do, journalists are harassed and attacked by the militants. In the tribal regions, many journalists have faced immense pressure from the militants to give them undeserved coverage. Anchors at Express News, where I worked for some time, once appealed to the Pakistani Taliban that they would air their point of view and that they should stop targeting them.

Counter-insurgency Environment Impedes Quality Journalism and Public Debate

Moreover, media organizations in Pakistan operate in a context where public debate on counterterrorism is limited or even simply tailored to toe the official line. The extent, nature, and results of counterterrorism operations are largely beyond the purview of independent investigation since the military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban began in 2014.

Journalists have constantly reported that they have little or no access to the tribal regions where the state is carrying out search and counterinsurgency operations, and therefore independent verification of official claims is not possible. Similarly, conflicting policy stances are frequently made by the government. For instance, the militias that openly vow to attack neighboring India are announced as banned, but then within days a few days officials state that no such ban exists. During 2014 the largest private TV channel provoked the ire of the security agencies when it implicated the premier intelligence agency in an attack on one of its TV hosts. There was a backlash, the organization was punished by a temporary suspension of its transmission, and a public campaign to brand it as an unpatriotic outlet. Since then, Pakistan’s media outlets are extremely careful to question government and military officials.

After the recent Lahore attack, the military decided to launch operations in the largest province of Pakistan. A journalist told me that details of the plan are not well known. Local commentators like foreign policy expert Ahmad Rashid have noted that there are significant differences between the civilian and military branches of the government in terms of strategy. Yet, this issue has not received detailed attention and discussion even though it would be in the public’s interest and issues of this nature merit a debate in the parliament, media, and among policy experts.

The Pakistani Government Needs to Take Action

Pakistan’s parliament has rarely intervened in terms of monitoring media freedoms. Admittedly, there is an ongoing conflict, and governments embroiled in tackling insurgencies employ different methods to regulate and streamline reporting. Yet, an open culture is vital for a democratic society. Pakistan’s democracy is likely to suffer if the attacks on media houses are not taken seriously and if there are limited avenues for open debate on public policy matters.  Such a stymied political space might actually benefit the non-state militias, which take advantage of a confusing and closed media system in which the public does not know who to trust.

A bill aimed at protecting journalists has been introduced in the Pakistani parliament for debate, however journalists objected to it because they felt its provisions were lacking. They have asked the government to consult all the stakeholders and prepare a more comprehensive bill. While new legislation would not single-handedly fix the program, the parliament needs to make efforts to ensure that a better legal environment emerges for media protection. Moreover, the government has yet to fulfil its commitment of setting up a joint government-journalist commission that would investigate and monitor attacks on journalists and media organizations. By making headway on these two fronts, the Pakistani government could demonstrate that it recognizes there is a problem and is working toward a solution.

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ON THE MEDIA: Shorter isn’t better, photos aren’t always alluring and deep digging pays off, recent report concludes

By Rick Edmonds   March 31, 2016  POYNTER

Gawker’s metrically-driven Big Board. (Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

Shorter isn’t better, photos aren’t always alluring and deep digging pays off, recent report concludes

After two years work analyzing more than 400,000 stories, the American Press Institute is beginning to find general patterns in what works to attract and hold the attention of digital readers.

The findings are collected in a recent paper by API executive director Tom Rosenstiel for the Brookings Institution — and a number are counter-intuitive. For instance:

  • Long stories do fine and are read thoroughly, as much so on phones as any other device. In the API sample, stories longer than 1,200 words, got 23 percent more engagement, 45 percent more social referrals and 11 percent more pageviews.The received wisdom about keeping digital posts short, Rosenstiel said, may have applied to desktop browsing at work, but so much reading has shifted to smartphones. Readers see the phone as their device and their time to use as they wish.
  • Overall, photos (or audio or video clips) boost engagement by 19 percent — but the effect is selective. Surprisingly, government stories got a 75 percent boost, perhaps because they humanize what could otherwise be dry, Rosenstiel reasons.By contrast, photos had no impact on engagement with stories on food and dining — a very popular category these days. Looking for a place to go out for dinner, for instance, is a “hunter-gatherer” activity where pictures may seem to be beside the point.
    Sports fell about halfway between, with the impact of photos now undercut by the round-the-clock availability of highlight clips.
  • Majors enterprise stories are highly valued — scoring 48 percent better in engagement, but they account for only 1 percent of content produced. Of course, reduced resources together with the time required for major work limit the number of these stories. And another related finding was discouraging — doing just a little more than a very basic news story — what Rosenstiel calls “light enterprise” — didn’t improve engagement at all.

The API project began as a pilot with Pioneer News Group in the Pacific Northwest, to help editors decide which topics had particular resonance in a given community. Those “franchise topics” got added emphasis in assignments and tagging showed that they did indeed get greater reader attention.

Over time, the metrics have evolved to include performance of the full range of what a newspaper’s site covers. The 55 participating news organizations now include some large metros like The Dallas Morning News and a few specialized non-newspaper sites.

While firms like Chartbeat and Parse.ly have already been moving the metrics conversation beyond just pageviews and uniques, API was looking for more information that could be tied back to journalistic intent.

So editors tag stories the day after publication using an “Engagement Index” with a dozen factors (which can be weighted different ways by different publications). It takes about 30 seconds to tag one story, so a section editor responsible for 10 stories in a day can get that done in five minutes.

How does this then get used in the newsroom? Rosenstiel explains the basic concept this way:

Once a publisher has data about what content they are producing and what’s working and not working journalistically, the next step is try(ing) to change what they are doing to do more work that readers value inside key coverage areas and spend less effort on what isn’t working.

Editorial judgment quickly comes into play. Editors need to factor in that some topics — say, water quality — are essential though not wildly popular. And more effective coverage of a given subject might mean more explanatory, how-this-affects-you stories and fewer for-the-record, incremental pieces.

I asked Jeff Sonderman, API deputy director who runs the Metrics for News program with Rosenstiel, if they could document business benefits.  His email reply:

There are at least four primary ways in which we see this program boost business results:
a) Reducing subscriber loss or churn. The top reason readers give when they call you up to cancel a subscription isn’t that they dislike you, it’s that they “just don’t find the time to read it anymore.” That means you’ve lost relevance in their lives — that you haven’t given them any specific reason at any specific moment to reach for you as an indispensable source for a specific thing. This program helps publishers identify and execute the specific “franchise” areas of coverage that build those strong connections with readers and keep them paying.
b) Identifying and launching new products. The insights from the analytics and the community survey point toward unexploited opportunities in a publisher’s market. There may be a major concern about crime, or a major passion for outdoors recreation, or a loyal following for high school football — any one of those things can be an opportunity to launch a whole new product that brings in a new audience and revenue streams.
c) Attracting new advertisers. As publishers build new “franchise” coverage areas that they focus on and excel at, we have seen advertisers approach them and ask about how to be involved. The local bait-and-tackle shop, for instance, may never have seen a reason to spend its marketing budget in the local newspaper. But when that local paper launches a new focus and new products for outdoors enthusiasts in the community, suddenly that changes. Moving into new coverage specialities and growing deep loyalty among different audiences gives advertisers who seek to target those audiences a new reason to look at you as their solution.
d) Traffic growth. One of the things Metrics for News does that regular web analytics don’t, is to show you how to grow your traffic. Do more enterprise in this topic. Include more photos in this topic. Do more columns about this subject instead of that one. And so on. There’s a clear, evidence-based roadmap for how to grow, and that leads to large traffic growth at our partner publishers which is a general boost to the online ad revenue among other things.
Rosenstiel is a friend and a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.  He and I collaborated for 10 years on Pew’s annual State of the News Media report.  Sonderman was a digital fellow at Poynter before joining API.
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ON THE MEDIA/AFGHANISTAN: Afghan Women’s Radio Returns After Taliban Attack

Afghanistan Womens Radio

In this Friday, March 4, 2016 photo, broadcasters of Radio Shaesta prepare themselves to go on-air, in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Radio Shaesta — Pashto for “beauty” — had sought to educate women about their rights and address taboo subjects like reproductive health and domestic violence. (AP Photo/Najim Rahim)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Six months after fleeing a Taliban assault on her city, the owner of an Afghan radio station devoted to women’s rights is back home and returning to the airwaves.

Zarghona Hassan is a lifelong activist and the founder of a radio station in Kunduz that until last year reached hundreds of thousands of listeners across northern Afghanistan, where the vast majority of women are illiterate and largely confined to their homes.

Radio Shaesta — Pashto for “beauty” — had sought to educate women about their rights and address taboo subjects like reproductive health and domestic violence.

A program called “Unwanted Traditions” took a critical look at centuries-old Afghan customs, like the forced marriage of young girls in order to resolve disputes. “Introducing Elites” featured interviews with women who have succeeded in politics and activism, and those who have helped other women in their communities.

“We have had an enormous impact on the lives of women, raising their awareness of their rights, of what they can achieve, encouraging women to take part in politics, to vote and to put themselves forward for provincial council seats,” Hassan said.

Programming also encouraged women to take an active role in ending the country’s 15-year war by exhorting their brothers and sons to lay down arms, she said.

Radio is a powerful medium in Afghanistan, where the literacy rate is less than 40 percent and much of the population lives in remote communities. Wind-up radios requiring no batteries are popular and widely accessible in communities where electricity is erratic or non-existent.

In northern Afghanistan, where just 15 percent of women can read and write, radio is a rare portal to the outside world. The U.N. Development Program says Shaesta reached up to 800,000 people.

“I’ve met illiterate women weaving carpets with the radio on because they can listen and it doesn’t interrupt their work,” Hassan said. “I once met a farmer out in his field who had a radio hooked over the horn of one of his cows.”

Hassan often invited Islamic scholars onto her programs to give their seal of approval. But the Taliban, who espouse a harsh version of Shariah law, view her and other women’s rights activists as purveyors of Western influence who threaten the country’s moral fabric.

She has received more death threats than she can count, one of which even specified an exact date. So when the insurgents stormed into Kunduz on Sept. 28, she knew she had to run.

“The Taliban had a list of all the women who were working in the government, civil society, media, women’s organizations,” she said. “I knew they were going to come for me.” She hid in a relative’s basement for two days before donning an all-covering burqa and fleeing the city.

The Taliban held Kunduz for three days, during which they looted businesses and hunted down activists and journalists. Afghan forces backed by U.S. airstrikes pushed them out more than two weeks later, but by then the militants had looted Shaesta and burned it to the ground, along with another radio outlet run by Hassan that was oriented toward youth.

Now, six months later, she has returned to Kunduz, and Shaesta has come back on air in time for International Women’s Day on March 8. She was able to rebuild the station with a $9,000 grant from the UNDP, which said it hopes to encourage a “courageous voice for change.”

“Women’s rights are a key lever toward improving the lives of the entire community,” said UNDP country director Douglas Keh. “When women and girls have the same opportunities (as men and boys) in education, and the same economic opportunities, society as a whole benefits.”

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ON THE MEDIA: Caught Between The East And West: The “Media War” Intensifies In Serbia And Montenegro

By: Marija Šajkaš and Milka Tadić Mijović   CIMA

Videographers in the Sava Centar in New Belgrade. Photo by Pål Nordseth and licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

As EU and U.S. assistance to independent media in Serbia and Montenegro declines, Russians are seizing the opportunity to support and promote pro-Russian media, broadcasting news in the local language, and investing in media development in the western Balkans. This turn of events bears watching by the international media development community and advocates for free and independent media.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in 2015, one of the hotly debated topics was Russia’s increasing influence on the countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc, influence that is now especially aggressive in the media sphere. The chief conclusion of the meeting was that “extraordinary measures” have to be taken for the EU to counter Russia’s “active propaganda campaign,” and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, was tasked with forming a “counter propaganda team.”

But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the new measures will focus primarily on the countries with large Russian-speaking populations that are part of the EU, such as the Baltic states, or the countries that Europe perceives as important, such as Ukraine. Parts of the western Balkans, which only recently emerged from ethnic wars and have yet to fully embrace democratic political processes—including creating stable, independent media institutions—are left to fend for themselves.  Due to historic ties, steady influence of the Christian-Orthodox Church, and the NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, citizens of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro are deeply divided over the relationships with the West and Russia, making it a welcoming ground for business, policies, and the messaging coming from Moscow.

Caught between the East and the West

Since the end of wars in former Yugoslavia, both countries define their foreign policy priorities in terms of the alliance with the European Union and, in the case of Montenegro, toward membership in NATO.  Not surprisingly, a number of senior Russian officials have openly opposed Montenegro’s entry into NATO. Acknowledging the current political situation, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that together with Serbia, Macedonia, and some other countries, Montenegro is in “the line of fire” between the U.S.and Russia.

Although Western media such as CNN, BBC, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America are present in the region, media liberties are shrinking, and professional standards are at historic lows. The highly fractured commercial market for media makes it vulnerable to capture by outside influences. Due to the shift in donor interests and lack of funding, the influence of the EU and American media development organizations is diminishing, leaving the void in the media sphere to be filed with reporting coming from Moscow.

Russian efforts to strengthen ties with the “brotherly nations” of Serbia and Montenegro, to use the phrase often heard from Moscow, is not restricted to the economy. By the end of 2014, with its slogan “Sputnik Tells the Untold,” Moscow launched Sputnik, a news portal in the Serbian language –shared by Montenegrins and Serbs–available on radio stations and streaming on the Web. It provides news content, analysis, and opinions.

Examples of the analysis include arguments supporting the idea that the Malaysia Airlines flight that went down in Ukraine was targeted by a Ukrainian missile system; and an article explaining that the G-7 sanctions on Russia are not related to the conflict in Ukraine but to the fact that Russia is currently one of the world’s “strongest economies.” Although Sputnik is registered as a local organization, in order to get any information about its operations written questions have to be submitted up front, and its headquarters in Moscow must approve the conversation. With its modern design and a staff of journalists who used to work for independent media, Sputnik is treated by many Serbian media as a trusted source of information and its content is uncritically shared by Serbian media.

The number of media outlets registered locally and supported with Russian capital In Serbia and Montenegro is increasing, as is Russian-sponsored content appearing in the local press. With its 300 pages and printed in full color on glossy paper, the magazineRussia Danas (Russia Today) has a mission to “create a positive image of modern Russia.”

Russian media style is appealing in the Balkans

Zoran Stanojevic, editor at Serbian National Television and a veteran journalist is of the opinion that Russian media is popular in the region not so much because of the content, but because of the style.  According to Stanojevic, Western media  are often too politically correct, leaving the impression that there is more to be told about a certain story, whereas Russian media are more direct, which Serbian viewers prefer. He also noted that Western media almost never report positively about Russian politics and Serbian viewers perceive that as bias.

According to Elena Popovic, secretary and general counsel of the Media Development Investment Fund, media in Serbia are so underfunded that they cannot afford to pay for content from news agencies such as Reuters and have to look to Russian and Chinese sources, as they are generally free of charge.

In Montenegro, Russians run several radio stations that cover practically all the coast and the big cities. They have established Russian-language schools and are engaged in NGO development, providing economic and technical support to organizations that oppose Montenegro’s plans to join NATO. Their biggest radio station, More, advertises its services in both languages and brands itself as the place to explain Montenegro to Russians and vice versa.

Russia Today is recruiting media workers for its Serbian language service. Russian money supplements the revenues of some Serbian and Montenegrin media that for years have advocated for Russia.

Russian Soft Power on the Rise in the Region

Russia’s penetration of the media space, not only of Serbia and Montenegro but also in other countries, is not unexpected, according to Predrag Simic, professor of political science at the University of Belgrade.  “I believe that this is a logical move for a country that wants to be a global power and to demonstrate its global power, to be a rival to the United States. This is what people do today. This is the so-called ‘soft power,’ or what the Americans call the power of the media,” Simic says.

Some measurable results of Russia’s orchestrated efforts to influence the media sector in the western Balkans are that more than half of the Serbian population now perceives Russia favorably, while only one-third is in favor of the EU. There is also a drop in support for EU membership and a steady negative perception of NATO, culminating in the refusal by Serbia to take part in EU sanctions against Russia. Although Montenegro was officially invited to join NATO in December 2015, its people are bitterly divided about that, with a 2015 poll showing 36.5 percent of the population to be in favor of it, 36.20 percent against it, and 27.3 percent of Montenegrins saying they would not vote either way.

The “Media War” Continues in Serbia and Montenegro

Serbs and Montenegrins are aware of the “media war” between the EU and Russia, though in their perception, forged by the local media, this is not a war for freedom of information but rather a battle between East and West.

However, perhaps the most troubling effects of Russian style journalism will be on local media in Serbia and Montenegro as it legitimizes state-controlled information and “patriotic reporting.”  Much like in the Russian media’s portrayal of President Vladimir Putin, Serbia’s prime minister is increasingly portrayed as a larger than life figure. The media report that he is the first to come to work, and the last to leave, that he cares for the country’s progress so much that he is not taking summer vacation.

Media influenced by Russia contribute to a fragmented picture of the world in which news is tailored for Russian political and economic interests, and the people of Serbia and Montenegro are left with increasingly unreliable information.


Marija Šajkaš is a U.S. correspondent for a Serbian weekly Novi Magazin. She has 25 years of experience working as a reporter, editor, and media consultant. Milka Tadić Mijović is a journalist, media executive, and was civic activist during the turbulent transition era in the Southeast Europe. She is one of the co-founders of the weekly Monitor, the first Montenegrin private and independent weekly magazine. 

 

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ON THE MEDIA: In Burma, A Chance For New Momentum On Media Reform

MARCH 14TH, 2016   By:      CIMA

For media freedom advocates, the NLD’s rise to power is a hopeful sign. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar via Wiki Commons)

As Burma’s new National League of Democracy (NLD)-dominated parliament nears the selection of the country’s next president, media reform advocates will be looking for the NLD to continue reforms of the country’s media environment, but little is known about the incoming leadership’s policy priorities.

Ever since the country began to open up in 2011, the media landscape has evolved dramatically. What was once a repressive state controlled media space, has become a relatively more open landscape populated by new and formerly exile media entities jockeying for a share of an increasingly crowded market. Although the previous government made progress in media reform efforts, and frequently spoke in favor of further liberalizing the sector, a series of high profile incidents over the past two years cast doubts over the former government’s commitment to free and independent media.

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(Photo by Robert Daly via Flickr)

The Ministry of Information’s August 2015 defamation case against five members of the Eleven Media Group, followed by contempt of court charges for an additional 17 company staff, cast serious doubts over the government’s commitment to a free press. In addition, the government has been accused of complicity in recent cyberattacks against independent news outlets, including Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, and Eleven Media, and routinely harassing journalists who report on seemingly sensitive topics such as security and defense matters.

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A Multi-stakeholder Approach to Regain Momentum

With a new government of NLD leaders set to take the helm this month, there is reason to hope that the lost momentum for media reform will be reclaimed, but little is known about the media policy priorities of the incoming NLD leadership.

It is in this context that Deutsche Welle Akademie (DWA) recently convened a multi-stakeholder meeting involving 40 representatives of private and state  media organizations as well as civil society activists, media lawyers. The goal of the meeting was to discuss ways to continue media reform efforts by identifying key challenges and articulating media policy priorities.

Notably, the meeting also brought together officials of the outgoing government and the incoming NLD leadership to discuss how the transition will effect media reform in the country. The NLD’s leading voice on media policy, U Aung Shin, a close confidante of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, represented the NLD and sought to assuage concerns among attendees that the NLD might not consider media reform a key priority and that the leadership transition might stall implementation of the 2015 broadcast law.

Although the 2015 broadcast law is not without its flaws and will require improvement, including greater independence for the Press Council, the law still marks progress in the regulatory framework for Burmese media. Implementation of the law was of particular interest to DWA and others at the meeting because of provisions that will allow for the establishment of community radio stations in the country. U Aung Shin stated that community radio is in fact a key media policy priority for Aung San Suu Kyi. Although he did not elaborate on the position, this is an encouraging sign for community radio advocates in the country.

Community Radio – the Next Frontier for Media in Burma?

I recently spoke with Andrea Rübenacker, Deutsche Welle Akademie’s regional coordinator for media development programs in Southeast Asia about this issue. Ms. Rübenacker argued that community radio could play a vital role in the development of the media environment in Burma and significantly strengthen access to information in rural parts of the country. At present there are no community radio stations in the country, and despite the 2015 broadcast law, there is still no process for issuing licenses. Much work is yet to be done before community radio becomes a reality, but according to Rübenacker, if approved under the new government, DWA stands ready to implement a pilot community radio project in the country. Community radio could provide a much needed new platform for a plurality of independent voices addressing local issues across the country’s ethnically diverse and sometimes fractured regions. Although the law only allows for community radio licenses for “geographic communities” work will need to be done to ensure that Buddhist extremists and ultra-nationalists do not co-opt community radio frequencies to further their agendas.

Multi-stakeholder meetings, such as DWA’s recent dialogue in Yangon, that engage the government, civil society, and private sector media leaders are crucial for addressing sector-wide challenges in the media in a given country or region. Even in instances where seemingly pro-reform governments come to power, media reform can still be relegated to the back burner if political pressure is not applied by a wide range of stakeholders. The risk of inaction during windows of political opportunity is serious. Arcane and restrictive laws can be allowed to persist and new laws never properly implemented. Media reform advocacy requires persistent pressure from a broad coalition of actors, and this kind of engagement could shepherd  Burma closer to an open and free media landscape that the country will need to grow and prosper.


Paul Rothman is the Assistant Partnerships Officer at the Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, DC.

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ON THE MEDIA: Here’s How 4 Hyper-Local Newsrooms are Harnessing Video

By: Josh Stearns This post first appeared on Medium. MEDIASHIFT

Photo by Tim Caynes, used via creative commons    In January, media consultant Mario Garcia wrote that 2016 would be “the year of (more and better) video” and argued that “video should be central to any newsroom’s digital strategy.” Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in his keynote to the Mobile World Congress that “we’re going to be in a world a few years from now where the vast majority of the content that people consume online will be video.” And his company is tweaking their algorithm to privilege video more and more.
“… the rise of video on the web doesn’t have to leave local newsrooms behind.”
Doing video right can be expensive and resource intensive, and we’ve largely seen big newsrooms (BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Washington Post) and video-centric start-ups (AJ+, NowThis) lead the way.
However, the rise of video on the web doesn’t have to leave local newsrooms behind. In New Jersey, four tiny local newsrooms are experimenting with the role of video at the hyperlocal level. All of these projects are very early in their testing and development, but each contain some useful ideas about how local newsrooms can test video with their audience.

1) Social Video as a Tool for Community Engagement
Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) is a local newsroom with three part time staff and was born on Facebook, where it now has more than 220,000 fans. In the last year, it has also grown its Instagram community exponentially and started a new project called #OneJerseyShore, in which they focus on different communities up and down New Jersey’s coast, asking people to submit photos and videos of their home towns. They then create videos along with a mix of original reporting and community content.

This is part of a strategic effort by JSHN to cultivate what they call a “contributor culture” where people are a part of the journalism process. The #JSHN tag has over 30k images on Instagram, and their goal is to build on people’s desire to share and connect by producing stories and engagement opportunities. The final videos are uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, as well as chopped up for use on Instagram.
Scrolling through both their Facebook and Instagram accounts, you see a ton of community-submitted footage. Some of that footage is of tranquil sunsets and beach scenes, but the Jersey Shore Hurricane News community also regularly submits video that breaks news, like this Coast Guard rescue.
“JSHN closes the gap between user-generated content and formal news reporting by producing stories that stem from community submissions,” Justin Auciello, the founder of Jersey Shore Hurricane News told me. “For example, with the Coast Guard rescue, JSHN confirmed the activity rapidly, posted the video, and then used that tip to contact the Coast Guard. The formal report — which included a gallery of user generated photos from the scene — came shortly thereafter, and it was posted on WHYY’s Newsworks, which partners with JSHN.” This unique pro-am model gives local people deep buy-in to the work of the newsroom.

2) Bilingual Weekly News Summaries
New Brunswick Today reports in English and Spanish online, in print and via a new video series. The New Brunswick Today team focuses on watchdog investigations, accountability reporting and daily news. Their week in review is just a few weeks old, and they are still developing the audience around it, but initial feedback has been positive. They are one of the only newsrooms I have seen investing in bi-lingual video at the hyperlocal level. New Brunswick Today currently has a crowdfunding campaign focused on expanding their original Spanish language reporting.

New Brunswick Today also regularly shows up with their cameras to local committee meetings where no other journalist is attending and shares the video on their site. Their work is forcing city departments to be more transparent. “The city council only started filming their meetings and putting them online after we made a commitment to doing it first,” said Sean Monahan, New Brunswick Today’s publisher, “It was something we had asked them many times to do.” But it wasn’t until after a few months of Monahan recording the meetings that the council began doing it themselves.
3) News in 90 Seconds
Brick City Live is a two-year-old hyperlocal site covering New Jersey’s largest city, Newark. Brick City Live’s founder Andaiye Taylor developed the video idea based on feedback from her community, and because no one else locally was covering local news this way.
The videos focus on repackaging content from the site and highlighting important stories from other outlets. She creates the script from headlines and Facebook posts written throughout the week, and the video includes images from the stories. Taylor uses text overlays to make sure people can still watch the videos with the sound off. Hers is the only one of the four sites doing that so far. All the videos are directly uploaded to Facebook, where she sees the primary audience for the videos. Once she builds up her audience for the videos, she plans to look for advertisers and sponsors.

4) Turning Videos into Revenue for Local News
Kevin Coughlin, the founder of Morristown Green, has had video on his site since its earliest days. I rarely see him without a video camera by his side. That fact recently helped land his footage on network news when he recorded a bear that took up residence in the local town green.

His video coverage includes local cultural events, high school talent shows, town committee meetings and much more. On his YouTube account, many of his videos have over 10,000 views, and some have more than a 100,000. That’s nothing compared to national newsrooms, but for a small local site like Morristown Green, those are big stats.
Coughlin makes money from his videos in a range of ways. He’s occasionally paid to record events at local universities, and he edits and sells videos of local events to performers and parents.

He has also been hired to create a video reel for a local guy auditioning for The Bachelor and a music video for a classical ensemble. On YouTube, some of his videos have preroll or pop-up ads on them, but those have produced very little revenue at this point. Finally, building on his love of video, he has run summer camps in video journalism for local teens and created a local film festival that was revenue positive the last year he did it.

Each of these journalists is developing video strategies rooted in their unique communities, but together they show a terrific range of experimentation. These aren’t the only small hyperlocal news organizations working with video. The Center for Community Journalism in the UK pointed me to other great work happening at sites like YourThurrock.com and Wrexham.com, which are doing great work on local politics and election videos.
With new tools like Periscope and Facebook Live, local newsrooms can marry these edited videos with livestreaming from news events. If you want to think through the role of video in your newsroom, this report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is a good place to start. Also check out the lessons learned from Kasia Pilat’s work developing video products and strategy with the Daily Dot.
      Josh Stearns is the Director of Journalism & Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Follow him on Twitter and sign up for the weekly Local Fix newsletter on innovation, community engagement and local news.

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ON THE MEDIA: Every Day Is a Good Day to Hear More Women in the Media

By Farhana Haque Rahman  original

ROME, Mar 7 2016 (IPS) – On International Women’s Day newspapers and radio shows are filled with women’s voices. Yet too often the media’s attention is fleeting.

These are the best of times, but without a doubt also the worst of times, for journalism and journalists – especially women in the media.

Farhana Haque Rahman

Farhana Haque Rahman

According to the Global Media Monitoring Project, women still account for only 24 percent of the people “heard or read about in print, radio and television news across the world.”

Or as women’s media organisation Foreign Policy Interrupted have put it: “a woman over 65 is less likely to be cited as an expert in the media (than) a boy in the 13 to 18 age group.”

Hearing women in the media is not just about who is holding the notebook and voice recorder. Journalists also need to think about who they quote in their articles.

IPS is proud to have an editorial policy of deliberately seeking quotes from women on all topics, not just on topics that have traditionally been considered “women’s issues”.

For those women who are journalists, many face violence and harassment even as they go about their daily work. Two-thirds of more than 900 women journalists surveyed by the International Women’s Media Foundation said they had experienced some kind of threat or abuse – often by male colleagues. We all should take a deep breath.

More than one in five of the women media professionals asked said that they had experienced physical violence in relation to their work – the majority of these described it as sexual in nature – and government officials, police and apparently random people in crowds were cited as frequent perpetrators.

IPS applauds the efforts of UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Christiane Amanpour, the high-profile CNN correspondent who is now serving as UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador on freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety, on their campaign to stamp out the most existential threats to female journalists.

Yet any gains made in bringing women’s voices to the fore in the media are threatened when the news industry itself is put under pressure.

The sector is already in a commercial pinch, reducing resources available for reporters to provide their watchdog function. On top of that, there is a sense of growing censorship, taking different forms in different parts of the world.

Press freedom isn’t threatened only by violence. Esteemed scholar Partha Chatterjee denounced what he called a “McCarthyite era” wave in India. Journalists have been killed or intimidated in countries across the globe, and many deliberately avoid reporting on their nemeses. And the bad winds aren’t blowing only in developing countries. A U.S. presidential candidate fanned the flame of our concern last month when he suggested changing libel laws to make it easier to “win money” from journalists by suing them.

Free speech is widely believed to be a public good. But it is also “the most complex and controversial right,” in the recent words of Irene Khan, head of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO). It may not be an absolute right but it is one that is intimately tied up with what Khan called “the right to hear.”

We have a right to hear diverse voices and particularly women’s voices in the media every day. We – including we journalists – also have a responsibility to listen.

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HAITI/ON THE MEDIA: Parting Words From Haiti’s Not-So-Sweet Mickey: Fueling An Uunsupportive Environment For Women In Media

 By: Janelle Nodhturft Williams  original

Two female journalists attend a training session aimed at increasing women’s participation in the media. Photo by Eoghan Rice/Trocaire and licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Former Haitian President Michel Martelly left office on February 7, 2016, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. A failed election process leaves the former head of the Senate temporarily at the reigns. Thus, Haiti faces its secondinterim government in 12 years, a decidedly undemocratic political culture, and a public that wants to believe democratic institutions can function but hasn’t seen the proof. Thirty years must feel like an eternity for civil society and Haitian citizens striving to have a voice and influence in such a broken political system.

Given the big challenges here, it might be surprising that one carnival pop song managed to break through the noise and add its own controversy to the mix. One week before leaving office, former President Martelly released a new single under his stage name “Sweet Mickey.” The song, titled “Give Them Bananas” features repetitive and overt sexually suggestive lyrics aimed at the president’s critics, and one woman in particular, Liliane Pierre-Paul. One of the country’s most well-known radio journalists and longtime human rights activist, she was the first Haitian to win the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award in 1990 and has also been an outspoken critic of Martelly.

The obvious interpretation of the lyrics is the intended one. And it’s not the first time Martelly added his own flair of sexual aggression when responding in a threatening way to his female critics. The attitude is this: Don’t like my policies or use of political power? Here’s some male dominance and thinly veiled threats instead. Last August, male and female ministers resigned in protest. This time though, the song was mostly dismissed as tasteless. Some women laughed at the song lyrics, and real outcry fell short or was washed out by the political heaviness of the moment.

The lyrics represent much larger problems in a media sector and society that does not encourage women’s voices to be heard and elevated. What are women and young girls who want to write or become a journalist – or have an opinion on anything – going to think when the public response by a man to a woman asking questions or displaying critical thinking is a gendered threat? What extra significance does this take on when it’s not just any man, but the country’s president? How is this happening in 2016?

The repercussions are a lot more serious than any single song might suggest at first glance. Though Haiti’s media sector is still weak and polarized, it is better off now than in past decades. The constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression and though the operating environment is far from perfect, Haitian journalists face fewer restrictions and violence than some of their Latin American and Caribbean peers. There is untapped potential for media in Haiti to make tangible contributions to democratic progress in the country, but to play this role the media must attract and retain all of its best and brightest – including, and especially, women.

Politically reinforced sexual aggression from Haitian leaders is no way to cultivate future generations of critical thinkers and women whose ideas will contribute to a more plural media and society and help move the country forward.

Haiti’s challenges are enormous and no one sector can effectively respond to these obstacles on its own.  It will take a village. It will take great ideas. New ideas. Haitian ideas. Haiti’s media, including female journalists, should be free to focus their energy on professionalizing Haitian media, fostering independent voices, playing a watchdog role in the face of corrupt government, and reporting on citizen priorities. Spending energy deciding if and how to respond or counter threats, sexual harassment, or – in in the case of the parting gift of the former president – ridiculous and aggressive lyrics, shouldn’t even be anywhere on their radar.

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ON THE MEDIA: Can explanatory journalism cure the internet?

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This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The first post in the series is available here.

Last December The Washington Post shuttered its online column “What was fake on the Internet this week.” For a little over eighteen months, columnist Caitlin Dewey, with a wry smile and a wink to the fantastic urban legends our society is capable of creating and our citizens are eager to believe, humorously debunked each week’s most entertaining and outrageous online hooey. However, as she perused the Internet for outrageous claims, she realized that misinformation isn’t just an innocent manifestation of the human penchant for mystery and myth; it’s also big business.

Today’s online hoaxers aren’t just after a laugh. Their brand of bunk has a clear purpose: generating Internet traffic by appealing to people’s deepest emotional biases. Sometimes they do it for political purposes, as when the “fiercely conservative” website Revive Americapublished an article claiming that ABC had aired “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with a disclaimer that the program contained “strong Christian messages and may be offensive to some viewers.” Other times it’s for profit, often disguised as good will, such as self-titled “Food Babe” Vani Hari’s campaign to get Starbucks to stop selling pumpkin spice lattes because they contain no pumpkin. Enough people believe these ridiculous falsehoods to share them on Twitter and Facebook over and over again, gaining Revive America a flood of new readers and Vani Hari temporary star status.

For Dewey and The Post, playing whack-a-mole with this kind of Internet misinformation wasn’t what they had set out to do. “This column wasn’t designed to address the current environment,” Dewey said about “What was fake…” in her final post. “This format doesn’t make sense.”

The demise of the feature is indicative of one of the more frustrating challenges faced by traditional media in the Information Age. In a world where myth and misinformation can travel quite literally at the speed of light, traditional media struggle to keep up with digital competitors who use “click bait” tactics to capture readers, and who have little regard for the accuracy of their content. In this environment, how does solid, fact-based journalism survive? Is there even an audience for that kind of content anymore?

Increasingly, players from media icons to entrepreneurially minded journalists believe the answer to the latter question is “yes,” and they see serving that audience as a new opportunity for explanatory journalism—a style of reporting that explains an issue in a straightforward, accessible style. Ezra Klein’s Vox, “The Upshot” at The New York Times, and BuzzFeed are a few examples, but there are prominent examples outside of traditional news as well.

For example, one could be forgiven for assuming the podcast Stuff You Should Know, with episode titles like “How does a diving bell work?” and “How Mortgage-backed Securities Work,” is popular with only the nerdiest of nerds. In fact, it is one of the most listened-to podcasts in the world, and it is pure explanatory journalism. The hosts, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, chat about topics from the fascinatingly morbid (“What is a body farm”) to the completely obscure (“How Electroconvulsive Therapy Works”). The show is so popular it has spawned live tours and even a short-lived television series. It’s hard to look at SYSK’s success and argue there’s no market for explanatory content.

Aside from pure market considerations, the renewed interest in explanatory journalism—and it is by no means a new phenomenon: there’s been a Pulitzer for the category since 1985—is a rational and necessary response to the overwhelming levels of misinformation on the Internet. Consider, for example, coverage of the January 2015 measles outbreak linked to the Disneyland amusement park, in which scores of people across several states were diagnosed with the disease. Vox addressed the issue with a story titled “There’s a measles outbreak at Disneyland. Here’s what you need to know.” It had three main points: Measles is extremely infectious, the anti-vaccine movement may contribute to the uptick in cases, and global traffic may also be a factor. The reporting clearly and accurately described the disease and the most important facts about it and the outbreak.

Meanwhile, over at NaturalNews.com, the headline was “Afraid of the Disneyland measles outbreak? Don’t be fooled by Mickey Mouse science—READ THIS FIRST.” The article offered little information about measles or the outbreak, apart from mentioning that “only 644 people” had contracted measles in 2014, and that “the Disneyland outbreak, at last count, was just 39 people.” What it did offer was a detailed breakdown of the language in an informational insert from a chicken pox vaccine (the kind of small-print pharmaceutical details you often find in prescriptions) calling out every single potential side effect and any precautionary legalese to convince the reader that vaccines are just a big, scary lie.

It’s important to understand that this difference in reporting isn’t rooted in competing opinions or alternative viewpoints. It’s rooted in money. Vox is a news site. Reporting news is its business. NaturalNews.com, despite its name, is not a news site. It’s a commerce site that sells alternative health care products. Its writings are not meant to inform. They’re meant to enrage, so that its readers will trust the products it sells instead of mainstream health care.

Caitlin Dewey was right: blog posts aren’t the right format for addressing the phenomenon of money-driven online misinformation. A more comprehensive solution to poppycock-for-profit is necessary. Explanatory journalism could be that solution by fulfilling one of the most fundamental responsibilities of the press: fact-based, rational reporting that helps all of us better understand and participate in our world.

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ON THE MEDIA: Explanatory journalism: A tool in the war against polarization and dysfunction

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This post is part of our project examining the importance of explanatory journalism. The introductory post is available here, and the second post on journalism in the digital age is available here

In the present-day world of media and politics, we live (as the saying goes) in the best of times and the worst of times.

A motivated consumer of information on politics and policy—the ideal citizen in a representative democracy—has access to an unprecedented number of sources of excellent journalism in a rich variety of formats and on numerous platforms. These include print, broadcast and online, long-form and short, data-based and graphically visualized, straight news and opinion journalism, legacy news organizations and new digital enterprises, mobile devices and social media, only a click away from direct access to vast repositories of official public documents and datasets. The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

Explanatory journalism aspires to provide essential context to the hourly flood of news—not simply a separate fact-checking operation but the mobilization of a rich array of relevant information made possible by new technology but presented to the public in accessible and digestible formats. It is fact-based and data-rich but doesn’t shy away from making arguments that flow from the evidence—even at the risk of being charged with taking sides. It seeks to unravel the mysteries of policy and politics with historical and empirical context and speak openly and honestly about the stakes and drivers of our public life.

Ezra Klein pioneered two path breaking initiatives in explanatory journalism, first TheWashington Post’s Wonkblog and now Vox.com. Many other news organizations are now embedding the elements of this approach into the routines of the news business. As David Leonhardt notes in the video part of this series, explanatory journalism will be successful when it is no longer a separate operation of news organizations but a central and unnamed part of their ongoing operations.

While it is no panacea for what ails American democracy, explanatory journalism is the most promising development in the rapidly changing world of media and politics.There is no magic media elixir to inform and engage those, including perennial nonvoters, so removed from the public life of the nation. But some division of labor is essential and inevitable in a representative democracy—between the general public and elected officials, but also between the entire citizenry and the tens of millions of citizens who engage in more active and demanding forms of political participation, including reading about and discussing public affairs with their fellow citizens. That is the target audience for explanatory journalism.

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ON THE MEDIA/AFGHANISTAN: Bringing FRAME BY FRAME Back to Kabul

Everyone crowded in for a group shot with the US Ambassador Michael McKinley

When I sat down for the 14 hour flight to from New York to Dubai in mid-January, I felt a bit nervous that the only screening that we had planned for FRAME BY FRAME in Kabul was the U.S. Embassy premiere. I booked my trip to be in Kabul for two weeks because I knew more could happen once I was on the ground. I took on this strategy partly because trying to plan more screenings in a timezone that was the exact opposite of my own is not fun for anyone. Also, I knew meeting in person with copious amounts of green tea is far more productive and polite than a patchy Skype call. Ultimately, I was hoping in two weeks I could find a way to screen with the president of Afghanistan. Well, it happened — as did so much more.

The FRAME BY FRAME team with Ambassador McKinley and his wife Fatima at the U.S. Embassy premiere

Screening FRAME BY FRAME in Afghanistan was always going to be very limited. My co-director Mo and I promised the photojournalists featured in the film we would honor their safety concerns and never screen the film publicly in Afghanistan. Yes, we want every Afghan journalist to have the chance to see this film, but this was a condition agreed upon from the start for the film to be made. Thankfully, so much can come from holding private screenings with the people who hold so much influence on the future of journalism and a free press in Afghanistan.

Screening with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — Afghanistan’s CEO. Dr. Abdullah hand selected ministry members that he thought would get the most of out the seeing film.

The night of the premiere of FRAME BY FRAME in Afghanistan ended in tragedy. Right after the screening ended, news started to spread that a suicide bomber had hit a commuter bus full of TOLO employees on their way home from work. The attack claimed the lives of 7 people and injured 25 others. Seeing the shell of a bus, it was hard to imagine that anyone survived. The Taliban took responsibility — the first direct attack against journalists of its kind.

This amount of pain is hard to convey in headlines. That night my head swam with what had just happened leading up to the tragic incident. Dear friends and co-workers of the journalism community had gathered at the US Embassy for the premiere. It was a night of celebration. One embassy representative said this screening was the first time something like this had ever happened at the U.S. Embassy.

During the screening, I listened as the community of people, who’s fight for a free press parallels that of Wakil, Massoud, Farzana and Najibullah, laughed at all of Massoud’s jokes, sighed at the beauty of this country, and tsked at the actions of those standing in the way of press freedom. As Sardar Ahmad’sdedication came up on the screen, an indescribable feeling of mourning filled the room — these are the people who knew him well. It was powerful, and I have never felt more humbled and honored to be a witness of this community and their strength.

Additional screenings set in motion quickly after the premiere. The Chief Executive of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah, held a screening with hand selected ministry members and influencers. He spoke after the film and it was clear that the story had touched him.

Dominic Medley, the Spokesperson and Head of Media Relations for United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), set up two screenings for the UN. During one of the screenings I looked around the room and found my eyes landing on several foreign correspondents and freelance journalists that have been covering Afghanistan over the years.

Massoud did not miss a chance for a selfie with Nicholas “Fink” Haysom — the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of UNAMA along with Tadamichi Yamamoto the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan.

French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud introduces the film

From left to right: Ambassador of Sweden: Anders Sjöberg, Ambassador of the Netherlands: Henk Jan Bakker, Ambassador of Germany: Markus Potzel

As I sat down in the dark screening room of the U.S. Embassy screening, I had a little shock when I realized I was sitting next to the French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud. The ambassador loved the film and hosted his own screening in a beautiful room at the French Embassy the next week. The ambassador has been long-time friends with Farzana and Massoud and he took special care in inviting people to the event. There were ministry members, ambassadors of many nations, filmmakers and journalists within the crowd. It felt as though the film was embraced by the people in the room and the conversation that followed was both heartfelt and powerful on the state of journalism in Afghanistan.

French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud greets Farzana and Wakil after the Q&A

FRAME BY FRAME also screened at compound of the NATO-led mission Resolute Support (formally headquarters of ISAF). After the screening, the public affairs office of RS told me the biggest feedback they received was “I learned more from this documentary than from any other pre-deployment training I received” — This sparked an exciting conversation about using this film as a tool for training for RS.

 

Theater filling up at Resolute Support — Wakil was there for the Q&A to a packed house

And on my last day in Kabul it finally happened… A screening of FRAME BY FRAME with President Ashraf Ghani and the first lady Rula Ghani.

After watching the film, the president gave a statement about his commitment to the arts and congratulated the photojournalists on their daily bravery. The the president’s advisors were also in attendance along with Canadian ambassador Deborah Lyons. It was an honor to have two of the film’s advisors in attendance: reporter for the New York Times, Mujib Mashal and the director of the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, Najib Sharifi. Our line-producer Najibullah was also there, without whom this film would have not been possible.

As I sat in the palace watching FRAME BY FRAME with such an influential group of people, it began to sink in how far this film has come. It started as a glimmer of an idea in 2012 with a two week trip to Kabul, funded by selling my car and emptying my bank account and was ignited by the trust of these four brave photojournalists to tell their story. It was lifted up by a community of people who wanted this story to be told, and championed by an amazing team of people who believed in the power of this film.

Frame By Frame came from such humble beginnings to screening in front of the President of Afghanistan and so many influencers of the future of a free press. For 85 minutes — they reflected on the great achievements of the media in the last fifteen years, the risks they face on a daily basis, and how much is still at stake.

I held my breath as the last title came on the screen…

It’s hard to know what effect a film will have — but it was encouraging to see that this happened two days after the screening.

Here is Human Right’s Watch response to the decree:

Ghani’s decree constitutes a symbolic challenge to such killings. But if he’s serious about protecting media freedom, he needs to muster the political will to stop threats and attacks on Afghan journalists by pro-government forces.

FRAME BY FRAME continues to screen in countries around the world

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