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A True Journalist

I’ve discussed the never ending debate of who is considered a real journalist in previous posts. I want to briefly return to the subject, prompted by an LA Times article about a citizen journalist. Her name is Mayhill Fowler and she decided to cover the Obama campaign for Huffington Post‘s “Off the Bus” project of 2008. Through an act of accurate, honest citizen journalism, Mayhill reported Obama saying, “And it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” of the Midwesterners who have suffered from the lack of employment and job security of the 2008 economy. The remark made Obama look elitist, and as a strong Obama supporter, Mayhill was dismayed. Regardless, she submitted the report to Huff Post and they posted it, backing her 100% of the way. Naturally, Mayhill received all kinds of harsh, even violent, comments from Obama supporters – some even accusing her of switching sides.

This is a perfect example of beautiful journalism. The kind of journalism that should be coming from all reporters – professional and amateur. Mayhill conducted herself exactly as any reporter should. She was transparent about her views and did not hide the fact that she was an Obama supporter. As a journalist, you can favor whatever you want – there is no rule saying you can’t have an opinion. But if you want to report the facts, it is purely unethical to allow those views to taint your report. Mayhill understood her responsibility and submitted the quotes verbatim.

To further her influence, Mayhill recorded Bill Clinton denouncing Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum for his article on Mr. Clinton. Clinton had no idea 61-year-old Fowler was a journalist – she technically isn’t, with no formal training. Everyone with a cell phone is a journalist these days, however, and nothing is really “off the record” anymore. If you are in the public spotlight, especially in the realm of politics, you should know by now that anything you say and do will eventually end up on the Internet. No one can hide anymore, and for a journalist, that concept can be refreshing. For everyone else, maybe not so much.

It infuriates me that anyone had the nerve to threaten such an honest person for reporting accurately. We are not meant to be cheerleaders for one side or the other, we are meant to prepare you with enough information to make your own educated decision. It is not our job as journalists to tell you what you want to hear. It is our job to tell you the truth, regardless of whether you want to hear it or not.

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Baby Band Radiohead

I recently read the 2007 New York Times article “Radiohead, Big Enough to Act like a Baby Band.” I was especially intrigued by this story because I hold so much respect for Radiohead already, so I find it interesting when they find their way into the mainstream media. The story discusses the band’s decision to allow fans to name their price for their album “In Rainbows.” It’s an interesting concept and, in my opinion, an extremely intelligent decision. People rarely pay for music these days – and they are especially not getting it in record stores anymore. They are buying or pirating music online and Radiohead chose to appeal to that market.

Radiohead has such a loyal fanbase that they can afford to act like a “baby band,” or one that is trying to make it big by offering consumers music and merchandise for little to no cost – a good way to get their sound out there. As the article states:

Without a label or a fixed price, and not quantifying its sales for pop charts, “In Rainbows” is selling copies, being avidly played and making the world pay attention.

This is a genius business decision that matches their genius sound. Radiohead was playing stuff off “In Rainbows” before the album was even completed, during their 2006 tour. Sure, you could pre-order the $80 package complete with bonus tracks, vinyls, and merchandise, but you could also purchase all 10 tracks at good quality for 90 cents. Radiohead recognizes that if people want to, they can easily get recorded music for free online. It really comes down to the music, and if people are willing to pay for it, they will.

Another snippet from the story reads:

The fact that fans have paid to get “In Rainbows” is a measure of their eagerness to keep Radiohead writing songs. And the deeper underlying reality is that fans have always set the value of music. They are the ones to decide, yes or no, to buy an album, a single or a concert ticket at the available price. Radiohead’s digital-era flexibility allows more supporters to make themselves known.

It’s refreshing to know that some artists out there are most concerned with their music and their fans, which is what seems to be the underlying motivation for Radiohead to be acting the way they are.

Although, Radiohead just released their newest album this year, “King of Limbs” and they did not present the same offer to fans. Perhaps the four year gap has kept fans eager and waiting for new music, therefore making them willing to pay for the album in full. It’s definitely not for lack of functionality – “In Rainbows” was incredibly successful. It’s something I have contemplated and speculated on, but cannot seem to come up with a solid answer.

My independent media professor invited William A. Jacobson, creator of conservative blog “Legal Insurrection,” to our class a few days ago. My own personal politics aside, it was refreshing to see a speaker with a different perspective than 95% of the Ithaca College campus welcomed into a classroom. The stereotypical Conservative is often looked at negatively, many for good reason – take Bill O’Reilly or other FoxNews stars, for example. The heart of Jacobson’s discussion was not to stuff his politics down our throats, but rather to explain what it takes to start up and maintain a successful blog, regardless of the content.

I was personally pleasantly surprised by Jacobson, who also serves as a law professor at Cornell University. I had checked out his blog prior to the class. He is open and transparent about his viewpoints and holds nothing back when discussing politics. For a journalist, I know less about politics than I maybe should. That is not to say that I’m completely ignorant, but I have a lot to learn and am quite undecided about several hot button issues. I find it helpful to look at issues from all perspectives, so I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from someone with a different viewpoint than many people I am surrounded with every day. I very well might vehemently appose what Jacobson is saying, but at least there is someone out there, who I can respect, saying it.

A Forgotten Casualty

The media, especially the independent media, is flooded with Iraq war coverage – some things true, a lot of things not. There is no denying that this war, as is the case with all wars, is taking a drastic toll on human lives. There is something we have all seem to forgotten, however – the toll this war has taken on culture, specifically art.

I had not much considered this unfortunate casualty myself until I stumbled upon this NPR article, entitled “Many Iraqi Artists Struggle, Suffer in Silence.” While Iraq was once a beacon of art in the Arab world, three decades of crippling invasions and sectarian fighting has pushed much of the art and artists into exile. While some remain, few artists feel comfortable reflecting the violence and suffering that surrounds them.

One point that struck me in particular read:

Under Saddam, artists knew that as long as they stayed on message — building monuments to the regime or making paintings that showed the dictator as a benevolent folk hero — they wouldn’t be punished.

Us media people always talk about the suppression of the first amendment. It is interesting to see how all forms of art are severely suppressed all over the world.

Another point addressed what the art depicts now – images like abstract water buffalo and benign portraits of citizens. The images are warless. This is done on purpose by many, one artist says, as a way to forget what is around them every day. Also, depicting such violence would be seen as an attempt to be critical of the government, which is severely frowned upon. As Mahir Mohammad, ceramicist and art professor says, “They want us to say the government is good, and the Americans [are] good, the policy now is good.”

I’m not sure what else this war can take from the world, but it would be a tragedy to watch such artistry diminish any further than it already has.

As I was skimming around NPR, I came across this really fantastic story. Little background: During a snow storm in Brooklyn, Todd Bieber decided to throw on some skis and trek through Prospect Park. While skiing, he discovered an old canister of film buried in the snow. Out of curiosity, Bieber developed the film and discovered gorgeous black and white photos of Coney Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Prospect Park. Mixed in were photos of two men. He desperately wanted to find the photographer, so he posted a video on YouTube, which went viral in a matter of a few days and Bieber received over 800 emails from people who wanted to help.

Two months later, he received an email from Camille Roche with a subject line reading, “Author of Film.” It turns out, she was studying abroad in New York City from Europe and was the sister of the two men featured in the photos. Bieber and his girlfriend immediately booked a trip to Paris to find Roche and return her photos. Inspired by his adventure, Bieber took his own photos throughout his trip, even some with Roche herself, and left them outside of a Parisian cafe with a message saying,”It happened once, it can happen again. If you find me, I can buy you coffee and we’ll become friends. It’s the beginning of an adventure.”

Check out the video and read the story! It’s truly an inspiring concept all based around the art of photography. It’s amazing the things that bring people together and the relationships we form.

I came across this website today. It’s called FLYP and it is essentially an online magazine – but with a twist. Their goal is to provide an engaging and enriching multimedia experience. As they say on their website, “We approach the Internet as a new medium—not just a new distribution channel—and we strive for a form of journalism that fulfills its possibilities on topics that range from politics and science to art and music.”

They combine high-quality text, video, photos, audio, animation and cutting edge design. It is completely interactive. They use technology to really engage and involve the audience. When you look at a story, you look at it from every angle and perspective – and they somehow find a way to incorporate all your senses in the process.

Their latest lead story, “A Matter of Life and Death” explores the idea of hospice care and who gets to decide when a human’s life is over. I absolutely recommend checking it out. When you do, read all the text, watch all the video, glance at all the photos, and listen to the voices of those really affected by the issue.

Recently, I read Gene Hyde’s article “Breaking Through the Information Blockade,” which uses the Seattle media revolution as a catalyst to describe the powerful impact of independent media and how it has grown since those days in the late 90s, early 2000s.

What media revolution am I referring to? In 1999, protestors took over the city of Seattle to express their complaints with the decisions of the World Trade Center Organization. Journalists were there too – both mainstream and indy media representatives. Many journalists were concerned with the coverage of the mainstream press, who by and large were not accurately representing the diversity of the protestors. Therefore, they formed the Independent Media Center and registered a website and set up a newsroom with computers, Internet lines, digital editing systems and streaming audio and video. With the help of volunteers, they took to the streets in an effort to give a voice to the heart of the issue – the people.

Indymedia gave the globe a fresh look at news. The best part? They didn’t have to go through a corporate filter. They presented the truth and they did so quickly. You got video, audio, photographs, text reports – all the info was right there and it came from the people who actually know a thing or two about the issue. It came from the citizens.

By 2001, there were 60 independent media outlets in 20 different countries spanning six continents. As you can imagine, there are tons more today just trying to combat the voice of the mainstream press. The article raises the issue of, how can you really trust indy media any more than anyone else? All reporters have their biases and it has always been the job of the consumer to absorb as much information as they can and make educated judgments based on well rounded research. Indy media provides that other voice, that other side. Sure, some are blatantly biased – but they still give the consumer another voice to consider.

The article put the issue so beautifully, so I’ll restate it here: “While Indymedia won’t replace the mainstream press any time soon, they are growing at an impressive rate. They will continue to research their stories, cover issues aggressively, and take time to report on issues shunned by the mainstream press. Indymedias and the communities they represent are a force to contend with, because as the Columbia Journalism Review observed, they’re ‘organized, they’re global, and they’re not going away.'”

Indy media is not going away. They’re only gaining traction. With more and more people getting their news from alternative sources, the more this progressive voice will be heard. They won’t be able to change everyone’s minds, but they can can certainly try.

With journalism and technology changing simultaneously at a rapid pace, who IS a journalist these days? And who gets to decide?

The biggest controversy lies in the blogosphere. Are bloggers considered journalists? Should they be taken seriously? Christopher B. Daly raises these very issues by saying:

“Not surprisingly, most bloggers insist that they are journalists, entitled to equal rights with older media. Others disagree, saying bloggers are not journalists by any stretch. Recently, for example, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw argued that bloggers should not be considered journalists because they have no experience, they have no editors, and they have no standards.”

I pose a few arguments to Shaw’s points. Number one: How much experience do you need to speak the truth? Journalists who have years of training and experience lie to us all the time. I prove this point irrelevant.

Number two: bloggers have ten times the editors any corporate media has. If blogs are to be taken seriously, they need citations, they need links, they need attributions to validate their opinions. Therefore, editing is a click away. Don’t believe what a blogger has to say? Click on the link located dead center in the reporting and check it yourself. Bloggers are corrected instantly on any mistakes with a simple comment submitted by Joe Shmo. How often does the mainstream media issue corrections? Not nearly enough to make up for the number of mistakes they make daily.

Number three: Bloggers have no standards? Many are taking the effort to speak their mind on issues mainstream media outlets are blatantly ignoring. They at least have high enough standards to advocate for the truth.

Daly also addresses two tricky questions: should bloggers be protected by the first amendment or shield laws?

Aren’t all Americans protected by the first amendment? When an American becomes a blogger, do they lose their citizenship? Didn’t think so.

Shield laws are a bit trickier. They were designed to protect the right of journalists to keep their anonymous sources anonymous. When blogging started, most bloggers used the new medium as a way to vent their opinion to anyone who would listen. These days, however, blogging has shifted toward the realm of news and advocacy journalism, which require accurate sourcing. Bloggers like Josh Marshall, who are developing sources to provide us with valid truths should be protected by the same laws as any other journalist out there.

The debate about who is a real journalist will probably go on for as long as people practice journalism (which I hope is forever). Without new technology, we would still be distributing hand written pamphlets around town. So why punish those who are taking advantage of the advances of the medium? I say, more power to you!