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What journalists need to know about new media and conflict

What journalists need to know about new media and conflict

On Wednesday November 30, Sciences Po Paris played host to a panel discussion on the subject of new media and conflict prevention. The prestigious panel included: Anne-Sophie Bordry, public affairs director for Facebook, France; William Echikson, former journalist and spokesperson for Google in Brussels; Fabrice Epelboin, publisher of the French version of ReadWriteWeb and co-founder of the Tunisian Association for Digital Liberties; Salpi H. Ghazarian, director of the Civilitas Foundation; Lilane Landor, language controller of BBC Global News; Joseph Maïla, founder of the Institue for training in Mediation and Negotiation and Omar Saghi, Sciences Po. professor and screenwriter.

Director of Science Po's International Business School, Ghassan Salamé opened the conference by discussing the contribution that new media has made to uprisings and revolutions across the world, namely in the Arab world. The French and Bolshevic revolutions happened without social media, Ghassan noted, but since the advent of the digital age, the way conflict and civil unrest unfold has become drastically different.

Ghassan suggested that new media, and social networks in particular, redefines many areas of society: social media, like Twitter, is helping accelerate the global exchange of information. Yet, simultaneously, it also allows an unprecedented amount of unverified information, rumour and sometimes deliberate misinformation, to be disseminated amongst the public. It is also redefining the use of language, confining statements to 140 characters and arguably encouraging the use of English as an international language. Social media also challenges established definitions of social interaction; what does it mean to follow someone? To track the events in someone's life used to take time and effort and now it can be done "with a single click on the iPhone". New media affects group dynamics within a society; it affects how groups mobilise themselves and has the potential to create a divide between those who use social media and those who do not.

So, how do Ghassan's observations on new media apply to journalism?

Lilane Landour suggested that attitude towards new media varies from organisation to organisation. The BBC, which has a strong international audience, thanks to its reputation for objectivity and factual accuracy, is also a public funded body. "We [The BBC] believe in a public space where everyone is free to enter." Therefore, facing the fact that the BBC are "no longer the gatekeepers" of information due to an increased use of social media posed less of a financial threat and fit with the all-inclusive ethos of the corporation.

The BBC's exacting standards of accuracy demanded that the corporation developed a strict social media policy to tackle the problem of misinformation. Initially, the corporation's use of social media was "ad hoc", but a sophisticated verification process, based in the BBC's user generated content hub, was soon implemented to deal with verifying the information coming from social media.

The team at the UGC hub authenticate information, particularly video footage, by tracing the information to its point and time of origin, referring to the location where the footage was shot, listening to the accent and the languages featured in any audio received, examining the weather and the shadow in footage to see if they match the purported location and time and verifying the objects, vehicles and weaponry in the footage to check if they are authentic, given what is known about its location of origin. This is one example of how legacy media has successfully integrated with social media. Traditional journalistic ethics and "the same editorial standards and processes" can help counter misinformation on social networks and produce information that is valid, reliable and accurate, Landor asserted.

Social media is particularly effective at communicating and informing in what journalists would call 'hostile environments', e.g. conflict situations or the aftermath of natural disasters, for instance in the aftermath of the Fukushima disater or the wake of Hurricane Tomas hitting Haïti, as Joseph Maïla observed. While social media may be a "poor substitute for reporters on the ground" according to Landor, sometimes user-generated content is essential for establishing the situation in difficult environments. Landor views this as proof that new media can effectively enhance the journalism of legacy media, rather than compete with it.

Social media is often credited with aiding the democratisation of information, which some consider a threat to traditional journalism. As William Echikson of Google stated, internet translation "will improve the net", making information published in many languages accessible to all. However, as Salpi Ghazarian of the Civilitas foundation stated, "social media requires an underpinning of a common field of information", which is where journalism comes in. Anne-Sophie Bordry of Facebook pointed out that with equal access to information published on the internet "we all have the same level of information", yet journalism is still required to make sense of the mountain of information that confronts people every day. Journalistic coverage of the Egyptian revolution has been invaluable for people around the world, even though "the revolution can be read on Facebook".

So while new media may throw up new and unexpected dilemmas for journalists, it is clear that their role in creating news, for instance their involvement in the revolutions in the Arab world, and their ability to report on news once it happens, means that they are tools that legacy media cannot afford to ignore.



Katherine Travers


2011-12-01 17:14

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