Remarks: Joyce Barnathan, International Center for Journalists Center for Dialogue Among Civilizations Forum

May 222011

Kuwait City—I would like to thank Sheikh Fahad for this wonderful conference and for the fascinating visit to the City of Media.

I am Joyce Barnathan, the President of the International Center for Journalists. For 27 years, we have been working to raise standards of journalists, media managers—and now citizen journalists. In all, we have worked with 65,000 journalists—both professional and citizen—in 180 countries. Our goal is to increase the free flows of reliable information so we all can make better decisions in our lives. We do that by creating innovative programs. We conduct hands-on workshops, seminars, fellowships, conferences and online courses that are enabling us to reach journalists we’ve never been able to serve before.

As you all recognize, a media revolution is sweeping the news business, and serving as a powerful force for change. Witness the role of social media in the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. Sheikh Fahad’s new TV channel is another example of how news is changing. It allows citizens to choose what news they want to see and even appear on live TV—giving citizens a strong voice in the news. We are still learning about just how powerful the new digital media will be.

Those of us in the media are living in disruptive times. The definition of a journalist is changing. When I was a reporter, I’d go out with just a pen and paper. No longer. Now you go out with a flip cam, laptop equipped with wireless Internet access, smart phone, recording equipment, and more. And stories go out on multiple platforms. And our audiences are changing. They demand to get stories however they want to receive them. They want to engage with the producers of news. Often they want to produce news themselves.

With technology, the number of new tools we can now use to tell stories is exploding. Traditional media must keep up with the changes or risk extinction. New players are entering the field and using the new tools to competitive advantage.

I would like to focus on four trends that are reshaping the news business—and perhaps global policy--in fundamentally new ways.

First, there are much freer flows of information than ever before. This opinion contradicts the latest Freedom House rankings. Issued in May, Freedom House said “global media freedom has reached a new low point, contributing to an environment in which only one in every six people live in countries with a free press.” If you read the description of Egypt in 2010, you will find repeated instances of government suppression of journalists and bloggers. You would have no inkling that Egypt was on the cusp of a major political change powered in part by the media.

The reason: the report does not fully measure the impact new technology is having in the creation and distribution of news. Listen to these statistics:

There are between 60 and 82 million cell phones in Egypt, a nation of 80 million people.

Satellite stations Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya routinely air in Egypt, often with stories not carried by state-controlled media.

Though under duress, Egypt still had the most vibrant independent media outlets such as newspapers Al Masry Al Youm and Al Dostor.

Twenty eight percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29—and this is precisely the digital generation. Unlike older generations that are on the Web, the youth of today is of the Web.

Egypt has 22% of the Facebook users in the Arab region—or 4.6 million, more than any other Arab country.

An Egyptian youngster does not need to travel overseas to envision what could be. In the virtual world, that is painfully obvious. Virtual worlds are changing real worlds.

Egyptians were getting plenty of news and information, despite government controls. As Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the World Press Freedom Day events in DC recently, “News does not care how it flows. Like water, it takes the easiest path.” And there are so many paths flowing to our citizens, from traditional and new sources.

Second, there are far many more participants in news-gathering and production than ever before—and this is radically changing the journalism profession for the better. The news media wants to engage readers, listeners, viewers. Send in your photos, videos, comments—they implore. One small paper in Connecticut has an open door policy, with a Newsroom Café offering coffee, free wifi and a working space for bloggers. Daily story meetings, well, they are open to the public.

Citizens want to be producers—and not just passive recipients of the news. These jourånalists are playing an increasingly important role in bringing us the news. The ones we trained in Egypt, covered the revolution for news outlets at home and abroad. This can be very dangerous work. There are brave citizen journalists like Mohammad Nabbous in Libya who paid with his life for bringing us information about the battle between the rebels and Kaddafi.

Are more voices better? And when is more worse?

More is worse when comments are destructive. Hate-radio in Rwanda helped inflame tensions and encourage genocide. More is worse when the quality is low: when facts are not checked, when rumor circulates as news. More is worse if deception is the goal, when government officials masqueraded as citizen journalists on Facebook or Twitter.

But the positives outweigh the negatives. Citizen journalists have all but replaced professional journalists when it comes to breaking news. And that makes sense. Journalists can’t be everywhere—and citizens are everywhere. Armed with cameras in their cell phones, they will post the first images of a pipeline bursting into flames in Egypt or a U.S. Airways’ Airbus landing unexpectedly in New York’s Hudson River. The first photo of freed journalist Dorothy Parvaz, who went missing in Syria, came to us via Twitter. Foreign reporters are banned from Syria, so most of the images coming out of there are from citizen journalists.

But that initial image or report is hardly enough. We need the professional journalists to provide the context, the analysis. Why did the plane land in the Hudson River? Who held the reporter captive? Journalists provide those insights. Now, we are beginning to see informal—and formal—mergers between citizen journalists and professional ones—creating a virtuous cycle of increasingly high-quality news.

This leads me to my third point: to complete that circle we need journalism education—journalism training. It’s essential now, more than ever, for both professional journalists and citizen journalists.

Professionals need to know how to utilize the new digital tools: with real-time mapping, crowd sourcing, and data visualization, they can tell richer, deeper, more interactive stories. I went to journalism school, but I wasn’t taught how to produce stories for mobile phones. And what is the best way to use Facebook and Twitter for disseminating stories? Professionals need this kind of know-how.

We also need to train professional journalists to tackle important and sensitive subjects like religion. ICFJ has done quite a bit of work in this area. Six years ago, we ran a conference that brought together U.S. and Arab journalists so that they could do a better job of coverage in the wake of 9/11. They developed a handbook on best practices called Fighting Words that explained how to avoid stereotypes, loaded language and sensational images.

We also held a conference on Covering Islam and Other Religions with participants ranging from Fox News in the U.S. to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. At another gathering at the Alexandria Library on Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age, we trained Western and Muslim world journalists in digital technology and also taught them to write thoughtful opinion pieces, not screed. They also teamed up on joint multimedia reporting projects. One team developed a website called Hijab-Skirt—that looked at misunderstandings through the lens of fashion. Another, called Silent Heroes, credits people who are bridging gaps between the Western and Muslim worlds. We also are about to form a global association of religion writers that will provide excellent resources and define best practices.

Journalists need to gain such expertise in a world where a cartoon by a right-wing publisher in Denmark can trigger clashes that left 11 dead in Libya alone. Whether it’s a hot topic like immigration or a global financial meltdown or a nuclear disaster, journalists need special skills to bring us the story in the proper context—to promote understanding rather than inflame tensions.

Training need not be expensive. We offer a range of online courses in multiple languages. We have held courses for Muslim and Western world journalists on digital freedoms, taught by two professors with comments by the participants translated daily. And what a vibrant debate and interaction that was.

For citizens, journalism training makes all the difference in the world. The citizen journalists we worked with in Egypt knew precisely what to do when the story of a lifetime broke. Mohammad Abdel Fatah, a citizen journalist from Alexandria whom we trained, said he wouldn’t have had a clue what to do if he hadn’t taken our course. But since he did, he covered the story responsibly—and CNN ran his stories.

Trained citizen journalists are expanding the reach of mainstream media. At first, many traditional news outlets were reluctant to embrace citizen reports for fear of inaccuracies. But that is changing. In Brazil, one of our trainers started a network of citizen journalists called Mural. They report on what’s taking place in slums and other urban areas that rarely receive coverage. Their work was so good that the country’s leading newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, now incorporates their coverage in its daily offerings. More people are getting better news than ever before.

In Malaysia, we helped form a citizen journalism network at Malaysiakini, the leading independent news website. As a result there are now 30 hyperlocal sites staffed by 144 citizen journalists offering news about areas outside the capital that Malaysiakini rarely covered. On average, 2,500 visitors check out that site every day.

In our training, we must emphasize rigorous standards in this changing digital environment. We need quality journalism—reliable, trustworthy, uncompromised information, even if it arrives before us in ways we never before anticipated.

My final point is that all these new platforms for news distribution can work together for maximum societal impact. Let me give you an example. Another trainer created a mobile phone network for people in rural India who have little access to local news in their own language. He trained citizen journalists to record stories on their mobile phones. They send the stories to a server, where they are vetted by professionals. Then citizens can call a number and get the news. Since this project took off a year ago, citizens have made more than 32,000 calls to the service, making about 200 calls a day now. These are extremely poor—and often illiterate—people but they will pay the price to make a call to find out the news.

The Fellow also posts these stories on a website, even though few in the region have access to the Internet. Why do that? Because there are people around the world who care about this part of India and routinely visit the website. One citizen journalist reported a story about teachers who had not been paid for months and included the minister of education’s phone number. After the story was posted on the web, people in London started phoning this official with complaints. And guess what? The teachers got paid.

Mobile phones, audio reports, online stories, trained citizen journalists working with professionals—an incredible combo that has the potential to change society for the better. It’s an exciting era, a transformative one—and we’re only just beginning to grasp how we can use it to make our people healthier, our environments cleaner, and our world more peaceful and tolerant.

Click on the links below to read more about this event:

Gulf News: Citizen journalism shaping the new world: expert
Arab Times Online: Forum Calls For Democracy In Action … On The Ground Sheikh Fahad Al Salem Al Ali Al Sabah Gathers World Leaders for a Forum to Discuss Advancing Individual Freedoms