Note: Mediactive was published several weeks ago in Japan by Asahi, a major publisher there. For that edition I wrote a new chapter, which we called Chapter 0. Here it is. (I’ll be adding links soon.)
On March 25, 2011, the mayor of Minamisoma, Japan, recorded an 11-minute video entitled “SOS from Mayor of Minami Soma City, next to the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan.” Visibly exhausted and distraught, Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai reported that his community, nearly ruined by the triple disasters of the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami plus dangerous radiation from the damaged Fukushima reactors, was isolated and running out of time.
Mayor Sakurai didn’t send the video to Japanese officials in Tokyo, or to NHK, the nation’s biggest broadcaster. He posted it on YouTube — aiming his message at anyone who might listen. Many heard, and helped. “Suddenly, the world was extending its hand to us,” he later told the New York Times. “We learned we’re not alone.”
The same day the mayor was making his video, The Hindu, a newspaper in India, reported that American diplomats in New Delhi believed Indian support for a United Nations resolution critical of Israel was an attempt to “curry favor” with Muslim nations. The newspaper’s information regarding the US views came from sources that, unusually in diplomatic circles, were not anonymous. The information came, albeit indirectly, from the diplomats themselves.
But this was not a case of deliberately public statecraft. Like many other media organizations around the globe, The Hindu had relied on documents from a new kind of media organization: WikiLeaks. For months, traditional journalists had been reporting on diplomatic cables from United States State Department that had found their way into the hands of WikiLeaks, which in turn was making them available to the media and the public. The Indian disclosures were only the latest in a phenomenon that has had a major impact on the media, not just diplomacy.
Just weeks later, as American military forces located and killed Osama Bin Laden, Sohaib Athar posted a series of Twitter “tweets” from his home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the early hours of May 2, he reported what he was seeing and hearing as helicopters hovered over what turned out to be the compound where Bin Laden had been hiding. Althar’s first-hand account became a piece of the media coverage, an essential one in many ways.
When I completed Mediactive in the fall of 2010, the WikiLeaks “Cable-Gate” story hadn’t yet broken. The Higashi-Nihon Dai-Shinsai disasters, and the death of Bin Laden, were still months away. Yet in the spring of 2011, as I write this new chapter for the Japanese edition of the book, it is clear that they had something in common.
They pointed to a dramatic shift in the way we interact with media. They reflect some of the challenges – and opportunities – we all face in making sense of our world.
I’ve spent years as a participant in the media world, and from my perspective the media elements of these events are harbingers of our shared journalistic future. In this new chapter in the Japanese edition of Mediactive, I want to talk about them in that context.
As Clay Shirky just pointed out in his Foreword, one of my main goals here is to upgrade all of us as media users. As I’ll also explain in my Introduction, coming up after this chapter, I don’t expect you to spend the kind of time that I devote to media analysis. Think of what follows here as a way to help set the scene for understanding the challenges, and taking advantage of the opportunities.
Disaster and a Human Response
No event in history has been so thoroughly documented as Japan’s triple disaster in early 2011. No event has sparked a greater outpouring of media, from individuals as well as journalism organizations. The wealth of information available to the public may have been unprecedented (though even so, there was insufficient data about radiation levels at and near the crippled nuclear plant). We also had ways to make sense of it all, or at least begin to sort it out. The most essential tool, of course, was common sense.
In the hours and days after the disasters, I spent a great deal of time watching the English translation of NHK World, where announcers and reporters provided calm and thorough coverage of the events. (My wife, who is Japanese, was watching the original streaming feed.) The contrast with the shrill drama on American cable-television news channels was dramatic – and a reminder of the role that quality journalism can play in our chaotic world. In a break from its own tradition, HNK had allowed streaming video of its broadcast to be carried around the world on the Internet. In the process, the broadcaster won legions of new fans among people who wanted to learn more.
Joi Ito, a Japanese entrepreneur who was named director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in April 2011, told me that video played a huge role in the aftermath of the disasters. Not only were there hundreds of citizen-captured videos from the scene, but the decision by NHK to stream its programming — especially government press conferences, which traditionally have been open only to members of Japan’s journalism elite — was also a pivotal shift for the broadcaster. During the state of emergency, said Ito, who is a friend, the Internet turned out to be the most reliable mechanism for receiving information, and this gave NHK a much larger audience inside the country, not just outside. He also noted that newspapers pulled down their “paywalls” during the peak of the crisis, because they, too, understood that the public’s need for information amid an national catastrophe outweighed other considerations.
What Japanese media companies had in common, he said, was that they were reacting in the pressure of a situation with no real precedent, and for which they had no pre-arranged plan to put into action. “When you don’t have a plan, you can be ad hoc and agile,” he said. “It can work better.”
Meanwhile, media companies and Japanese citizens in the stricken areas were finding an ally in Google, which created a Person Finder Web application that became an essential part of the crisis infrastructure as part of a Crisis Response resource page. At the same time, the open-source Ushahidi project software became a vital conduit for aid and government workers. Ushahidi’s “Crisis Map” project has origins in the Haiti earthquake, and brings together reports from affected areas with people who can assess the quality of the information.
The flow of information from people in the affected areas to those who could help became not just part of the aid effort, but also the media itself. During those early days after the disasters, many people also spent a great deal of time following an ad-hoc collection of sources. For me, these sources included Twitter feeds from people on the ground in Japan, and from others who were aggregating what they considered the best English-language information they could find, much of which was related more to the constantly shifting nuclear issues than the staggering loss of life from the natural disaster.
From Twitter feeds – and on Facebook pages and a variety of blogs by people I knew or people whose work had been recommended to me by people I trusted – I was sent to other text messages plus photos and videos that brought the multiple disasters into sharper focus. I watched horrific videos taken by brave people who kept their mobile-phone cameras running even as the water rose closer and closer to the high places where they’d taken refuge, and watched as the water and debris swept away entire neighborhoods. The sheer volume of data was stunning, a vast increase over the amount we’d seen from the last major tsunami to hit Asia in 2005, when tourists in South Asia captured videos of destruction there.
My new media sources also pointed me to helpful information from knowledgeable people and organizations that were following the events in Japan. One was the MIT nuclear engineering department, that explained in plain language how the threats to safety and health were developing in the Fukushima reactors, and what might yet occur.
As happens more and more in the evolving media ecosystem, an interplay developed between the old and new. In one remarkable case, Ito and other Japanese-speaking bloggers helped slow the spread of dramatic misinformation. On March 16, as Ito reported in his blog, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there had been a jump in radiation at Reactor 3 and that TEPCO staff were being relocated to “a 安全な地域 or ‘a safe region’.” Ito wrote:
The foreign press misunderstood this and started reporting that the TEPCO staff had evacuated the reactor causing a broad panic. Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times contacted the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency and TEPCO directly to clarify and confirmed that they had not in fact been evacuated, but just moved temporarily to a safer area inside the plant during the spike. Jun Seita then reported that as of 11:30AM, NHK was reporting that the staff were back to work.
The frustrating thing was that once this corrosive and sensational misinformation was in the main stream media via the wires, it was very hard to get them to fix it. Al Jazeera was the first that I saw to edit their news story to reflect that indeed they had not been evacuated.
Some observers of Japanese media believe—a view shared by many around the world—that breaking news is becoming the province of social media and other online media creation. I don’t believe we should make that judgment, at least not quite yet. Yes, Twitter users were first to report the death of Osama Bin Laden in early May, 2011, but Twitter users have also been first to report the deaths of people who weren’t actually dead.
Moreover, as Ito notes, Japanese media organizations didn’t sustain their ad-hoc innovations once the immediate crises abated. NHK stopped live-streaming, for example. “The minute people stop paying attention,” he said, “the old patterns start to kick in.”
But the earthquake and its aftermath plainly did shake up Japan’s view of itself and its media, as well as the rest of the world’s view of Japan. We on the outside saw a nation that was suffering but holding to its legendary self-discipline and manners, a nation that — far more than Americans, for example, could ever imagine in themselves — refused to allow these staggering disasters to bring a wider collapse.
WikiLeaks and Transparency
Even as the events in Japan unfolded, the media world was embroiled over an emerging power in journalism: WikiLeaks. The now-famed site, run by Australian-born Julian Assange, had become much more than a source of newsworthy documents leaked by anonymous whistleblowers. It had, in many ways, become a central example of how the journalism ecosystem was evolving.
In the winter of 2011, the WikiLeaks debate centered around a trove of documents from the U.S. State Department, such as the ones discussed by The Hindu newspaper. These documents were leaked diplomatic cables from American diplomatic personnel stationed around the world.
But the WikiLeaks story had begun years earlier. After its founding in 2006, WikiLeaks said its mission was to put a spotlight on unethical acts by powerful people in business and government. Among its early targets were politicians in Kenya and Peru; banks in Switzerland and the United Kingdom; and Scientology.
It was in 2010 that WikiLeaks became a globally recognized name. That April, the organization released documents and videos documenting American activities in the Iraq War, including a video of a 2007 shooting of journalists and Iraqi civilians, most unarmed, from a U.S. helicopter. American officials were furious, and WikiLeaks soared in search rankings.
In July 2010, a breakthrough occurred when WikiLeaks became a partner with several major media organizations: the New York Times in the United States, the Guardian in the United Kingdom and Der Spiegel in Germany. They reported on what became known as the Afghanistan War Diaries, a trove of documents leaked from the US military about operations in the war there. The power of the stories was apparent quickly, and could be measured in part by the fury of the American government at what was being disclosed.
The meaning of WikiLeaks was starting to become apparent. If information existed in digital form, it could find its way to the world if a single person with access to that information wanted to make it public. One observer who grasped the impact of that reality was Daniel Ellsberg, who’d given the famous “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times back in the early 1970s. He said what happened with WikiLeaks was comparable — and said if was contemplating the same decision now, he’d just scan the documents and put them online.
The partnership with media organizations was a major shift for WikiLeaks. Assange had concluded that simply posting documents wasn’t enough. While media were and are becoming democratized, there was still the matter of getting people’s attention beyond a small circle of those who care deeply about any given topic. In a profile about him in the New Yorker magazine, Assange had lamented the general disinterest he perceived among journalists when it came to huge stories when everyone had the same information; if everyone knew, it wasn’t as big a story. But when a few selected journalists at major institutions get the information first, then it becomes bigger news. (This says more about journalists’ competitive instincts and their response to “exclusives” than it did about their willingness to actually do their jobs for their audiences.)
Even though the Iraq material had become a minor sensation, Assange wanted what WikiLeaks was disclosing to have more impact, so he took what he had to major media organizations. This was symbiosis, far from the traditional relationship of a source to a journalist.
Now WikiLeaks’ role was broader: source, intermediary, publisher, P.R. agent and more. Others have done some of these things at the same time, but the size and importance of Afghanistan story elevated the shifting changes in media to new levels. This was true, in part, because of the nature of WikiLeaks itself. This “stateless news organization,” as New York University Professor Jay Rosen elegantly put it, was subverting many media assumptions of the past.
Part of the uproar over WikiLeaks was what the Afghanistan documents contained: the names of some local citizens who’d cooperated with anti-Taliban forces and who might be in danger of retaliation. The New York Times took huge care in what it printed, and kept some of the material out of its own reports at the request of the Obama administration. WikiLeaks also held back some of the documents, but it came under withering attack for what it disclosed despite the fact that no U.S. official was able to point to any Afghan who suffered any retaliation.
Then, in November 2010, came the State Department cables. The Obama administration and governments around the world were furious. It is clear, based on newspaper reports, that the Obama administration is seeking to move forward with some kind of prosecution based on the WikiLeaks disclosures. But at the time of this writing, it is not clear who, if anyone, will be charged with a crime.
Some American politicians called for prosecution of Assange under an old espionage law that makes it illegal to leak secret information (and quite possibly to publish it), but which has not been used to prosecute a journalist. This raised an obvious issue: If WikiLeaks people could be charged with such crimes, why wouldn’t the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and many other U.S. news organizations also be vulnerable, given their frequent reliance on secret documents? If WikiLeaks – surely a media organization by any standard – is open to prosecution, why isn’t Bob Woodward, the famous correspondent from the Washington Post who has made a career of publishing secret documents.
Journalism organizations have learned some lessons from WikiLeaks, too. One is the need to be open to leaks in new ways. In May 2011 the Wall Street Journal launched a project called site called SafeHouse. The pitch to users:
- Help The Wall Street Journal uncover fraud, abuse and other wrongdoing.
- Send documents to us using a special system built to be secure.
- Keep your identity anonymous or confidential, if needed.
Unfortunately, SafeHouse was not secure, nor necessarily confidential, in its initial phase. Security experts found major flaws. And the site’s Terms of Service gave the newspaper “the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.”
The Journal was working to fix the security issues. Whether it can repair the trust it lost with a flawed launch was much less certain. But the project, and others like it that other news organizations and advocacy groups are sure to be launching, tells us a great deal about the impact of WikiLeaks, and what it means in the long run.
When more than a few people have access to newsworthy digital information, it is increasingly likely to reach the public eye. For public officials and corporations — and maybe, in the end, for all of us – this has alarming aspects. But it is a reality we cannot ignore.
Bin Laden and Media Change
My wife and I had just finished watching a video of “The Social Network” on the evening of May 1. Routinely, we checked the news online before getting ready for sleep — and learned that America had finally caught up with Osama bin Laden. Like every other American for whom Sept. 11, 2001 is seared into memory, I had a sense of relief and quiet satisfaction that this epic murderer hadn’t died of old age in some sanctuary.
I also thought back, as I watched a streaming broadcast of BBC News on my computer, to the event that made Bin Laden a household name around the world: the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. And I reflected on the continuing evolution in news over the past decade — accelerating changes in the ways we experience and participate in the flow of news and information in a digital age.
What’s changed most since 2001 are the spread of wireless data communications and the rise of robust social networks, but the outlines of where we were headed were clear even then. The 9/11 attacks brought emerging possibilities fully to the surface, as I wrote in my 2004 book We the Media:
By the turn of the new century, the key building blocks of emergent, grassroots journalism were in place. The Web was already a place where established news organizations and newcomers were plying an old trade in updated ways, but the tools were making it easier for anyone to participate. We needed a catalyst to show how far we’d come. On September 11, 2001, we got that catalyst in a terrible way.
I was in South Africa. The news came to me and four other people in a van, on the way to an airport, via a mobile phone. Our driver’s wife called from Johannesburg, where she was watching TV, to say a plane had apparently hit the World Trade Center. She called again to say another plane had hit the other tower, and yet again to report the attack on the Pentagon. We arrived at the Port Elizabeth airport in time to watch, live and in horror, as the towers disintegrated.
Had I been there in 2011, we would have received more than a phone call. We’d have been pulling information from the Internet via a mobile device that could provide everything from voice to Web pages to video. And we’d have been checking our social media feeds.
For plenty of people in 2011, the news of bin Laden’s death did arrive via Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, rumors spread widely on Twitter before President Obama’s official announcement, and got wide credence when an aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person that they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” His source was correct, as it turned out, but we should keep in mind that Twitter users have also been the first to report the “news” that someone died when, in fact, that person was alive. On May 1 and 2, Twitter served a different function for me: It became a value-adding system once the basic facts were known. I relied, as I increasingly do in breaking news events, on the people I follow there to provide links to the best coverage from traditional media, as well as links to a variety of other sources.
The best traditional media organizations, including newspapers, did their jobs in the usual way as the bin Laden story became the story of the day. They covered the immediate news and added perspective.
That part was reminiscent of 2001, but only to a point:
The next day our party of journalists, which the Freedom Forum, a journalism foundation, had brought to Africa to give talks and workshops about journalism and the Internet, flew to Lusaka, Zambia. The BBC and CNN’s international edition were on the hotel television. The local newspapers ran consider able news about the attacks, but they were more preoccupied with an upcoming election, charges of corruption, and other news that was simply more relevant to them at the moment.
What I could not do in those initial days was read my news paper, the San Jose Mercury News, or the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, or any of the other papers I normally scanned each morning at home. I could barely get to their web sites because the Net connection to Zambia was slow and trans-Atlantic data traffic was over whelming as people everywhere went online for more information, or simply to talk with each other.
Today, we no longer subscribe to those newspapers (apart from the New York Times and a local paper on Sundays), because we get most of our newspaper journalism online. The reason is that broadband has become much more widespread and robust, even though it’s lagging in the U.S. compared to the rest of the developed world. The fiber backbones are reaching everywhere now.
[In 2001] I could retrieve my email, however, and my inbox over flowed with useful news from Dave Farber, one of the new breed of editors.
Then a telecommunications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Farber had a mailing list called “Interesting People”30 that he’d run since the mid-1980s. Most of what he sent out had first been sent to him by correspondents he knew from around the nation and the world. If they saw something they thought he’d find interesting, they sent it along, and Farber relayed a portion of what he received, sometimes with his own commentary. In the wake of the attacks, his correspondents’ perspectives on issues ranging from national-security issues to critiques of religion became essential reading for their breadth and depth. Farber told me later he’d gone into overdrive, because this event obliged him to do so.
“I consider myself an editor in a real sense,” Farber explained. “This is a funny form of new newspaper, where the Net is sort of my wire service. My job is to decide what goes out and what doesn’t…Even though I don’t edit in the sense of real editing, I make the choices.”
Dave Farber still makes these choices on the IP list. It’s still a must-read source of news and wisdom for me and the legions of people who continue to follow this particular wire service.
The value of this service — we now tend to call it “curation” and “aggregation” — wasn’t as clear a decade ago as it is today, however. We are overwhelmed with information today, vastly more so than in 2001. As I discuss in Mediactive, one of our most pressing issues is how we deal with that flood of data. Dave Farber was and remains an excellent curator and aggregator. The people I follow on Twitter, especially in special lists I’ve created for people I consider experts in specific fields, are created another valuable space for curation and aggregation.
One of the emails Farber sent [in 2001], dated September 12, still stands out for me. It was an email from an unidentified sender who wrote: “SPOT infrared satellite image of Manhattan, acquired on September 11 at 11:55 AM ET. Image may be freely reproduced with ‘CNES/SPOT Image 2001’ copyright attribution.” A web address, linking to the photo, followed. The picture showed an ugly brown-black cloud of dust and debris hanging over much of lower Manhattan. The image stayed with me.
Here was context.
Our ability to see the world in visual ways has expanded. It took almost no time for the Net to tell us about the various satellite images from Pakistan, showing the bin Laden compound and its surroundings.
Back in America [in 2001], members of the then nascent weblog community had discovered the power of their publishing tool. They offered abundant links to articles from large and small news organizations, domestic and foreign. New York City bloggers posted personal views of what they’d seen, with photographs, providing more information and context to what the major media was providing.
“I’m okay. Everyone I know is okay,” Amy Phillips wrote September 11 on her blog, “The 50 Minute Hour.”31 A Brooklyn blogger named Gus wrote: “The wind just changed direction and now I know what a burning city smells like. It has the smell of burning plastic. It comes with acrid brown skies with jet fighters flying above them. The stuff I’m seeing on teevee is like some sort of bad Japanese Godzilla movie, with less convincing special effects. Then I’m outside, seeing it with my naked eyes.”
If Twitter and Facebook took on more of this function in 2011, that reflected the immediacy — the ease of use and especially the social context — of these new services, which didn’t even exist in 2001.
For all the value of these social networks, they represent a step back in some respects. As I note elsewhere in Mediactive, Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own agendas. While they are superbly engineered tools that provide users fantastic capabilities, what we put into those services is, in the end, owned by those services. Our words and pictures and videos are only part of what we put in; the social connections are even more important, and we don’t own those when we live in others’ universes.
We would have had a much different media experience a decade ago if AOL or Microsoft had succeeded in what they were trying to do in the 1990s: Make our online experience a universal walled garden. Facebook, more so than Twitter, aims to be precisely that in this new era. If we allow that to happen, we will literally be turning over a significant part of our history to a private company that operates in its own best interests, not ours.
The promise of the Internet was flowering in 2001. We saw only the possibilities and the immense freedom of this emerging sphere for communications and collaboration.
The vision we shared then is in some real jeopardy today. Governments and private companies scheme to wrest control from us at the edges of the networks and pull it back into the center, where it manifestly should not belong. They may win.
A decade from now, we’ll surely experience another major event with newer media we cannot even imagine today. I hope we’ll be using tools that renew the Internet’s promise — technologies and policies that honor a simple notion, of genuine freedom to learn, create and collaborate.