Archive for the 'media' Category

01
Aug
14

if you know something, do what now?

August 1, 2014

Even the New York subway ads get it: “If you see something, say something.” Of course, it’s implicitly clear what you are supposed to say (and to whom). You’re supposed to find MTA personnel or someone in uniform and inform them a suspicious package was left behind. And that simple ad works because of these two steps: 1. Stay informed and alert; 2. Take appropriate action. Clear enough.

And therein lies the problem with our relationship to international news.

Even as we realize, especially over the last two decades, that what happens abroad can bring back consequences, and even as information sources become more mobile and more diffuse, we are actually doing less to resolve these problems. As Lauren Wolfe points out in an excellent new Foreign Policy article, we seem to have an attention deficit disorder with important events abroad. We tune in for a bit, we get all riled up, wave our phones like lighters at a concert or a candlelight vigil – in solidarity – and then, nothing. Wolfe, taking a collective psychosocial perspective, suggests that we lose steam because we do not fully identify with the parties involved. She quotes Gloria Steinem:

“’If we knew even one of these girls,’ she says, ‘empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more.’”

But that view sort of contradicts what is happening, because we are already empathetic – that’s how we know about the Nigerian girls in the first place. It may be that more empathy is needed to sustain momentum longer, but I think the problem is that empathy is not enough.

Take this quotation from a Time Lightbox article talking about two photographers one covering Israel’s view of the ongoing conflict and the other Palestine’s.

If the media “cover this story long enough, there will be a solution,” said Andrew Burton, the photog covering Israeli soldiers. But there is that disconnect – “long enough” suggests we build up great reserves of goodwill and empathy, but then magically a solution will reveal itself?

We do not hear what exactly is that solution, and by corollary, no one actually knows how to get there (or we might be making some progress by now). Alongside the information overload at moments of crisis, we have fewer signposts for concrete steps to make a meaningful difference. So we pick up our phones. It is no surprise then that hashtags and manipulative videos resonate – that’s what we would do. That’s all we know to do.

Another example: a week ago, there was an article about why “All You Need to Know” is the worst cliché in journalism. Not just bad, but harmful, because it sets a low common denominator for understanding a given topic and creates the illusion that we can stop learning more at a certain point.

That article hits at the same problem from the other direction: because we don’t really know what to do anyway, because it is unlikely we will actually change the way things are, here’s all that you need to know to satisfy your curiosity.

To get back to Wolfe’s article, complexity is a major stumbling block. As soon as we learn more, information comes pouring in, passion, opinions, propaganda – all of that leaves us not sure where to go next or what to do with our hard-earned information. Take Syria, already a distant reality. Now add on that the U.S.’ interests in that conflict might align on some level with Iran’s, and there is instant cognitive dissonance. And that’s just one potential relationship. Or the Israel-Palestine saga: we feel for the Palestinian people and their mistreatment by the IDF, but Hamas is also part of the problem, and didn’t the Palestinian people vote them in? And Israel – how to square its policies and ongoing atrocities with its own history, its own perception of itself as an oppressed people fighting for its survival, when it is Gazans’ survival at stake? In other words, if I did want to empathize in this situation, it’s not easy to pick whom.

But above all, once I figure out where my principles should place me, I have no idea to whom I should reach out with my desire for action. Domestic issues have that advantage – maybe I take to the streets, or organize, or write some letters. But where international affairs are concerned, it is leaders and multilateral agencies that pull the strings. Even if we wanted to help the girls in Nigeria, ultimately, we have to count on the Nigerian government to take that action – and how is that working out?

I will bring up one other article that has been circulating recently: “We’re Missing the Story” in the New York Times. It is actually a preview for an upcoming book (which in itself is a strong statement about the market dynamics underpinning journalistic articles). The author Anjan Sundaram makes the point that international news reporting is declining. He laments that foreign correspondents keep their distance in cushy hotels and rarely get the real story. He says he really tried to get real story by living as the Congolese did. Yet, that doesn’t add up – if the content was of local interest and required living amongst the Congolese, then why not just hire a Congolese reporter? And if the information is meant for an international audience, are we surprised that audience would focus on topics that pull them in for their own reasons?

Sundaram switches to an economic argument: there is money for international reporting, he says, it’s just allocated elsewhere. But if you make that kind of argument, then you have to acknowledge that these news outlets are businesses, and if the audience does not see a need or use for Congolese electoral politics, then naturally, the supply will be squeezed. Because what can an American citizen really do about Congolese politics? (Nothing, I hope.) Nor will they see the aftermath, because they won’t have to live under the elected official.

And that’s what it comes back to. Empower people with the news, we say. Inform and engage, we say. But to do what? We need to be clearer about pathways toward solutions so people can use the information we throw at them.

At the end of the day, it’s like learning a foreign language, if I don’t see the need for me to actually use it, there’s little chance I will retain what I learn, so why would I bother sticking with it?

29
Oct
13

nobody wants to pay me for sound arguments

October 28, 2013

Every once in a while, an article really bothers me. Here’s one, an op-ed in the New York Times, about why journalists should get paid: “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

I agree that good journalism has value and people should generally get paid for their work but Kreider gets it all wrong, showing once again that you use extremely problematic reasoning and still arrive at the right conclusion. Poor logic (ha). This article is symptomatic of the problem. If you make crap arguments and deploy conventional devices, then you cheapen your value. It starts with the headline, where you make a promise to the reader about your article’s content. This one references Marx (“Unite!”) but he’s not making a Marxist argument, he’s making a capitalist one. And to win his argument, he beats on a straw bogey (“The Man,” “they,” whoever they are) that denies payment – except inconveniently, he never acknowledges that it’s editors, many of whom are former reporters, who often seek free labor. Why? Because in a capitalist system, that’s what they do: maximize their profit, lower costs – and journalism participates fully in that system. And by posting substance-less declarations like this (“get paid!”), you’re actually making things worse. The notion that money is the only true value we should attach to journalistic endeavors should strike many journalists as offensive. Kreider tries to backtrack into a distinction about valueless art and the market economy, but journalism has always toed the line as a consumable commodity. The Internet pushed the demand into overdrive, and journalism responded with outlets like Buzzfeed. Our most popular news shows are comedy shows. Don’t blame the Internet for a collective failure of imagination. These might be entertaining, but they are not art. Are we surprised the market wants to pay less?

The example of his sister is really unfortunate and sloppy but if you do want to go in that direction and apply market logic, then you would draw parallels between our broken healthcare system including unnecessary procedures and medications and news outlets trying to manufacture news.

And don’t forget how we have all made information less valuable by giving away so much of it. We blog and we tweet and we post our lives on Facebook. If you retreat from serious journalism, as the industry has done, then you-are- saying more people are capable of this work. If you really want to improve journalists’ condition, it would be more useful to redefine value or you reshape the market. The kind of journalism that is prevailing struggles to argue it is providing a public service or strengthening civil society. On the other hand, did Edward Snowden ask for payment for his revelations? What is being done to encourage that kind of journalism? Unpaid labor is a systemic issue and getting a few bucks is hardly a sufficient remedy, as Kreider suggests; the question he should have asked is how much should different kinds of articles bring in? Or, why are social workers not paid well for helping people? Frankly, I think he’s making a plea to get paid because he’s making arguments for an industry that is losing its identity.

Also, he’s kind of a conceited pig – hard to make an argument about fairness when you’re self-absorbed and sexist.

12
Aug
13

toward an idiocracy

Mike Judge’s movie Idiocracy came out in 2006 and largely flew under the radar, at least compared to the success of Office Space. I first saw Idiocracy in 2008, when I was living in Burundi. I could see Judge has an amazing ability to simplify without being simplistic. His movies offer landscapes that reward repeated views and explorations because his details are subtly incisive and biting; they are often the main source of commentary. Shiny polyester clothing that we pull out of dispensers? Fast food from vending machines? Rounded corners on all the buildings to protect us from ourselves? Wow, wow and wow. But the best part is the very direct premise loaded with implications. In short, the world is getting universally dumber because our breeding habits are exacerbating inequalities like social class, wealth and intelligence, and we as a society are focused on the wrong priorities. The most average person alive today would then become the smartest person in the world five hundred years ahead.

Even though Judge extrapolates far ahead to arrive at this dystopian future, his analysis begins now, and many of the signs, literally, are around us. The insidious creep of corporations sponsorship to show up on everything from stadia to subway stations to events to research projects, the unchecked privatization of basic services like education and healthcare, the obvious breakdown of effective representative government – these changes add up to Judge’s Idiocracy.

So in addition to blogging about media matters, development issues and my dog, I’d like to introduce a weekly post about how we are moving closer and closer to Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. Here is a current example.

In Idiocracy, the very average protagonist, played by Luke Wilson, stumbles into a movie theater, and this is playing.

Ass1 Ass2

Judge suggests movies are getting worse and worse, and who needs dialogue, plot or characters when you can have trashy and pointless images like a gratuitous (Oscar-winning!) bare ass? Occasionally it farts.

And we love it. We love it because it sucks and we as an audience have been dumbing down our tastes for decades. It’s so bad, it’s the best. Sound familiar?

Enter Sharknado and all that it represents.

A quick sweep online reveals numerous headlines with phrases like “so-bad-they’re-good” or “in praise of bad movies.” Some extol the virtues of occasionally consuming low-grade garbage because sometimes it’s so bad, it’s good. Like fast food?

Here’s an article in celebration of “Sharknado-bad” movies:

http://www.inquisitr.com/877066/12-shark-movies-that-are-sharknado-bad/

This Wired piece tries to dissect the phenomenon intellectually:

http://www.wired.com/underwire/?p=125205

Clearly, entertaining “bad” movies have been around as long as cinema, but Judge’s point is a question of standards, and ours, he suggests, are very slowly but steadily eroding when it comes to movies, much like other, more important areas of our lives. Maybe things will start to change when we start demanding that change. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same – or worse.

*** As a bonus, I’ve also been mentally tracking over the years the prescience of the movie Demolition Man, a very very loose adaption of Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World. So far, it has predicted:

– Arnold Schwarzenegger will become president. –> He’s already governor.
– People will be teleconferenced into and attend meetings with their faces appearing on monitors. –> Skype
– Taco Bell will be the main food supplier in a post-apocalyptic society. –> Extrapolated out to fast food in general and this is not too far off.
– Cars will become self-driving. –> Google car
– Wesley Snipes might kill us all –> pending…

Here’s an old New York Times article hailing the modest genius of Demolition Man.

06
Aug
13

there needs to be an app for that

August 6, 2013

My article about mobile technologies assisting the fight against sexual violence in conflict zones ran in the Global Post a couple days ago. Here are a couple links that I wanted to attach to the article to give it more context.

First, about Syria, there have been two major features of the international community’s (lack of) action that I wanted to highlight: political gridlock and weak leadership. These factors exacerbate or even sustain the ongoing violence against civilians, largely committed by the ruling regime.

On the political gridlock: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42513

On failed leadership: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/07/2013717163831228330.html

The other two links elaborate on the “problematic” U.N. mission in the Congo with specific case examples. The second article cites a damning case of the U.N. not even aware of a mass atrocity 2 km from its base, highlighting a total disconnect from the community it purports to protect.

Peacekeepers gone wild in the DRC: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/peacekeepers-gone-wild-how-much-more-abuse-will-the-un-ignore-in-congo/article4462151/

Report of mass rape near U.N. base: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2010/08/201082402724259229.html

I think it’s important to emphasize my article for the Global Post is not a technology-will-save-us-all piece. Rather, this seems a case where technology can and must come in to compensate for larger institutional failures. Ironically, technology could potentially provoke those institutions to act, as with documentation of rights abuses, but its nature as a citizen-driven informal method also guarantees it will encounter major obstacles before it can considered useful to those institutions, either as data or evidence. The fight against sexual violence, especially in conflict zones, can use all the tools and ingenuity it can find, but really, civilians shouldn’t have to resort to that, and agencies like U.N. bodies should consider bolder, even forceful approaches if it wants to really “fight” sexual violence. Smartphones have so many less productive applications that people should be enjoying.

08
Apr
13

slow slow media

April 8, 2013

During a talk (I think at CIMA) in D.C. last week, I recalled hearing a startling observation that made me think, “Oh, that’s me.” It was about how social media forms, Facebook in particular, has caused people to stop posting on personal blogs as much because it’s quicker, easier and better connected, whereas a blog can be somewhat onerous to go through multiple pages for a new post with less reward (i.e., no friend network to translate into a guaranteed audience). I found the point compelling because when I thought about it that has been my exact behavior. I still prefer developing my points and engaging in discussions but now it’s done via Facebook, which is less ideal. There are problems of history, narrative and authorship with Facebook posts that still make me uncomfortable so I think I will try to shift back to blogging more. That said, blogs can be onerous and there is a process there but one aspect of it that both excites and discourages me is that I edit my blog posts before publishing. It takes work, but it also means it’s more worthwhile to read (I hope). And that’s a respectable quality. There’s too much sloppiness on social media even while it’s touted as a journalistic tool. Technology shouldn’t mean less discipline and craftsmanship – but, too often, it does.

Many more thoughts on social media use and journalism in upcoming posts this week.

So, for now, if Facebook is also cat memes and photos of dogs underwater, then my blog will be all pathos – captured in this portrait of my dog, Chauncey.

Chauncey_Portraits-4144

14
Jan
13

it’s not about you. it’s not even about me.

January 14, 2013

So. I am in New York now, after four years in East Africa. I have a dog that I brought back with me from Burundi. I am attending Columbia’s School of Journalism. I started a new photoblog. And the first thing I really want to write about after the long lay-off relates to a few threads that have criss-crossed in my last few years: identity, privacy, cultural appropriation and, of course, the media. And all of these themes sort of crashed together last night at the Golden Globes when, shockingly, a celebrity named Jodie Foster revealed herself to be a wildly independent and hyper-intelligent human being with a lot on her mind. We are all still reeling with this fact. Here goes. (And yes, I’ll get back to blogging about my life-events sooner than later but there’ll be more articles like this, too.)

The way the media has seized on Jodie Foster’s speech last night at the Golden Globes reveals a desperation to appropriate the world around us, as if a pageant of Olympian celebrities congratulating themselves was not enough of an artificial media ploy. Foster is probably gracious enough to answer follow-up questions to her speech but sharp enough to realize we have all missed the point.

This sample (http://jezebel.com/5975643/jodie-foster-comes-out-in-most-amazing-awards-speech-of-our-time) in particular jarred me into a frothy indignation. I haven’t seen an article so quickly and resoundingly get it all wrong. It begins, “OK, we need to walk through what just happened.”

Actually, no, we don’t. It’s her private life.  That’s the point. She will reveal as much or as little of it as she wants, in whatever way she wants.

The article’s suggestion of a “refusal” to come out is particularly baffling. It reminds me of the speculation with Anderson Cooper before he came out. One simply has to make a personal declaration in the way others have done – with the same words, looking straight into the camera. It is the tyranny of the collective with its Own Way. It might be important for a community to hear those exact words (“I am [fill with proper designation].), in that format, but that’s not how personal choices are made or communicated. As Foster suggested, we arrive at these choices in our own way and share them with the people around us: friends, family, colleagues. Funny enough, activists and fans aren’t on that list.

What is more important here is the tone, which hints at a larger cultural trait. The public, whether it’s one person or an audience, demands more and more to be addressed directly, with a clear pronouncement, squeezing out the words that we/they want to hear. The media happily feeds that obsession. The whole routine has the feel of a confession, in the way we push for an apology – from a child who refuses to say ‘sorry’ to a sibling to evasive politicians to governments demanding accountability over wartime atrocities. Except, of course, Foster has absolutely nothing to be sorry about.

So why is this speech so provocative? Is it because she has peeked out from behind the mask that we have placed on her? More than most she has had to live in a crystal-clear media-obsessed fishbowl since the 1970s (!), and – I’m confident in saying this – she is more intelligent than most in Hollywood (or anywhere). Maybe this speech grabs our attention because, for once, here is a real conflict without a script between vastly different adversaries: the personality-less celebrity we all want to possess and the unhappy and fiercely intelligent consciousness that refuses our labels. We are always shocked when someone disagrees so fundamentally with our desires.

Every time I have seen her on a screen – during an interview, in a film, at an awards show in France (presenting in flawless French, but with an American casualness), she has immensely impressed me. And I think that can easily translate into a desire to learn or know more about a person. If I step back and ask what is this chase really about, the answer would be simple: me. Us. But if we really want to appreciate a spirit like Foster’s, we might do better with the second person. You are out there. You have a (deeply) personal identity. You are in a world vastly different than mine. You speak faster than I can think. For the brief moments where you share your thoughts and presence, I’m glad for that. Let’s leave “us” out of this.