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Citizen Journalism and Social Responsibility
Report from the ICA 57th Annual Conference
Jay Hauben (jhauben)     Print Article 
Published 2007-06-15 15:28 (KST)   
As a reporter for Ohmynews International (OMNI), I was interested in attending the 57th Annual Conference of the International Communications Association (ICA). (1) I was granted a press pass to report back to the readers of OMNI. But also I wanted to attend in order to better understand journalism, especially citizen journalism.

The conference was held May 24-28, 2007 in San Francisco. Its theme was "Creating Communication: Content, Control, and Critique." The first speaker reported that more than 2,200 of the 34,000 members of ICA were there. There were more than 400 sessions. The panels were grouped under 21 subfields such as Political Communications, Public Relations, Feminist Scholarship, Journalism Studies, Mass Communication, Health Communications, etc. There were also four keynote panels and four grassroots panels.

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Such a large conference presented me with great difficulty choosing which sessions to attend. I looked to see where the South Korean online newspaper OhmyNews (OMN) was the topic of a presentation. I was interested in whether the scholars sought to be socially responsible and what was presented as to the responsibility of journalists. I looked to see how new developments were described and investigated. This report can only touch on some of what were the highlights for me.

One of the speakers at the opening plenary session set a social goal for the assembled graduate students and scholars. She suggested the purpose of research was to "talk truth to power with data." She saw herself as a committed global citizen, not so much concerned with publication worthiness but rather with how research improves the lives of people. She reminded the audience that in many places reporters are often killed for being good investigative journalists. Later in the conference the criteria of social responsibility of researchers was occasionally repeated by panel chairpersons when they summed up their panels.

The second plenary panel focused on social networking and web 2.0. The first speaker reviewed the history of online social networking dating back to the Plato system at the Urbana Campus of the University of Illinois(*) in 1960 and the work of J.C.R. Licklider in the 1960s. He called attention to the 1968 article by Licklider and Robert Taylor, "The Computer as a Communication Device" and said it was necessary reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding the current developments. He pointed to substantial predecessors like Usenet, FIDOnet and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), all of which should be influencing any study of what is now called Web 2.0. He felt it is not that something new is emerging, but rather based on the best of the past we should be seeking norms and standards for the continually developing net.

The next speaker opened her presentation by pointing to OMN in South Korea, with a reported 50,000 registered citizen journalists collaborating to report on the news missed by the mainstream media (MSM). In her view OMN was a social network.

The speaker reported that her research team is using OMN as the model for a project to help the U.S. Patent Office more rapidly process its backlog of over 400,000 patent applications waiting for review. She is hopeful that the success OMN has achieved via citizen reporting also can be achieved by a community of self-selected citizens collaborating to do patent review. She saw her project as a prototype for a future where there will be online citizens collaborating to make society's laws (citizen legislators) and citizens collaborating to develop policy alternatives (citizen policy advisors). She saw OMN and not blogs or wikis as promising citizens a role in the highly structured social processes needed to solve society's problems.

The last speaker on the second plenary panel analyzed that Web 2.0 was an effort to develop the wonders of the Internet for commercial purposes. For her, the web is still the web. Talk of web 2.0 and of "harnessing" as does Tim O'Reilly (2) is, she said, a code for finding a business model for using the collective intelligence and social networking to produce profit. Social networking is reciprocal, based on cooperation and equality. Harnessing is the opposite; it is a unilateral capture of one side by the other. While she saw Web 2.0 as an attempt to blur the boundary between public goods and private property, she was optimistic that the crowd was pushing back against the harnessing. The companies will have to change, she concluded. "The crowd will upend all understandings."

A theme that threaded through a number of the Journalism Studies sessions was the challenge or puzzle that online participatory journalism, especially citizen journalism, poses. Especially with newspaper readership dropping and younger generations relying on online sources, professional journalists and established news organizations are challenged to come to grips with and join the new phenomena. Researchers found a spectrum of reactions, ranging from "online journalism is not journalism but only voyeurism," to "there is no limit to what online journalism will become as it replaces off-line journalism."

One researcher reported that in one newsroom the journalists rotate who answers the email. He found all the journalists felt that was a punishment. They wanted to be reporting the news, not getting the feedback from their reporting. Some researchers pointed out that how the public views citizen journalism will likely be framed by how professional journalists portray it. With their profession at stake, that portrayal may frame citizen journalism in a negative way. Also, there appeared little understanding among the researchers or the journalists they studied that citizen journalism at its best is a combination of citizens as journalists and journalists as citizens.

Another misunderstanding refuted by the practice of the Korean language OMN and other online media was mentioned in a number of presentations. Online media are not necessarily alternative media. For example, it was reported that OMN was judged to be the 6th most influential news source in South Korea.

In another session, a researcher reported on the Esouth Newsletter, a mailing list in Taiwan with over100,000 email subscribers. Esouth has sustained itself since 1995 as a public platform for the heterogeneous voices of social movement activists. Esouth is distributed in cooperation with the commercial website URL@ENEWS. The total number of subscribers to all 262 mailing lists distributed by URL@ENEWS is over 4 million. There are over half a million subscribers to the URL Digest, a single mailing of articles from various newsletters. The size of that readership is comparable to that of the MSM in Taiwan. On some issues such as the dispute over the development of a new national park on aboriginal land, Esouth presented the opposing positions of aboriginal activists and environmental activists, gaining the attention of and comments from a large number of readers. To the researcher this was evidence that the distinction between MSM and this alternative media is blurring.

In another session, a researcher reported on his use of the experience of Ohmynews to test whether a public sphere in the Habermasian sense might be emerging via online networking activity. The researcher's criteria for a public sphere were similar to the questions: Is there rational critical discourse based on argument, not assertion, over important social questions? Does that debate influence the social and political agenda? After describing his theoretical basis, the researcher reported the results of his case study of the coverage of the death from stomach cancer of a conscript just after discharge from his mandatory South Korean military service.

A report from a citizen journalist appeared in OMN on Oct. 24, 2005 concerning the diagnosis in a private hospital of late stage terminal cancer of a 28-year-old recently discharged conscript. The victim was Roh Chung-guk. While still serving, Roh was examined by a military doctor who diagnosed Roh's stomach trouble as due to an ulcer. Ohmynews sent out two staff reporters to write follow-up stories. Roh soon died. Within 10 days of the first article, 27 more articles about this case appeared in OMN. The readers contributed 771 responses on the discussion board. OMN readers started to send money to help out Roh's family. OMN received information about 20 additional victims of inadequate medical treatment while serving in the South Korean military. Mothers wrote to convey their worry for their sons in service. The early denials of responsibility by the Korean military and government were criticized and exposed as unfounded.

Discussion of the death of Roh quickly spread throughout South Korea. The government was forced to investigate the case and announced plans to improve health and human rights in the military.

The researcher's conclusion based on a discourse analysis (3) of the articles and comments in OMN was that the discussion was rational and critical, and effective in moving the government to take corrective action. In terms of his Habermasian criteria, he concluded that OMN is an emerging online public sphere in South Korea, if only to some extent and only just emerging.

In the first grassroots participatory panel, one presenter sought for the essential principles that have guided OMN. She called attention to the vision of OMN founder Oh Yeon-ho. Based on his experience as a journalist for 10 years for a monthly magazine outside the media mainstream, Oh saw that the challenge was to break the conservative hold on news-making and agenda-setting in South Korea. He set OMN the large goal of increasing the role of progressive news media to a 50/50 par with the conservative news media.

Oh had limited resources, which he realized he needed to concentrate on carefully chosen stories. Also, he realized OMN could increase its resources by encouraging passionate citizens to be OMN reporters. OMN thus had strong progressive content and a broader content than its limited resources would have made possible. In answer to a question asked after her presentation, the presenter explained that citizen reporters get editorial help and a small payment for their articles. The presenter was from the U.S. She felt a need for a U.S. model of OMN to take up the dominance of the conservative news media in her society. (4)

The variety of disciplines and topics at this conference was too broad for this report to capture, but I will mention two other presentations as a clue to what the field covers.

One presentation examined the apology that the New York Times editors gave in May 2004 for their newspaper's pre-Iraq war intelligence reporting. The Times had helped set the news agenda about the reasons for war by featuring several front-page stories about weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Times reporters, especially Judith Miller, had suppressed evidence of doubt within the intelligence community and relied instead on anonymous sourcing from Iraqi exiles and Bush administration insiders. The premiere U.S. mainstream newspaper had helped set a deceptive agenda.

The presenter showed that the editor's apology blamed the faulty sources and left the U.S. government manipulation of the news unmentioned. In essence, the apology continued the lack of criticism of the U.S. government that the WMD articles a year earlier had begun. But the apology did criticize that the Times had emphasized "breaking news" and had marginalized follow-up stories that went against administration or exile claims. The presenter's analysis pointed to the responsibility of journalists to verify the truth of what they are reporting especially if they claim anonymous sources. Journalists, he concluded, must serve their societal role with skepticism and a willingness to be adversarial. How else can a democratic populace hold its leaders accountable?

Two researchers from Spain reported on a form of school education based on dialog and community involvement in the classroom. Their theoretical basis was a long history of analysis that communication and learning are social processes enhanced by collective development of interpretations of texts and of the world. Their research studied the effect of inviting community members and the public to spend time in the class rooms where students and community members worked in groups and learning to read was a group, not an individual project. They reported that a level of equality among learners was achieved and the academic success of students who left these classes for the next level of education was greatly improved over the past performance of students from these communities. This success had generated requests from other communities to similarly restructure their classrooms into collective learning centers.

Judging from this conference, communication seemed to be a very broad super field of studies, perhaps too broad. The quality of the presentations ranged from profound to mundane. Strange, also, with all the new means of communication, the conference was not broadcast, webcast or communicated to the world.

So large and varied a conference is hard to navigate. Yet it was clear something is emerging in the field of communication. The fairly frequent reference to OMN as worthy of study or worthy of a scholar's attention suggested that OMN might be an arrow to the future of journalism. Also, the Internet, a relatively young communication phenomenon, is having its effect on all aspects of society. Scholarly studies can help expose the problems of society and can help understand from where the solutions may come. Pointing to models like OMN and paying attention to the new online developments showed that among these scholars some were finding a way to meet the social responsibility referred to in the opening plenary panel.
(*) This article has been amended.

1. The papers from this conference are only available to attendees. Since the papers are not public I have not given people's names in this report. One presenter requested that I not identify presenters because some of the papers are only drafts.
2. See for example "What is Web 2.0," page 2.
3. Discourse analysis seeks the social significance of the texts used in a discourse not just the meaning of the sentences.
4. This presentation was subsequently published online.
©2007 OhmyNews
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