Matthias Spielkamp über Immaterialgüter in der digitalen Welt header image 2

My remarks at the workshop „Training for a digital world“ at Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum in Bonn

Juni 3rd, 2008 · No Comments · Bürgerjournalismus, Citizen Journalism, In eigener Sache, Journalismus, Veranstaltungen

Upon request of the moderator I post my remarks that will be published in the proceedings of the conference here in my blog. It’s not a good blog entry, it lacks references, that’s because I’m just posting it right now before the start of the panel discussion. (Update: Did a few revisions at the beginning of the text. I was careless. Blogs are not a source of journalistic information but of information for journalists.)

Are weblogs a sound and serious source of journalistic information?

As in many cases the answer must be: it depends. It depends on who writes the weblog in what situation, how much information can we – as journalists – gather on the author and his/her credibility? Yes, weblogs can be a sound and serious source of journalistic information and they often are.

No. Rephrase that: Are weblogs a sound and serious source of information for journalists? As in many cases the answer must be: it depends. It depends on who writes the weblog in what situation, how much information can we – as journalists – gather on the author and his/her credibility? Yes, weblogs can be a sound and serious source of information for journalists and they often are.

Can they be trusted without double-checking the facts? Of course not. Neither can eyewitness accounts be trusted in all situations or the filings of a correspondent or a stringer. If there is an established relationship with a blogger I don’t see a reason why we should not trust his or her accounts. A good example of how this can be included into mainstream media is France24’s „The Obervers“ project. At the conference “New Public Space – What Video Journalism, Blogging et al. Mean for Society and International Broadcasting” I asked Derek Thomson, editor in chief of multimedia for France24, how the editors establish trust with the bloggers they incorporate in their online edition. He replied: “It’s on a case-by-case basis. It’s a little like a journalist working with any source. You have to establish trust with them. We explain the process to them, we explain how it’s intended to work, if they like it they sign up, if they don’t, they don’t. It’s really like dealing with a traditional source.” (see the entire interview at

Do digital media help bypass censorship?

They can in some cases. In Malaysia papers are censored, websites are not. So you can “officially” bypass censorship by publishing online. As you would expect it’s not as clear-cut in most cases. If you look at the example of Zimbabwe, you see many journalists publish under pen names in foreign (online) publications. Control of the Internet is not efficient in Zimbabwe, so people there can access these publications. In other countries, most notably China and Saudi Arabia, it is much more difficult to bypass control of the Internet, so it is much more difficult to bypass censorship.

Does it offer free international communication?

Free as in free beer? Maybe not. Especially in developing nations costs for Internet access are still very high in comparison to other commodities. But they are coming down quickly in many countries and they might already be low in comparison to traditional means of communication, like land line phones that might not be available at all.
Free as in freedom? See above.

How do we ensure quality information?

The Internet seems to be an amplifier of the situation of media in general. It crystallises the dynamics of capitalist systems that treat information and public discourse as a commodity. The market can deal with a lot of things but I doubt that it can maintain a working agora.

How can we deal with information overflow?

It’s everyone for himself. We had more information available than we could ever process as a single human being for a couple of centuries (at least some members of society). This is not a challenge unique to journalists. It needs to be addressed in education where the tendency unfortunately seems to be a focus on tools instead of concepts and information instead of knowledge.

Who regulates the digital information flow?

That is to broad a question to answer in such a brief space. It allows me to stress that Internet governance should be a key issue in journalistic training, whether the journalists work for online or offline media (they’ll be working with the Internet anyway, no matter whether their stories will end up in an online archive or tomorrow’s fish wrap). Journalists’ awareness of who runs the infrastructure we all rely on is pitiful. Again, this is nothing new and resembles the knowledge about ownership structures in the publishing or broadcast business. Most employers don’t like their employees knowing too much about the business side of journalism.

And who controls the digital media market/business?

Google, Murdoch, Microsoft, Yahoo, Bertelsmann, Sony, Time Warner, Springer, Bennett, Coleman & Co and many others I probably have never heard of. Oh, yes: and the Pentagon (see David Barstow: “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand“, The New York Times, April 20, 2008). Who does not control it? The public.

Weblogs/Podcasts: a public space for everyone?

Definitely. All of these tools cannot bridge the digital divide. If people do not access, they cannot blog and they cannot podcast. But for those who have access it’s never been easier to publish. Is it easy to make yourself heard? If you look at the fact that claims to be currently tracking almost 113 million blogs, certainly not. Still I would argue that we have a situation not comparable any more to the days when freedom of the press were for those who owned a press. How this public space will evolve I’m unable to tell.

How have the new media and seemingly endless sources of information changed media culture?

I’m a journalist, not a media historian. I doubt I can contribute anything overly meaningful here. My impression is that most media channels are used to distribute commodities of the culture industry: entertainment, infotainment and the likes. Media societies are overinformend and undercomprehended, I’d call it.

Often journalism tends to overemphasize the role of the government and to neglect the relevance of civil society. This results in a sense of impotence and frustration. How have new digital technologies – the World Wide Web etc. changed this and provided new possibilities … for example civil/public journalism?

Citizen journalism can be a powerful force in some cases though I think these cases will be rare. But the more people know about how media work, i.e. because they run their own weblog, the better. For decades initiatives tried to help people “emancipate” by founding community radio stations and grass root papers. Now everyone can try out how the content management system of a website works within minutes. If more people make themselves heard journalism would have a harder job to ignore these voices.

New technologies give rise to civil (or public) journalism based on citizen participation, mobilises lay experts, communicates expert and non-expert knowledge and is more likely to voice community issues. What are trends in the different world regions?

I can only provide anecdotal evidence from my work as a trainer with people from around the world. It seems that social networks (Facebook etc.) catch on well in the US and Asian countries, not so much in Europe. Blogs are popular worldwide. Wikipedia is a worldwide phenomenon. Social bookmarking is a niche and I doubt it will ever be anything else. Participants from Africa tend to take up blogging more openly than those from Eastern Europe and Asia.

How should we train journalists for a digital world?

The fundamentals of journalism have not changed with the advent of the Internet. We need journalists who regard themselves as members of the fourth estate, who are not content with a place at the table. They must know how to do their research and double check facts. The more muckrakers, the better. Whether they voice their dissent in print, an online magazine, a TV report, a radio show, with pictures or Flash animations doesn’t matter.

There’s one thing we should try to convey: don’t be afraid of technology. If used in a good way it can be liberating. If used in a bad way it can be oppressive. The more you know about it the better you can distinguish between the two. And never forget: technology is a tool, not a goal in itself.


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