ChinaBeat - Keeping Up on the Internet Highway

Dec 172008

I was writing an email at my apartment in Beijing when a new message landed in my inbox from a friend in New York.

“Go to Flickr,’’ he said. “Now.’’

The friend, who has traveled extensively through India, had alerted me to those first, terrible photos of the Mumbai massacre.

By the end of the day, I was a veritable Twitter addict as people standing near the Taj hotel filed dispatches.

Meanwhile, a Google map was locating where the terrorists were. A blogger was taking pictures and posting them.

Only hours later did I actually watch “the news.’’ A CNN report -- which I caught on YouTube.

Since I teach multimedia journalism, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the dominant role that so-called new media and social networking sites played in covering the horrible events of Mumbai.

I have known for quite some time that technology means any citizen can be a journalist these days, and that Facebook and its ilk are budding information clearinghouses for a whole generation.

But only with Mumbai did the trends of technology and citizen journalism fully converge, at least for me.

And yet, something bothered me about the way I was receiving the news. I didn’t know the people providing it. I wasn’t sure what their biases might be. Did they use PhotoShop, or did they actually snap a pic of doves flying by the besieged hotel?

Also, there can be no doubt that there were gaps in the information I receiving. I was hearing what happened. But not how. And, especially, not why.

Where was Peter Arnett? Or Bernard Shaw? Or (I’m old enough) Walter Cronkite? I needed perspective and analysis. But for all its infinity, the Internet offers vast expanses of information but, in cases like Mumbai, relatively little of what can be called knowledge.

Finally, it was unsettling to view violence as it happened. As I bounced around the Internet, it felt at times like playing a video game. Only, real people were dying.

To paraphrase a student here at Tsinghua University: Journalists can show human tragedies live. But should we? And should we watch?’’

Such simple profundity.

I hate simple profundity. Forget what you’ve seen in heartwarming movies about teachers. The truth is that when pupils ask such intelligent questions I morph into Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor -- complete with overbite, thick glasses and an inability to give a clear response.

This particular question reminded me of what a professor once told me, years ago at Harvard. “The most frustrating moment for a teacher,’’ he said, ‘’ is when you realize you can’t give your students a perfect world.’’

But we can talk to students about the world’s imperfections. And so in the days after Mumbai, we held a special meeting with journalism students here at China’s most prestigious university. We would discuss what the attacks told us -- about the state of the world, and of our craft.

For me, I told the students, the dual rise of citizen journalism and the ascent of social networking sites as reporting tools is, in fact, a very good thing. I know it’s almost cliche to use Nazis as the ultimate litmus test of evil, but I had to ask the assembled students: “Would the Holocaust have had a different outcome if someone had been able to take digital photos and transmit them to the outside world?’’

I desperately hope the answer is yes.

Some see the newer information technologies as yet another nail in mainstream media’s gilded coffin. But as a veteran of two large media organizations that no longer exist -- Dow Jones and Knight Ridder -- I’m also aware that the only real constant is change.

But can we believe what citizen journalists tell us? Flickr is great, but it’s no AP. Hemingway liked short sentences, but he’s Tolstoy compared to Twitter feeds.

Glenn Mott, a Fulbright professor here, told the students that he believes that, ultimately, markets will prevail.

Over time, he said, the blogs and organizations that give the best and accurate information are going to capture the biggest audiences. Technology has advanced, but you still can’t fool all the people all the time.

What about the conflict itself? Can journalism -- particularly citizen journalism -- play a role in showing us causes, or cures, for such unfathomable and inexcusable bloodshed?

The following week, in a class I teach on journalism ethics, we debated this: When is it correct, and when is it not, to identify people by markers such as religion, ethnicity or race?

This class, incidentally, has students from all over the world. In some cases, their countries are riven with ethnic and racial conflicts that make U.S. history seem like a “We Are The World’’ video by comparison.

“People should not be identified by race of religion,’’ one student said.

I told him that was an interesting point. “So we should never point out that Barack Obama is the first black U.S. president?’’ I asked.

Another student added in. “I don’t think it’s right that Mumbai coverage kept using the term Islamic terrorists,’’ he said. “That’s not how vast majorities of Islamic people feel.’’

“But what if they say they are waging jihad?’’ answered another.

“The problem is the media divides us into groups,’’ was one student’s response. “That sets people against each other.’’

But I asked aloud whether, in reality, we all belong to groups, from the day we’re born. My family heritage, for instance, pre-ordained that I would be a University of Kentucky basketball fan. (Whether it’s genetic or cultural -- well, in my family, that’s a moot point.)

One student offered a definition of terrorist: someone who doesn’t represent an official state, and is often acting to overthrow an existing government; a person driven by a sense of moral certitude; a person whose actions seek change through violence.

On the one hand, I liked her definition. On the other hand, I told her, she could have been describing my hero, George Washington.

Class ended. I hope the discussion doesn’t.

People often ask me how students in China differ from those in the United States. They’re actually more similar than different.

But one major contrast is that my students at Tsinghua don’t seem comfortable when I tell them I don’t know the “right’’ answer. (Two students, in fact, were baffled when they argued opposite points of view on an essay test, and each received high marks.)

So when, inevitably, they asked what I thought about Mumbai, and what it means for our craft, and our world, I could only offer this:

The tools have changed, but the task remains. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.