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Tweeted debate: does it have any significance for democracy?

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

So, the first tweeted presidential debate. This week the AP reported that Current TV will let its audience have their say by publishing their live Twitter comments on screen; now the news is doing the rounds on the blogs.

During the debates, the station will broadcast Twitter messages (or tweets) from viewers as John McCain and Barack Obama go head to head.

It’s all certainly a lot further on than when the first ever debate went out on television: on September 1960 26, when 70 million US viewers watched senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts word-battle vice president Richard Nixon.

Current TV, which is extremely pro viewer interaction, was actually co-founded by Al Gore, though the channel says ‘Hack the Debate’, as it has become known, was not his idea.

An article over at the Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) says, of the Nixon-Kennedy debate, “Perhaps as no other single event, the Great Debates forced us to ponder the role of television in democratic life.”

So, does Twittering and instantaneous (as much as it can be) viewer feedback have anything like the same significance? What’s the role of the internet here in democratic life?

Also, comments will be filtered to fit in with broadcast standards: does this change its impact at all?

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Online Journalism China: Fake news feeds public mistrust in media

September 8th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Chinese sports writer Wang Xiaoshan has used the controversy over the age of China’s double Olympic gold medallist, He Kexin, to open a wider debate on the prevalence of so-called fake news.

The original case against He stemmed largely from Chinese press reports, both state-run and independent, that gave her age as 13 in the run up to the Games, and therefore below the minimum age of 16 required to take part in the gymnastic competition.

That such a wide variety of sources could all be prone to the same inaccuracy seems unlikely, but in a piece sourced from Wang’s blog and translated by John Kennedy at Global Voices, Wang suggests such mistakes are symptomatic of ‘many media’s pre-existing problem of making up news’.

According to Wang, there is ‘no way that He Kexin could have forgotten her own age’, and the widespread reports suggesting she was 13 were the result of laziness and an unwillingness on behalf of journalists to verify their sources.

China has been plagued by fake news for some time:

The most recent case comes from the official newspaper of Guangdong province, the Nanfang Daily, in which a reporter claims to have witnessed police foiling a terrorist bomb plot in the city’s airport.

If the journalist had listed the police as his source his story may have escaped unnoticed, but saying the story came from unnamed ‘travellers in the airport’, who were privy to the hijackers’ intentions, sparked a wave of incredulity amongst the paper’s web community.

In another instance, national broadcaster CCTV was lambasted for releasing footage that apparently showed Olympic volunteers donating money in support of the May 12 earthquake relief effort, only for eagle-eyed viewers to point out that the ‘donors’ did not actually put any money into the collection boxes.

The latter example is an obvious instance of propaganda designed to unite the country in the wake of a devastating disaster, but the commercial press is equally culpable.

According to David Bandurski, a journalist and researcher at China Media Project, the proliferation of fake news is the result of Chinese media’s struggle to redefine its role in the wake of the curtailment of government subsidies in the mid to late 1990s.

The withdrawal of the government’s financial support was not coupled with a loosening of the shackles of state control. As such, Chinese media faces an intense battle to attract readers and advertising revenue, but is stymied by both the perception and the reality that it is not free to report, or sell, the truth.

This catch 22 situation is best evidenced by a controversy that erupted in July 2007 when a local TV report showed Beijing street vendors making buns using waste cardboard and pork fat. National state media also ran the piece and it gained international prominence, but authorities later claimed the freelance reporter responsible had faked the footage.

This left the public suitably perplexed as to whom to trust, and deeply undermined confidence in the veracity of Chinese media reports. Many believed the story was damaging enough to warrant a cover-up by the government as it fell at a time when China faced significant international pressure over its food safety record.

Beijing responded by launching a campaign against freelancers.

Bandurski notes that such government-backed campaigns punish the individual journalists responsible without ever reviewing the ‘the deeper institutional causes’ that allow fake news to proliferate. He draws a parallel with the punishment of corrupt officials, who are seen as ‘isolated moral deviants’ rather than products of a system that is at its root corrupt, or at least encouraging of corruption.

Fake news will continue to be filed, whether intentionally or as a result of bad practice, until Chinese media finds a way to sell truth as a commodity and regain the public’s trust.

Yet a sceptical public that questions what it reads can only be a good thing: a healthy mistrust of officialdom may, over time, spur alternative news sources to find ways to supply readers with the truth, reducing the need for sensationalist fake news in the process.

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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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