Communications and Society Program
Communications and Society Program
Informing the Mobile Generation
Today it appears that every instrument of traditional journalism—newspapers, broadcast news, news magazines—is either under assault or in crisis. The ramifications extend not just to the stock prices of a few corporate behemoths but to our ability to govern ourselves as an informed people. If reliable information is the currency of democracy, we have a vested interest in ensuring that accurate, trustworthy and relevant news, information and opinion are readily accessible through the new channels of mobile media.
Informing the electorate has traditionally been the province of traditional media, but studies have shown the public’s increasing tendency to tap into new media sources to supplement their news diet. Blogs, citizen journalism, Web programs, mobile reporting and similar alternative information sources have quickly become familiar fixtures in our lives. People have increasingly begun to consume media online and, especially among the young, through mobile devices. A January 2008 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 24 percent of Americans say they regularly learn something about the presidential campaign from the Internet.  A July 2007 Pew study found that 57 percent of online adults have used the Internet to watch or download video, and 19 percent do so on a typical day.  And a January 2007 Pew study found that 34 percent of Internet users have logged onto the Internet using a wireless connection either around the house, at their workplace or someplace else. 
A number of high-profile news events have demonstrated the power and reach of mobile media, with traditional news sites such as BBC News, MSNBC.com and CNN.com now giving regular play to forms of citizen journalism such as photos and video. Someone using a cell phone captured the gruesome display of UCLA campus police officers using a stun gun to subdue a student in November 2006, raising a public outcry.  Amateur video makers armed with video-enabled mobile phones captured the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the assassination of the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, underscoring the power of citizens who happen to be on the scene as history unfolded. 
The single most famous photo taken by a camera phone was the emblematic shot by Adam Stacey minutes after a terrorist bomb went off in the London subway in July 2005.  At the same time, some observers wondered about the decency of bystanders at the London bombings “cruelly jockeying for the most gruesome photos on their cameraphones.”  The event raised the specter of a new era of mobile-powered paparazzi—hardly a lofty example of civic engagement.
Such sensational episodes aside, people have adopted a mostly mundane attitude toward their mobile devices, using them to watch music videos, listen to podcasts, download recipes and tune in to live TV shows. Increasingly, however, others are slipping out of their consumer roles and assuming the mantle of producers by commandeering the new technologies to communicate with trusted peers, cover noteworthy public events and change the very nature of journalism through crowdsourcing and participatory media.
An explosive growth in community media
The first citizens’ media site of its kind, the South Korean daily news publication OhmyNews was founded in 2000 and today taps into a nationwide network of 50,000 contributors. Vancouver-based NowPublic.com aims to become “the world’s largest news organization” over the next year, relying on thousands of at-the-ready amateur photographers and videographers from more than 150 countries. The citizens’ media directory Placeblogger.com counts more than 2,100 community media sites (or “place blogs”) in the United States, with hundreds more abroad.
What forces are fueling the changes in this rapidly evolving media ecosystem? Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, pointed to the belief at the grassroots level that newspapers are doing a poor job of covering local community events. “There’s a feeling of, If ‘Big-J’ journalists won’t cover our communities, we’ll do it our way.”
The vast majority of hyperlocal news sites frame the news in a distinctly different way, she told the roundtable. “‘Big-J’ journalism can take away some lessons from how people in the community view the news. There’s less reporting about the political horserace, almost no notion of being a dispassionate observer, and a complete lack of interest in getting both sides of a story through the convention of balanced reporting. Instead, we’re seeing more conversation, more entries with a distinct point of view and the rise of a kind of journalism that advocates for a position without ranting about it. The public is telling us that journalism as it has evolved has been stripped of values, yet mainstream journalists are on auto-pilot, with seemingly no ability to depart from their conventions. The traditional ideal of ‘objective reporting’ is broken. And so the new technologies have stepped in and validated other ways of providing news and information that have proved useful to communities.”
Online journalists have taken to the mobile bandwagon with gusto. In the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea, mobile journalists now are outfitted with everything from GPS-enabled pens and mobile tablets to small satellite receivers that let correspondents file dispatches from remote locations. Backpack journalism, once an exotic departure, has now become mainstream.
In early 2007, AfricaNews.com issued Internet-enabled mobile phones to African journalists in Ghana, South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya to cover local news stories with text, photo and video. In the past, without an Internet connection they would have been unable to publish reports from the field. But they were able to use their mobile phones to report on the political crisis in Kenya following the disputed national elections in December 2007.
“Internet and mobile technology play an increasingly important role in the monitoring of local situations in Africa,” Ben White of Africa Interactive wrote in an email interview. “The collection and spread of information has long been dominated by a small elite. The rise of Internet and mobile technology offers new opportunities in the reporting process and plays a vital role in the spread of information. As in Kenya, many governments work to control the spread of information via control over the radio, TV, newspapers and the Internet. The mobile phone, as seen in Kenya, is the most important means for gathering and spreading information.” 
To be sure, the rise of mobile journalism has enabled news organizations to cover inhospitable terrain with far greater timeliness. But mobile is also vastly expanding the number of people participating in the media.
Millions of people using mobile devices now document life in their communities and share those photos or short video clips with others through their blogs, through social networks like Facebook, Flickr and Seesmic, through traditional media organizations’ websites or through independent sites. Others have begun using text-based social networks like Twitter to communicate the latest news about themselves and their peers. During the Republican and Democratic debates over the past year, tens of thousands of people used their Twitter accounts to exchange instant commentary on the candidates’ statements.
Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, recalled a Nigerian politician boasting on a live radio show about a grand new road that had been opened when a local townswoman called in from a cell phone and said, “That road is not finished. I’m standing on it right now and actually it hasn’t even been started.” That kind of on-the-scene interaction helps to enforce a certain level of accountability from those in power.
Evan Hansen, editor in chief of Wired News, said the rise of new media communities and social media sites offers a good way to gauge the dynamics of social participation among large groups. Sites like Wikipedia and YouTube grow and thrive by offering everyone a chance to participate, yet almost all social sites adhere to some degree to the 1/9/90 rule (also called the 1/10/90 or 1/10/89 rule), in which 1 percent of your site’s users will be active contributors, 9 percent will be occasional participants and 90 percent will be lurkers and consumers who don’t actively contribute. “We can learn a lot about how people engage but studying these forms of participatory media,” he said.
While anyone in the field with an Internet connection or mobile device can commit random acts of journalism, not every dispatch or blog post qualifies as journalism, and not every blogger wants to play the role of journalist. The Media Bloggers Association has set down a set of principles for its members that detail reporting standards for accuracy, fairness, transparency, accountability and respect for the privacy of private citizens. 
A note of caution in the rush to citizen media nirvana
Clearly, there are downsides as well as benefits to the democratization of information. Often, bloggers show hostility for any set of standards imposed from the outside, particularly those developed by news organizations over a period of decades.
Hansen pointed to the case of a 13-year-old St. Louis girl who hanged herself in her closet after her MySpace page was bombarded by insults, led by a fictitious boy who had befriended her online. It took almost a year for the details of what happened to come out. When a local newspaper pieced together the tragic details nearly a year later, it withheld the name of the high school girl behind the ruse as well as the name of her parents. A band of online activists were outraged at the newspaper’s decision, calling it censorship. They launched a sort of cyber-sleuth posse that uncovered the identity of the girl responsible for the malicious prank. Then they began posting the name of the family members, their home addresses, cell phone numbers and names of the family’s business customers in the comments section of Wired News and other websites.
While news organizations should not give in and cater to this kind of “mob mentality,” as Hansen put it, they no longer exercise the same control as gatekeepers that they once did. “The idea that the media can control the message has been completely obliterated,” he said, “and there’s nothing that any media company can do about it.”
Now that citizens have greater access to the levers of global publishing and more information from more sources than any society in history, does that translate into greater engagement? Not necessarily, the participants agreed. “More information doesn’t help you,” Katrin Verclas said, “but the right information at the right time can be extremely powerful.”
J.D. Lasica, founder and chief executive of Ourmedia.org, said one of the recurring themes at conferences in Silicon Valley was the notion of the “attention economy”—the notion that the data a person amasses online and the reputation she achieves should belong to her as a portable set of assets that can be carried to other sites. But each person’s attention quotient is filling its limit as we encounter an intermingling news flow about the outside world and information flow about our friends and contacts.
Mobile technology has exacerbated the problem of information overload, as these so-called “rivers of news” now follow us everywhere on our portable devices. “I’m wracked by Twitter guilt and Facebook guilt,” Lasica said, citing two of the top social networking sites. “These are now my communities. I’m engaged with my online friends more than the people I live next to. There’s an expectation that you’re clued into the meme of the day being discussed by your peers, but it’s hard to keep up with all the things crying out for your attention in an always-on society.”
The amount of information flooding our civic lives and personal lives will continue to expand exponentially, said Joaquin Alvarado. “With the declining role of newspapers after a century of dominance, the media noise factor is so loud that the distillation around what constitutes relevant news and information is really the key question.”
Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 will lead to wholesale shifts in the mobile environment, prompting device makers to incorporate easy Internet browsing on a wide range of handhelds. Said Alvarado:
That will push the speed of information overload that much faster. The danger is that we’re not properly executing a strategy for preserving the public interest in this new world. Of kids born in 1990, one in 100 can tell us what My Lai was or what apartheid was. We’re in a very new space and at a very dangerous time for our democracy given the challenges we face across a range of issues from climate change to the Middle East.