Reading about participatory media and remix culture for this week’s class, I was wondering if journalists and news organizations are making use of the Creative Commons license. As a highly competitive industry that is fighting to preserve its status as a gatekeeper and its flow of revenues, making stories and footage freely available might seem absurd?

But Al Jazeera’s repository of broadcast-quality video footage of the war on Gaza, released under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution license, shows a different motivation behind the broadcasting of news which focuses not so much on generating revenues but on Al Jazeera’s mission ‘to get our news out’  as Mohamed Nanabhay, Al Jazeera executive told the New York Times. Al Jazeera Network is the first news network in the world to offer footage that is available for free to be downloaded, shared, remixed, subtitled and rebroadcasted for non-commercial and commercial use with acknowledgement to them.

In a conflict where the Western news media have been largely prevented from reporting from Gaza because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli military, Al Jazeera has had the distinct advantage that they were already there. But while Al Jazeera’s International channel can be viewed in every major European market, the network is largely unavailable in the US, where it is only carried by a few cable providers. The insightful article of the New York Times relates the near-total blackout in the US to the sharp criticism the channel received from the US government during the initial stages of the Iraq war for its coverage of the American invasion.

But whether the use of the Creative Commons license by Al Jazeera is purely motivated by political reasons or not, it signifies a huge success for this new flexible concept of copyright.

The question whether the phenomenon of citizen journalism is an example of the power of an ordinary person to determine the news agenda or as Andrew Keen (2007) puts it, just reflects ‘the cult of the amateur’, is a bit of a complicated one. It gets especially complicated if the citizen journalism project is not founded by an independent non-profit organization such as GlobalVoices but by one of the biggest media networks in the world such as iReport, which is owned by CNN, which in turn is a part of Time Warner. CNN is attempting to profit from the phenomenon of citizen journalism that has its routes in social movements and grassroots journalism, reclaiming the communication commons to represent an alternative news source to corporate mass media.

One of the first successful projects on the internet was the Seattle Independent Media Center. Reporting on the anti-WTO protests in Seattle 1999, the IMC could overcome the limited space and distribution problems inherent in the old media. Independent journalists and amateurs successfully portrayed a different perspective on the protests and the website attracted about 1.5 million hits. Since the foundation of the indymedia network, the internet has seen many open publishing and citizen journalism projects. Many of them are non-profit, independent and offer critical reporting on issues that are overlooked, censored, deemed not newsworthy or portrayed with a political or corporate spin in the mass media.

Infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters eventually create a masterpiece.

But one problem of open-publishing processes without any editorial filtering is that they are open for the self-publishing of the ‘infinite monkey’ as Andrew Keen calls the amateur for whom every posting just another person’s version of the truth is and every fiction just another person’s version of the facts. But whereas Keen sees no value in stories produced by the amateur, CNN apparently does:

‘By submitting your material, […] you hereby grant to CNN and its affiliates a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, create derivative works from, syndicate, license, print, sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof in any manner and in any medium or forum, […] without payment to you or any third party’ (click here for the full Terms of Use).

In other words, CNN has created a mechanism where they receive news stories from amateurs which they can use at their disposal to generate revenues. Instead of CNN as a representative of the old media facing extinction as Keen predicts in his book, they embrace the cult of the amateur and make use of it. Question is: Who is the monkey now?

Further readings:

Keen, A 2007, The cult of the amateur, Doubleday, New York.

Kidd, D 2003, ‘Indymedia.org: a new communications commons’ in Cyberactivism: online activism in theory and practice, eds M McCaughy & MD Ayers, Routledge, New York & London, pp. 47-69.

Klein, N 2002, Fences and windows: dispatches from the front lines of the globalization debate, Flamingo, London.

As we can read in countless news articles, books and how-to stories on websites such as Mashable.com, Twitter seems to be indispensable for today’s journalists. Indeed it can be a useful tool to manage a journalist’s online identity and self-representation.  As Turkle (1995) put it in his introduction to Life on screen: identity in the age of the Internet, ‘in the real-time communities of cyberspace, we are dwellers on the threshold between the real and the virtual, unsure of footing, inventing ourselves as we go.’ Journalists on Twitter are inventing themselves tweet by tweet, blurring the boundaries between the real, such as an article written and published on a news website and often also in the print edition, and the virtual, the discussion evolving on Twitter between followers that are sharing and responding to the original tweet.

But in today’s media culture, where are the boundaries of self-representation for journalists on Twitter? A growing number of contemporary case studies shows that journalistic self-representation ends where the personal opinion starts. In May 2010, Australian comedian Catherine Deveny has been fired as a columnist for The Age after she sent controversial tweets. Although she defended them as ‘satire’, she had been dropped because  ‘the views she has expressed recently on Twitter are not in keeping with the standards […] at The Age,’ as the Editor-In-Chief explained.

Also CNN’s senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr, has been fired from her job in July this year, after tweeting: ‘Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah … One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.’ According to CNN, this politically (un)sensitive message  was an ‘error of judgment’ on her part and that the message did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.

To prevent further damage to their reputation, several newspaper such as the Washington Post and news organizations such as Reuters have released guidelines for the use of social media in journalism that heavily limit the personal use of these tools for journalists and consequently limit their online identities to professional identities .

My presentation this week, covering McLuhan’s work The medium is the massage, let to an interesting discussion about how media is shaping us and society in general. Complementing the McLuhan reading was an extract of Bolter & Gruisin’s 1999 book Remediation: Understanding new media, that describes how societies’ contradictory desire for immediacy and hypermediacy demonstrates the double logic of remediation and leads our media environment to adopt to this demand. As Bolter & Gruisin put it, ‘our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation.’ Both concepts coexist in today’s digital media environment and are mutually dependent.

A good example of this is CNN’s use of the hologram technique, first used for the election night coverage of the 2008 presidential election in the US. Journalist Jessica Yellin appeared to be projected onto the floor as she was being interviewed in a news show. The technical discussion if this was actually a real hologram or not aside, the use of this technique drew a lot of attention to CNN and delivered an example of the latest form of remediation. As the concept of immediacy expresses, the viewer today does not expect to see a previously recorded message on the news, he wants to see the reporter speaking to the news anchor in real-time or ‘live’. Moreover, the viewer demands more and more hypermediacy. It is not sufficient anymore to have the reporter just filmed on location and being able to speak to the news anchor through a satelite connection. Through the hologram, the journalist or reporter is now virtually present in the studio with the news anchor. This represents the blending of two media types, media is multiplied. At the same time,  the ‘realness’ of the hologram erases the traces of mediation. The CNN hologram reporter is thus a perfect example of the double logic of remediation.

Here is the footage from the election night, using the hologram of Jessica Yellin:

Further Readings:

Bolter, JD & Gruisin, RA 1999, Remediation: Understanding new media, Mass, Cambride, MIT Press, London.

Marshall McLuhan in the early 1970s

Image via Wikipedia

As I am currently preparing my presentation on Marshall McLuhan‘s influential 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, I am astonished to find that many of his statements and analyses can be applied to today’s digital media landscape. One of the current tools where I see the greatest analogy to his arguments is the use of Twitter to communicate and share news.

McLuhan’s central message, that societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which they communicate than by the content of the communication can be applied to Twitter in several ways. First of all, Twitter as a tool is shaping the character and the content of the message by limiting it to 140 characters. The messages are short and compact, revealing for example just the headline of a news story. The limit on characters has also changed the way links are generally shared since URLs can be quite extensive. The use of URL shortening services such as bit.ly has thus increased heavily. Moreover, other media such as photographs can only be attached through an external service provider such as Twitpic. Following people’s ideas and sharing them has always been part of personal communication but is a form of communication now excelled by Twitter through retweeting. Sharing and forwarding what someone else is saying can happen instantly, internationally and without even personally knowing the person tweeting.

Twitter search fro #iranelection

Another one of McLuhan’s arguments can be identified looking at certain mass phenomena on Twitter. According to McLuhan,’electric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement.’ The use of the hashtag, words or phrases prefixed with a #, lets Twitter users group posts together by topic, unifying millions of users around the globe. Although the hashtag is used by many users for fads, it is very valuable in grouping news about certain events and makes it easier to find people that have relevant information and follow them. This phenomenon could be observed when the presidential elections in Iran took place in 2009 and Western media was increasingly banned from reporting. The use of the hashtag #iranelection got people involved in the debate and offered an easy way for journalists to find news sources. During the protests following the elections, another phenomenon could be studied on Twitter describing McLuhan’s theory of electric technology fostering and encouraging unification and involvement: people all over the world started to green their avatars in solidarity and unity with the protesters in Iran.

The urge to show this unification and involvement can be related to McLuhan’s idea of the ‘global village’, a simultaneous happening where ‘time has ceased, space has vanished.’ Twitter, with its global and instant reach, allows for close proximity of people across any distance. Watching a news report about the protests in Iran leaves a distance between the protesters and the audience, the audience is rendered passive. Following a person in Iran on Twitter however, the news reaches you instantly and unfiltered. Additionally if offers the potential of a dialogue through direct replies or private messages. To say it in McLuhan’s words: ‘[…] instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experiences coexist in a state of active interplay’. The state of active interplay demands an active media participant and not just a passive media audience. And this in turn is shaping society from one where media consumption and production were strictly separated to a society consisting of what Bruns (2008) calls ‘produsers’.

Further Readings:

McLuhan, M & Fiore, Q 1967, The medium is the massage, Bantam, New York.

As the media is currently showing great interest in the departure of the last US combat troops from Iraq after more than seven years of war, I think it’s worth revisiting the Independent Media Center’s documentary ‘In a Time of War’. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! speaks passionately about the importance of dialogue for democracy and highlights the shortcomings of the US commercial mass media in reporting on the invasion of Iraq to represent the ‘true face of war’.

Amy Goodman’s arguments about the distorted war coverage fit well with Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simularcrum, which he developed in the early 1990s. According to Baudrillard, the simularcrum describes the transformation of an image from reflecting reality, to masking reality, to masking the absence of reality, to the point where it has no relation to any reality whatsoever. Baudrillard famously declared the first Gulf War as a non-event, a heavily mediated spectacle – a simularcrum. According to him there was no shared, collective experience, only the individual consumption of signs produced by the mass media.

The simularcrum of the Iraq War, the media spectacle, can then be seen in this documentary when Amy Goodman points to the heavy use of embedded journalists, video game like simulations of missile action, the use of high-rank military personnel as ‘experts’ and the use of military terminology in the daily news reports. This is definitely a documentary that makes you think about the power of the media to influence our perception of war.

Part 1:

Part 2:

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Part 3:

Further Readings:

Baudrillard, J 1994, ‘The precession of simularcra’, in Simulacra and simulation, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, pp. 1-14.

In the last chapter of his book Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography, Geoffrey Batchen argues that photography’s death is eminent due to two concerning developments. First, the digitization of photographic processes will lead to an inability to differentiate the real from the fake photo and thus reduce the ‘photograph’s ability to deliver objective truth.’ The second concern is an epistemological development where new technologies from digitization to cosmetic surgery to genetic engineering make it harder and harder ‘to tell original from its simulation.’

There is truth in both of his arguments. Nevertheless, history has shown that as long as photography exists, it has been manipulated to accommodate personal desires or politics as the following examples will show. Photo manipulation was achieved by retouching with ink, paint, double exposure or different darkroom-involving techniques.

Famous Lincoln photo manipulation using Calhoun's body

One of the first cases of photo manipulation was a photograph of Abraham Lincoln which was altered using the body from a portrait of John C. Calhoun. Batchen acknowledges the existence of these sorts of manipulations but renders it almost irrelevant: ‘Photographs are no more or less ‘true’ to the facts of the appearance of things in the world than are digital images.’

The truth of photographs lies in their representation of actual reality, meaning the original presence of an object at the time of photography, whereas digital images (and he refers to images that have no origin other then the computer program) are ‘not so much signs of realities but signs of signs.’

This is a really interesting argument in regards to  journalism. As paragraph 9 of the Australian Journalism Association’s code of ethics outlines, pictures presented should be true and accurate, any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.  So is the code of ethics in many other democracies in regards to photo manipulation. Nevertheless, we have seen a manifold of manipulated photos during recent years, most often in war and crisis contexts. The manipulation is often used by publishers to underline the message of their cover story, to sensationalize and provoke.

 

1994: OJ Simpson appears darker on the cover of Time magazine

The same photo appeared on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek magazine after OJ Simpson had been arrested for murder. Time magazine was accused of manipulating the photograph to make Simpson appear ‘darker’ and ‘menacing’.

 

1997: Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt

After a terrorist attack at the temple Hatshepsut in Egypt had killed 58 tourists, the Swiss tabloid Blick digitally altered the color of the water to resemble blood flowing from the temple.

 

2003: Digital composite of a British soldier in Basra, Iraq

The top photo made it on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, shortly after the start of the war in Iraq. It was however a digital composite of two photographs. Staff photographer Brian Walski was fired after the editors discovered that the photo was a fake.

 

2006: Thick black smoke rising in the Lebanese capital after an Israeli air raid

This photograph by Adnan Hajj, a Lebanese photographer, was initially published by Reuters on their website. It had been manipulated by the photographer to show more and darker smoke above the Lebanese capital after an Israeli air raid.

 

Solitary President Obama on the beach inspecting the oil spill

This cover of The Economist shows a solitary President Obama inspecting the oil spill whereas on the original photo he has been standing together with a coast guard and a local parish president. The New York Times picked up on the manipulation and in response to their article, Emma Duncan, deputy editor of The Economist, stated: ‘We don’t edit photos in order to mislead. I asked for Ms. Randolph to be removed because I wanted readers to focus on Mr. Obama, not because I wanted to make him look isolated. That wasn’t the point of the story. “The damage beyond the spill” referred to on the cover, and examined in the cover leader, was the damage not to Mr. Obama, but to business in America.’

It is not hard to see that in this context, Batchen definitely had a point when he said that digital images are not so much signs of realities but signs of signs. The photos above are not presenting reality but are presenting messages or signs. They show what the publisher wants us to see and not what is really there.

References

Batchen, G 1997, ‘Epitaph’ in Burning with desire: the conception of photography, MIT press, Cambridge, pp. 206 -216.