By Poyi (Natalie) Leung
The Internet has made possible a new world of information and also a set of astonishing tools for journalists to report in real time with facts. Yet, the network also gave rise to a new kind of platform for observing the world.
Ann Olson, an American born veteran journalist and international media trainer who is now living in Ukraine as a senior journalism advisor on a US$6 million program to improve the professionalism of the media, upgrade media laws and build sustainability of the media industry infrastructure, came to the Macao Polytechnic Institute (MPI) last Wednesday to explore issues concerning the Internet’s influence on authorities and veracity of information, and the role that ethics played in enabling people to access to truth.
Jointly organised by the MPI and the Consulate General of the United States for Hong Kong and Macau, the seminar “Ethics in the Digital Age: Blogging, Journalism and Reliable Information” attracted young university students to come to join the guest speaker.
According to Ms Olson, there is still a lot of room for the Internet to grow worldwide, “the Internet has flooded the world with information”.
India, for example, reported an internet penetration rate at seven percent, in contrast to Norway where nearly 86 percent of its population were using the Internet.
The International Penetration Statistics by Nielsen NetRatings on June 30, 2008 showed Greenland (92.3 percent), the Netherlands (90.1 percent) and Norway were the top three countries respectively on the list, while Japan came 11th at 73.8 percent, Portugal came 12th at 72.9 percent and Hong Kong came 18th at 69.5 percent.
Meanwhile, in Asia along, the June 30, 2009 Asian Internet Statistics indicated that the internet penetration rate of China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) was 25.3 percent, and Macau at 42.5 percent based on a population of nearly 560,000.
In addition, Timor-Leste and Myanmar were reported to have the lowest penetration at 0.1 percent in Asia.
Ms Olson also talked about the use of mobile phone, which she said is the largest sector of telecommunications technology in the world.
“The great thing about mobile technology is that it is flattening out the differences between people who have money and people who don’t [some people can’t afford to buy computers],” she told the audience.
In terms of the impact to journalism, Ms Olson said the Internet is changing the work of journalists: “we don’t need a middle-man anymore as we can get third person information online”.
As first-hand reports can easily be found on the World Wide Web, she said it is challenging journalists’ role, changing access of people to information and also changing the nature of information that people are getting.
“Good journalists help the world understand what is reliable, authentic, accurate and objective, help the community understand what’s happening in the world, and get people information for making decisions,” Ms Olson noted.
She referred to a US website politifact.com, where “The Obameter” is created and has compiled more than 500 commitments that the US President made during the campaign and is tracking their progress.
“In the US, journalists’ work is to make sure government officials are elected for what they have promised to do and are doing what they’ve promised,” she pointed out.
The young university students were asked whether they had any idea about “human flesh search engines” – a means to “punish and find specific individuals for doing what general public or the government think is wrong”.
Soon after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, a 21-year-old mainland Chinese woman was upset that her television viewing schedule was disrupted during the three-day mourning period for the thousands of victims. She then launched into a spew of vitriol and then posted the video online.
Within hours, she became a victim of a human flesh search engine, where Chinese netizens turned into cyber-vigilantes.
“In China, the power of people is immense… The vast human power behind the Chinese web was used to track down the girl and her family, and arrested her even though she didn’t actually do anything that breaks the law,” Ms Olson said.
“It’s an interesting topic to explore, despite in the past two weeks I was in China where I was told the human flesh search engines were used to bring corrupt officials to justice – that they will be used to do good things sometimes,” she added.
Going back to journalists’ role, Ms Olson said to the audience that journalists’ main responsibility is to bring information to the world so as to make people understand what’s happening.
She then drew the audience’s eyes to a powerpoint slide that showed the “Potus Tracker” at The Washington Post website, a tool to analyse President Barack Obama’s daily schedules in the White House.
The tracker makes use of public information – lists of people who come to the White House to meet with the US President every day – put that into a database and then to analyse what could be in Obama’s mind or what he may be going to do by finding out the visitors’ background.
According to Ms Olson, there are three ways that technology is changing journalism.
Technology provides creative and brand new story telling techniques for journalists who are deemed as story tellers; allows citizens to be engaged in journalism; and also invites media criticism and transparency.
She said new computer software provides ways to tell “better stories”.
She referred to The New York Times online before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where three-dimensional graphic slides or designs of the infrastructure were uploaded to show readers how big those architectures were.
One of the graphic slides is of the Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport, which was built to accommodate the growing traffic volume during the Olympic Games.
“It’s a very compelling way to tell readers how big the biggest building in the world in. I didn’t know it was the largest building in the world until I saw the slide,” Ms Olson told the audience.
On the other hand, technology also allows inventive ways to delight and innovative tools to explain, she said.
“Before the inauguration of President Obama, the Washington Post called people to send them their pictures. A mosaic of each of those pictures was created and then was used to form a poster of Obama. In this way those people could all be part of the reporting of the ceremony,” she added.
Yet, Ms Olson questioned the audience of whether bloggers, who she said are regarded as journalists in society sometimes, should uphold the same ethics as “real journalists”.
“There are universal ethical norms even though people speak different languages but believe in the same values or morality.
During the seminar, the veteran journalist talked about how news reports could drive a government to amend laws or make improvement.
When asked by the Macau Daily Times whether the reputation or social status of the newspaper would play a role in the process, Ms Olson said the key is on the journalism side.
“Journalism needs to be reliable, authoritative, accurate and clear, help people see there is a problem and that something needs to change, that’s what journalists have to do and what journalism is supposed to be about,” she told the MDTimes.
“When you have good and objective journalism, then you don’t motivate the government, but you motivate the people. The people are governed by themselves,” she added.