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Online Journalism Scandinavia: Waiting for the CAR to arrive

September 17th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Events, Online Journalism

Earlier in the week we blogged that the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Lillehammer (GIJC) had received a little criticism for being a bit 1.0 in its coverage.  But if its partcipants made limited use of the social web to report live from the event, the Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) contingent was out in force and here’s what they had to say.

Paul Myers, a BBC specialist in internet research, and web trainer, told Journalism.co.uk how slow CAR is in the UK.  “People pick up on the flashy stuff like Google maps, but not CAR,” Myers said.

“This is quite typical in my experience – lots of resistance when I started training journalists in using the internet at BBC in the early 90s. It has been uphill struggle to convince people to use the web,” he told us.

In an opening session, the director of computer-assisted reporting at ProPublica, Jennifer LaFleur, urged people not to be deterred by how complicated it sounds.  “Computer assisted reporting (CAR) is doing stories based on data analysis, but it’s really just working with public records,” she said.

“Don’t get intimidated by the statistics, maths or excel and access focus: these are just the tools we use to report with.”

Along with database editor Helena Bengtsson, from Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, LaFleur highlighted several recent successful news stories that had been unearthed by using CAR.

One, an investigation into the voting patterns of Swedish EU-parliamentarians, showed that several of the most high-profile parlimentarians abstained in 50 per cent or more of cases, causing political outcry.

But, maybe journalists should leave the more high powered CAR to the IT people? No, was the blunt answer to that audience question. CAR should be par for the course, said LaFleur. “90 per cent of stories we presented here were done with Access and Excel. I am a journalist doing journalism,” she said.

“You have to interview the data as you interview a person,’ added Helena Bengtsson. “When I do a query on data… I’m asking the data as a journalist.

“There is a lot of information in the data that IT-people wouldn’t have discovered. We’re journos first, data-specialists second,” Bengtsson said.

GCIJ Lillehammer also ran classes on RSS, scraping the web, being an online ‘bloodhound’ and effective web searching.

“There are two reasons for that: we have the training expertise and see major need for training in web research and computer assisted reporting”,  Haakon Hagsbö, from SKUP (a Norwegian foundation for investigative journalism) and one of the organisers of GIJC  Lillehammer, told Journalism.co.uk.

“It has certainly been very popular at earlier conferences. People don’t know what they don’t know until they attend the training. It’s a real eyeopener, but they soon find that it’s not rocket science, as these are simple yet powerful tools. We see more and more examples of colleagues from all over the world who meet online and use the web for research.

In reponse to Isaac Mao’s comment that there had been a low take-up of live social media reporting from the conference, Haugsbö said: “We have streamed everything live online, but other than that I don’t have a good answer to this.”

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Online Journalism Scandinavia: Investigative journalism conference was conference 1.0, says high-profile blogger

September 16th, 2008 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Events, Online Journalism

Some 500 investigative journalists from 86 different countries descended on Lillehammer, Norway, for the Global Investigative Journalism conference (GIJC) last week, but hardly any used social media to report live from the event.

Isaac Mao, who is often referred to as China’s first blogger (pictured right) and has watched bloggers slowly changing China’s media landscape for the better, found the absence of livebloggers and users of microblogging sites such as Twitter surprising.

‘Social media should redefine journalism’
“I wish 20 per cent here would twitter rather than just one, as it makes twittering from a conference more interesting. I think the group here is really big, but I have seen three guys open Skype, and no-one, other than you, have the Twitter-screen open,” Mao told me.

The high-profile blogger and social entrepreneur thinks blogs should redefine the landscape of journalism and how broad it really is, by enabling readers to participate more in traditional media.

He is firmly of the opinion that media should not be the exclusive domain of a few prestigious journalists.

“It is like The Global Shining Light Award which was awarded here: we need everyone to be enlightened. This has been conference 1.0.  I did not want to challenge it as people need time to adjust to the new reality.”

The power of Chinese bloggers
In this new reality Mao talks about, China has some 50 million bloggers (47 million at the end of 2007). Of those, only about 20 million can be described as active, but that is more than enough to make it difficult for the Chinese government to monitor all of them effectively, said Mao, who was invited to the Lillehammer conference to talk about the power of Chinese bloggers.

Mao is the founder of CNBlog.org and Social Brain Foundation, which support numerous grassroots initiatives in China, and is an associate of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School in the US.

He is also working closely with Global Voices in China, the blog network founded by Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman, and his work is particularly focused on training people in using safe ways to communicate online and empowering bloggers to do their own investigations by providing training in journalistic methods.

He thinks there has already been a great change:

“Three years ago bloggers copied traditional media, now traditional media copies bloggers. In particular, journalists do their best to steal content from lifestyle bloggers,” said Mao.

“But bloggers and journalists are not enemies to each other. In the beginning, journalists thought bloggers would steal their eyeballs, then they laughed at them; bloggers were not serious enough, not in-depth enough, now they have to cooperate with them,” said Mao.

Crossroads
China is now at an important crossroads, he says:

“We have millions of bloggers now; millions doing the same makes it tough for the government to monitor it. I am waiting for the tipping point: we are now at a crossroads. Many journalists have started their own blogs now, some even blog more than they write for the traditional media outlets they work for.

“Amateur writings occupy more and more space to try to cooperate with traditional media. The latter are unable to publish a lot of things, but they can give it to bloggers to publish,” said Mao, who hopes to see the two groups, bloggers and journalists, working together more and more.

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Online Journalism China: There’s an expanding array of tools to supply uncensored news – but how many are prepared to listen?

April 15th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Citizen journalism, Online Journalism

To add to our burgeoning hoard of international bloggers, Journalism.co.uk has recruited China Daily’s Dave Green to write about online journalism in China.

I recently fell into conversation with a Beijing taxi driver regarding his opinion on the situation in Tibet. His view was that he really had no idea who to believe, as he felt the government-controlled news sources could not be relied upon to provide a truthful account of what was really happening, and, even if he could read English, he would be reluctant to trust Western news sources either.

As an employee of China Daily I encounter on a daily basis the worst of China’s state-peddled misinformation and propaganda.

While it is true that Chinese language newspapers are sometimes prepared to go against the grain and report the truth, the reality is that all traditional media sources are state controlled, and those who wish to dig deeper must do so on China’s burgeoning blogosphere.

The cautionary tale of Zhou Shuguang illustrates the dangers Chinese bloggers face when attempting to bring the truth to light.

Zhou gained a measure of fame early last year for documenting the plight of a homeowner in Chongqing who refused to give in to the demands of a property developer and allow his home to be demolished.

Under the pen name Zola, Zhou publicized the case on his blog and provided up to date coverage with video and still images as the dispute progressed.

The publicity Zhou generated eventually led to the authorities reaching an agreement with the homeowner, inspiring Zhou to continue exposing similar cases.

However, his work, which was funded by a mixture of interview payments and donations, came to an abrupt end in November last year after he travelled to the city of Shenyang in northeast China.

There, he met with a number of defrauded investors who had been promised a 30 per cent return for providing for an aphrodisiac powder. The scheme was, of course, (ant) pie-in-the-sky and resulted in an army of angry investors demanding compensation and government action.

On his way to an interview, Zhou was picked up by Chinese police and told in no uncertain terms to get on a plane home and cease his activities.

He has since returned to his native home to open a business selling vegetables.

Zhou’s short-lived crusade raises a number of interesting issues, not least how he managed to keep his blog open.

Unsurprisingly, Zhou Shuguang’s Golden Age blog was added to the list of blacklisted websites soon after he began work, which prevented it being accessed in China.

However, Chinese netizens, led by blogger Isaac Mao are now increasingly hosting their blogs on servers outside the Chinese mainland.

While this still requires viewers to circumnavigate China’s firewall via the use of proxy servers, it does mean they are safe from being totally shut down by the authorities.

As John Kennedy documents on his excellent Global Voices China blog, the work of AIDS and environmental activist Hu Jia has inspired an increasingly net-savvy population to continue using the highly-encrypted services offered by Skype and Gmail to communicate.

Skype drew criticism in 2006 for partnering with TOM Online, a mobile internet company based in China, to restrict Chinese netizens to downloading a modified version of the software that incorporates a sensitive word filter.

However, for those who intend to seriously pursue citizen journalism in China, obtaining original Skype software is not a problem, and Zhou Shuguang used it extensively to interview people regarding the sensitive topics that he covered.

Those who choose to try and provide uncensored and accurate news in China have an expanding array of tools to help them win the battle with the censors, there are also tools to help read and watch their material behind the firewall.

However, as James Fallows says, the wider question remains how many Chinese will be prepared to listen and watch.

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