The Missing Link?

December 28, 2008

In terms of blogging, Jeff Jarvis sagely advocates doing what you do best and linking to the rest.

With information overload on the net, why not link to sites with better material or technology, and stick either to the things you know inside out, or have exclusive knowledge about?

A point reiterated whole-heartedly by sports writer Rick Waghorn, the brains behind myfootballwritter.com, a programme based on football, but facilitating his wider vision; to enable local journalism to flourish.

While his ideas are potentially intriguing, in practise his concept does not seem to be catching on, and Waghorn has already had to abandon two fledgling projects.

In fairness to him, the current economic climate can’t be helping much, and in theory both Jarvis and Waghorn are barking up the right tree.

But the problem with this attitude is it regurgitates content. If, as Waghorn promotes, big news organisations like the BBC trade better quality interviews with stories they haven’t the manpower to cover from local media, it follows that invariably you will keep seeing the same material – interviews, footage – on different sites.

And without a healthy sense of competition within the media, we could be moving back into the very era of journalism we are currently trying to detach ourselves from; the monopolisation of the media by a chosen few.

Robert Peston is a prime example. Widely known as the journalist of the financial crisis, Peston boasts unrivalled contacts, exhaustive knowledge and credible insight. Millions link to his blog – why say it when someone else can say it better?

Consequently he enjoys a fearsome presence in financial journalism. And although it would be unfair and untrue to accuse Robert Peston of single-handedly causing a recession, with God-like stature he stated: there will be a crisis. And it was so.

It is difficult to compete with such a fountain of knowledge. And whilst changes in the media industry which encourage journalists to specialise are in so many ways a good thing, as Nick Davies maintains in his book, Flat Earth News, this can also contribute to churnalism. If we are not careful, Davies argues, the free-for-all edge will be taken out of journalism, and thus, its integrity.

The web offers journalists the opportunity to tap into an enormous wealth of content and this is changing the way they collect information. Additionally there is a growing thirst for specialist journalists from readers whose expectations have risen because of the in-depth information already available on the internet. 

Using the example of Peston, those without his array of contacts can gain a useful insight into the finacial market by linking to his blog. But a balance must be struck so this technology can be used in a creative and thoughtful way.

Get a (second) life

November 20, 2008

Imagine this scenario: You enter a room to find your partner engrossed in the computer. Nothing strange about that.

But suppose your partner was preoccupied with placating a furious online boyfriend, or heavy petting their cyber girlfriend…

Or even enjoying fellatio after paying virtual money for a two-dimensional hooker?

You may or may not think this is a big deal. But Amy Pollard divorced her husband over it.

Amy and David Pollard met five years ago in a chat room, and their legal marriage, although short, nonetheless survived their online marriage.

Both have an avatar, a Second Life character through which the ex-couple exist in cyberspace. These tend to look like the Brad Pitts or Angelina Jolies of this world, however acne ridden their creator may be.

Ironically Second Life offers people what they are trying to escape from in their first lives. Homes, families, finances, pets, albeit more glamorous ones.

But mostly it’s about trying to hook up with a cyberspace hottie.second-life_1

Stephen Lunn in his article Don’t be a virtual ass, rush out this second and get a life in The Australian, takes the view that sometimes people should just stand up, walk to the closest door, proceed through it and get themselves the hell outside.

But according to Philip Linden of Second Life, it enables people to ” Re-define what personal identity means, when expressed in a world where anybody can be anything, can do anything, and can create virtually anything.”

Second Life has generated huge interest in terms of its capacity to offer a low-budget platform where conferences or meetings can be run on limited funds. And Reuters even have their own Second Life reporter, Eric Reuters. In real life he is Eric Krangel, a technology journalist based in New York City.

But Communities Editor of the Daily Telegraph, Shane Richmond, said in an Online Lecture at Cardiff University: “Personally I can’t see it replacing the Internet, which gives a lot of information in a short space of time. If I have to walk or fly to read my email, it doesn’t really grab me.”

Despite scepticism from people like Mr. Richmond, we have left the era where the media industry can force ideas (however good) down the metaphorical throats of their audience.

Alex Davies explores a valid point in her blog about how the future of Online Journalism will be dictated by people, not technology – so if people want to interact on Second Life rather than traditional news sites, they will. Particularly since Second Life prides itself on being driven by user generated content.

But whether or not Second Life is destined to become bigger than say, Google, it brings to the forefront some interesting and relevant issues. And cases like the Pollards’ divorce enter into unchartered territory.

So how does the ordinary person navigate around already slippery relationship rules on the Internet? How would they react if their partner too were having an online “virtual” relationship? Would they see it as a pardonable offence, banishable behaviour, or just a bit of fun? And has the Internet changed our definition of infidelity?

Sex sells in Second Life, as it does in real life, and it’s no secret that cybersex is among the entertainments on offer in the programme. Entrepreneurial users even make real money as cyber hookers. (Link to interview with Evangeline, an online prostitute. Be warned; it’s fairly x-rated!)amster-dames02

But as the definition of reality becomes horribly blurred, we find ourselves in the midst of a whole host of moral dilemmas.

Unfortunately, rape in programmes like Second Life is not unheard of. Not only the “consensual” rape built into some games (although if you’re interested in that debate, Jess McCabe has an interesting blog about it). But a case last year in Belgium about a girl who claimed she was raped on Second Life raised frantic debates about what constitutes rape. (Mark Methenitis gives an overview of the legalities involved and advises police to use their time to catch real rapists).

While trawling through various sites on this subject, a comment by Brad Drac really stood out. He said:

“Second Life’s biggest appeal is that it’s content is entirely user created and governed. Unfortunately, this turns out to be more of a weakness, as the majority of the people playing it are incompetent, moronic, sexual deviants. Shit there’s even “adoption agencies” where people can rent kids. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine why.”

Amy Pollard knew her randy ex-husband was looking for something we can only guess was missing from their relationship. There was certainly another person interacting with her significant other, if not physically, than emotionally, so doesn’t that constitute cheating?

And this is what it comes down to. Web 2.0 is all about individuals and communities interacting directly with each other. And it is growing increasingly sophisticated to the extent that people are living out lives, perpetrating ‘crimes’, and making money, all of which are beginning to have consequences in their real lives.

Still, Second Life is still in its elementary form. I will watch with interest to see where its users take it.

An article in today’s Sun entitled ‘Have you no shame’, calls for readers to petition against the lack of apology from social services in relation to ‘Baby P’, denouncing them as “shameful, disgusting, cowardly and disgraceful”.

While this is a one-sided but valid point, putting individual head-shots of social workers alongside tag-lines such as ‘PASSED THE BUCK’ ‘RETURNED TOT TO MUM’ and ‘TAKEN IN BY A LIAR’, asking members of the public who know the named and shamed, to call, text, or email (numbers supplied) The Sun with information, is in itself shameful.

Social services have helped vast numbers of children. And the system they operate under has huge legal and beurocratic restrictions.

The fact this baby underwent enormous physical and emotional pain should not be excused, and the people responsible for what happened should be penalised. But it should not be a witch-hunt.

Radio 4’s Analysis: Responsible Journalism raised questions about whether our newspapers have a responsibility to make the public space a better place.

The programme discussed some people’s attitudes about how ethics have no place in journalism. Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History, University of Westminster, who was taking part on the show said: “The press in Britain feels as if on the whole it would rather there was a scandal and involved somebody in charge’s blood”.

Sure The Sun raises a valuable point. But is it responsible to put faces of vulnerable, and possibly innocent people in the newspaper and online?

Martin Moore, Director of Media Standards’ Trust, was also taking part on the show. He hit the nail on the head: “There is a tone that the press takes. It tends to be sceptical, highly aggressive and somewhat hysterical. And to a certain extent one could argue that this is positive because it raises issues to high on the agenda very quickly, it brings them to people’s attention very fast. At the same time, it can alienate many people from the debate itself because they’re either scared to participate themselves or because they just don’t want to engage in something of such high tempo and such hysteria”. (see here)

Listen to the show, its not very long, but really fascinating.

Journalists who don’t report responsibly will both alienate and potentially harm people. Referring to my blog How the media loses friends and alienates people, from a business perspective, journalists cannot afford to estrange any more of their readers.

The Worlds Gone Obarmy…

November 12, 2008

The unprecedented number of young American votes is a feat of which Obama and his team should be rightly proud.

The numbers speak for themselves in that they indicate the extent to which Obama understands the America he has newly inherited…this man knows how to get things done.

And both Barack and Michelle Obama understand how important image is.

Michelle Obama making a speech

Michelle Obama making a speech

In an interview with British Vogue, Michelle Obama talks about the beautiful but classic image she has developed for herself, a look that comes across as no-nonsense but feminine – and a look that many high-powered women find difficult to master.

The President-Elect is an attractive man who always looks impeccable. He is certainly in tune with the young of America, even being spotted in the occasional basketball cap. He also famously intends to install basketball hoops at the Whitehouse080828_obamagym22

writing for The American Prospect, explains how American elections can often be a popularity contest. When working at a bar in Washington during my gap year I overheard a worrying remark that sent shivers down my spine, but has enabled me to understand the psyche governing some peoples attitudes towards voting in the States.

A perfectly normal looking man stated he would vote Bush because “the guy looked like he would be a good fishing buddy”… I have no words.

In part to combat middle Americas instinctive leaning towards republicans for reasons as stupid as this, online social networking has been used furiously by Mr Obama and his team. But as Jose Antonio Vargas of the Washington Post points out, blogging does not make communities but grows around communities that are already there. Obama understood this, which helped him to infiltrate diverse pockets of voters.

The quote on the OBAMABIDEN blog is telling in its insight.

‘I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I’m asking you to believe in yours’

What this election hammered home is individual people really do have a voice. But although Mr Obama won the presidency for a number of very good reasons it is unlikely that he would have had the same lead if McCain’s lot had been more web savvy.

The media hype surrounding Obama has been almost sycophantic, but in using the Internet, Obama has exposed himself to criticism too.

Understanding that has enabled him to connect with his countrymen, in a way never seen before. Obama effectively brought politics into the modern era, accepting society today is more interactive, something we as journalists certainly have to adapt to. It has taken the Internet to bridge the gap between politics and its perceived relevance to people’s day-to-day lives.

The media hype surrounding Obama sets standards for the Democrats, which they will find difficult to live up to. And now his campaign has finished I will be interested to see what happens to his Web presence.

Simon Pegg had me clutching my sides and falling off my seat…the guy is hilarious. If you ignore the slightly crass moments involving miniature dogs dressed in human clothing (well, it is a Hollywood blockbuster after all), he absolutely nails a role that explores relevant issues about the kinds of stereotypes that surround journalists, and the problems that many journalists may encounter on their way to the 7th room or (forgive me ladies), the Big Boy’s jobs.

One fact is clear. The newspaper industry is losing readers. As Christopher Reiss, ex Political Editor of the Evening Standard, wisely pointed out, this has something to do with the Internet, but not everything.

In a 2000 Ipsos MORI census, journalists got the lowest vote of confidence with only 15% of people saying they trusted them. 15%!!  Painfully, this was even lower than politicians at 20%

But why so low?

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People pigeonholes journalists in two ways. The struggling, but deeply moral good guys vs. the backstabbing, money-orientated scum-bags, who would probably sell their own children to a Moroccan slave trade for a good scoop. The good guys face the decision between a penniless existence and joining the dark side.

How true a perception is this? Did the film hit the nail on the head or is it just indicative of stereotypical and harmful attitudes towards the media?

The film emphasises the shallowness of Hollywood and the people surrounding it. But what effect does celebrity interest and coverage have on hard news? Bunching different types of media together is detrimental, particularly when celebrity news can often be reminiscent of the gladiator arenas of old; a good, ruinous story about a celebrity satiates the public’s appetite for blood, the socially acceptable version, but nonetheless innately human pleasure in seeing the downfalls of others.gladiatorpreview

Ironically this can backfire on a journalist’s reputation, and often readers seem to have no qualms in biting the hand that feeds them. An example of this is the public outrage towards the media for hounding Amy Winehouse (click here), something that they couldn’t get enough of to start off with.amy-winehouse-sick

The film suggests that being successful invariably means writing about what your readers are interested in, however superficial the subject may be – the media is, at the end of the day, an industry. However, changing times call for a changing focus, subscriptions for the Economist have gone up, More on the other hand seems to be struggling with its readership. Unsurprisingly, people are less interested in reading about Madonna’s latest craze, and more interested in reading about the financial market…news with substance is on its way up. For now. Perhaps this will also help to change perceptions towards the media.

Although there are numerous reasons why journalists have acquired a bad name for themselves, the news industry has changed enormously since the days that every journo had a bottle of brandy in the top drawer of their office desk. Editors can no longer afford to be complacent because they are constantly challenged by the accessibility of the Internet, the feedback that it enables and vast competition it offers.

The Internet prevents journalists from pressing their hands firmly to their ears, and thus they have increasingly found themselves in embarrassing situations that ten years ago they would have got away with. Think Andrew Gilligan. Despite public opinion, mistakes are mostly made in good faith, the Internet has forced journalists to do their job more thoroughly, and although changes are certainly needed, journalism is heading in a better direction.

Trust issues are now deeply embedded in the media, and scrupulous attention to detail and facts by journalists are essential if attitudes are going to change. Although arguably better quality news will attract more readers, this is difficult to balance with the fact that so many readers are interested in fast, juicy news, which often has a side-product of sloppy reporting.

In that case, to what extent are our readers fuelling, and in some ways responsible, for the media’s bad rep?