Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Death Upon Death and New Life from a Citizen Journalist

On September 8, 2004, the CBS program 60 Minutes aired an investigation by Dan Rather offering typed information as proof President George W. Bush had evaded the draft. Later that evening Harry MacDougald, posting on FreeRepublic.com, challenged the validity of the documents based on the style of typeface. Other bloggers picked up the post and searched for examples of 1970s typewriters.* -Clyde H. Bentley, Ph.D., Assoc. Professor, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Dr. Bentley goes on to tell how the thread was picked up by popular blogs the DrudgeReport.com, and then the mainstream media. The documents on 60 Minutes were proven to have been forged and CBS apologized.

"The pajamahadeen reduced Mr Rather" was the e-mail forward in my Inbox. (See story here.)
But in September 2004 I didn’t foresee how a diffused form of gathering and dispersing news would forever change journalism.

I was grieving our cuts to English-language programming on international shortwave, including newscasts that were global in scope. I was also convinced that international broadcasters had arranged their own “we- -no-longer-have-an-audience” self-fulfilling prophecies by cutting broadcasts. (Late 2003 story here.)

Our newswire contract ended; I closed down our newsroom, then translated copy from Spanish for English newscasts on our local FM. The “death of shortwave” discussion continued, but my time in shortwave broadcasting had ended. I held out hope, for my predessor in public relations had written, “The future of shortwave and AM radio has arrived. It is called DRM or Digital Radio Mondial . . . “

The FM newscasts continued for 18 months before my predecessor moved to other things and I shifted to public relations myself. My heart is still in news and so it isn’t easy four years later to read bleak reports about newspapers and their future.

Steven Rattner summarizes in his Wall Street Journal commentary Red All Over, “the news about newspapers could hardly be more dismal: falling circulation, repeated rounds of layoffs, disappearing ads and a chain of bad earning reports.” (The full story is found here.)

Eric Alterman's article in The New Yorker looks about as gloomy: “Out of Print – The death and life of the American newspaper.” (The full story is here.)

On occasion my work feels like news. And it feels good, in spite of that fact we're dealing with natural catastrophes and human suffering. When our disaster response teams have gone to places such as the quake zone of Nias Island, Indonesia and northern Pakistan, we have often used the traditional journalist/interviewee approach via phone calls.

We have since handed that coverage to “citizen journalist” Steve, who by the way, also happens to be our family physician.

He interviews on either side of a microphone. From flooded Ecuador, he did a stand-up report for GlobalHarry (a citizen journalist in his own right) and you may view that here.

His photos –especially of children – are filled with pathos even as they reflect people’s resilience amid tragedy. He knows how to offer genuine empathy and gain people's trust, and before long he and his wife, Dorothy, have people telling their stories before the microphone.

And Steve is dedicated, staying up nights after he has worked throughout the day in order to upload interviews and photos. In the response to the tsunami in the Solomon Islands, he and Brad slept on the floor of a radio station with Internet service. Intermittently they woke up so Steve could start another upload to the ftp site (file transfer protocol.) They put up a 100 megabyte video (you may see it here.)

One time he wrote me from India, “The dang thing finally went at 5am on the day we were leaving Faridpur Enjoy." I smiled because Steve never wastes time dropping down into the e-mail window to tell you what's on his mind. No, he crams it all into the subject line. I still smile at that.

I worked with him on the ground just once, in flooded Tabasco state in Mexico. In the van ride back from the flooded ranchlands around Villahermosa, he shot picture after picture of the Mexican sunset with his Canon. This was how he and Dorothy had spent their 30th wedding anniversary – helping people with their health needs and providing a listening ear.

I can see arguments both for and against the new form of journalism (Alterman's conclusion on articles that would disappear with the passing of the traditional media is excellent, if not alarming).

But my argument in favor of doctors doing journalism from disaster zones . . . is Steve.

Discussion paper prepared for the Carnegie-Knight Conference on the Future of Journalism, Cambridge, MA June, 2008

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