Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hasty or hero? Al-Zaidi bears his sole

The "shoe-thrower of Baghdad", as Muntazer al-Zaidi has now been dubbed by the Independent, has caused ripples of controvery the world over. The blogosphere went into over-drive with people posting the undeniabily amazing (if unintentionally farcical) video footage and people the world over have rejoiced at the sight of al-Zaidi's brave action. In a world of global communication, he has become an over-night hero for all those opposed to the allied occupation in Iraq.

So I was interested to see in yesterday's paper a comment from another Iraqi. Hamza Mahdi, a Baghdad shop keeper, was quoted saying: "I don't like Bush, but I don't agree with this action, it's not civilised. Journalists should use pen and paper to make their point, not their shoes". Is he right? Did al-Zaidi's action demonstrate the dangers of a journalist being too close to a story?

Obviously this "closeness" was through no fault of his own. Considering he has watched his country fall down around his ears, not to mention the fact he was kidnapped and badly beaten in 2007, one can hardly even begin to imagine, let alone blame him for the strength of his anger against those he feels are responisble. But it raises an important question about when emotion stops you doing your job. Have his actions aided understanding? I would suggest not. Although blogs and editorials have been almost unanimously in support of him, discussion has largely been of his daring action, not the motivation and stories behind it. The only thing I know for certain is that to throw shoes in an Arab country is not a good idea, despite the fact I can now do it for myself.

It reminded me of another example where a journalist's actions took away from the gravity of the situation. John Sweeney's outburst during a BBC Panormama investigation into the Church of Scientology has achieved almost legendary status. But can you remember what you actually learned from the programme about scientology? Thought not.

I am not for one moment taking away from the resentment al-Zaidi feels towards Bush. In my opinion it is understandable and justified. But I think it raises the very real problem journalists face when reporting on any difficult, complex and emotive situation to balance their own emotions with getting a story across, as Hamza Mahdi says, using a pen and paper. Or whatever the digital version of that is now. al-Zaidi's actions have wider inferences that go way beyond his shoe size.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Here endeth the lesson- and a mission statement

After ten weeks of blogging about weekly guest lectures we have received as part of our training, I am now going solo into the world of online media and blogging. No more speeches by industry experts to provide subject matter and inspriation- it's just me, my laptop and whatever topic takes my fancy.

I have decided to stick with what I know and am most passionate about- journalism and media more generally- but will blog on things I find interesting, outrageous, or just things that catch my eye. I aim to keep a close watch on all things 'online', and hope this will still form the backbone of my posts, but hopefully in a more varied way before.

So there's my mission statement. The first thing which has caught my eye was something I saw in The Sunday Times' Spectrum magazine. I love the Sunday Times, and this recent addition to their magazine showcases photo journalism from around the world each week. So now I love it even more.

Their centre spread this Sunday was a picture (above) taken by Brazilian photographer Christian Cravo of a Haitian vodoo exorcism. The picture was striking, and on reading the blurb I found it was nominanted for a new photo prize called the Prix Pictet. The prize, launched this year, is the first photographic competition to focus on issues of global sustainability, and this year's entries focussed on the theme of water. I've come to this belatedly as the winner was announced back in October, but some of the pictures are wonderful.

I particulalry like Malcolm Hutcheson's series (left) looking at the horrendous waste water situation in Lahore where 90% of the country's sewerage pours untreated into the local water supply, but the other 18 shortlisted entries all tell fascinating stories. The BBC put together a great slide show (in the style of a digital storytelling narritive) of the best of the compeition with commentary by the head of the Prix Pictet jury, so check it out.

In relation to the global effort to save our environment, media communications must play a key role in getting the message across and challenging apathy. These untold stories do just that and I agree with sustainability blog Inhabitat when they say "one must appreciate the visible power of such well crafted, critical, visual communication".

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Crying lone wolf

The most talked-about aspect of the "digi revolution" has been the explosion in social networking sites. There are the big guns we're all familiar with- Facebook, MySpace, Bebo. And those which are starting to rise up to face off their well established rivals, such as Twitter, Plurk and Flickr. Jemima Kiss blogged this week about the continental alternatives to such sites, for example the Spanish Tuenti, or the German Wer Kennt Wen. Others which you may not be familar with include a site aimed at networking mums called CafeMom, the self explanatory Horseland and Wired Journalists.

So the possibilities for communication and connection across continents and interests are now huge. But some critics suggest this move to the online world is making us more isolated offline than ever. Instead of going out and making friends, we're "accepting" their requests. And social networking and multi-media has had just as big an influence on the way we work as journalists as it has on Joe Bloggs's friend count, so I was interested to hear a similar worry raised by the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. In his lecture at Cardiff University, he suggested a reporter in 2008 is much more likely to be working as a lone wolf than as part of a team.

When I thought about this, I started to look at it in two ways. Firstly, as trainee journalists we are working hard to become the multi-skilled, multi-talented reporters of the new age and becoming increasingly self-sufficient. As we know by now, we can write, film, record, edit and publish, all on a rather swanky looking laptop. We don't need colleagues. As far back as 2005, and three years is a long time in the world of online, the industry noticed this move away from the traditional ways of working. Jay Rosen writes in his blog the "stand alone journalist has arrived". He also highlights an issue which I have discussed before, about being in competition not just with other publications but with every blogger out there. Somewhat prophetically he raises the possibility of syndicating UGC, which Cellan-Jones pointed out has now become a reality with sites such as Demotix.

But the second thing was whether this isolation will contribute to the decline of 'out-of-the-office' journalism. In a 2007 article for the Committe of Concerned Journalists, Katherine Noyes's interviews with reporters reveal just such concerns. If we as individual journalists have sources at our finger tips, can interview people via live video stream, we need never brace the British weather or have any human contact ever again.

Of course this is not the case. Journalists will always need, and want, to get out there with real, live people. Even the most hyperbolic Tweet is not the same as witnessing events and emotions in front of your own eyes (India Knight joins critics of social networking, discussing how far is too far when replacing human interaction with its Twitter equivalent). But the isolation from colleagues is concerning. If we are turning ourselves into all-singing, all-dancing, journalistic dream machines, who's to tell us when we're getting it wrong? When to take a step back from a story? Or a fantastic idea or angle we hadn't picked up on? Obviously editors will always have an input, but what about colleagues further down the chain of command who are just as valuable? If their role belongs to UGC now, which is added post-publication, could there be a sense of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted?

To get jobs in this climate we have to be technical chameleons, but I agree 100 per cent with Rory when he says a sense of balance must be kept in mind.